Artificial Intelligence?It's easier said than done

A creature like StanleyKubrick's HAL has yet to see 'life'
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The Independent Online

TELEVISION, WROTE Jules Verne at the turn of the lastcentury, would be a great boon to people living in the future. He figuredthat it would only take one thousand years to perfect.

TELEVISION, WROTE Jules Verne at the turn of the lastcentury, would be a great boon to people living in the future. He figuredthat it would only take one thousand years to perfect.

That the firsttelevisions were demonstrated some 40 years later should serve as a cautionarynote to those in the field of prediction, though some might say television isfar from "perfected".

Nevertheless, one can draw a point fromthis tale. One of the world's great visionaries, living in a periodof rapid invention and change, missed the mark by a hugemargin.

Indeed, as global communications improve, the rate ofchange speeds up. A network's utility goes up at the rate of the squareof its nodes, so the Internet alone is adding hundreds of millions of waysfor ideas and idea-makers to inform each other.

Ergo, things wethought were way out there may, in fact, be round the corner.Yet, if one were to predict that a computer would surpass a 20th centuryhuman in intelligence by 2020, there would probably be few takers.

Thereason is that one prediction which came up very short was that of artificialintelligence. Stanley Kubrick's landmark film 2001 featured HAL, acomputer sufficiently intelligent to mimic the kind of unenlightenedself-interest that's all too human.

But a creature like HAL has yetto see "life". Artificial intelligence, or AI as it is oftencalled, turned out to be a lot harder than was originally thought.

AIhas staged a quiet comeback in applications as diverse as autofocus cameras,automated telephone operators, automobile engines and stock exchangecomputers.

But the thinking computer is still a distant dream. Authorssuch as George Dyson say that machine intelligence is a Darwinianinevitability, outside human control. It will evolve as surely ascarbon-based life did.

Of course, some would point to the glut ofless-than-informed content on the Net to prove that computer intelligenceisn't going up; rather computer use is forcing human intelligencedown.

But, glancing through a recent book by Ray Kurzweil, The Ageof Spiritual Machines, I came across some figures that wereintriguing.

Kurzweil posits that artificial intelligence's slow startis rooted in the difference between the computational ability of the brain and ofcurrent silicon-based hardware. The brain, Kurzweil contends, iscapable of some 20 million billion calculations per second, whereas even asupercomputer, such as IBM's chess-playing Deep Blue, can onlymanage about 10 trillion.

Interestingly, in 1988 Kurzweil predictedthat a computer would beat a human chess grandmaster in 1998. Deep Bluebested Kasparov in 1997, so Kurzweil's reckoning may not be all thatbad.

But, if you apply Moore's law - which states thatprocessor speeds will double every 18 months - then even $1,000 PCswill have brain-like capabilities in the not-so-distantfuture.

In fact, Kurzweil predicts that by 2020 a $1,000 PCwill run calculations at the rate of 20 million billion. He further positsthat enough RAM to contain the brain's store of 100 trillion synapticstrengths - some million billion bits - will come down from its currentcost of about $200m (if purchased at my local Fry's outlet in PaloAlto) to about $1,000.

The same $1,000 would moreoverbuy a machine equalling the brains of a small village by 2030, the wholepopulation of the US by 2048 and that of a trillion brains by 2060. By2099, a penny's worth of computing power will be a billion times greaterthan that mustered by all the projected 10 billion inhabitants ofearth.

Now, as supercomputers - those denizens of university labsand shady government departments - are often 10 years ahead of their desktopcounterparts, then sometime as soon as 2010 a computer could exist that wouldrival a human brain.

A lot of work needs to be done before raw computerpower will translate into even rudimentary intelligence. But I wonder if thejump will come sooner than we expect, a la Monsieur Verne.

In whichcase you may wonder who writes this column - me or myiMac?

`The Age of Spiritual Machines',Orion Business Books, £18.99