Thursday, August 10, 2006

Technological Singularity Recap

The Coming Technological Singularity

Vernor Vinge is a recently retired Professor of Mathematics at San Diego Univeristy. He's also one of my favorite Science Fiction writers.
He's won 4 Hugo awards and been nominated for another 4.

In 1981, when IBM was getting ready to present it's very first personal computer and 256 kilobytes of memory cost over $1000, he published the prophetic short story "True Names", in which he predicted the internet, cyberspace, and virtual reality.

In 1993, the internet was starting to take off. The World Wide Web had been around for two whole years (though it was still not as popular as telnet) and the White House and United Nations just got their very own websites.
It's also the year that Vinge wrote his essay "The Coming Technological Singularity", where he predicted that:
"Within thirty years, we will have the technological
means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after,
the human era will be ended."

His argument is that once we develop an intelligence (artificial intelligence or computer-enhanced human intelligence) that even slightly exceeds unassisted human intelligence, then it will have the ability to create even more superior intelligence, which will have the ability to create an again superior intelligence, etc., and very shortly thereafter, the Human Era will be over.

Vinge thought that this would happen sometime between 2005 and 2030.

It's 13 years later, and Japan has just announced the first 1 petaflop computer, (1 petaflop = 1,000,000,000,000,000 operations per second) a milestone especially impressive since it cost only $9 million to build (or $15/gigaflop), compared to the previous record-holder IBM's 280 teraflop BlueGene/L that cost $140/gigaflop.

The human brain has about 100 billion neurons, each with about 1000 connections, and each connection can perform about 200 calculations per second. That works out to 20 quadrillion operations per second, or 20 petaflops. Ignoring the fact that the majority of these operations are not for thinking, but for keeping the meat alive and functioning, that makes it only 200 times faster than next year's computer.
Applying the observation that processing power per cost doubles every 18 months, we should exceed 20 petaflops by 2014.

As for capacity, the brain is estimated to be able to hold about 1 quadrillion bits of information, or the equivalent of 128 terabytes of RAM. You can get 1 Gb of RAM today for $56. By 2014, a terabyte should cost less than $2000.

If progress continues through 2031, we'll have computers that are 3,000 times more powerful than the human brain. Combine that with already existing technology allowing users to control computers and robotics directly with their minds, and an implant that allows computers to directly input experiences into your brain, and things get really interesting.


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