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The 'Singularity' draws closer: what happens when computers are smarter than humans?

Posting in Energy

Exponential growth in machine intelligence is creating new opportunities for growth and problem-solving unimaginable even a few years ago

Fellow contributor Andrew Nusca just posted a fascinating piece on how IBM scientists built the biggest artificial brain of all time -- now as smart as a house cat -- using a supercomputer powered by 147,456 processors, 150,000 gigabytes of memory and millions of watts of electricity.

It appears we're on the way to realizing Ray Kurzweil's prediction -- made in 1999 -- that by the year 2020, the power of a $1,000 PC will match the computing speed and capacity of the human brain. (Predicted in his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.)  Kurzweil had a follow-up 2005 work, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, in which he talked more about how the exponential growth of computing will enhance human intelligence far beyond anything imaginable today.

Kurzweil says that computers are rapidly gaining intelligence, are acquiring humanlike intelligence, and will eventually even collectively exceed human intelligence. Within a few decades, computers will be able to gather knowledge on their own. On the carbon-based life form side, new technologies will be increasing our health and mental capabilities, thanks to nanotechnologies and knowledge systems. By the 2020s, "it will become increasingly difficult to draw any clear distinction between the capabilities of human and machine intelligence," he wrote.

Kurzweil also went on to predict that by 2029, the power of a $1,000 PC will grow to approximately 1,000 human brains. By that time, "automated agents are now learning on their own, and significant knowledge is now being created by machines on their own." Several decades later, by the end of the 21st century, there will be more software-based "humans" than carbon-based humans.

Kurzweil and several other visionaries have banded together to create a new center for advancing knowledge and awareness of this convergence called Singularity University, based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. The university offers programs targeted at executives and thought-leaders in the areas of biotechnology and bioinformatics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, and cognitive computing.  CNET's Daniel Terdiman visited Singularity University and provided an interesting first-hand account of a recent executive program.

In his opening talk (video available) for the latest set of executive sessions, Kurzweil believes the accelerating pace of technology -- combined with decreasing costs -- provides solutions across a range of global problems, including renewable energy and smart medicine. "We're awash in resources. There's 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to meet all of our energy needs. But we haven't been able to convert it. But these new technologies are going to convert it into a usable form. The same thing is true in water or food, or even housing... Health and medicine is an information technology, it's going to progress exponentially..."

Computation per dollar saw a "trillion-fold increase" over the past century, Kurzweil calculates. And information technology keeps growing at a breathtaking rate. "The world is already different than what it was when The Singularity came out, which was only four years ago," Kurzweil said. "Half the farmers in China now have cellphones. They can access all of human knowledge with just a few keystrokes."  Individuals -- not just large organizations -- now have the power to create disruptive change. "The world's going to be different in three years," he added.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure