Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The future of brainpower

When technological developments outpace us, we have to be ready to deal with the consequences.

Despite having worked in marketing services for 20 years, it has occasionally crossed my mind that other people might just be smarter than me.

Sometimes I feel intimidated before I meet someone whose intellectual reputation precedes them, other times, after an encounter, I reflect how bright that person seemed.

Nonetheless, while I may rank only reasonably among people for brainpower, I can at least be confident that I can comfortably out-think my domestic appliances. But for how long?

It is well known that the sort of digital watch you might get free with a tank of petrol carries within it significantly more computing power than the Apollo mission took to the moon.

Apollo's computer was a tiddler. In 1968, the year before the first moon landing, the most powerful computer in the world was the Cray CDC 6600, which is outperformed by some modern digital watches by 3x. A singing birthday card from the 90s contains more computing power than the planet could muster in the 50s.

So what? Things have progressed. We've become accustomed to mobile phones and forgotten about rotary dial. We can't remember life before email. People have tantrums on planes now when the wi-fi breaks down, aghast at how primitive life seems without it.

We've moved on; we're modern now, and tomorrow feels like it will be a bit like today, only more so.

Yet the unabated and continuing growth in the power of computing that makes such a joke of the past will make the future a different place altogether.

Connecting together all the computers in the world allowed them to take a leap forward in capacity. No longer did an individual device's power determine its capacity: now this was determined by its ability to access capacity on other machines. In 2007, a milestone was passed when the number of instructions per second that all the combined computers in the world could handle (6.4 x 1018, in case you're taking notes) reached parity with estimates of the human brain's processing power. As one observer put it at the time: internet=1HB.

Applying Moore's Law, we could infer that, by now, the internet has 4HB. However, this is an exponential function and, as growth doubles every two years, the speed of change accelerates. Hans Moravec at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon predicts that by 2020, a $1000 PC will have the raw processing power of a human brain.

By 2030, that PC will match a village of brains, and by 2050 it will match the power of all the human brains on earth.

We're going to have to get used to the fact that machines are smarter than us, and it will change how we feel about privacy, control, ourselves and them.

Alan Turing's famous test set out to gauge not whether a respondent in a blind conversation was human, but whether they seemed it. To him, to seem was to be; who are we to say that self-aware intelligent systems can't have feelings, and that we shouldn't reciprocate? Some people have feelings for tropical fish, which demonstrate significantly fewer human characteristics than computers already can.

So change will be radical, but it will also be quick. Current business-planning cycles relegate anything beyond five years to 'blue sky'. According to Cisco's chief futurologist, Dave Evans, today we know just 5% of what we will know in 50 years. If this and the predictions for processing capacity are true, within just a few years, our definition of 'long term' could fall to five minutes rather than five years away.

So the race is on; and for the next few years I'm going to focus on staying ahead of my washing machine. I'm afraid my money's on the white goods.

- Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist

30 SECONDS ON ... THE CDC 6600

- Development of the CDC 6600 began in 1962. The machine is believed to have been the first to be called a 'supercomputer'.

- The first model to become operational in 1964 surpassed the world's fastest computer, the IBM 7030. It relinquished the title only to its successor, the CDC 7600, in 1969.

- The CDC 6600, which sold for about $7m in 1966, was the first commercial computer to have a cathode ray tube console. More than 100 were sold, mainly to nuclear research and computing labs.

- Input was via punch cards or digital magnetic tape; output was available from line printers, a card punch, a photographic plotter and magnetic tape. Users could view graphical results, as data was being processed, via an interactive display.

- Games created by CDC engineers as incentives for getting the supercomputers operational are believed to have been the first for computers to use monitors.

- The CDC 6600 was decommissioned in 1977.


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