Growth in computer speeds and capabilities has accelerated at an almost exponential rate since the 1960s. The changes show no signs of slowing down as the 21st Century continues. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted the growth in computing technology in 1965 stating that processor speeds and memory sizes would continue to double every two years. His predictions have proved to be entirely accurate and all progression in computing has followed the trends he laid out.
The Internet and mobile computing technology have been the most visible and significant developments in society since the start of the 21st Century. With the world’s information and ever-increasingly powerful computers at people’s fingertips it is interesting to wonder where the technology may go and what future inventions hold in store.
Looking back at developments in media over the lifespan of humanity it is easy to see a clear path from the advent of language to writing, art, music, radio, television, computers and the Internet. Each stage of this development signified a great leap forward in civilisation and quality of living. What is interesting to note is that it takes less and less time to progress to each stage as we move on. The jump from basic language to writing took thousands of years, and then thousands more to art and music. From the renaissance to the invention of radio was just a few hundred years, television arriving just decades afterwards. The world wide web reached global use within a decade of its inception.
Each of these technological leaps are notable for the fact that they would engulf the previous development. Remember the song Television Killed the Radio Star? Well it proved to be oddly prophetic as television replaced radio as the primary source of entertainment and news in the home, just as the Internet has done to both in the 2000s. The Internet is perhaps even more significant as it is looking like it will render all previous technologies obsolete, entirely engulfing them. It is possible to watch TV, listen to radio, read the news, do your shopping and almost everything in-between online. Anything that the Internet does not engulf it will become an intrinsic part of.
Given its almost certain all-pervasive nature it can be hard to see where the next leap forward may come from. What could supersede the Internet? It is foolish to think that nothing will, after all would renaissance painters have predicted the rise of television and radio? Would people in the 1940s have predicted the introduction of mobile phones and personal computers? Just because we cannot see the next step it does not mean it will not happen. At some stage the Internet will become consumed itself.
Currently all advances in technology have been made due to human intelligence. It is what separated us from animals to begin with, and it is what continues to drive us now. Ever more complex leaps have been possible as intelligence is pooled and people are able to collaborate on how to solve problems that will lead to the next advancement. Language allowed communication, and then writing allowed the storage of ideas and the passing of information to other tribes and individuals. Radio, television and Internet technology in the 20th Century has opened up human intelligence to everyone as communication becomes instantaneous world-wide. The global nature of communication in the 20th and 21st centuries are inevitably why our greatest achievements have come in the last hundred years. It is no accident that the industrial revolution occurred with the introduction of the telephone and long range communication.
So taking the fact that human intelligence and communication is guiding the development of civilisation it is reasonable to expect that we will reach the point where our own intellects are unable to take us further. I believe we are reaching the point where communication and the sharing of ideas will start to plateau. We already have instant communication to anywhere on the planet and future developments in this area will only be able to accelerate this process. Granted, faster and faster Internet access will help a great deal in sharing scientific data, but at some stage we will need greater-than-human intelligence. Some people, such as the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, believe that this will come from a form of artificial intelligence either through an AI software or augmentation of the human brain.
The birth of an artificial super intelligence is often referred to as the singularity in reference to the singularity of a black hole. Similar to the black hole where known laws of physics break down in the singularity at the centre so would our model of the world once it contained intelligences greater than our own. There are many technologies already combining to create an artificial intelligence and many scientists believe that the singularity will occur during our lifetimes. Certainly if Moore’s Law and the accelerating rate of paradigm shifts are anything to go by then this prediction seems reasonable.
The creation of a truly super-human AI would completely change the world and our way of living extremely rapidly. It is thought that the invention of this AI would be the last thing that the human race ever needs to design. An AI with above human intelligence would then have above human capacity to improve itself. By improving itself once it would then become more intelligent than it was before, enabling it to improve itself further. This positive feedback loop would lead to the AI becoming massively intelligent and powerful very quickly, it is possible that civilisation would change overnight as the AI exponentially increases in intelligence.
By point of comparison human neurons can send signals at a speed of 150 metres per second and the speed of light is 300,000,000 metres per second, two million times faster than the human mind. The Singularity Institute states that an increase in speed of thought by a factor of one million would mean a subjective year would take only 31 seconds and the time from ancient Greece until now would take twenty two hours. The evolution from primates to humans needed an increase in brain capacity by a factor of three. The difference between us and chimpanzees is unarguably large, so it seems easy to agree that an intelligence many factors greater than ours and magnitudes faster would be capable of things far beyond our comprehension. We are as capable of guessing what it could do as chimps are of predicting the rise of human civilisation given that the gap between brain power would be similar.
Along with the theories of a singularity and the birth of intelligent machines there are always the inevitable doomsday scenarios thought to be possible such as those depicted in films such as the Matrix and the Terminator. It is hard to say what the AI would do, and eliminating the human race may well be in its best interests. However it is likely that considerable work will go into making the AI an ally of its creators and to build a system that we are capable of working alongside to accelerate our development and improve our living conditions and understanding of the world around us. There is already a lot of work being done to ensure this happens and that we avoid the doom that popular fiction predicts.
An interesting thought is to combine the theory of the singularity with that of natural selection. We already know that machines can do things that we are incapable of doing. Robotic probes are exploring places inaccessible to humans, countless examples are visible in space exploration programs. There are robotic vehicles on Mars exploring the terrain. The landscape is too harsh for a human visitor with our current technology but machines have already made the journey. Probes have been sent to every planet in the solar system and some have even left it entirely.
It may be that mechanical life is simply more suited than carbon-based life to the conditions of the universe. A machine does not need to eat or breathe and will be able to survive low and high atmospheric pressures, making them perfect for extra terrestrial exploration. The machines will need a power source, but provided that they develop a reliably powerful way of creating energy then in theory there is nothing to stop them from colonising the solar system relatively quickly.
Machines and artificial intelligences could simply be the next step in the evolution of life on Earth, it is hard to see any animal rising above humans now with the control that we exert over the planet. By the time the Earth is swallowed into the Sun it may be that it is inhabited solely by mechanical life forms, all of which are better suited to escaping the supernova from the death of the star. In terms of the eventual fate of the planet is is clear that machines and artificial intelligence is more suited to continued existence with its capability to migrate to different planets.
By Darwinian theory it may even be said that artificial intelligence is more suited to life on Earth and will replace the life that we know today. It is certainly an interesting concept and we may even find out whether it will come true within the next fifty years. With any luck the creation of a super-intelligent machine will bring a time of great advancement that solves a lot of the major problems that face humanity today and massively enhance the standard of living across the planet.