By Vivek Wadhwa
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Ray Kurzweil made a startling prediction in 1999 that appears to be coming true: that by 2023 a $1,000 laptop would have the computing power and storage capacity of a human brain.
He also predicted that Moore's Law, which postulates that the processing capability of a computer doubles every 18 months, would apply until 2025, then giving way to new paradigms of technological change.
Kurzweil, a renowned futurist and the director of engineering at Google, now says that the hardware needed to emulate the human brain may be ready even sooner — in around 2020 — using technologies such as graphics processing units (GPUs), which are ideal for brain-software algorithms. He predicts that the complete brain software will take until about 2029.
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The implications of all this are mind-boggling.
Within seven years — about when the iPhone 11 is likely to be released — the smartphones in our pockets will be as computationally intelligent as we are.
It doesn't stop there, though. These devices will continue to advance, exponentially, until they exceed the combined intelligence of the human race. Already, our computers have a big edge over us: they are connected via the Internet and share information with each other billions of times faster than we can. It is hard to even imagine what becomes possible with these advances and what the implications are.
With exponentially advancing technologies, things move very slowly at first and then advance dramatically. Already, there are significant advances on the horizon, such as the GPU, which uses parallel computing to create massive increases in performance, not only for graphics, but also for neural networks, which constitute the brain's architecture.
In development: 3D chips that can pack circuits in layers. IBM and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are developing cognitive-computing chips. New materials show promise for replacing silicon. And there is the most interesting — and scary — technology of all: quantum computing.
Instead of encoding information as either a zero or a one, as today's computers do, quantum computers will use quantum bits, or qubits, whose states encode an entire range of possibilities by capitalizing on the quantum phenomena of superposition and entanglement. Computations that would take today's computers thousands of years will occur in minutes on these.
Add artificial intelligence to the advances in hardware, and you begin to realize why luminaries such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates are worried about the creation of a "super intelligence." Musk fears that "we are summoning the demon." Hawking says it "could spell the end of the human race." And Gates wrote: "I don't understand why some people are not concerned." Kurzweil tells me he is not worried. He believes we will create a benevolent intelligence and use it to enhance ourselves. He sees technology as a double-edged sword, just like fire, which has kept us warm but has also burned down our villages. He believes that technology will enable us to address the problems that have long plagued human civilization — such as disease, hunger, energy, education and clean water — and that we can use it for good.
These advances in technology are a near certainty. The question is whether humanity will rise to the occasion and use them in a beneficial way. We can either build a Star Trek future, in which our civilization rises to new heights, or descend into a Mad Max world. It is up to us.
Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Duke University and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities.