Tuesday, June 17, 2008

And I was there...sort of

Occasionally I go into a news-blackout mode.

I get interested in some project or topic, or work gets busy. For whatever reason I stop paying attention to my various rss feeds and other media for at times a month or more.

Then I of course take a moment to breath and catch back up (RSS feeds/readers have made this process _so_ much more efficient!).

Today was such a 'take a breath' day.

So today was the first day that I realized that I will in fact most likely live to see a science-fiction kind of future after all. I thought I would write down my initial reactions so that I can be amused by them later on in life.

I must say I'm a little shocked at how little 'buzz' there is about it in the news. I suppose that is a sign in and of itself that we have more or less reached the fabled 'singularity'.

There is of course a fair amount of news releases and articles in the appropriate special interest websites. For the moment however it seems that the popular culture hasn't quite caught on that _everything_ is about to change.

It means fasten your seat belt Dorothy, 'cause Kansas is going bye-bye.

--cypher "The Matrix"

What am I talking about?

Of course I am talking about the discovery published on April 30th, 2008 of the memristor.

I remember reading Issac Asimov's novels. Like a lot of sci-fi authors he invented a few words to help him describe items that would exist in the future for which there was no direct analog today. One that I'm almost ashamed to admit I had always thought of as a bit 'quaint' was 'Positronic Brain'.

It seemed to be a bit of a cop-out and failure of imagination to suppose that there was some magical 'material' that would give the CPUs of his robots the ability to think like a human. I mean a computer is a computer right? Why not just call it that?

Well part of the answer is of course that there are fundamentally two different kinds of computer: Analog and Digital.

From a certain point of view they are basically the same. Given enough 'cycles' a Digital computer can approximate an analog computer to any degree of accuracy required. The reason that digital computers took off so fast compared to analog was simply that they are much easier to program.

Turns out analog computers are however very good at evaluating huge numbers of parameters more or less in real time. So they can be vastly superior at doing things like pattern recognition or balancing feedback loops.

The things we usually associate with brain-like activity are a much closer match to what happens in an analog computer.

A memristor is more or less a direct analog to a human synapse, and fundamentally it is a new kind of basic electronic device, so my apologies to Asimov. It was my and not his failure in imagination (but I mean come on, what are the odds of something like this being invented?!?!?!? :) ).

We knew of _three_ fundamental circuit components before April 30th and we've used those three fundamental circuit components to create every single electronic device mankind has ever made. Now we know of a fourth.

Let me just repeat that: For the 200 odd years or so we have seriously been playing around with electricity/electronics to make things like communication satellites, cell phones, computers, electric motors, batteries and radio we have done so with only three of the four fundamental components of an electric circuit.

That in itself is sort of mind-blowing...which is in a way appropriate because this is the stuff that the AIs will be built of in the next few years.

Thats right, not decades...years.

Most people looking at the curves and crunching the numbers think that digital computers will be cheap/fast enough in 20 years or so to approach the computing power of the human brain.

But nobody reckoned on this. This changes the game entirely. Instead of 'emulating' an analog computer in the digital realm we will shortly be able to simply _build_ one.

'memristic brain', it even has sort of a nice ring to it.

The articles I've read have simply focused on little things like having instant on computers with terabytes of storage, and oh by the way, they also won't really generate any heat.

To my mind though the AI angle is the only one that really matters. We are on the very cusp of a culture-changing event.

So I've decided to vote for Obama.

I don't like either candidate but I think Obama has the greater adaptability of the two and we are likely to see some _really_ crazy stuff in the next 5-10 years.

And my prediction: There will be at least one man-made non-human intelligence on this planet five years from now with the ability to pass the Turing test.

My I be among the first to welcome our new memristic-brained-overlords! :)

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