My laptop is so dumb - why can't technology give me something smarter?

The technological advantages we have enjoyed year on year are starting to top out because of our human limitations, but there are some clues about where the next phase will come from.

The IBM Watson artificial intelligence system is probably the first glimpse of tech's next phase in augmenting human brain power. Photo: IBM

Written in the Channel Islands and dispatched a day later from a coffee shop in St Helier, Jersey, via a free wi-fi service at 20Mbps.

Decade after decade IT has supported us with faster speeds, bigger data storage, better networks, super-fast search engines and a raft of apps that have improved our efficiency and efficacy. But we might just have reached a new limit.

I don't know about you but I can't assimilate information any faster. I can't process it any faster, and I certainly can't output any faster. I'm at my limit of creativity - I can't solve problems any faster. Give me a computer 10 times more powerful and my output will remain static or at least only improve marginally. I need something more.

I have always seen spanners and screwdrivers as muscle amplifiers and computers as amplifiers of the mind. However, the human I/O is limited and so is our processing power, and we increasingly need machine augmentation.

If only my laptop wasn't so dumb. If only it had a modicum of intelligence so it could correct my errors, anticipate my needs, recognise the direction of my investigations and work, and help me model and solve complex problems.

Even at a search level it's so limited. What use is there in searching a topic and receiving a response in 0.18 seconds with a message that says there are about 187,000 results and here are the first 10?

None of these issues are likely to be solved within the confines of my laptop, iPad or iPhone, but the answer looks to be coming fast in the cloud. When our terminals are given access to supercomputing power and the new intelligences being developed, then we might just see our human brain power augmented with what we need for the next phase.

The IBM Watson artificial intelligence system is probably the first glimpse we have seen of what might be possible. IBM has created a video explaining how IBM Watson appears so smart. You can also gain an idea of what the technology might mean for medicine and healthcare. For another take on the subject, you could also watch my 10-minute presentation on machine intelligence.

It doesn't take too imagination and extrapolation to see what this technology might mean for engineering, science, technology, construction, or you and me, while Apple's Siri is an indication of the natural language possibilities for future interfaces.

These are the technologies many of us need right now. Perhaps for the first time in our IT history we are waiting for the technology to meet our needs, rather than IT waiting for us to catch up to exploit its capabilities fully.

And for the first time it might mean we don't have to learn some new convoluted interface. Generalised intelligences combined with natural language interaction would empower us for the next phase of innovation and business.

Hopefully, they will also help us deal with the growing complexities associated with globalisation including the diversity and speed of trade.


Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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