Nerves of glass - Artificial Intelligence and us

For decades pundits have been describing optical fibre networks as the nervous system of the planet, but none could have guessed just how prophetic that would be.

Written on UA931 flying London to San Francisco and despatched to Tech Republic @ 10.5Mbit/s from Seattle  three days later.

It's not just the linking of cities, towns, villages, offices and homes, or indeed the coupling of IT equipment, internal rack wiring, and chip to chip communication that make optical fibre so unique and so vital a component of our future.  There is much more to the linking of everything.

Obviously, bandwidth and connectivity matters for people and commerce.  As an essential element of any modern civilisation, it now differentiates the First, Second and Third Worlds as a key part of the infrastructure along with roads, rail, air, energy and water. But the importance of this connectivity to the machines, and therefore us, is going to be even greater.

It turns out that sensors and sensor networks are not only vital for the managing of future resources in industry and farming, they will be core to our very existence in terms of health, care, logistics and commerce in the broadest sense.

Our gadgets, domestic appliances, homes, office and cars already utilise sensors, and many are online and feeding information about us and our environment back to numerous invisible bodies. This trend will accelerate as we move toward smart manufacture, supply, energy, offices, homes and living.

Paranoia and ‘Big Brother' aside there is another angle here in the direction of Artificial Intelligence (AI).  In the equation of 'smarts' it turns out that sensors and their interconnectivity outguns the importance of memory and processing power.  In short:

  • Intelligence is impossible without sensors and actuators
  • Intelligence is possible without memory and/or processing power

And a confederation of sensors is even more powerful than the singular. For example; we hear, see, feel, smell and taste in combination to elicit the best information we can about a situation or event.  That combinatorial sensing is now finding its way into the artificial sensor world we are building.  A world that has multiple AIs as a default future!

At this point I should point out that this is highly unlikely to be some form of SkyNet from The Terminator; more a network of independent and distributed intelligence embracing us and the planet.  A global jelly fish if you will!  Much more than the AI that controls your car engine, the elevator scheduling, aircraft you fly in, or the production line that provides your food, but much less than some global malevolence determined to take over the planet.

How can we be sure that this is the case?  We can't!  All we have is Mother Nature as a model, and AI on this scale has never been done before, but the benefits appear to outweigh the risks. Or, in short; we have no choice!


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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