Collaboration

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Man vs machine - who's smarter?

Ask me again in five years...

Written in Helsinki Airport, edited in Shrivenham and despatched from my home on a new wi-fi signal (with a default setting) that appeared from nowhere, and it just seemed like fun to see if it would work

Throughout my professional career it seems that nothing much has upset people more than the threat of a machine that outsmarts them. Just recently a well-known figure in the industry proposed that 2019 will see a supercomputer that will be more powerful and capable than us. Nothing new here, I happen to think it more likely by 2015!

But right on cue there have been a slew of rebuttals from people in the industry and those outside. The most ludicrous of these takes a line that creativity is absolutely unique to the human mind and even god given. Well, we'll see soon enough!

This is one of those debating arenas that really isn't worth venturing into. The reality is we cannot define, describe, quantify or measure intelligence or creativity in any meaningful way. Ergo, it is impossible to have any useful conversation on the topic!

Witness all the worthless verbiage written about man, machine and chess. The reality is that machines play a much better game of chess than we do. Here, it has been 'game over' for some years. Before that it was elevators, engine management and stock market trading etc! So what?

Right now the web is about equivalent to a single human brain on a node count and connectivity basis. But patently there isn't a direct equivalence! Sure the web stores and knows more than a single person or group of humans but it is purely mechanistic and certainly not creative. Hey, when did you last see a purely mechanistic human who wasn't creative?

The key difference between the human species and technology seems to be the speed of progress. Whist we are still evolving (very slowly) we have most likely reached an intelligence peak due to various physical factors. Our technology on the other hand continues to race ahead. Most likely we will see human equivalence surpassed time and again in quick succession. In my estimation it will go something like this:

2006 internet ~ 1 human brain
2012 internet ~ 1,000 human brains
2018 internet ~ 1,000,000 human brains
2024 internet ~ 1,000,000,000 human brains
2034 internet ~ 1,000,000,000,000 human brains

So will we be under any real threat by 2012? Probably not! But 2018 may be another matter for several reasons. First, we will have deployed a significant number of sensors on the periphery of the net - and a sensory capability exceeds computing power and memory capacity in the intelligence and creativity equations. Second, sufficient quantities of our hardware and software will probably have become independently adaptable enough to combine and connect to create a sentient presence.

Now a few lines to really upset the naysayer! If we do absolutely nothing to engineer it, a form of machine intelligence will most likely spontaneously emerge of its own volition. Further, we may see the eruption of multiple life-forms by the same unaided mechanism.

I don't think of the web as a machine, or a mere network or system, I see it as a new form of ecosystem capable of supporting many new species above and beyond us. It is already alive with viruses and other forms of parasite that echo the much earlier history of carbon life. So why not life and intelligence as well?

To my mind, the really important questions are about us and not the machine/s. Specifically, will we smart enough to...

  • Recognise any new life forms that emerge?
  • Recognise any new life intelligence that emerges?
  • Work and live symbiotically with whatever emerges?
  • Use wisely the power of future machines and networks?
  • Employ their abilities to enhance our own?
  • Create the sustainable environments to service all forms of life and intelligence?

A senior political figure recently stated: "The creativity of the human mind will always be superior to the most powerful computers." We'll see! This may or may not turn out to be correct - we just don't know yet, it all remains a matter of opinion. But on the evidence to date I think we should 'never say never', it seems a surefire way to get egg on our face. And as our technology accelerates, I just see an awful lot more egg being made available.

People see intelligent machines and robots as a direct and potential threat in the near and far future. Myself, I worry about people - they appear to be far more malevolent and threatening, especially in regard to the way they employ machines! I just hope I can make it to 2018 or 2024 to see!

About

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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