One of the fun parts of hanging out in the technology world is getting a good sense of the next big thing before folks really tune into how significant the next big thing will be. I remember about 12 years back – in the early days of the commercial internet – when it became clear to me that a huge shift was happening that would send virtually everybody online. No amount of explaining or describing or showing people cool stuff could get most people to understand the massive transition they were about to experience. As with so many technological innovations, the commercial internet had to be experienced by people at their own pace – often a painfully slow pace if you were watching this happen. Few who loudly proclaimed their luddite pride ten years ago would admit this today – most are using email and internet, often with the same enthusiasm as the relatively small number of super early adopters in the tech and commercial communities who helped make it all happen.
I did want to note why I’m talking about “commercial” internet vs “internet”. Contrary to what is often claimed the internet is a pretty old structure, begun by the military after WWII and then adopted by academia where it pretty munch languished for about 30 years. I would argue that cheap computing and ISP and online services (thank you Prodigy, Compuserve, AOL, more) then combined with graphical browsing (thank you Marc Andreessen and Mosaic friends) to create the backbone of the current “commercial internet” that has exploded onto the global scene as the key communication medium of all time.
So, what is the *next* big thing? Why, conscious computing of course! And it’s not just *big* like the internet. It’s super duper gigantic and earth shaking, and it’s coming soon to a planet very near us all. Experts disagree about *when* conscious computing will happen, though I think very few who are paying much attention would suggest we won’t have it within 50 years. However many experts, and I think the body of current projects such as Blue Brain, suggest that we will have conscious computers that exceed human intelligence within 20 years and perhaps even 10. What happens *after* a machine becomes conscious is quite a new thought ballgame and it is very hard to speculate about how that machine will evolve and perhaps more importantly how they will view other machines and …. us. Will the conscious machines get smarter slowly or almost explosively fast, surpassing all of humanity within months or even minutes of first attaining consciousness?
A simple way of understanding what many AI researchers are talking about in this respect is to simply recognize that the conscious machine is likely to be “recursively self improving” which means it will be able to build and/or program better versions of itself soon after consciousness, probably in something analogous to the way we humans improve our intellects and skills but much, much faster. Humans pull this off as well. I’m proud to say my wife and I have managed to create and program two impressive organic intellects who are now able to program themselves and we love them dearly. However we were constrained by human organic evolution, so took us many years to do this. Artificial intellects will likely be able to reproduce quite a bit faster and more effectively (no offense to any of you expectant parents intended).
Ironically for me, several of my favorite programming experts do not seem to conscious computing as something we can expect to happen anytime soon. I’ve puzzled over this because they certainly know the mechanics better than I, but I remain convinced that they are putting too much faith – sometimes literally – into the idea that humans are somehow … fundamentally different …. from other physical manifestations of the world. I’m confident we are not all that different, and in that light consciousness is probably best viewed more as a sort of tangential aspect of our lives than a key component.
And speaking of tangents, this whole post was going to be about this Carnagie Mellon AI project where the computer was reading people’s minds. Simple words, yes, but still a rudimentary form of mind reading based on EEG output: http://www.cmu.edu/news/archive/2008/May/may29_brainmeaning.shtml