Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Dream of A Thousand Computers

A very provocative short story by George Dyson:


There exists an horror genre called lovecraftian, in honor of its precursor H.P. Lovecraft. Unlike the more widespread gore horror – of films such as Friday 13th, which try to scare people by splattering guts all over the screen – lovecraftian horror usually revolves around a "sleeping giant" (a being of immense power, either real or imaginary) and the precariousness of the situation that prevents it from awakening and wiping us out, or at least completely transform our lives.

That Google's computer grid can already be used as a "sleeping giant" in a lovecraftian horror tale is testimony to its success.

Often reality is a little stranger than fiction, and there are in fact those who expect a conscious intelligence to spontaneously emerge from Google's grid. But even without taking those people seriously, it is undeniable that Google has already contributed with at least one important advance: concrete evidence that, with enough input data and computing power, AI's brute-force algorithms can approximate, and even compete with, human-level intellectual skills. The required scale may be demotivating, at least for the time being – but our computers' performance continues to advance in a quadratic scale, and can even begin to increase in an exponential scale when quantum computers arrive (which may take less than expected).

At the same time, Artificial Intelligence is moving away from its early digital approach, focused on discrete Boolean logic circuits, and towards something closer to the analog world, dominated by continuous domains and probability distributions. Not that it's anything new (ADALINE's and Bayesian classifiers have been around for decades), but the recent advances in our understanding of the human brain's inner workings, combined with success stories such as the Urban Challenge, are breathing new life into those research lines.

Very interesting things will indeed happen in the time of our lives.