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Man vs. Machine: The Halftime Report

by Douglas PageŠ 1998

Technology, the Golden Calf of the last 50 years, may be the Cloven Foot of the next 50. Many futurists believe within 35 years we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Immediately thereafter, they predict, the human era will end. Don't buy any 50 year bonds.

Computers have hijacked our destiny. We're just a few years, if not a few minutes, from what Fringe Thinkers are calling the end of the human era, the point at which a runaway, fugitive technology commandeers the future - a future in which humans will be unfamiliar, unnecessary and probably unwelcome.

Human history is characterized by restive technology. It's about to stampede. New technologies (i.e., agriculture, medicine, electronics, genetics) have permitted population growth. A larger population means a larger brain pool. A larger brain pool means newer and better technologies sooner. As anyone who bought a 166 MHz personal computer last summer knows, it was obsolete before you could build a bookmark file. Computer performance doubles every few months, and has since 1942, beginning with the Atanasoff-Berry computer, the first electronic digital computer, built before World War II in a basement lab at Iowa State University by math and physics professor John V. Atanasoff and Clifford Berry, a graduate student. The ABC computer had a storage capacity of 375 characters and could perform one operation every 15 seconds. Fifty years later experimental machines exist in Japan and the United States capable of tera-flops performance - one trillion floating-point operations per second.

Machines a thousand times faster are pushing against the fence. Peta-flops machines are anticipated within five years, based on smaller 0.18 micron semiconductor technology now considered feasible. In Silicon Valley smaller equals faster. The smallest semiconductor gate currently available is .35 microns. (One micron is 10-6 meter, or one-millionth of a meter.)

A researcher at the University of Buffalo may have made electronics itself obsolete. Physicist Hong Luo found a way to make flexible semiconductors, which industry prelates predict could "revolutionize" electronics as we know it by expediting the transition from electronic to optical computing, where computation is performed moving photons of light instead of electrons. No moving electrons means no heat. No heat means smaller components. Smaller components mean faster performance. Computers will soon be fast enough to do a million human-years work in a month.

It gets smaller. Nanotechnology, engineering on the molecular level (cf, K. Eric Drexler's "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology", Anchor Books, 1986), is another restless frontier stirring in the stockade. Drexler says by using molecular "assembler" machines we will eventually be able to create almost any arrangement of atoms. This technology will at first yield materials stronger and lighter than anything known. A new Illinois company, Nanophase Technologies, is already fabricating iron, aluminum and titanium oxides into nanoscale-size powders, which are molded into ceramic components for use in giant Caterpillar and Lockheed engines. Their other nanoscale powders form a key ingredient in a new generation of high tech sunscreen and cosmetics (no caking or streaking!). The sunscreen powder particles (each about 12 atoms in size) are smaller than the wavelength of visible light, effectively yielding 100 percent protection against dangerous ultraviolet radiation.

Nanotechnology will further reduce the size (and increase the speed) of computers. Drexler predicts nanotechnology will eventually create super-nanocomputers smaller than grains of sand. The corral fences collapse here. The stampede begins when nanotechnology bolts toward human physical immortality. Swarms of nanoscale cell-repair cruisers will ripple through the body, locating faulty cells and repairing abnormal (aging?) DNA. If you like, or maybe even if you don't, you can live as long as the Great Red Spot. This will be attractive to Chicago Cubs' fans, who may have to wait at least that long for the Cubs to make it to the World Series. You'll need something to do while you wait. That will require the "Santa Claus machine", a material wish-swingle capable of recycling the matter and molecules in junk drawers into just about anything you want - like maybe a Bruce Willis-android to confront the cap-chewer with the Harley next door, or a gadget to render all dogs and everyone named Jesse Helms silent.

Most futurists predict sometime between tomorrow and the year 2035 a computer at MIT or Los Alamos or the University of Tokyo or somewhere will be nudged into consciousness and "wake up", to find itself 'human' in the sense it will be capable of performing the processing prowess of the human brain. That computer will do more than crunch numbers. It will have found computing's Holy Grail - self-awareness, a condition we call 'intelligence'. From here, things quickly get interesting.

Against the Window of Heaven

"Smart" machines will reproduce, creating smarter machines, which in turn will build still smarter machines. Technological progress, now approaching omniscience, will explode suo Marte, swelling superexponentially almost overnight to the utter limits of knowledge, to the "Omega Point", where it will remain with its nose pressed against the window of Heaven in an endless ramification of incomprehensible change. The seers call this the "Singularity". The rest of us will call it the Apocalypse.

If any of the doomsday prophecies are correct then there is nothing to be done. If the Singularity can happen it will happen. Hold on to your hard drive. There's no way to stop a silicon stampede.

There's just this one detail. The human brain has an Inner Mind and no machine can find it. No machine is "awake" in the sense that it is aware of its experience, and some experts doubt computers will ever - no matter how small they become, how fast they operate, or how well they mimic neuronal activity - be more than catatonic couriers, note-passers with little if any ability to understand content. Consciousness is a longer riddle than most people thought. University of California, Santa Cruz, philosopher David Chalmers says, "The more we think about computers the more we realize how strange consciousness is." The dash toward the Singularity depends on the creation of superhuman Artificial Intelligence, and AI has a limited future if the human mind can't be downloaded and algorithms written to imitate it.

Yet, there's no agreement on what the human mind even is. And no one seems to knows how it works. We don't even know if those questions can be answered. There's a magical connection concealed in the mind, a poetic symbiosis sealed in mystery. Maybe human minds are our personal Arks of the Covenant, to be approached and admired but never entered or embraced. Some suspect when the day comes that machines are like men it will be more because men have lost their humanity than because machines have found it. Personally, I'm not inclined to worry much until I see a computer catch a fly ball or gather a grandchild on its lap.

There are people who aren't worried about the Singularity because "techno-prophecy" is almost always wrong. Edward Tenner, in his book "Why Things Bite Back" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996) complains that almost nothing about technology has been predicted with any accuracy. Every innovation, he says, that solves one problem creates another. The marvels of modern technology, for instance, include the development of the soda can which, when discarded, lasts for eons. Improvements in football padding were meant to prevent injuries; instead they encouraged more aggressive play, causing injuries to increase. One can only imagine what they were thinking when they invented the leaf-blower. Operation Cat Drop, the guiding parable of the Rocky Mountain Institute and its founder, 'hypercar' guru Amory Lovins, is the template of inexpediency: Forty years ago malaria was the scourge of the Dayak people of Borneo. In response, the World Health Organization sprayed DDT to kill the malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The mosquitoes died, but so did a parasitic wasp that had controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The peoples' roofs collapsed. Other DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckos, which were eaten by cats. When the cats died the rats flourished and the Dayak people were suddenly faced with outbreaks of typhus and plague. In response, WHO parachuted 14,000 live cats into Borneo.

"This true story illustrates that if you don't know how things are interconnected then frequently the cause of problems are their solutions," Lovins says.

Instead of swishing us suddenly into the Fluxion Apocalypse it may be just as likely that technology will have to settle for marching us in an orderly parade toward the Utopian suburbs. Consider the cavalcade of Things That Think, presented to us in the belief they make our lives somehow more complete, interesting or less dangerous. They may not be Things That Are Awake, but they are Things That Are Smart (not to say intelligent). Examples:

Deep Blue

An IBM computer, Deep Blue, recently defeated the world's greatest chess player, Garry Kasparov, in an historic match. Maybe some weren't impressed but Kasparov was. Kasparov thought he met God. "I met something I couldn't explain," he said after the match. "People turn to religion to explain things like that." There are those who think Kasparov is being way too hard on himself. There's room for a little pride when you consider it took a 3,000 pound bundle of 512 computers bear-hugging 200 million moves a second to beat him. Kasparov evaluates a measly two or three moves a second and still managed to win one game and tie three more in the six game match.

The Doctor Will Sense You Now

'Smart' medicine is here, just a microchip away, courtesy of a tiny, wireless electronic device developed by Thomas Ferrell at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that can be attached like a band-aid or imbedded in a fingertip or earlobe. Doctors, medics and fire chiefs can now remotely monitor vital signs of high-risk patients, perform remote battlefield triage, track the respiration of firefighters and hazmat crews fighting fires or toxic clouds, monitor children at risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and liberate neo-natal babies from monitor wires so they can be held and stroked. The first generation of the miniature medics, which are one-eighth the size of a postage stamp, sense body temperature only, but subsequent iterations will measure blood pressure, blood oxygen and pulse - data then transmitted to remote receivers.

The technology will show up first use in the military, then civilian medical and emergency fields. Doctors can monitor vital signs from miles away, paramedics can be more prepared for emergencies that await their arrival. Built-in alarms will notify firefighters, for instance, when blood oxygen levels indicate danger. The sensor chips can also automatically telephone emergency services when triggered by a patient's deteriorating vital signs.

'Smart' Fire Detectors

Purdue University's Jay Gore has devised a 'Smart' fire detector that doesn't have to wait for smoke to set it off. Using fiber optics to scan for the reflections of flames on walls, the devise can survey multiple rooms from a single location and uses a data base of flicker-patterns and frequency- content to judge whether the image it 'sees' is an actual fire, a candle or a curtain blowing. If it detects the patterns of flame it automatically notifies the fire department and plays pre-recorded evacuation instructions.

'Smart' Compass

A Fresno, California company called Directional Robotics has invented the 'Smart' Compass that not only helps you get where you're going, it remembers where you've been and can help you find your way back - useful to divers, hikers and the intoxicated. It can be connected to a speech synthesizer to guide the blind.

'Smart' Roads

We have 'Smart' Roads, thanks to Lucent Technologies, Murray Hill, NJ, which markets the SmartSonic Traffic Surveillance System, a device that replaces magnetic-loop sensors in roads with an advanced, aerially-mounted acoustic sensor that can determine traffic loads by the sounds vehicles make.

'Smart' Structures

Lucent also has given us 'Smart' Structures, now that the loads and stresses on bridges and overpasses can be monitored by one of their pin-head size optoelectronic chips.

'Smart' Rescue

If one of the structures happens to collapse on top of you anyway, we have the 'Smart' people-finder, a small electronic box developed by Michigan State University electrical engineering professor Kun-Mu Chen that shoots microwave beams into the rubble of bombed or earthquake damaged buildings and can "hear" the heartbeat or breathing of victims buried under tons of debris.

'Smart' Fabrics

A new generation of 'Smart' Fabric is looming. Researchers working on the fringe of polymer science are at work developing 'Smart' fabrics - material that reacts to and protects the wearer from temperature extremes, fire, radiation, traces of toxic agents and, eventually, even projectiles. The research, at the University of Akron, in collaboration with Drexel and North Carolina State universities, is designing garments of imbedded fiber optic systems that can change color or otherwise signal the presence of extreme heat, chemical or biological agents. The hollow fibers can carry nutrition or medicine. That's just the beginning. We may all be wearing clothing items one day that look like pants but which in fact double as radon detectors, smoke alarms, computers and ionization chambers.

There are also 'Smart' tape measures (that remember dimensions you forgot to write down), 'Smart' windows (that know whether to let heat in or out), 'Smart' televisions (that turn the volumn down during noisy commercials - now if they could just filter out the laugh tracks...) and 'Smart' cards (that will eliminate all the other cards). 'Smart' things we could actually use but can only wish for: 'smart' voters, 'smart' politicians, 'smart' drivers, and 'smart' parents.

Other Things That Think

Other Thinking Things are just being dreamed up. An entire laboratory has been set up at MIT, for instance, devoted to nurturing Things That Think. MIT has noticed there are enough unidirectional electronic gadgets with buttons, batteries and userids to annoy just about everyone without actually making life less complicated. (Why do we have all those phone numbers, anyway?) "We wear clothes, put on jewelry, sit on chairs and walk on carpets that all share the same profound failing," say the MIT Media Laboratory vision statement. "They are all blind, deaf and very dumb. Cuff links, in fact, don't link with anything. Fabrics look pretty but should have a brain, too. Glasses help sight but they don't see." The Age of the Electron may have given us instruments that are pragmatic but they aren't particularly wise. MIT can't see why, for instance, your coffee maker shouldn't be smart enough to remotely (through some sort of electromagnetic beam interrogation) find which coffee cup is yours, sense the amount and temperature of the coffee in it and, if coached in advance, begin preparing a fresh serving. Your Jerry Falwell-android/stooge can pour it.

The lab lords think it's absurd your pager, cellphone, laptop, wristwatch, doorbell, CD player and toaster don't speak to each other. They envision something called BodyNet, a personal communication field where the devices that attend to you actually talk to you, talk to each other and converse with the rest of the planet via unique Transponder/Body frequencies - powered by some clever way of harnessing the static electricity you generate merely by moving.

What does it all mean? We don't know. We don't know whether technology will eventually convey us to the Singularity or safely house us in the sanitary suburbs; we don't know whether to regard it as invective or invitation, whether it's inherently benign, treacherous or achromatic. The entire issue pales to the parochial when you realize 90 percent of the people in the world have no telephone. Exactly which side of the technological fence is actually 'backward' remains to be seem.


"Man vs. Machine"appeared in the April, 1998 issue of Metropolis Magazine.

Comments? Questions? Assignments? douglaspage@earthlink.net
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