Monday, August 01, 2005

The Incredible Shrinking Brain

Around 1959 I read an exciting Dell* paperback about everything that was newest and best in the world of science. The only chapter I remember today was the one about computers, which said that it was now possible to think about building a computer that would duplicate the functions of the human brain. The only catch was that the computer would be as big as the planet Jupiter.

As a bit of a solar system buff, I never forgot that claim, which is why I was startled about 11 years later (1970) to read that if a computer was built that would duplicate the functions of the human brain, it would cover all of North America and be several storeys tall. What had changed in the meantime? Vacuum tubes had been replaced by transistors, and transistors were just beginning to be replaced by the late Jack Kilby's invention, the integrated circuit.

Over the years since then, I've occasionally seen in the press further references to the size of the hypothetical computer that duplicates the functions of the human brain, and each one is smaller than the one before. As big as a city - as big as the Empire State Building - as big as a house - and a couple of years ago, the announcement that pretty soon it would be possible to build this computer and make it the same size as the human brain. Now that's progress!

But a few weeks ago, turning the pages of InfoWorld, I did a double-take at the implications of a headline there: "IBM to simulate accurate model of human brain with Blue Gene/L". Did you catch that? We no longer need to "build" an electronic human brain - we'll just write one as software and run it on an existing computer!

Mind you, Blue Gene/L isn't the sort of thing you buy at your local PC store for $499.95. No, Blue Gene/L is a supercomputer that will run (when completed) at 360 Teraflops. Nor is it the size of a human brain. But the significant point is the fact that the functionality of the human brain is going to be delivered as software. Once that is achieved, the software can be moved to successive generations of smaller and smaller hardware until it reaches any desired physical size. The day may come within the lifetime of some of my readers when you will be able to own a "brain" smarter than your own, the same size and price as a good Swiss watch.

How will our lives change when we're surrounded by "digital assistants" smarter than we are? Perhaps the best advice came from the late comedian and recording artist Allan Sherman at the end of his 1963 parody song Automation:

"When it sidled over and gave me a hug, dear, that's when I pulled out its plug!"

(* That's the Dell Publishing Company, not Dell Computers which didn't exist until 1984.)

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