Article excerpt

It didn't take a surge of computing power to get people thinking about life in a world where machines may be smarter than people.

From the golem of Jewish legend to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's "Frankenstein," the prospect of infusing inert matter with thought has fired imagination, especially when the creature runs amok - smashing walls, mulching sheep, or destroying its creator.

By the last half of the 20th century, the "creature" had shifted from a lump of clay to integrated circuits. But the risks of bad or unintended results from contact with things that think are as powerful a concern. Few expect today's supercomputers to jump the scientist in the lab. The challenge is to humanity itself: If machines are smarter than mankind, what does it mean to be human? Is there more to consciousness than computation? Are there costs to merging too closely with machines? Hollywood took a light-hearted crack at this issue in the 1957 film "Desk Set." A computer named EMERAC, or "Miss Emmy," threatens to displace the cardigan-sweatered set in the research department, but proves no match for the sublime Katherine Hepburn. While Emmy could calculate the total weight of the earth "with or without humans," she nearly soldered her circuits over the question, "Does the king of the Watusis drive a car?" In the end, Kate's hairpins save the machine from meltdown, jobs are preserved, and faith in humanity restored. But the mood was not so jovial when World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov threw up his hands and conceded defeat in Game 6 against Deep Blue, an IBM supercomputer that could evaluate 200 million chess moves a second. After the historic 1997 match, Mr. Kasparov said that he had felt "the fate of all humanity on his shoulders." For one of the fathers of artificial intelligence (AI), this outcome was never in doubt - just how soon it would happen. At a time when many people doubted that computers would have a future, British mathematician Alan Turing wrote a landmark essay, "Can a Machine Think?" (1950). In it, he predicted that by "the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted." Expert prediction has not been the most accurate of guides in preparing for a new world of artificial intelligence. For example, in the late 1940s, the best known computer machine in the world, ENIAC, belonged to the US Army. Emmy's namesake had about 20,000 vacuum tubes and weighed more than 30 tons. Mathematician John von Neumann, the key developer on the ENIAC project, wrote in 1951 that what prevents computing machines from rivaling natural organisms is "the inferiority of our materials." In 1949, Popular Mechanics opined that "computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1-1/2 tons." The invention of the silicon chip in 1958 shattered the size barrier and opened wide floodgates of speculation on whether and how soon machines would master humans. Consider these visions of the future from three experts in the field of computer intelligence: *By 2050, machines will have met and exceeded human levels of intelligence. "Rather quickly, they could displace us from existence." Some people may opt to "personally transcend their biological humanity" by uploading themselves into a computer, according to Hans Moravec, founder of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, in "Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind." *By 2029, many areas of the brain will have been reduced to algorithms. Neural implants will enhance seeing, hearing, memory, and reasoning. Computers will be doing most of the teaching and much of the learning. Many of the leading artists will be machines. Life will be extended through the use of bionic organs, and most communication won't involve a human. By 2099, there will no longer be any clear distinction between humans and computers, according to Ray Kurzweil, inventor and author, in "The Age of Spiritual Machines. …