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
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
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
*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