Pondering the Past, Present and Future


Let’s step away from electronics assembly challenges, and deep considerations of solder paste, solder preforms and wave soldering, to ponder where electronics have gone in the past decade or so.

The mobile phone of the early 2000s was just that, a phone. Today it is a phone, music player, PalmPilot-type organizer, camera (still and video), video player, gamer, TV remote, GPS system, web portal, etc. There is almost nothing electronic that it can’t do. The USB memory stick of 2002 with 0.5Gb of memory cost $500, today $5 will get you a 4Gb one, a cost reduction of 800:1 the equivalent of halving in price about every year.

There is no reason to expect any less dramatic advancements in the future. But, predicting the future of electronics is never easy. In the January 2013 edition of Scientific American Ed Regis wrote an article titled, “The Bold and Foolish Effort to Predict the Future of Computing.” In this article, Regis interviewed eight computer luminaries, including Stephen Wolfram and Nathan Myhrvold, to ascertain their perspectives on where computing will be in 150 years. The conclusion was that no one can predict the future of computing. As interviewee George Dyson said, “All I can guarantee is that any prediction will be wrong.”

One person less humbled by the difficulties of computing predictions is Ray Kurzweil. His prediction success level of more than 80% would seem to support such confidence. Kurzweil also just got a new job at Google. I am finishing his new book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, and, while I finding it fascinating, I think he goes too far. He believes the mind is a sophisticated computer and that, when computers get to a certain point equaling and surpassing the human mind’s computational ability, they will be considered human.

Supporting this point, he hopes to, someday, resurrect his father, as Bloomberg states:
“Among the stranger things Ray Kurzweil will say to your face is that he intends to bring his father back to life. The famed inventor has a storage locker full of memorabilia—family photographs, letters, even utility bills—tied to his father, Fredric, who died in 1970. Someday, Kurzweil hopes to feed these data trove into a computer that will reconstruct a virtual rendering of dear old Dad.”

Call me a religious fanatic, but I think there is something more to each of us than our memories and our brains’ computing ability.

Kurzweil endorses the IBM Watson computer system’s victory in Jeopardy in February of 2011 as a major step in the direction of computers as humans. IBM provided commercial support for these Jeopardy episodes. In the commercials they strongly reminded us that Watson was not thinking, but only doing what it (not “he”) was programmed to do. Someone summed it up nicely, Watson won, but did he know he won?

I think there are a few major things that people like Kurzweil minimize when they propose that computers will be recognized as human. These points are:

1. Humans are sentient (they would know whether or not they won or lost Jeopardy; we have emotions and feelings). I know of no progress in sentience development for machines.

2. Humans have a will. We get up in the morning, we decide what we will do that day and do it. There is no progress (thankfully?) in giving computers a will.

3. Humans have a biological body. We smell the newly cut grass, feel a refreshing breeze, get tired, enjoy a meal, enjoy sports etc. It is easy for some to minimize the importance of the body in being human. Again no progress in this area.

However, I don’t want to minimize much of what Kurzweil predicts. In her groundbreaking book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle tells us that, in addition to the fact that the average teenager in the US sends 200 text messages a day, electronic companions already exist. As time goes by they will become more realistic and will be capable of interesting and stimulating speech and interaction. Having all of the world’s knowledge at their fingertips (pun intended), these companions will likely be more stimulating than people, they will easily pass the Turing Test, and, for good or ill, will make us more “alone together” than ever. But our companion will not love, fear, hate, or know that it is a companion.

As has been pointed out, this brave new world is coming whether we like it or not.
Btw, on another topic, the History Channel has produced a terrific video series, Men Who Built America. It is a the spellbinding story of Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Edison, and Henry Ford. If you missed it, it is coming out in DVD in January.

Cheers and best for the New Year,
Dr. Ron

The Age of Spiritual Machines?

That Ray Kurzweil is a smart, creative, inventive and prolific person is beyond dispute. In addition, it cannot be said that he hasn’t made numerous accurate predictions, most with 10-year lead times, such as IBM’s Deep Blue computer beating world champion Gary Kasparov in chess, the growth of the Internet and emergence of flash memory drives. However, he goes way too far in his belief in “spiritual machines” and the advent of a technical singularity.

The spiritual machines argument is quite old (1999) and with little progress in that direction, it surprises me that his 2005 book The Singularity is Near still suggested that, as Wikipedia puts it, “the functionality of the human brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future.” Why do I say there is little progress? Computers are faster and can perform more tasks than ever, but are still limited to what human programmers tell them to do. In addition, human consciousness is far from being understood today. Our brains are not machines that simply perform clever mathematical operations, developed by computer programmers.

All this somewhat dated information was brought back to me in an interview on Fox News recently. Kurzweil predicts that a computer will passing the Turing Test by 2019, and that by 2029 a computer-based machine would be recognized as having consciousness.

Why am I not a believer? Computers are terrific at mathematical operations. Many felt that computers would never beat a world champion at chess. But consider: chess can be described in strictly mathematical terms. Deep Blue did what computers do well, math, not human thought. As one person said upon hearing of the news of Deep Blue’s victory, “I’ll be impressed when a computer can write and understand poetry.” The best computers today, connected to a vision system cannot do what a six-month-old child can, recognize and follow its mother’s face in a crowd.

All this reminds me of a book I read a few years ago by Robin Cook called Abduction. In this novel, the main characters, while exploring the sea, happen upon an opening to Interterra, a society of humans living under the earth’s crust. Their society is so advanced that when their bodies wear out, a new test tube baby is selected as a replacement. Their memories are downloaded to the babies and hence the babies become them. Their old body is destroyed and they live another life through the baby. Many of Kurzweil’s farout ideas are similar to this type of human/technological immortality.

I can’t be the only person who believes there is something uniquely me and uniquely you, uniquely human, that goes beyond our memories and can’t be downloaded from our bodies.

Interesting stuff. Why am I discussing this? We will be the ones assembling the electronics for Kurzweil’s machines. It will be interesting to watch.