What happens when computers transcend human limitations?

Mar 27, 2012

According to Moore’s Law, computing power doubles every two years. Processing power has been increasing at that rate for more than 50 years.

What happens when our machines can perceive the world far better than we mere humans can?

Strategic News Service publisher Mark Anderson and KPLU’s Dave Meyer ponder the implications on this month’s edition of The Digital Future.

IBM's Watson is an example of how computers are transcending mortal limitations. The supercomputer beat the top two human champions on Jeopardy! in 2011.

Winning at game shows is just the tip of the iceberg. This kind of technology can be applied to all kinds of scientific and technical endeavors. Mark says artificial intelligence is being used in medicine, helping doctors to make correct diagnoses. 

Computers are looking at big sets of data and finding trends and patterns that humans didn't see before.

If computers can analyze the world better than we can, how do we go about asking the right questions?

If you don't know much about cars, you may have a tough time knowing what to ask or tell your mechanic when you take your vehicle in for repair. We may find ourselves in the same situation when dealing with advanced computers.

Mark says computers will be "learning really large scale new theories and systems of thinking about how nature works", and it may be hard for us to understand what the computer is really telling us.

What about the technological singularity?

The singularity is a concept popularized by writers Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil. It's seen as the point at which computers become so advanced that the world is radically altered in ways we're unable to imagine today. 

Mark takes a different view. He thinks the singularity has already happened, because computers have been smarter than humans (in some ways) since the 1960s.

He also doesn't see the singularity as a threat, believing humans will always be able to "pull the plug".