What is the most powerful computational device on the planet? If you answered "the human brain" you would have been right . . . until a few months ago.
As you may know, the brain is exquisitely designed to process information. Its array of 100 billion neurons, interconnected in a lattice of 100 trillion synapses (connections), is capable of processing an estimated 100 trillion pieces of information every second. This is an unfathomably large amount of computation.
When I took a computer class back in college in the 1980s, no man-made computer could even come close to that sort of processing capacity. Not even one millionth as much! It was impossible to believe that a computer could ever come close to rivaling our cerebral 'hardware'. But I remember one of my professors telling us to watch out for Moore's Law - which states that computer processing speeds double every 12 months or so. Due to inexorable technology advances, computers just keep on getting faster and more powerful, with no foreseeable end in sight.
As a result, the world crossed a remarkable threshold last year . . .
For the first time in history, the human brain was supplanted as the most powerful computer on earth. That distinction is now held by an IBM supercomputer known as Blue-Gene/L, which clocked in this past October at an astonishing 280 trillion operations per second. It has about three times more processing capacity than the human brain! (Sadly, it's being used by Livermore Laboratories to help develop our nuclear arsenal - your tax dollars at work.)
Does that mean that computers will soon be exhibiting superhuman intelligence? Well, in some ways, of course, they already are. Gary Kasparov, the best chess player in history, can no longer beat the best computer chess programs.
But it will still be many years before computers are able to accomplish several of the computational feats that we take for granted. The ability to understand and generate language looks like it will be the toughest 'artificial intelligence' problem - and computers at present are nowhere close to being able to do this. Mostly it's because artificial intelligence researchers and programmers usually don't have super-powerful computers at their disposal . . . most of them use the same desktop PCs that you and I do, which means they have less than 1/100,000th of the processing power of a human brain.
This will change in the decades ahead, however. Because of Moore's Law, it's fairly safe to assume that a good desktop PC in the year 2020 will have about the processing power of a human brain . . . enough to do a creditable job simulating human language.
While there is certainly much to be concerned about with such developments, in some future post I'll discuss some of the potentially positive implications regarding our understanding and treatment of mental illness.