The persistence of Moore's law
and some speculations about machine intelligence.

1. Moore's Law

In 1999-2000, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences carried out an ambitious "Technical Foresight" study, aimed at exploring the implications of anticipated developments in technology on Swedish society over the next few decades. As secretary, I proposed that we should include a section on Moore's Law in the synthesis report, but my suggestion was met with groans and moans. "Moore's Law has been beaten to death. Let us not keep nagging about that. We want a fresh and forward-looking approach!"

In 1965, Gordon Moore predicted that the density of components in integrated circuits would continue to grow exponentially for at least the next 10 years. Few people anticipated that his "Law" would still remain valid after 40 years.

Diagram copied from Physics World..

The members of the committee had a point. Too often, Moore's Law has been discussed in purely technical terms, or in "gee whiz" terms: "If the automotive industry had been subject to Moore's Law, by now a Ferrari would cost 50 cents", etc. And even if the semiconductor industry should somehow freeze at today's level of technology, there would still be a lot of potential for further development on the applications side for the next 10 or 20 years, and that was what our study should address: probable developments in medicine, education, etc.

Although everybody seems to be familiar with Moore's Law, strangely enough there is no general agreement on what the Law actually says. Does it refer to component density or to manufacturing cost or to "processing power" (whatever that means)? And is the doubling time 18 months or 24 months or 36 months? That makes a lot of difference in the long run! Moore himself never handed down a Law, but he is said to be pleased to be revered as the Father of all kinds of exponential growth :-)

Gordon Moore.
Gordon Moore (b. 1929), co-founder of Intel Corp., in a 1970s photo.

Moore's original paper from 1965 is brief, accessible and interesting. Among his specific predictions you will find home computers, digital watches, and "personal mobile communications equipment".

The heart of the matter is the amazing fact that semiconductor technology has been advancing at such a steady and relentless pace for well over 40 years, and that at least another decade of progress is expected before it reaches the ultimate limits imposed by fundamental physics. Even then, there are new technologies on the horizon that offer some hope that the obstacles may be circumvented. To an outsider, it seems surprising that the rate of progress has been so steady. No setbacks, no sudden spurts! (This is disputed by Finnish scientist Ilkka Tuomi.) I suspect that the explanation has more to do with the economics of building and equipping industrial plants - especially while maintaining high quality standards - than with engineering physics.

Of course, much of the revolution that we have seen in Information Technology can be attributed to developments in fields not directly dependent on Moore's Law: magnetic storage, optical fiber, software etc, and they will continue to be important. Still, the future of Moore's Law is going to have far-reaching consequences for our society in the next few decades, although perhaps not always in the directions we have come to expect. It is all too easy to extrapolate current trends, or to think of new technologies as just replacing old technologies when evaluating their potential. - The difficulty is illustrated by the anecdote about the mayor who was impressed with an early demonstration of telephony and exclaimed: "The telephone is a great invention! I can foresee a time when every town will have one." The story may well be true. After all, every town had a telegraph!

What I personally find especially intriguing about Moore's Law, however, is the long-term potential for developing artificial intelligence. It may even become possible to evolve artificial consciousness, although, to be sure, that is not going to happen in my lifetime, and most likely not even in this century. Yet, it is interesting to speculate about whether the hardware needed to - even in theory - make such leaps possible, might become available over the next few decades.

2. Speculations about machine intelligence

Artificial intelligence! Many people, and in particular many scientists, take offense at the very expression. "Even if we are able to perform certain clever tricks with computers, how can anybody even think of attributing intelligence to them? A computer has no fantasy, no reasoning power, no free will, no imagination. It just performs a sequence of pre-determined steps very rapidly. In principle, there is no difference between a computer and, say, a typewriter."

Auguste Rodin's ThinkerPart of the controversy is undoubtedly just a question of semantics. What do we mean by intelligence? Many animals exhibit intelligent behavior, even though we would not call them intelligent: the bird building its nest, the spider weaving its net etc. Their intelligence is "hard-wired" in their nervous systems. It turns out to be quite difficult to define intelligence in a way that satisfies everyone. Yet, ever since the first programmable computers were developed in the 1940s, scientists have speculated about the possibility of building a machine that would emulate at least some aspects of human intelligence. In 1950, Alan Turing (a brilliant mathematician famous inter alia for his work in breaking German cryptography in WW II) proposed a functional test for deciding whether a computer had intelligence: if in a conversation (of arbitrary length, through printed output) it could not be decided if the other party was a machine or a human, then it would have to be admitted that the machine was intelligent. "If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it probably is a duck", as the proverb says. The Turing test has had a central role in discussions about artificial intelligence, but there is still no general agreement on the definition of intelligence. - The subject of artificial consciousness is even more controversial and will not be discussed here.

The concept of artificial intelligence (AI) generated great enthusiasm in the 1960s, but progress in the field has been much slower than many people expected. In particular, it turned out to be quite difficult to emulate even the intelligence of a baby: "Grab the blue box and put it on the red box. Now, put the yellow ball in the blue box." On the positive side, this led to a new appreciation of the tremendous progress that a baby makes in understanding and interacting with the world in its first year while seeming so passive. What has been successful is the application of machine intelligence (functionally speaking - let us not descend into philosophizing at this point!) in narrow, well-defined domains. Some simple examples are Optical Character Recognition programs, useful for turning scanned documents into ASCII text files, and Speech Recognition software, although both obviously fail the Chinese Room test.

It's mate in 24!

An application close to my heart is computer chess. Here, progress has been phenomenal during the last decade, and we have just reached the crossover point, where the best chess programs are now stronger than the human world champion. This also disproves the ancient myth that machines can never become "smarter" than their creators. Contrary to legend, the strength of computers is not just due to their ability to calculate millions of positions in a fraction of a second, but also to the quality of their evaluation functions, which have been developed with the assistance of human grandmasters. Thus, there is a fair amount of "chess understanding" built into the programs. There is no doubt that chess computers pass the Turing test with flying colors. In principle, they can explain the reasons for selecting a certain move. This can also be seen in how we tend to talk about the machines: "Fritz likes h5 in this position." - The very best computers are now actually specially designed clusters of personal computer processors, with extra memory etc, and loaded with databases for openings and endgames, but even a standard commercial program running on your home PC will be strong enough to beat all but the world elite.

So-called "expert systems" were in vogue in the 1980s. They represented an attempt to encapsulate the knowledge of an expert in a set of rules and guidelines that would be converted into a computer program. I remember hearing about cases such as that of a production specialist at the Campbell Soup company, who was approaching retirement, and whose invaluable knowledge was to be saved in this way. Another case was a regional manager at an airline who was an expert at setting the best day-by-day ticket prices based on his "gut feeling". - I have not heard much about such software since then, although I am sure it is used extensively in such applications as medical diagnosis. Of course, chess programs can be classified as expert systems.

Another AI development in the 1980s was neural networks. As the name implies, it was an attempt to capture some of the characteristics of the nervous system in the parallel processing of input data. Different pathways are given different weight depending on how they influence the output. A feedback mechanism ensures that the system gradually improves. An early application was the recognition of handwriting. - At Swedish Space Corporation we carried out some experiments in the classification of multispectral satellite imagery, as I recall, but we decided (I decided?) that even when the results were promising in an individual 'scene', it would be difficult to generalise the process and have confidence in the results, especially as the inner working of the system was not easy to inspect. Still, the technology is said to be useful in spotting patterns in data (data mining; financial fraud etc.). In fact, it may very well be that it is being used with great success in the financial markets today without, understandably, being widely advertised :-)

The game of Life was an early fad among computer hobbyists. It simulates evolution on a grid, with the following three simple rules:
1. A dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell (birth).
2. A live cell with two or three live neighbors stays alive (survival).
3. In all other cases, a cell dies or remains dead (overcrowding or loneliness).

For a surprising demonstration of how complexity can arise in such a simple system, go here, click on the "Play Life" button (twice?), expand to full screen, then enter the pattern below somewhere in the middle of the grid:

Game of Life seed.

and hit "Go". The pattern becomes stationary (with some 'gliders' heading for infinity) only after 1103 generations.

This brings us to the fascinating subject of self-improving programs. Already in the case of chess programs, it would be tempting to have the programs adjust their evaluation functions automatically, on the basis of results. Unfortunately, they still play rather slowly at their highest level. I suppose a program could play thousands of games "against itself" in a minute, but the quality of the games would then be so low that the evaluation function would just become optimised for play against "patzers". Perhaps yet another decade of Moore's Law in action will change the situation?

Artificial evolution is already a popular area of research. It is relatively easy to simulate "organisms" with given (macroscopic) properties on a computer and let them compete in a simulated environment. Based on their competitive success, they then pass on their "genes", i. e. properties, to the next generation of organisms. Random "mutations" may be introduced. Of course, such simulations are extremely limited in scope, but they may give useful insights in the evolutionary process. And I am sure that they are great fun!

Artificial evolution of intelligence, or more modestly, certain aspects of intelligent behavior, is a much more difficult subject. The "brute-force" Darwinian approach of simulating a habitat for competing organisms, whether bacteria, fish or bands of monkeys, does not seem a particularly promising route to evolving artificial intelligence, especially when we consider that it took complex life more than 500 million years to evolve human intelligence, and even then it may have been a fluke, triggered by asteroid impacts, ice ages, etc. It seems plausible that we need to develop a better understanding of biological neural systems in order to guide efforts to create heuristic self-improving programs. In addition, a strong selection mechanism is essential to rapid evolution. For example, a strong case has been made that Darwinian evolution progressed from a simple patch of light-sensitive cells to an eye equivalent to a human eye in less than a million years! It seems to me that it would be difficult to find a suitable measure of general machine intelligence, as opposed to specialized intelligence. We all act according to how we are evaluated, and this is no doubt true for the evolution of general intelligence as well.

Considerations such as these make me skeptical to claims that Moore's Law per se will lead to rapid progress toward the creation of general machine intelligence at the human level. According to this theory, computers will design more powerful computers faster and faster until we reach a point - 'a technological singularity' - just a few decades away, when computers will have become vastly more intelligent than humans in every sense of the word. - This recalls a verse from Aniara, written in 1956 by Nobel Prize laureate Harry Martinson:

The inventor was himself completely dumbstruck
the day he found that one half of the Mima
he'd invented lay beyond analysis.
That the Mima had invented half herself.

Kurzweil and Clinton.

National Medal of Science laureate Ray Kurzweil

Recently, I discovered an interesting dialog from 2002 in an unlikely place - a betting web site! - between well-known inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil and one of the pioneers in AI research, Stanford professor John McCarthy. McCarthy has become disillusioned with progress in the development of general machine intelligence. Since the 1970s, what has been lacking, in his opinion, is not computing power but bright ideas. Kurzweil, on the other hand, is a great optimist and expects machines to surpass humans in general intelligence in just a few decades. He believes that we are just on the verge of a much better understanding of how the human brain works, and that such knowledge will speed AI research.
John McCarthy.
AI pioneer John McCarthy

Kurzweil also clarifies a question I have been asking myself: How much computer capacity is needed to emulate the human brain (disregarding the "software" or "wetware" issue)? According to him, the human brain contains about 1011 neurons (I have seen the number 1012 elsewhere), and there are 1000 connections per neuron (and I have seen the number 10,000 elsewhere). He then goes on to postulate 200 digitally controlled analog "transactions" per connection per second, and comes up with the number 20*1015 operations per second, which he claims should be achieved by conventional silicon circuits prior to 2020, thanks to Moore's Law.

It appears that a project to simulate a fundamental neurological unit - a neurocortical column - is already underway. The processing speed is given as 23*1012 operations per second. A neurocortical column is said to comprise just some 60,000 neurons, so it would appear that there is a discrepancy in comparison with Kurzweil's numbers. Still, Professor Alan Dix at Lancaster University, who has calculated the number of aggregated PCs needed to emulate the human brain, writes: Philosophers of mind and identity have long debated whether our sense of mind, personhood or consciousness are intrinsic to our biological nature or whether a computer system emulating the brain would have the same sense of consciousness as an emergent property of its complexity ... we are nearing the point when this may become an empirically testable issue!

Leonardo da Vinci drawing.
The measure of all things.

So, it seems that the hardware needed to emulate a human brain might become available sooner than most people would think. To actually represent the complexity of the brain on a computer is, of course, a different story. The two main approaches - to "reverse engineer" the brain or to spawn intelligence from a primitive level through "artificial evolution" - are doomed to fail if applied in isolation, in my humble opinion. The key has got to be an integrated approach, where biology is allowed to guide program architecture. After all, the "technical specification" of the generic brain does not require anything remotely approaching the numbers you might need to specify an individual brain. It is all there in the genetic code. The genetic blueprint of the human species requires less storage space than the latest version of Microsoft's operating system, and the instructions pertaining to the brain make up just a fraction of that. Even more remarkable: the genetic code includes all the code needed to allow (and encourage!) two individuals to create more brains! So not even Nature produces intelligent human beings directly; it is a two-step process where architecture is delivered first, and then content is added over days, months and years in a self-improving process. "Neurons that fire together, wire together."

One aspect of Moore's Law that is often overlooked, is that today's "super computer" should in time become affordable to each individual scientist. Moreover, tomorrow's most advanced computational facilities will become ever more accessible from a distance through the Internet in its successive incarnations (GRID technology etc.) The net result has got to be vastly improved opportunities for experimentation with different models and theories of human and machine intelligence. - In fact, if I were 20, that is probably the field I would enter. :-)

One of the pleasures of speculating about technological progress is to make unforeseen discoveries while surfing the Web. Last night, I hit upon a 2006 conference on "The future of cognitive computing" sponsored by IBM, with several hours of video recordings of the presentations and panel discussions by many of the luminaries in the field. The program, with links to video and presentation slides, is here. - There are many more free science and video lectures online at this Latvian blogger's site. A treasure trove!)

  Last edited or checked May 13, 2020. Broken links fixed, deleted or replaced February 23, 2024.

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