Gobbling Up the Earth
Posted by hyperpat on December 19, 2006
Where are we heading? Will, in the very near future, computers totally take over the world? This is a concept championed by Vernor Vinge, what he terms the Singularity. A time when computing power not only becomes ubiquitous, but rapidly reaches the point where all the physical resources of the solar system are converted into still more computing chips. What he is counting on is that the exponential curve of improvement in computing power that has so far ruled the day (Moore’s Law is still holding) will not flatten out, but will keep right on going. Now he may be right, but I have strong doubts. Every other exponential trend that we have seen both in nature and human societies eventually runs into an insurmountable obstacle. Runaway population growth eventually leads to total depletion of the resources that spawned the growth in the first place, as any ecology student will tell you. ‘Boom’ economies eventually outstrip their base population and monetary support, often leading to ‘crashes’ (remember the dot-com boom? Or the panic of 1893?). Pyramid schemes also lead to this same scenario – which is why most governments look very coldly at them, as when they collapse a lot of people get hurt.
The blocking point for the computer explosion will probably come when the circuits can no longer operate at the atomic level, but instead will have to try to work at the quantum level. Making stuff work in the macro world while depending on the effects at that level will probably take a major breakthrough in scientific knowledge, and when that will occur (if it does) can’t be predicted. A secondary blocking point is the state of software improvement. All the computing horsepower imaginable doesn’t help if you can’t tell it what to do, and software improvements, at least at this point, are dependent on a real, live human doing some serious thinking and (very) slow coding – a condition that won’t change until a true AI is created. Which will put a pretty sharp limit on how fast computers can take over everything. These blocking points will probably be reached sometime in the next decade or two, if current trends do continue on their current curves, and the state of world will be well short of the complete computer domination foreseen.
This is not to say that there won’t be some large changes in the world due to all this computing power floating around. Twenty years from now, a person without access to the computing net will be lost, unable to function in a society driven by constant input of information from everywhere about everything. I foresee that cars will be driven by computers, and that ‘manual mode’ will be reserved for driving out in the ‘sticks’, where technology hasn’t (quite) reached. Not that you’ll be doing that much driving anyway, as most jobs will now be capable of being done at home. Manufacturing jobs for humans will just about disappear, taken over by ever more sophisticated robots. For that matter, the general-purpose household robot (as foreseen in Heinlein’s Door into Summer, written in 1956!) should make its appearance, freeing the homemaker to do other things than clean house all day (such as work on the computer!).
Now if, in the next twenty years, a more direct interface to computers can be achieved (such as a direct neural hookup), the changes may even be more startling, as human-computer entities will have strong advantages over mere un-enhanced humans, and virtual realities may become the preferred place of abode.
Certainly a different world from today, but the Earth won’t be getting disassembled to make more computing chips in any future I foresee.