Monday, February 11, 2013

Age of the Brain Tools

In the near future our brain tools (computing machines) will be smarter than we are. These brain tools may not be able to have free will or think like we do. The brain tools capability to do mental type tasks will be huge. Computers, or something like them, will be embedded into everything we use. They will be smart, highly connected and everywhere. Of course, this assumes that we as a species survive into that future. In this post we will examine the basic directions of our calculating machines and try to see what some of the outcomes may be.

Moore's Law
Computing Power Is Increasing

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore described a trend in brain tool power that has held true for over 40 years. He described a trend that components were getting smaller each year. (Click on the images to expand them.)

More Computers than People

The number of computer processors units (CPU) being sold is also increasing. Even a very conservative estimate based on the growth rate of CPUs sold over the last 20 years suggests there will be more computing machines than people soon. If this trend continues, we will be awash in brain tool power with dozens or even hundreds of machines per person.

Bandwidth Usage Exploding

First with modems, later with cable, and more recently with wireless, the global demand for bandwidth connecting these brain tools is growing exponentially. Even if this growth were to begin to level off, our brain tools will have an enormous ability to communicate by the middle of the century.

Multiplying the Human Brain

One abstract measure of the ability of our brain tools to calculate is in millions of instructions per second (MIPS). MIPS are a method of comparing brain power. Current brain tools have about the same capability of processing as a lizard.

If Gordon Moore's trend continues at the same pace, in my life time a single brain tool will have the ability to process at the level of a human brain. 

What Will We Become?

Even if these estimates are exaggerated, the world of 2100 will be radically different than today. If we think in terms the age of the earth, thousands or even millions of years, this is a sudden and drastic change in information, computation, and communication power on Earth.

Imagine having a machine that has the ability to process as much information as every human mind alive today does today.  All at once, in one little box.  In your home. In your car.  At your job.  On the street lamp.  In the police car.  In the criminals hand.  In the tank.  Everywhere.

DARPA pack mule with a lizard brain.
The potential power of these processing machines overwhelms my ability to conceive what will be possible. Even if the tool is limited to just pushing information around, its power will be awesome. As this kind of power becomes wide spread, it will be a boon and a threat to us humans.

Our grandchildren will live in a reality so different from my grandparents that it will be unrecognizable. The ability to make smarter decisions will certainly be present. The amount of information available to us to do what we do will be much greater. As the machines become more capable, they will deliver the information we need more readily. Even if artificial intelligence is never obtained, the shear power of the calculators and communicators that these brain tools become will make us transcend what we humans are today.

The connected-ness of the world is increasing so rapidly as if to make the old barriers of time and place which kept us apart almost irrelevant. This blog alone is read in 20+ countries by many people I would have had no contact with 50 years ago. Our ability to speak with each other and understand each other in real time across the planet will make the Tower of Babel seem like a the dreams of a child.

Decisions At Hand

I do not know if it will be a better world, but hope it to be so. We are at a key point in human history where we have the opportunity to solve many intractable problems by applying our new brain tools. We are also at great peril of losing our freedom to the domination of information. We could rely on these machines as a crutch and even lose our ability to think for ourselves.

"I'm afraid I can't let you do that, Dave."

As we move forward into this new age of the mechanical minds, we need to take care as to how we use them. If we just 'let it happen' the world could turn into a dystopia or utopia. The decisions we make in the next decade or so will essentially change what it means to live a human life all across the planet.

While we debate issues about this year's economy, gun control, gay marriage, and immigration; the world of the brain tool is fundamentally transforming us. We hardly discuss the ramifications of these brain tools to our freedom, power, social borders, or economy. We are just letting it happen.

We need to take a step back and consider the longer term issue of what kind of world do we want to build with these tools. We need to give debates about our brain tools a higher priority in our political sphere. What kind of world do you want these brain tools to usher in?

  • What limits to information should we have?
  • What information should be free?
  • Are access to brain tools a  human right?
  • Should nation state boundaries keep information limited?
  • Should brain tools fight our wars?
  • What information can others have about us? Government?  Business? Church?
  • Should we automate our government with brain tools?
  • Should anyone have private control over large data sets?
  • What information should be kept private?
  • How do we protect our children from information they are not ready for?
  • How do we keep dangerous ideas from bad people?

I hope you will consider questions like these. I hope you will vote with these issues in mind. I hope our media will help us focus finding answers to them. If we do not, we are rolling the dice with the whole world's future.


  1. there are no "we", the common people don't have any access to the high level of how, or what is the right information the people in power release to us. I don't see any great change in the life's style, as today, of course my grand-grandchildren are going to have a different things to use in their life, but not different in issues like work, family, friends, or related to religions. The information, only adjust the way you think, the information is not be able to make a decision by itself, you, and only you are the one that always are gonna have the power to decide what is better for you, indeed the information wont be able to change the way hens give you eggs for breakfast, or give a options to cows to develop fresh milk to you. Information is a tool, not a partner to decide for you.

  2. Please don't think I believe any kind of "Golden Age" is about to begin because when it comes to human nature because I nearly always assume the worst. But I am tending to look at this information age with people all over the world able to coomunicate in real time as the beginnings of the much sought after "Global Consciousness."

    I see a slim, but real hope, that at some point in the medium-term future humans may finally transend the limiting factors of tribal, national, religious, and ethnic fighting that has held us back. Like I said this is a slim hope but as someone who likes to think outside the box its the best future I can see.

    I know many people who resign human exitence to near constant fighting, that is not something I want to wish on my kids. I have to hold on to that hope we can rise above our basic savage nature.

  3. "If this trend continues, we will be awash in brain tool power with dozens or even hundreds of machines per person." My wife owns at least five processors, I have around a dozen. Granted, many of these devices are no longer used, such as outdated cell phones, PDAs, and laptops. But chips have become a commodity. It just remains for the scale to tip again to find them "In your home. In your car. At your job. On the street lamp. In the police car. In the criminals hand. In the tank. Everywhere."