I Married a Computer

Moore’s Law on Integrated Circuits was first formulated by Gordon Moore, former head of Intel, in the mid-Sixties. I have seen different versions of it, but the basic idea is that better chip technology will produce an exponential increase in computer power. Every two years you get twice as much computer power and capacity for the same amount of money. Anybody who, like me, buys a new computer every few years observes Moore’s Law in action. Each time I buy a new computer I pay about the same amount of money as, and sometimes even less than, I paid for the last computer, but I get a much more powerful machine. And according to Ray Kurzweil, a distinguished software engineer and inventor, “There have been about thirty-two doublings of speed and capacity since the first operating computers were built in the 1940s.”

Furthermore, we can continue to project this curve of increased computing power into the indefinite future. Moore’s Law itself is about chip technology, and Kurzweil tells us that this technology will reach an upper limit when we reach the theoretical possibilities of the physics of silicon in about the year 2020. But Kurzweil tells us not to worry, because we know from evolution that some other technology will take over and “pick up where Moore’s Law will have left off, without missing a beat.” We know this, Kurzweil assures us, from “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” which is a basic attribute of the universe; indeed it is a sublaw of “The Law of Time and Chaos.” These last two laws are Kurzweil’s inventions.

It is fair to say that his new book is an extended reflection on the implications of Moore’s Law, and is a continuation of a line of argument begun in his earlier book, The Age of Intelligent Machines. He begins by placing the evolution of computer technology within the context of evolution in general, and he places that within the history of the universe. The book ends with a brief history of the universe, which he calls “Time Line,” beginning at the Big Bang and going to 2099.

So what, according to Kurzweil and Moore’s Law, does the future hold for us? We will very soon have computers that vastly exceed us in intelligence. Why does increase in computing power automatically generate increased intelligence? Because intelligence, according to Kurzweil, is a matter of getting the right formulas in the right combination and then applying them over and over, in his sense “recursively,” until the problem is solved. With sheer computational brute force, he thinks, you can solve any solvable problem. It is true, Kurzweil admits, that computational brute force is not enough by itself, and ultimately you will need “the complete set of unifying formulas that underlie intelligence.” But we are well on the way to discovering these formulas: “Evolution determined an answer to this problem in a few billion years. We’ve made a good start …

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Letters

I Married a Computer’: An Exchange May 20, 1999