Ever since the dawn of computers people have wondered just how smart they could get on their own, handing science fiction writers a rich new territory to mine. Given the power of today's computers, it's sensible to continue pondering the question.
No longer confined only to science fiction, we're starting to see real-world experiments that prove computers can indeed derive conclusions, if they're given enough data and enough time to crunch upon it. At Cornell University, a computer was able to derive the basic laws of physics after observing the motions of a pendulum. While it was certainly a trial-and-error process, it nonetheless took the computer approximately one day to arrive at the same conclusions that took the greatest minds in human history thousands of years worth of accumulated wisdom to figure out.
Deriving Isaac Newton between two sunrises, without needing to consult the work of the man himself, is quite a feat, even for a computer. It points up the real possibility, somewhere down the line, of a kind of superhuman computing intelligence. Of course, superhuman intelligence, in our world, only could come from computers. In his article "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era," former university math professor Vernor Vinge predicts that we're just around the corner from the development of a superhuman intelligence, whether one purposely made or one unintentionally created out of advances in computing technology. Vinge suggests four ways in which this could happen:
- Advances in artificial intelligence could eventually make machines that can really think for themselves.
- Computer networks could develop self-awareness.
- Humans could develop into a new "species," through the use of human/computer interfaces.
- Humans figure out how to engineer human intelligence.
If Vinge's prediction of a technological singularity one day comes to pass, it will without doubt send mankind off in a fascinating, and perhaps a bit scary, direction.
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