Close encounters with the future

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Published in Telecom Asia, Oct 22,2013 – Close encounters with the future

Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons.—POPULAR MECHANICS, 1949

Introduction: Ray Kurzweil in his non-fiction book “The Singularity is near – When humans transcend biology” predicts that by the year 2045 the Singularity will allow humans to transcend our ‘frail biological bodies’ and our ‘petty, derivative and circumscribed brains’ . Specifically the book claims “that there will be a ‘technological singularity’ in the year 2045, a point where progress is so rapid it outstrips humans’ ability to comprehend it. Irreversibly transformed, people will augment their minds and bodies with genetic alterations, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence”.

He believes that advances in robotics, AI, nanotechnology and genetics will grow exponentially and will lead us into a future realm of intelligence that will far exceed biological intelligence. This explosion will be the result of ‘accelerating returns from significant advances in technology”

Futurescape

Here is a look at some of the more fascinating key trends in technology. You can decide whether we are heading to Singularity or not.

Autonomous Vehicles (AVs): Self driving cars have moved from the realm of science fiction to reality in recent times. Google’s autonomous cars has already driven around half a million miles. All the major car manufacturers of the world from BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan, Ford or GM are all coming with their own versions of autonomous cars. These cars are equipped with Adaptive Cruise Control and Collision Avoidance technologies and are already taking away control drivers. Moreover AVs alert drivers, if their attention strays from the road ahead, for too long. Autonomous Vehicles work with the help of Vehicular Communication Technology.

Vehicular Communication along with the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) achieves safety by enabling communication between vehicles, people and roads. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications are the fundamental building block of autonomous, self-driving cars. It enables the exchange of data between vehicles and allows automobiles to “see” and adapt to driving obstacles more completely, preventing accidents besides resulting in more efficient driving.

Smart Assistants: From the defeat of Kasparov in chess by IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, and then subsequently to  the resounding victory of IBM’s Watson in Jeopardy, capable of understanding natural human language, to the more prevalent Apple’s intelligent assistant Siri, Artificially Intelligent  (AI) systems have come a long way. The newest trend in this area is Smart Assistants.  Robots are currently analyzing documents, filling prescriptions, and handling other tasks that were once exclusively done by humans. Smart Assistants are already taking over the tasks of BPO operators, paralegals, store clerks, baby sitters. Robots, in many ways, are not only smarter than humans, but also do not get easily bored,

Intelligent homes and intelligent offices. Rapid advances in technology will be closer to the home both literally and figuratively. The future home will have the ability to detect the presence of people, pets, smoke and changes to humidity, moisture, lighting, temperature. Smart devices will monitor the environment and take appropriate steps to save energy, improve safety and enhance security of homes.  Devices will start learning your habits and enhance your comfort and convenience. Everything from thermostats, fire detectors, washing machines, refrigerators will be equipped electronics that will be capable of adapting to the environment. All gadgets at home will be accessible through laptops, tablets or smartphones from anywhere. We will be able to monitor all aspects of our intelligent home from anywhere.

Smart devices will also make major inroads into offices leading to the birth of intelligent offices where the lighting, heating, cooling will be based on the presence of people in the offices. This will result in an enormous savings in energy. The advances in intelligent homes and intelligent offices will be in the greater context of the Smart Grid.

Swarms of drones: Contrary to the use of weaponized drones for unmanned aerial survey of enemy territory we will soon have commercial drones. Drone will start being used for civilian purposes.  The most compelling aspect of drones these days is the fact that they can be easily manufactured in large quantities, are cheap and can perform complex tasks either singly or collectively. Remotely controlled drones can perform hundreds of civilian jobs, including traffic monitoring, aerial surveying, and oil pipeline inspections and monitoring of crop conditions. Drones are also being employed for conservation of wildlife. In the wilderness of Africa, drones are already helping in providing aerial footage of the landscape, tracking poachers and in also herding elephants. However, before drones become a common sight, it is necessary to ensure that appropriate laws are made for maintaining the safety and security of civilians. This is likely to happen in US in 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will come up with rules to safely integrate drones into the American skies.

MOOC (Massive Online Open Course): The concept of MOOC, or the ‘Massive Open Online Course’ from top colleges, though just a few years old, is already taking the world by storm. Coursera, edX and Udacity are the top 3 MOOCs besides many others and offer a variety of courses on technology, philosophy, sociology, computer science etc.  As more courses are available online, the requirements of having a uniform start and end date will diminish gradually. The availability of course lectures at all times and through all devices, namely the laptop, tablet or smartphone, will result in large scale adoption by students of all ages.

Contrary to regimented classes MOOCs now allow students to take classes at their own pace. It is likely that some students will breeze through an entire semester worth of classes in a few weeks. It is also likely that a few students will graduate in 4 years with more than a couple of degrees. MOOCs are a natural development considering that the world is going to be more knowledge driven where there will be the need for experts with a diverse set of in-depth skills. Here is an interesting article in WSJ “What College will be like in 2023

3D Printing: This is another technology that is bound to become ubiquitous in our future. 3D printers will revolutionize manufacturing in ways we could never imagine. A 3-D printer is similar to a hot-glue gun attached to a robotic arm. A 3-D printer creates an object by stacking one layer of material, typically plastic or metal, on top of another.  3D printers have been used for making everything from prosthetic limbs, phone cases, lamps all the way to a NASA funded 3D pizza. Here is a great article in New York Times “Dinner is Printed” It is likely that a 3D printer would be indispensable to our future homes much like the refrigerator and microwave.

Artificial sense organs: A recent news items in Science 2.0 “The Future touch sensitive prosthetic limbs”   discusses the invention of a prosthetic limb that can actually provide the sense of touch by stimulating the regions of the brain that deal with the sense of touch. The researchers identified the neural activity that occurs when grasping or feeling an object and successfully induced these patterns in the brain. Two parallel efforts are underway to understand how the human brain works. They are “The Human Brain Project” which has 130 members of the European Union and Obama’s BRAIN project. Both these projects attempt to ‘to give us a deeper and more meaningful understanding of how the human brain operates”. Possibilities as in the movies ‘Avatar’ or ‘Terminator’ may not be far away.

The Others: Besides the above, technologies like Big Data, Cloud Computing, Semantic Web, Internet of Things and Smart Grid will also be swamp us in the future and much has already been said about it.

Conclusion: The above sets of technologies represent seismic shifts and are bound to explode in our future in a million ways.

Given the advances in bionic limbs, Machine Intelligent AI systems, MOOCs, Autonomous Vehicles are we on target for the Singularity?

I wouldn’t be surprised at all!

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Singularity

Pete Mettle felt drowsy. He had been working for days on his new inference algorithm. Pete had been in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for close to 3 decades and had established himself as the father of “semantics”. He was particularly renowned for his 3 principles of Artificial Intelligence. He had postulated the Principles of Learning as

The Principle of Knowledge Acquisition: This principle laid out the guidelines for knowledge acquisition by an algorithm. It clearly laid out the rules of what was knowledge and what was not. It could clearly delineate between the wheat and chaff from any textbook or research article.

The Principle of Knowledge Assimilation: This law gave the process for organizing the acquired knowledge in facts, rules and underlying principles. Knowledge assimilation involved storing the individual rules, the relation between the rules and provided the basis for drawing conclusions from them

The Principle of Knowledge Application: This principle according to Pete was the most important. It showed how all knowledge acquired and assimilated could be used to draw inferences andconclusions. In fact it also showed how knowledge could be extrapolated to make safe conclusions.

Zengine The above 3 principles of Pete were hailed as a major landmark in AI. Pete started to work on an inference engine known as “Zengine” based on his above 3 principles. Pete was almost finished fine tuning his algorithm. Pete wanted to test his Zengine on the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web had grown into gigantic proportions. A report in May 2025 issue of Wall Street Journal mentioned that the total data that was held in the internet had crossed 400 zettabytes and that the daily data stored on the web was close to 20 terabytes. It was a well known fact that there an enormous amount of information on the web on a wide variety of topics. Wikis, blogs, articles, ideas, social networks and so on there was a lot of information on almost every conceivable topic under the sun.

Pete was given special permission by the governments of the world to run his Zengine on the internet. It was Pete’s theory that it would take the Zengine close to at least a year to process the information on the web and make any reasonable inferences from them. Accompanied by world wide publicity Zengine started its work of trying to assimilate the information on the World Wide Web. The Zengine was programmed to periodically give a status update of its progress to Pete.

A few months passed. Zengine kept giving updates on the number of sites, periodicals, blogs it had condensed into its knowledge database. After about 10 months Pete received a mail. It read “Markets will crash on March 2026. Petrol prices will sky rocket – Zengine. Pete was surprised at the forecast. So he invoked the API to check on what basis the claim had been made. To his surprise and amazement he found that a lot events happening in the world had been used to make that claim which clearly seemed to point in that direction. A couple of months down the line there was another terse statement “Rebellion very likely in Mogadishu in Dec 2027″. – Zengine.The Zengine also came with corollaries to Fermat’s last theorem. It was becoming clear to Pete and everybody that the Zengine was indeed becoming smarter by the day..It became apparent to everybody when Zengine would become more powerful than human beings.

Celestial events: Around this time peculiar events were observed all over the world. There were a lot of celestial events that were happening. Phenomenon like the aurora borealis became common place. On Dec 12, 2026 there was an unusual amount of electrical activity in the sky. Everywhere there were streaks of lightning. By evening time slivers of lightning hit the earth in several parts of the world. In fact if anybody had viewed the earth from outer space then it would have a resembled a “nebula sphere” with lightning streaks racing towards the earth in all directions. This seemed to happen for many days. Simultaneously the Zengine was getting more and more powerful. In fact it had learnt to spawn of multiple processes to get information and return to it.

Time-space discontinuity: People everywhere were petrified of this strange phenomenon. On the one hand there was the fear of the takeover of the web by the Zengine and on the other was this increased celestial activity. Finally on the morning of Jan 2028 there was a powerful crack followed by a sonic boom and everywhere people had a moment of discontinuity. In the briefest of moments there was a natural time-space discontinuity and mankind had progressed to the next stage in evolution.

The unconscious, sub conscious and the conscious all became a single faculty of super consciousness. It has always been known from the time of Plato that man knows everything there is to know. According to Platonic doctrine of Recollection, human beings are born with a soul possessing all knowledge, and learning is just discovering or recollecting what the soul already knows. Similarly according to Hindu philosophy, behind the individual consciousness of the Atman, is the reality known as the Brahman which is universal consciousness attained in a deep state of mysticism through self-inquiry.

However this evolution by some strange quirk of coincidence seemed to coincide with the development of the world’s first truly learning machine. In this super conscious state a learning machine was not something to be feared but something which could be used to benefit mankind. Just like cranes can lift and earthmovers perform tasks that are beyond our physical capacity so also a learning machine was a useful invention that could be used to harness the knowledge from mankind’s storehouse – the World Wide Web.

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