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According to Kevin Drum, in a fascinating article for Mother Jones, artificial intelligence began in 1956. Or, rather, that’s when the term was first used. Ever since, enthusiasts have promised us that artificially intelligent machines are just around the corner. But thus far, they’ve yet to appear.

Drum has an explanation for the no-show:

  • “It's true that we've made far slower progress toward real artificial intelligence than we once thought, but that's for a very simple and very human reason: Early computer scientists grossly underestimated the power of the human brain and the difficulty of emulating one.”

However, thanks to the continuous improvement in microchip technology, we’re now within striking distance of making computers that can match the processing power of the human brain:

  • “…a cornerstone of computer history called Moore's Law… famously estimates that computing power doubles approximately every 18 months.”

In other words, computers are getting more powerful at an exponential rate. Now, the thing about exponential increases is they have a habit of creeping up and surprising us. To illustrate the point, Drum devises the following thought experiment :

  • “Suppose it's 1940 and Lake Michigan has (somehow) been emptied. Your job is to fill it up using the following rule: To start off, you can add one fluid ounce of water to the lake bed. Eighteen months later, you can add two. In another 18 months, you can add four ounces. And so on. Obviously this is going to take a while.”

In fact, after the first half-century, the results would be barely detectable. By 2010, you’d begin to see some progress –  a “few inches of water here and there” – enough for a paddle. However, filling the lake still seems like it will take forever:

  • “It's now been 70 years and you still don't have enough water to float a goldfish. Surely this task is futile?
  • “But wait. Just as you're about to give up, things suddenly change. By 2020, you have about 40 feet of water. And by 2025 you're done. After 70 years you had nothing. Fifteen years later, the job was finished.”

Drum starts his thought experiment in 1940 because that’s when the first programmable computer was invented. And he chose Lake Michigan, because its volume in fluid ounces is the same as the processing power of the human brain in calculations per second.

Thus for every calculation per second that our computers could perform in 1940, they will, by 2025, (assuming Moore’s Law keeps going for another decade or so) be able perform 10,000,000,000,000,000 calculations per second.

That doesn’t mean that the robot rebellion is only twelve years away. As Drum admits, “raw speed isn’t everything”. There is, for instance, the small matter of consciousness – of which we’ve yet to see a glimmer in our mechanical pals.

What the exponential increase of computing power does mean, however, is that things that computers can already do to a limited extent – like operate driverless cars, understand human speech and interpret CCTV footage – they’ll soon be able to do to an unlimited extent.

This will have major consequences for public policy, but few politicians show much understanding of what’s in store. Right now we’re still at the paddling pool stage of the new era, but our basic assumptions over a wide range of policy areas – from transport to employment to civil liberties – are about to be swept away.

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