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Your iPhone Is Going to Outsmart You

The Informational Revolution Will Take Us By Surprise

iPhone with text: Let me handle that. SOURCE: It won’t be long before computers will outsmart humans and take over basic problem-solving tasks. But because we don’t understand the exponential growth of computational power, we can’t see it coming.

It is clear that sometime this century, most likely in the next couple decades, computers will have vastly more computational power than human brains. It is probable that computers will then become more intelligent than humans, or at least more intelligent than humans who are unaugmented by computers. These computers will not just be more knowledgeable, drawing on the full content of Wikipedia, or better at chess—they will be smarter in every conceivable way. Computers will know more, be better problem solvers, be more creative, and be funnier and more fun to talk to than “raw” humans. The potential consequences of this change—although recognized by a few technologists such as John von Neumann, Ray Kurzweil, and Bill Joy, and by many futurists and science fiction writers—has yet to steep into the common consciousness.

Already, doing scientific research or engineering without computers is inconceivable. (Would you design a computer chip without a computer, or write a scientific paper without using a word processor, email, and Google?) However, humans currently do the majority of all thinking, with computers mostly “providing support.” This will inevitably change, as computing power allows machines to work more creatively and autonomously.

At some point it will be as hard to think without a computer as it is to build a building without physical tools.

It is hard to conceive of the magnitude of the disruption this will cause. The industrial revolution caused large-scale displacement as human physical labor was replaced or augmented by machine labor. Vast numbers of jobs were destroyed, and only later replaced with new, different, jobs. Agricultural and manufacturing jobs were replaced with white collar and service jobs. The coming informational revolution will be even more dramatic. It will happen far more rapidly than the industrial revolution, and will displace human intellectual labor, rather than human physical labor.

Given the magnitude of the potential disruption of the informational revolution, it is surprising that it has not generated more attention. It will have far more impact than global warming, and will occur far more rapidly. It will affect far more people than terrorism. In part, the lack of attention to the informational revolution is due to the difficulty visualizing exponential growth. With computers doubling in power every one or two years (depending on whose analysis you believe), in 20 years computers will be a thousand to a million times faster than they are now.

As computers increase in raw number-crunching power and software continues to increase in sophistication, we may become more dependent on them for everyday functions. Changes to watch for on the way to this informational revolution:

  • You spend more time talking to computers than to other people.
  • You feel lost without an interface to a computer. (Like having no cell phone or Blackberry, but worse!)
  • It is considered unsafe for a human to drive a car; highways require the use of automated drivers.
  • Mid-level management and laboratory jobs start go the way of secretaries.

A current iPhone, with 16 gigabytes of memory, is superior to a desktop Mac of 10 years ago, and is far faster than a $10 million Cray supercomputer of the 1970s. More importantly, it has access to the web: billions of web pages and a rapidly increasing fraction of scientific publications, all indexed on a million-CPU distributed computer—a machine with a million billion bytes of memory capable of executing a million billion operations per second. A computer like the one Google uses for search is roughly similar to the human brain in speed and capacity, but is not (yet?) close in software sophistication. The question is what a computer can do in two decades when it is thousands of times larger and faster than a human brain.

Of course, raw computing power alone is not enough to make computers smart; they also need much more sophisticated software. In some regards, software has become much more powerful in recent years. In a few hours, a good programmer can write a program that checks the availability of tables at local restaurants, displays the results on map, and then sends the information to your cell phone. Not long ago, such a complex program would have taken years to write. But in other ways, software is still primitive. There are no good generic tools for building models of how people make decisions, and then executing the complex decision-making processes we go through everyday. Such tools will come.

How will we recognize that the informational revolution is upon us? The first manifestation will probably be the widespread use of virtual assistants. To some degree, this is already happening. Secretaries have been largely replaced by word processors and calendaring systems. Travel agents have been replaced by Web systems. In the coming decade, human-computer interfaces will become mostly voice driven, rather than based on typing. (This article was dictated to Dragon systems speech recognition software, but still required major editing.)

Virtual assistants will shift from helping retrieve information (think of Google) to making suggestions and decisions.

Your computer can already suggest to you a book or a restaurant you might like. But with advances in software sophistication and raw computing power, it will suggest more complex ideas like a whole paragraph to put in your letter. It will help manage your calendar, screen candidates and draft e-mails, evaluate ideas, and draft proposals. But the most disruptive advances will happen when computers outpace us at basic problem-solving tasks, eliminating the need to spend time and cognitive effort on what we now consider complex tasks.

In their more advanced forms, computers could apprehend much broader sets of information and its consequences, offering an approach to solving a problem. They could construct a lucrative business deal or design a novel research methodology. At some point it will be as hard to think without a computer as it is to build a building without physical tools.

Given the nature of exponential growth, the speed with which your computer will go from being a dumb device, to being an idiot savant, to being smarter than you will come as a shock. We should start thinking about it now.

Lyle Ungar is an associate professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania.


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