10 June 2011

A milestone in computing

A human brain contains about 100 trillion synaptic connections, each of which is capable of firing and returning to its ground state in 1/200 of a second. Thus the upper limit of the human brain's data-processing capacity is roughly 20,000 trillion (equivalent of) "floating-point operations" per second, or 20 "petaflops". It obviously needs a lot of capacity since it is running some very sophisticated "programs", such as human consciousness.

Computers have been rapidly growing in power but still lag behind this; for example, the world's most powerful computer now, the Tianhe-yihao in China, has a maximum capacity of 2.5 petaflops, still considerably less than a human brain.

Cray in Seattle has recently announced the imminent arrival of a new system, the Cray XK6, far more powerful than the Chinese computer -- it will be capable of up to 50 petaflops, comfortably more than the human brain (even allowing for the uncertainty of the figures for the latter).

That doesn't mean it will develop a conscious mind like a human, since computers and brains are organized differently. But it does mean that, for the first time since the Earth was formed, the most powerful data-processing system in existence will be something other than an organic brain.

5 Comments:

Blogger Robert the Skeptic said...

Did you watch any of the "Jeopardy" show episodes when they had the IBM "Watson" computer compete with the two all-time top Jeopardy contestants? That was an interesting application for artificial intelligence.

10 June, 2011 09:32  
Blogger godlizard (aka dotlizard) said...

@RtS, and that AI application, with considerably less capacity than a human brain to work with, proceeded to wipe the floor with the smartest Jeopardy contestants in the game's history.

I just wonder, as we continue to develop algorithms capable of problem-solving by accessing large amounts of data and applying logical filtering to sift through them for the right answer, and run them on increasingly powerful machines, at what point do we start to fear the potential of endowing machines with that kind of power? Or do we embrace it, as Ken Jennings so aptly put it, "I for one welcome our new computer overlords."

10 June, 2011 13:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RtS: I don't watch TV, but I heard about it. The list of mental activities in which computers can out-perform humans is steadily growing.

GL: Hence my interest in mind-machine integration. Within decades, machine intelligence will not only surpass, but vastly surpass, organic intelligence. We must make sure that that superior intelligence becomes part of our own, rather than developing into a rival "species".

10 June, 2011 18:50  
Blogger Ahab said...

I think the key here is self-awareness. No matter how powerful a computer might be, it lacks sentience, meaning that it can never make decisions or exercise free will the way a human can. A powerful computer with self-awareness, on the other hand, is terrifying to contemplate.

How far away are humans from unlocking the mechanisms behind self-awareness?

11 June, 2011 15:09  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ahab: How far away are humans from unlocking the mechanisms behind self-awareness?

Probably between ten and twenty years. Understanding of the brain is advancing rapidly, and once we have powerful enough computers to master the data, we'll be able to start deciphering the details of how it does what it does -- including such baffling phenomena as self-awareness and free will.

That's not to say that duplicating those phenomena in machines from scratch will be easy, or even possible. A more likely scenario is using computers to extend the power of the human mind -- see my comment above yours.

11 June, 2011 15:52  

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