Foresight Update 7

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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AI and Scaling: One Argument Three Ways

by Jeffrey Soreff

If one regards a full, Turing-test-passing artificial intelligence (AI) as essentially allowing a one-for-one substitution of computer power for human employees, I believe that one underestimates the effectiveness that such a development will have. At least three arguments suggest this:

The argument from co-workers:

In many projects, the ideal procedure would be to have the chief designer do the top level work, then "xerox" copies of that person to perform more detailed work, then "xerox" more copies to do yet more detailed work, and so on until project completion. In any human enterprise, the time and effort required to communicate subtasks to those who execute them is a large cost. Consider how this might work in an organization with a series of design projects to complete and a pool of AI-capable computers. The "xeroxing" of the designers can occur merely by loading the memory of one currently unused computer from the memory of the one containing the designer. As long as there is a spare machine being freed up by one terminating project somewhere, one can use it to duplicate exactly those skills that the organization curently needs most, rather those that are available through hiring and training. One need only assume that machines continue to be built in such a way that their internal state can be dumped and reloaded.

The argument from subroutines:

Many programs, including AI ones, have economies of scale not found in human organizations. No organizational tricks seem to let one aggregate the short term memory of the participants in a meeting so that the group can keep track of a more complex agenda than any individual can. The reverse effect seems more typical. With computers there are well-known techniques (albeit with some overhead) for allowing a set of communicating machines to simulate a single, more powerful one; many AI processes (solution space search, application of large numbers of heuristics, search for "fuzzy" matches of templates, signal processing in computer perception, simulation, etc.) can benefit from the increased power. In general the problems that can be solved scale up more slowly than linearly with the processing power, but human organizations often do not solve the equivalent problems at all, typically doing a less thorough optimization or entirely ignoring some class of problems.

The argument from raw bandwidth:

There can be considerable dispute on the true bandwidth of information going into a human. The apparent raw input capacity of the human visual system looks very large, on the order of megabits per second. Obviously this is severely filtered at later stages of processing, but it is difficult to nail the real numbers down. What is not subject to the same dispute, however, is the tiny rate at which humans can emit information. Given the physical limits on the rates of speech and muscle movement--both in speed and accuracy--no speaker, typist, or graphic artist can emit more than 100 bits per second or so. Even today's fiber optic links can easily exceed this by over six orders of magnitude. AIs with hardware links will be more like connected lobes of the brain than like humans in an organization.

The power of an AI installation will grow more rapidly with size
than does a human organization

As a consequence of this close coupling, the power of an AI installation will grow much more rapidly with size than does the power of an organization with an equivalent number of humans. If you have one piece of hardware which acts as the equivalent of one engineer, you have the economic equivalent of one engineer. If you have ten such pieces of hardware, you have much more than the equivalent of ten engineers. For similar reasons, advances in the performance of computing hardware are also of more consequence than one would expect from a one-for-one substitution. This tends to speed up the effects of achieving full AI beyond the usual extrapolations.

Jeffrey Soreff works for IBM and has a background in physics. In his spare time he is calculating the dynamic friction of two atomically smooth surfaces sliding past one another, an important parameter of a class of nanomechanisms termed "van der Waals bearings" by Drexler.

Foresight Update 7 - Table of Contents


Conference Thanks

by K. Eric Drexler, Chairman

Many people worked hard to make the First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology a success beyond our expectations. Our cosponsor, Global Business Network, made a big difference: Stewart Brand (both a GBN principal and Foresight Advisor) convinced us to have the meeting and encouraged GBN to help; Peter Schwartz (President of GBN) approved GBN's participation and chaired a conference session; and most of all Danica Remy, whose organizational talent ensured that the meeting went smoothly despite unexpected problems--such as a major earthquake not long before the event.

Other help of a sponsorship nature came from Prof. Nils Nilsson, Chairman of the Dept. of Computer Science, which hosted the meeting, thus giving us access to Stanford facilities (i.e. those Stanford facilities still available after the earthquake). Mark Pearson, head of Molecular Biology at Du Pont, helped with a generous grant. Ed Niehaus of Niehaus Public Relations donated a great deal of time and office help to ensure the press's needs were met. Peter Toldger of Tam Systems donated financial assistance in renting a fax machine, without which no international conference can be held.

Many companies donated demonstrations of their products: Biosym, Digital Instruments, Silicon Graphics, Stardent, Sun, Tektronix, and Tripos. Being able to see these state-of-the-art products enabled attendees to understand how rapidly progress is being made. Special thanks to Michael Pique of Scripps Clinic, who arranged for these demonstrations. Roy Hovey of Stanford Bookstore did a super job of finding relevant books and making them available to conferees (a list of these is available from Foresight).

Finally, thanks go to those on the Foresight team who worked on the conference. Chris Peterson, Foresight Editor and Board member, worked with Danica Remy to make the meeting happen, especially on registration and general coordination. Ralph Merkle recruited speakers and sponsors. Russ Mills and Dave Kilbridge produced conference materials. Jim Lewis is editing the conference proceedings. Others who volunteered either before or at the meeting include Mike Butler, Kurt Bohan, Stan Hutchings, Dave Lindbergh, Nat Stitt, and Dave Wilson.

Based on this success, we plan to hold similar events and to sponsor other, larger events to enable participation by more Foresight supporters.

Foresight Update 7 - Table of Contents


Interdisciplinary Center

by Christine Peterson

It has increasingly become clear that progress on major new technologies such as nanotechnology depends on interdisciplinary efforts. In this area, the U.S. is weak relative to Japan, where an intense focus on new products tends to topple disciplinary walls. We are often asked to name universities or other institutions where work is being done toward nanotechnology; this is the first in a planned series looking at relevant interdisciplinary groups.

Center for Biopolymers at Interfaces

Formed in 1986, CBI is a joint university-industry cooperative research center with a focus on medical applications of biopolymers. This product-orientation ranges from artificial organs to "targeted drugs" and protein-based sensors. Nineteen faculty members drawn from the University of Utah's Colleges of Engineering, Science, and Pharmacy and its School of Medicine pursue studies on a broad range of biopolymers such as proteins and DNA, using techniques including molecular graphics, scanning tunneling microscopy, and atomic force microscopy.

Utah's product focus has paid off well in the past: it is surpassed only by Caltech and MIT in the number of spinoff companies it has produced. The University shows its commitment to the Center by exempting its industrial membership revenues from the University's overhead charges. (I don't know what percentage Utah normally charges, but a 50% burden is not uncommon in universities.)

In Japan, an intense focus on new products tends to topple
disciplinary walls

CBI's industrial members can both influence and directly benefit from the Center's research: they vote on which projects should be pursued, have right of first refusal in licensing inventions, and can sponsor fellowships to obtain custom research results. Industrial members pay $15,000 per year and currently include Du Pont, Eli Lilly, Kodak, Johnson and Johnson, Biosym, and Silicon Graphics.

CBI may not be the perfect place to pursue nanotechnology work, due to its focus on biopolymers only, but its interdisciplinary breadth is an improvement over a standard academic department, and the industrial participation ensures that work there has practical results. Students, researchers, and companies interested in participating can contact the Center at the University of Utah's Department of Bioengineering, (801) 581-3867.

Thanks to Foresight member Joseph Andrade, Chairman of the Department of Bioengineering and Co-director of CBI, for sending us information about the Center. Information on other interdisciplinary efforts is welcome.

Foresight Update 7 - Table of Contents


MIT Nanotechnology Symposium

This fourth symposium on nanotechnology to be held at MIT, entitled "Nanotechnology: Molecular Engineering and its Implications," will be sponsored by the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group. Plans are not yet final, so contact the NSG or the Foresight office in early January for the correct schedule. The location will be MIT Room 66-110, in Building 66 (the Chemical Engineering building) on Ames St. Confirmed speakers and topics to date:

[Webmaster's note: See Update 8 for a report on this symposium.]

In an earlier event at MIT, on November 21 the NSG screened the nanotechnology documentary "Little by Little" made by InCA for the British television series Equinox, similar to the US Nova. The show features Nobel winning chemist Jean-Marie Lehn, Eric Drexler, John Foster of IBM Almaden, and others working on the path to nanotechnology. It is to be shown in the US on the Discovery channel; we will announce the date if we are notified in time.

Foresight Update 7 - Table of Contents


Future Calendar

Foresight members with a taste for space development and science fiction may enjoy the "Calendar for the Year 2001" (also good for 1990). Twelve speculative scenarios are included for various years through 2103, some with nanotechnology. For more information or to order call LaGrange Publishing at (708) 482-4321.

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From Foresight Update 7, originally published 15 December 1989.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 7 to html for this web page.