In light of all that, Rattner's comments, far from being radical, actually seem pretty conservative. It almost seems as if the safer bet is to put your money on the advent of thinking machines
Sure, there are some technical problems in the way. For example, the human brain neurons are linked all over the place their fellow neurons, while silicon transistors are much more linear. But that's hardware/software solution that seems pretty solvable.
And, of course, there's always the nagging concern that somewhere out there Moore's Law is simply going to crash into a heretofore hidden law of physics, an insurmountable technical barrier, and will be stopped in its tracks. But, I've been around Silicon Valley as long as Moore's Law has been in existence – and I've seen one after another of those physical roadblocks predicted, reached and punched through.
Every day, though you don't read it in the general press, scientists at Intel, HP, IBM or some university comes up with a new way to make an electronic switch – organic, quantum, out of just a couple atoms, etc. – that suggests we are already working on the solutions to those problems we haven't yet found.
My gut tells me that, somehow, human ingenuity will make sure that Moore's Law will outlive most of the people reading this column – unless, of course, in the meantime we do reach Singularly, port our brains onto computers, and become immortal.
So, should we then assume that we are on the brink of the age of truly thinking, even conscious, machines? Well, not so fast.
Even as all of these technological advances are taking place, I can't help sensing that something else is going on out there in the world of science and tech as well. It is a growing feeling that perhaps a number of our smug certainties are now panning out the way they were supposed to.
Take exobiology. Every clever school kid over the last thirty years has heard about the Drake Equation (devised by scientist Frank Drake around the same time as Gordon Moore proposed his Law).
This equation suggests that if take the number of stars in the Milky Way and then start dividing it down by various liklihoods – if it has planets, if those planets are the right size and distance from the sun, if they have the right chemistry, etc. – you will eventually come up with a number …a very big number, it seems … of the number of planets in our galaxy that have intelligent life.
So convincing is this equation that it has sparked a massive search (SETI being the most famous example) for our intelligent counterparts out there ever since. And yet …nothing. Of course, you can make a lot of convincing arguments about why we haven't found anyone out there. And yet …nothing.
Needless to say, that could all change tomorrow if one of our big radio telescope were to pick up, say, the Alpha Centauri equivalent of the "Jack Benny Show." But for now you can help but sense a growing unease among researchers that just maybe the Drake equation is wrong, that there is some missing X factor we haven't considered that throws the whole model out the window.
Lately, despite all of the predictions about the Singularity and comments like Rattner's, I'm getting a similar vibe from the computing world – a frustration that, despite the amazing power of the latest generation of processors and computers, they are no more awake and aware than an HP-35 calculator of 1977.