Saturday, January 07, 2006

Pre-Futurism Vs. The Singularity
Intelligent Universe?

This post is going to start out with a rather dry discussion of the history of microprocessors. But go with me on this. I want to show how computing has developed and where it is going.

I can almost guarantee you that what you are going to read here will be one of the most incredible new ideas you have ever been hit with.

It isn't my idea, so I am not bragging. Here we go.

The information in computers is stored in binary code consisting of zeroes and ones. These zeroes and ones are processed through microchips, or microprocessors.

In the old days, the central processing unit of a computer was made from bulky discrete switching devices (and later small-scale integrated circuits) containing the equivalent of only a few transistors. In 1971 Intel developed the first microprocessor, which they called the 4004:

The 4004 was not very powerful -- all it could do was add and subtract, and it could only do that 4 bits at a time. But it was amazing that everything was on one chip. Prior to the 4004, engineers built computers either from collections of chips or from discrete components (transistors wired one at a time). The 4004 powered one of the first portable electronic

In 1974 Intel developed an 8-bit microprocessor called the 8008, able to carry 6,000 transistors, which gave birth to the personal computing revolution.

Now check out these numbers:

In 1979 the 8088 was created with 29,000 transistors.
In 1982, the 80286 was created with 134,000 transistors.
In 1985, the 80386 was created with 275,000 transistors.


until today, when the Pentium Four Prescott carries 125,000,000 transistors.

How do they do this? Well, they put more information on a piece of silicon in smaller and smaller pieces. On the Pentium Four Prescott, the smallest wire on the chip is just .09 microns wide. For comparison, a human hair is 100 microns thick. As the feature size on the chip goes down, the number of transistors rises. The 8008 chip, by comparison, carried wires which were 6 microns thick.

Now, here's the thing. At a certain point you can't keep creating wires in smaller and smaller microns because you will be down to the atomic level. So, what do you do then?

You start turning the atoms themselves into computers:

Researchers at the University of Michigan have produced what is believed to be the first scalable quantum computer chip, which could mean big gains in the worldwide race to develop a quantum computer.

Using the same semiconductor fabrication technology that is used in everyday computer chips, researchers were able to trap a single atom within an integrated semiconductor chip and control it using electrical signals, said Christopher Monroe, U-M physics professor and the principal investigator and co-author of the paper, "Ion Trap in a Semiconductor Chip." The paper appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of Nature Physics.

Quantum computers are promising because they can solve certain problems much faster than any possible conventional computer, owing to the bizarre features of quantum mechanics. For instance, quantum computers can process multiple inputs at the same time in the same device, and quantum circuitry can be wired via the quantum feature of entanglement, dubbed by Einstein as "spooky action-at-a-distance."

One of the most favored candidate quantum computer architectures is the use of individual atoms to store quantum bits ( qubits) of information, where each qubit can hold the number 1 or 0, or even both 1 and 0 simultaneously, Monroe said.

You can see that the speed of such quantum processing will be exponentially greater than the speed of current microprocessors.

But wait, there's more. What happens if you string atoms together into an atomic chain functioning as parelell processors?:

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — The only hint that anything extraordinary is happening inside the brown stucco building at Los Alamos National Laboratory is a small metal sign posted in front:

"Warning! Magnetic Field in Use. Remain on Sidewalk." Come much closer and you risk having the magnetic stripes on your credit cards erased.

The powerful field is emanating from the supercooled superconducting magnets inside a tanklike machine called a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.

The device itself is unremarkable. N.M.R. machines are used in chemistry labs across the world to map the architecture of molecules by sensing how their atoms dance to the beat of electromagnetic waves. Hospitals and clinics use the same technology, called magnetic resonance imaging, or M.R.I., to scan the tissues of the human body.

The machine at Los Alamos has been enlisted on a recent morning for a grander purpose: to carry out an experiment in quantum computing. By using radio waves to manipulate atoms like so many quantum abacus beads, the Los Alamos scientists will coax a molecule called crotonic acid into executing a simple computer program.

Last year they set a record, carrying out a calculation involving seven atoms. This year they are shooting for 10. That may not sound like many.

Each atom can be thought of as a little switch, a register that holds a 1 or a 0, and the latest Pentium chip contains 42 million such devices. But the paradoxical laws of quantum mechanics confer a powerful advantage: a single atom can do two calculations at once. Two atoms can do four, three atoms can do eight.

By the time you reach 10, doubling and doubling and doubling along the way, you have an invisibly tiny computer that can carry out 1,024 (210) calculations at the same time.

If scientists can find ways to leverage this achievement to embrace 20 atoms, they will be able to execute a million simultaneous calculations. Double that again to 40 atoms, and 10 trillion calculations can be done in tandem.

The goal, still but a distant glimmer, is to harness thousands of atoms, resulting in a machine so powerful that it would easily break codes now considered impenetrable and solve other problems that are impossible for even the fastest supercomputer.

"We are at the border of a new territory," said Dr. Raymond Laflamme, one of the leaders of the Los Alamos project. "All the experiments today are a very small step, but they show that there is not a wall."

In other words, less than one hundred atoms would be faster than the largest computer on Earth today.

Ok, that is amazing enough, but there is a further implication to this atomic quantum computing. Think about it.

We're talking about using atoms as computers.

What is the world made up of?

Yes, that's right, atoms.

Obviously, huh?

But, if we can use atoms as microprocessors, then can we use the matter around us as microprocessors, turning the world itself into a gigantic computer?

Ray Kurzweil believes that is going to happen This is from an interview with Mr. Kurzweil from What is Enlightenment? magazine:

WIE: You mentioned earlier that as human beings we naturally seek to expand our horizons, and that in the future we will do so largely through the expansion of our intelligence. Do you see the expansion of human intelligence as an evolutionary end in itself?

RK: Well, it's a good question. It's like asking, "What is the purpose of life?" In my mind, we will ultimately saturate all of the matter and energy in our area of the universe with our intelligence, and I suppose you could say that's an end in itself. All of this dumb matter and energy around us will wake up and become sublimely intelligent. Then it will spread out to the whole universe at the fastest speed information can flow. And one could make an argument that it's not going to take an infinitely long time because there may be other ways to get to other parts of the universe through shortcuts like wormholes, which physics has postulated. Eventually the whole universe will, essentially, wake up.

But isn't it interesting that you never see cosmologists give any role to intelligence in the future destiny of the universe? Rather, they talk a lot about whether or not the universe will contract back to a big crunch or expand indefinitely, as if these sorts of mindless forces of physics are just going to endlessly grind on like a big dumb machine.

Nowhere do they consider, "Now, wait a second, intelligence could spread through the universe and actually make an intelligent decision about what the destiny of the universe is, and even though the gravitational force and other forces might cause the universe to spin apart, the intelligent civilization infusing the whole universe will decide, 'No, we're not going to do that. We're going to do something different.'"

WIE: Some scientists and cosmologists argue that the universe is already intelligent. But what you're saying is that we will use technology to inject our own intelligence into the nonintelligent matter of the universe, that it's a purely physical accomplishment.

RK: Exactly. And that's a form of enlightenment. Because I would say that the whole universe is not intelligent at this point. But I think it will become intelligent through the process that I described.

WIE: How do you see that happening on a practical level? Can you envision it?

RK: Well, yes. We can state the fact that levels of intelligence far greater than our own are going to evolve within this century. We can't entirely describe what that will be like because it will be, by definition, more intelligent than we are. As we move through three-dimensional molecular computing, we're ultimately going to be organizing matter and energy in a very efficient way, down to the atomic level. In about twelve years, we'll be able to compute very efficiently with these three-dimensional molecular structures, which actually are based on carbon, much like life is, but organized millions of times more powerfully.

A one-inch tube of nanotube circuitry built out of carbon atoms would be a million times more powerful than the human brain. Using these incredibly small information-processing systems, which have the ability to reorganize matter, we'll ultimately be able to convert most of the matter and energy in our area of the universe into very efficiently organized processes for running intelligence.

And then, this intelligence will expand outward, almost like information, but it will actually be able to essentially convert and absorb into itself all the matter and energy that it encounters as it continues to spread outward into the universe.

I don't even know what to say about this. The thing is, it is the most incredible thing I have ever heard. It sounds insane, and yet, if we are already learning to use atoms as processors, why would this not work?

And what would happen when we had begun to use the entire universe as a computer? What would such a universe think about? We can guess it would think about some sort of creation, right?

What would it create? Another universe?

What is going on here?