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See Inside Your Future with Robots

The Coming Merging of Mind and Machine [Preview]

The accelerating pace of technological progress means that our intelligent creations will soon eclipse us--and that their creations will eventually eclipse them.

Sometime early in this century the intelligence of machines will exceed that of humans. Within a quarter of a century, machines will exhibit the full range of human intellect, emotions and skills, ranging from musical and other creative aptitudes to physical movement. They will claim to have feelings and, unlike today's virtual personalities, will be very convincing when they tell us so. By around 2020 a $1,000 computer will at least match the processing power of the human brain. By 2029 the software for intelligence will have been largely mastered, and the average personal computer will be equivalent to 1,000 brains.

Once computers achieve a level of intelligence comparable to that of humans, they will necessarily soar past it. For example, if I learn French, I can’t readily download that learning to you. The reason is that for us, learning involves successions of stunningly complex patterns of interconnections among brain cells (neurons) and among the concentrations of biochemicals known as neurotransmitters that enable impulses to travel from neuron to neuron. We have no way of quickly downloading these patterns. But quick downloading will allow our nonbiological creations to share immediately what they learn with billions of other machines. Ultimately, nonbiological entities will master not only the sum total of their own knowledge but all of ours as well.

As this happens, there will no longer be a clear distinction between human and machine. We are already putting computers—neural implants—directly into people's brains to counteract Parkinson's disease and tremors from multiple sclerosis. We have cochlear implants that restore hearing. A retinal implant is being developed in the U.S. that is intended to provide at least some visual perception for some blind individuals, basically by replacing certain visual-processing circuits of the brain. A team of scientists at Emory University implanted a chip in the brain of a paralyzed stroke victim that allowed him to use his brainpower to move a cursor across a computer screen.

In the 2020s neural implants will improve our sensory experiences, memory and thinking. By 2030, instead of just phoning a friend, you will be able to meet in, say, a virtual Mozambican game preserve that will seem compellingly real. You will be able to have any type of experience—business, social, sexual—with anyone, real or simulated, regardless of physical proximity.

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