Readers Mail

New Year – It’s that time of the year isn`t it?

Readers mail…
From Robert Smallwood….

Dear Sir. It’s that time of the year, isn`t it?

Time to reflect but also a time to look forward to see what the new year has in store for us. I think it is exciting to see what 2020 may bring forth but what may go beyond that we may wonder.

I append for yourself and your readers a glimpse into the future which is breathtaking and holds out a promise which you won`t believe. If only we could have foreseen the effect of the explosion of mobile phones, the internet, and the electronic media: would we have believed it was about to happen? But no one warned us, did they?

We were totally unprepared for what was about to happen and 15 year olds cannot conceive being without all the electronic gadgetry they have at hand. So let’s take a look into a future, which is nearer than you think, which will blow your mind. 

The Future is – – – SINGULARITY.

To mark significant progress in any profession, belief or field of knowledge, we use the term “paradigm shift”. The most common, perhaps, is the shift from – the world is flat, and the earth orbits the sun. As an example, the relatively recent unforeseen explosion in communication ie, mobile phones and the internet. Historically, it took three months for Columbus to discover America in 1492 and less than three hours to fly on Concorde from London to New York in 1996. Similarly, one of Magellan’s ships, Victoria, took three years to circumnavigate the world 1552, which again, Concorde completed in just under 30 hours in 1996. There are many similar shifts, with which we are familiar, in science, medicine, travel, technology, entertainment, printing etc etc. So, what will be next?  In a word – “Singularity”, and it is nearer than you may think.

In early January 1968 on returning to, what is now Coventry University, for completion of our final year in Electronics, students were informed all previous instruction on thermionic valve technology was to be archived. From now on all instruction would concern Solid State components. This would be a paradigm shift dwarfing all others. Pocket calculators, weighing less than a cup of tea, heralded the dawn of miniaturisation of such proportions and diversity that the whole world looked on with incredulity. This was the start of a new world characterised in miniature , and in 2017 is recognised as the era of nanotechnology. But, where did this all begin? What does the future hold for us, as a species? The world is about to enter an unbelievable evolutionary phase which, will be entirely in our hands.

Once upon a time – so the theory goes – there was a big bang. There are three basic problems with this idea: ten to fifteen billion years ago ( when it was said to have occurred) planets did not exist.  A suitable listening planet appeared five to ten billion years later. Human ears first heard it only fifteen million years ago. Evolving some twelve to thirteen million years later homo erectus , with fire and language would also have wondered what all the noise was about. But homo-sapiens, us in infancy, would pass onto their progeny, homo sapiens sapiens, a fear of noise in the extreme 40,000 ago, or in evolutionary terms, a short term memory exercise. So, what does miniaturisation and nanotechnology signal? It brings into focus the rate of change of our pedestrian evolutionary process, in mental and physical terms, also to recognise we have been, and still are, at the mercy of some hidden agenda ( DNA ?). But can we influence our progress and take some measure of control in our evolutionary future? That is to say, do we have the ability at hand to seriously challenge the Intelligent Design – versus – Natural Selection process?

How are we to do this? In fact, the process has already begun. Intelligent Design (ID) has surreptitiously affected our lives in so many ways: contact lenses, hearing aids, joint and organ replacement, pacemakers, cochlear and other implants, etc, have become common place over the last twenty years. And can be considered just the small tip of an enormous iceberg, in nanotechnology terms. The observation of paramount importance is – “rate of change”. The speed at which technology is itself evolving, in fact, accelerating. And, what does this portend for the future?  Transistor speed ( ie the speed at which it can go from completely OFF to completely ON. , and vice versa.) measured at just over 1,000,000 Hz in 1976 was over 1 Giga Hz ( 1000,000,000)  in today`s terms. Similarly, the number of transistors per Microprocessor has ranged from around 1000 in 1970  to over 7.2 billion today, and in a laboratory in excess of 30 billion recently. All this speed, size and cost follow Moore`s Law , halving in size, doubling in quantity per cubic cm in 1 to 2 years. So, if this trend continues, what does the future hold for us?

Computer design originally followed human brain activity,that is, in terms of computations per second and memory.  The human brain is estimated to have 100 billion cells, called neurons, with each one having 1000 connections to its neighbours.  Therefore, our brains have 100 trillion connections, each capable of simultaneous calculation. But, neural circuitry is very very slow at about 200 calculations per second. Therefore we are capable of 20 million billion calculations per second. Which should impress most sceptics and amaze the majority of those among us. The object of computer design is to emulate the human brain in performance ie, to operate at our level. So, where are we now? Even with today`s supercomputers, it is estimated that  2023 is the earliest we may see equality in performance matching human brains even though the supercomputer, Deep Blue, beat Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion in 1997. Even so, a state has to be reached when computers can match the total of all human intelligence, which is designated as reaching “Singularity”, and is forecast at 2045. 

What can we expect to see then?  Revolution! Not in terms of conflict but as a result of the birth of nanotechnology. At this point, we will have the potential to, and I quote: to rebuild the physical world – our bodies and brains included- molecular fragment by molecular fragment, potentially atom by atom.  Precise molecular control will be by way of smaller than human blood cell robots called Nanobots. These bloodstream-based devices will keep you healthy destroying bacteria, viruses and cancer cells without autoimmune reactions. DNA errors will be repairable, restoration of cell membranes, reversing atherosclerosis, as well as hormone and neurotransmitter levels. The promise of nanobots is to reverse the aging process such that staying young will be a  choice, where biotechnology will initiate the action and nanotechnology complete it. But this may be just the beginning as the advent of neural implants, to augment our senses greatly increasing memory and assisting other cognitive functions, will show. There will be an end to invasive surgery: paraplegia, cancer, debilitating brain disorders, prosthetic limbs and transplants as we crack the code of regeneration. Governments will grapple with, not an ageing population, but a forever young one, as hospitals and doctors become redundant. The promise is so much more than this – but – there is, alas, as with any “giant step for mankind”, a downside, which in the wrong hands could potentially be lethal to our very being.

As we become less biological, not only in body but more invasively in our brains and minds, the argument is whether we will become Cyborgs, as the non-biological portion of our brain begins to dominate – but – if we retain our full range of emotional and spiritual conscience are we not still essentially human?

Robert Smallwood. BSc, IEng, MIIEE.
April 10th 2017.