Thursday, May 05, 2005

Neanderthal Computers

I'm intrigued when I hear pundits argue that technological invention/innovation in the U.S. is nearing the end of the road. It reminds me of statement by the U.S. Patent Office in 1899 declaring that: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." (I have a framed copy of that statement on my desk in my office as a gentle reminder each day of how silly expert opinion can be sometimes).

The basic fact of the matter is that we are at the beginning of our technological quest. Consider today's computer. It is the poster child for Pete Townsend's 'Pinball Wizard' -- deaf, dumb and blind. Sometime in the 21st century, this will not be so. Neuromorphic microchips and other quantum-based technologies (including not-yet-invented self-assembly nanotech processes) will be developed and commercialized. These technologies will change the entire global information technology landscape, just as conventional chips displaced basketball court-sized vacuum tube computers. In the 20th century, computing was more about engineering. In the 21st century, I believe computing will be more about biology. As Caltech physicist Carver Mead points out in George Gilder's book "The Silicon Eye:"

"When you examine how biology processes visual information, several facts are clear. Even the brain of a fly as it eludes a swatter outperforms any real-time computer image system by as many as nine orders of magnitude (billions). We have almost no idea of how the fly does it. And if we cannot figure out how the fly does it, we do not know how the far more complex human brain does it."

Next time you go to swat a fly, think about this and then remember that today's "Tommy" computers are neanderthals compared to what we'll see in coming decades.

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