There's an interesting article in this week's Time magazine. Resident genius, Raymond Kurzweil has come up with a prediction based on some hard technological data: Within 30 years, we will have the means to create superhuman intelligence. And shortly after, by 2045, between increases in both computer power and advances in artificial intelligence, computers will surpass brainpower equivalent to that of all human brains combined and the human era as we know it will be ended. (Of course, what that will look like remains to be seen.)
Moor's law states that the number of transistors that can be put on a microchip doubles about every two years; a surprisingly reliable rule of thumb and one which most of us are familiar with. You can plot this growth on a graph, starting from 1900 and the Babbage analytical engine, through the Power Mac in 2000, the first PC capable of 1 billion instructions per second, to today, only 11 years later, where we have computers that have already surpassed 1 trillion instructions per second.
Not only are computers getting faster and more powerful but they're doing so exponentially and not linearly. In other words, they're getting faster, faster. Plotted on a graph, "exponential curves start slowly but rocket skyward toward infinity", something like the compounding effect of doubling one penny every day for a month and having $6,000,000 after only 30 days.
Kurzweil, did further research and discovered that an adaptation of Moor's law also applies to quantified advancements in technology (# MIPS/sec/$1,000); that it also doubles roughly every two years. And if you project our exponential growth curve through 2015, a computer will surpass the intelligence of a mouse, through 2023 and we will have a computer capable of surpassing the intelligence a human brain and through 2045, when humanity will be profoundly changed forever.
To our knowledge, the most complex thing in the universe is the human brain, with its trillion neuron and synapse connections. A remarkable piece of bio engineering. But we've already begun to figure out how it works and the seemingly impossible task of reverse-engineering the brain is taking place in computer labs around the world and per the exponential growth graphs of computer power and artificial intelligence, should be completed sometime around 2025.
One possible result would be the sci fy horror fantasy of the machines achieving awareness and taking over or worse, annihilating us. Two movies come to mind: The Terminator and The Forbin Project.
However, another, more symbiotic relationship would be to download our consciousnesses into computers and merge with them to become super intelligent cyborgs and live essentially forever. Futurists refer to this as The Singularity. Not the singularity of a black hole's event horizon, where the laws of physics and the universe as we understand them completely break down, but "the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011".
Kurzweil's critics say he is underestimating the complexity of reverse engineering the human brain. His response is that he "isn't underestimating the challenge. His critics are underestimating the power of exponential growth."