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Singularity, Semiconductors and Software

Singularity, Semiconductors and Software
by Daniel Payne on 04-15-2016 at 12:00 pm

One of my all-time favorite movies is 2001 A Space Odyssey where one of the leading roles is an AI-based system aboard a spacecraft named Hal that is designed to be a perfect machine yet makes a mistake and then cascades into assaulting and eliminating the human crew members. The future time when semiconductors and software combine to create a machine intelligence that outpaces humans has become known as “the singularity“, a phrase coined by Ray Kurzweil now the Director of Engineering at Google.

In my lifetime we have seen domain-specific software and hardware systems that defeat humans in many tasks, like:

  • Chess
  • Backgammon
  • Poker
  • Go
  • Jeopardy
  • Blackjack
  • Stock market trading

One very positive life impact with decreasing costs of semiconductors coupled with higher processing speeds has been in the area of sequencing DNA, where the cost per Genome has gone from $100M in 2001 to just about $1K in 2016, a rapid decline in price greater than the improvement in Moore’s Law:

Source: National Human Genome Research Institute

Should we be fearful of AI based systems?

Even Stephen Hawking is cautionary about AI when he endorsed an open letter along with other world influencers:

Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.
IJCAI 2015 Conference

In health care we certainly want the best diagnosis, which may include scanning our DNA, reviewing our medical history, and analyzing our vital signs using an AI-based system instead of a doctor. The only downside of giving machines and software access to health records is the whole area of data privacy and opening ourselves up to the risks of hacking.

Many industries are undoing fundamental change as automation is used to relieve labor-intensive tasks like: printing, fast-food order taking, etc. Just take a look at the steady decline in number of employees per print shop since 1998 as they use more automated approaches, requiring fewer humans:

Imagine what could happen with the trucking industry where autonomous vehicles could help cut operating costs by 50% during the vehicle’s lifetime of 600K miles, replacing or augmenting human drivers to improve safety, avoid accidents and shorten deliver times.

Leading automotive companies like Tesla are now able to update their electric vehicles wirelessly to add new features like Autopilot. This feature allowed a Tesla owner to drive across the US in under 60 hours by using Autopilot 96% of the trip.

What’s your plan to stay ahead of a machine replacing your job? When I started out doing IC design we did manual DRC (Design Rule Checking), but now that task is quite automated by software, so that freed me up to be more creative on the circuit design decision.

Our society needs to adapt to the coming challenges and prepare our children to do things that AI and machines cannot do. Mr. Kurzweil predicted that the singularity could arrive as soon as 2045, a scant 29 years from now, so make your own plans accordingly.

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