Last week, Roko Mijic talked about how human intelligence made civilization possible, and how genuinely smarter-than-human intelligence-what some call "superintelligence"-would change everything, by magnifying nearly all of our capabilities.
It is important to note that organizations or countries are not smarter-than-human intelligences any more than a tribe of chimps is a smarter-than-chimp intelligence. We are talking about thinkers with fundamentally improved cognitive architectures, either through brain-computer interfacing or the creation of creative, flexible, brilliant artificial intelligence. Engineered intelligences with greater memory, creativity, pattern-matching capabilities, decision-making skills, self-transparency, and self-modification abilities.
This category of enhanced intelligences may not be as far away as you think. MIT scientists are already working on optically-triggered brain-computer interfaces that could link up many thousands of neurons to computers in the near future. Ed Boyden, who works at the MIT Media Lab, has called for the creation of an "exocortex" that assists our natural brains with an external, artificial cognitive assistant, also called a "co-processor." We may even discover drugs or gene therapies that qualitatively improve intelligence by increasing the speed at which neurons can communicate, as was recently done with a rat, Hobbie-J.
When discussions of superintelligence crop up, a common question that is asked is, "okay, these entities are smarter-than-human, but wouldn't they still be very limited by their environment and the intelligence of humans they have to work with?" Couldn't we just pull the plug on a very clever artificial intelligence? Wouldn't an enhanced human intelligence be limited by the slower people around it?
Not necessarily. One way superintelligent entities could leapfrog human industrial infrastructure and communication time lag would be by creating self-replicating manufacturing units, which might be based on synthetic biology or just sophisticated robotics. There already exists a self-replicating manufacturing unit today: RepRap (short for Replicating Rapid-prototyper), developed by a team at the University of Bath in Britain. It just requires human assistance for assembly-from there, the machine can print out practically all of its own parts, except for a few standard parts like computer chips. Completely autonomous self-replication is on the horizon.
The ultimate self-replicating manufacturing unit would be based on nanoscale fabrication-the rapid manipulation of individual atoms to build large products from raw materials. In 1959, the legendary physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk to the American Physical Society called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." During the talk, he said "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom." Since Feynman's talk, we have made leaps and bounds towards the goal of bottom-up manufacturing, building tiny robotic arms that can manipulate single atoms, molecular switches, gears, "nanocars," even a nanoscale walking biped.
If we could design and fabricate the appropriate nanoscale machines and put them into a system capable of building all its own parts, we'd have something called a nanofactory, or to put it another way, an "everything machine." The earliest nanofactories might only build products out of a couple types of atoms, say carbon and hydrogen, but they would have a tremendous impact because they would be automated by necessity, could self-replicate, and would be capable of building almost any chemically stable structure (as long as it used atoms the machine could handle) with atomic precision. Powered by the Sun and using purified natural gas for feedstock molecules, these nanofactories could quickly and easily build huge numbers of residences, greenhouses, appliances, medical equipment, water purification equipment, and much more, at a cost thousands of times lower than the manufacturing technology of today.
Humans are making progress towards nanofactories today, but I'll bet that smarter-than-human intelligences could make much more rapid progress. In fact, it's possible that the most direct route to nanofactories is through smarter-than-human intelligence.
And if you combine a smarter-than-human intelligence with self-replication and nanoscale production, it's difficult to put a limit on how quickly superintelligence could change the world.
Michael Anissimov is a futurist and evangelist for friendly artificial intelligence. He writes a Technorati Top 100 Science blog, Accelerating Future. Michael currently serves as Media Director for the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI) and is a co-organizer of the annual Singularity Summit.