There was recently a poll by KDNuggets (a newsletter about Data Mining) which asked the same question. The potential answers were: 25 years, 50 years, 100 years, 1000 years, and "Never". I was very surprised to see that half of the people selected the last option, "Never". And we're talking about technology-savvy people, who presumably are aware of the rate of technological advancements.
If we let aside issues related to wishful thinking ("I wish this will never happen"), anthropocentric views of the world ("We are the pinnacle of the creation, the world exists only to provide a place for us, humans"), and short-sighted opinions about certain human attributes ("Humans have feelings, computers can never have that!"), there must be still something else that leads very logically thinking people, highly educated, to believe that computers can never outsmart us. So what is it? Ahh... but of course! It's the fallacy of linear thinking...
The fallacy of linear thinking
Let's assume that humans measure 1,000,000 in some intelligence scale that measures capabilities such as IQ, EQ (emotional intelligence), strategic thinking, creativity, imagination, values, inspiration, feelings, etc, that is, everything that relates to mind. Now let's also assume that currently the most advanced Artificial Intelligence applications measure a mere 1 in the same scale (I think even the tougher skeptics would agree that these numbers give a good approximation for the superiority of human abilities: 1,000,000 to 1 – that’s a safe bet, doesn't it?).
OK, now, if the technology progresses LINEARLY (say, adding 1 point to the computer smartness per year), it would take an awful long time for the computers to catch up with humans (roughly a million years, which is equivalent to "never" because there is high likelihood over such a long time that we'd first destroy ourselves and therefore reset the whole process). However, if the technology advances EXPONENTIALLY (say, doubles its capabilities every 1-2 years), it would take only 20-30 years to reach the same point. Well, guess what. History shows that indeed TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES MOVE EXPONENTIALLY!
Technology advances exponentially
Here are a couple of examples that demonstrate this exponential growth: let's start with the progress of human communication. Many thousands years ago, the only way that humans could communicate with one another was with gestures and grunts. And the communication was limited to the basics: "food", "danger", "give me that", "come here", etc. It took tens of thousands of years to move to the next level: language. All right, now more complex and abstract concepts could be expressed, such as "When are you gonna be back from hunting, honey?" or "I don't like milk anymore, I want beer!". The next step took also several thousand years: written communication. Now for the first time human could communicate not only across space, but also across time: you write something today, and someone could read it tomorrow, or next year, or 10,000 years later (with some luck). But still, this writing had a serious drawback: it was not very portable. Not very easy to haul behind you that big rock with the day's shopping list. But hey, technology advances: it took only a couple of thousands of years more for humans to discover papyrus. Which after several centuries became paper. Then it took only a few centuries for the first printing machine to appear. Then in just a couple of centuries the telegraph appeared. Then telephone came about. Then radio. Notice that at this point the technology was accelerated to the rate of a big advancement every few decades, instead of centuries (or millennia). Indeed, television soon appeared. Then computers with text email. Then email communication containing voice and pictures. And finally, video-conferencing. Notice that every step along this timeline is shorter than its previous. We started with 5,000-year steps, and now we're at the point of 5-year steps. That's what exponential growth is about!
Similarly, you can see the same exponential growth in virtually everything that has to do with technology: transportation (from legs, to horses, to carriages, to sail ships, to steam trains, to steam cars, to gas cars, to airplanes, to helicopters, to spaceships, to "smart" cars - as you see every step taking less and less time), dentistry (from knocking out that aching tooth, to drilling, to anesthetics, to prosthetics, to preventive dental hygienists, to X-rays, to ultrasound whitening), archeology (from "hey, here's an old cup" to satellite site detection - I skipped the intermediate steps for brevity), clothing (from animal furs to "smart" clothes that can transmit a person's vital signals such as heart rate and temperature), window-making (from a hole on the wall to high-tech windows featuring glass with power-adjusted transparency), etc.
Why do we keep thinking linearly?
So history clearly shows how technology indeed advances exponentially. And this can have profound effects on people's predictions and expectations for the future. But why then so many people fall into the trap of "linear thinking"? Ah... well, it's easy to see why: until very recently, the progress rate of technology was still in the range of several decades per step. This means that it was very difficult for people to see this exponential growth, unless they studied history of technology. However, today it's easier to see this growth, because technology has just reached the point where every step now takes just a few years. So everybody has experienced several accelerating steps in their own lifetime. But it's true that we, people, are a little slow and resistant into changing our well-established ways of thinking, and this is especially true for older people. This means that we try to preserve the "linear thinking" that has worked so well in the past for most of us, when it was still safe to assume that things would stay pretty much the same for the next few decades.
Try to think exponentially
Unfortunately today this liner thinking is not good enough. If we try to make predictions or invest for our future based on linear thinking, we'll start making big mistakes. The correct way to be thinking in today's world is to THINK EXPONENTIALLY. Try that, and you'll see how dramatically the picture of the near future changes. And it is important to get this picture right, because huge changes will now occur within our lifetime... And we better be prepared for them. See how different the answer is to the question of when computers will outsmart humans: linear thinking concludes "never", whereas exponential thinking predicts "20 years"... If exponential thinking is right (which I have no doubt), then this has huge effects on the way we should be planning and preparing for our own future.
For further reading, I would recommend the following:
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