Documenting the Coming Singularity

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Appreciating the Power of Connections

What makes a human brain so much smarter than a supercomputer? After all, transistors are about a million times faster than neurons. The power of that kind of speed advantage is obvious if you were to challenge the simplest calculator to see whether you or it could calculate sums or long division problems the fastest. You would lose. But things that the brain can do with such apparent ease, like recognizing faces and understanding speech, are extremely difficult for room-sized computers. Why is this? Why is it that computers can be faster, and yet human brains are smarter? One word: Connections.

Network-Effect Metabrain

Each transistor in a supercomputer may connect directly to one, two, or perhaps even three other transistors. Each neuron, however, forms 104 to 105 synaptic connections with adjacent neurons. Add up the total number of connections and you get on the order of 1011 for the SC5832 supercomputer and 1016 for a human brain. But there are wider implications for this appreciation of the power of connections, implications that point to a growing "network-effect" metabrain, comprised of 109 connected human brains, which Robert Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com, writes about in this article on

Let's Make an Affiliance

I'm currently reading Vernor Vinge's classic sci-fi novel, Rainbows End (Note: the lack of an apostrophe is not an the book and you'll see why it's spelled this way). In it, a world of the near-term future exists where the sharing of information is the engine of productivity, and the forming of connections, or temporary partnerships, among disparate individuals leads to new knowledge and economic growth. In this world, these partnerships are called affiliances. A brief consideration of our current economy and culture will show that this situation is already happening.

Adding Value by Connecting Ideas

Social bookmarking, networking, news-marking, etc. on the web are growing in number and in memberships at an amazing rate. Not more than a few years ago, how many people could I interact with in any meaningful sharing-of-informational way? Compare that to how many I am exposed to on the Internet every day. The sharing of ideas and thoughts has already become exponentially more varied and frequent than it used to be. In spite of this, we are still connecting with others at a very narrow and shallow level.

Where will value be added in the future? It seems to me that those who add value to information will be those who make important connections between disparate ideas, thus creating new ideas. I will close this post with Mr. Metcalfe's eloquent final paragraphs:
Over the last 30 years, using Moore's Law transistors and Metcalfe's Law networks, we have gone from zero to 10 9 people on the Internet. With broadband deployment, the quality of an Internet connection is going up while costs go down. Social networking is proliferating and evolving. New collaboration modes are disrupting science, media and politics--for the better, I think.

The network effect is expanding the collective intelligence of the human race. We can hope that on the whole we humans are getting smarter by the square of some very large numbers. It's enough to make one optimistic.
Stay tuned.

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