The Growth of Computing Power
Article by Rick Leinecker, September 6, 2006

Do you remember Captain Kirk asking the computer questions by simply speaking the questions that were on his mind? Do you remember HAL from the movie 2001 Space Odyssey who took over the space ship? These computers seemed to easily interact with humans when they spoke. But if you've ever used speech recognition software, you might find more mistakes than correct words.

There have also been many attempts at computer vision projects. The most famous was after 9/11 when face recognition software was installed in airports to look for the bad guys. The software never performed well enough and is now on the shelves. Satellite imagery is analyzed with software to find drug crops, weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear facilities - but it can't possibly come close to the capability of a human.

The difference is in the sheer computing power that the human brain has. Computers, in spite of what you've heard, still have a small fraction of the computing capability of a human brain. That's why a computer can't accurately take dictation or identify a poppy crop in the mountains.

But adequate computing power is on its way. From 1940 to 1980 computing power doubled about every two years. Even at that rate, it's only a matter of time before computers pass the human brain in power. I remember a story about a king granting a wish that started with two wheat grains on a checkerboard and doubled on each subsequent square. By the end of the checkerboard the king had given away all of the grain in the kingdom. Doubling anything leads to inevitable dramatic gains.

But in the 1980s the increases were even faster. Computing power doubled about every 18 months during that decade. And in the 1990s it started to double about every year. Projecting into the future, it's estimated that the power of a personal computer will equal that of a human in the year 2020. And it could be even sooner if the rate of doubling gets any shorter.

What does all this mean for you? It means you're going to buy a lot of computers along the way to fund the development. That's how it works. You buy the latest and greatest computer, and the developers use the money to build next year's latest and greatest.

It also means that eventually your computer will take accurate dictation, even for those with a southern drawl. It means that the satellite images can be automatically analyzed for troop movements or illegal activity. This could make you more productive and save your business a lot of money.

The things I just mentioned are good things. But with the computer power in 2020 could your phone conversation be listened in on and understood by a computer? Could a computer scan an infrared image of your house and determine if you've violated any laws? Are powerful computers part of the next generation of Big Brother? I don't know. But I do know that we're going to have to be vigilant to make sure they're not. I want powerful computers in my home - I want to be productive and save money. But I want the good and not the bad. I don't want Big Brother. I want to live where I'm free to express my opinions. You need to make sure you keep abreast of the advances that technology makes so that as a society we can make sure we benefit instead of lose. Follow legislation that may impact you down the road when computers get the extra power and voice your opinion to your representatives. And then in 2020 ask your computer whatever questions are on your mind - you'll probably get the right answer.

Those are my thoughts on the growth of computing power.