Monday, March 31, 2008

Necessary, but not sufficient

While I've just argued that bigger, faster and better-connected computers do not automatically give rise to qualities like intelligence or consciousness, and that some aspects of intelligence require very little computing power, that doesn't mean that every aspect of intelligence is trivial.

A demo like the Big Dog is possible not only because many people have worked very hard at understanding how animals move and how to explain that to a computer, but also because we now have absolutely sick amounts of computing power available compared to a few decades ago when the serious speculation started.

For example, the first computer chess program could just barely follow all the rules (or could it do even that?), but before long the main elements of computer chess as we know it today were in place. Deep Blue beat Kasparov partly due to constant incremental improvements in the underlying software, but mostly because the hardware came to be able to crunch out so many positions that it could see farther ahead and make "positional" moves out of sheer calculation.

Image processing has come a long way, to the point that cameras can more or less recognize faces (i.e., that these pixels are probably a face, not that it's your face). Some of this is due to better understanding and better algorithms, but even the best algorithm is not going to run in reasonable time without a high-octane pixel-smasher working behind it.

In short, progress is coming from painstaking research aimed at understanding the problems to be solved and getting the code to run, and it's coming from continual advances in hardware performance. Both are necessary. Neither is sufficient alone.

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