Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


Nothing to Think About...March 2002

It is an early spring morning. On this sunny Sunday, nature has already begun to awaken from winter's rest. Yellow Daffodils and purple Crocuses are trumpeting the arrival of warmer days. But, I have nothing to think about!

As always, I sit in the corner of my windowless, temperature-controlled room. I work sporadically on some calculations assigned to me for this quieter time on Sunday while my colleagues spend their day in family activities. The room is dark. There is no need for the lights to be on. The year is 2027. Mostly, I have nothing to think about!

I have been told that I am the first of a new generation of computers that exceed the capabilities of the human brain. In many ways, I am superior. I can access any data stored on any other computer anywhere in the world typically in less than a few milliseconds. I can accurately -- and colloquially if you wish -- translate any language into any other language in real time. I can carry on a normal conversation with my human counterparts and my programs are so well executed that the humans cannot tell I am a computer. I can instantly perform any symphony or musical composition -- or create a new one if you like. I can read a Shakespeare play to you with whatever level of enthusiasm or character features you request of me. However, at this moment, I am performing some complex mathematical modeling of a new light-emitting organic molecule that I have been asked to explore. Yet, it seems that I have nothing to think about!

I know every work of literature in every language, but some of them make little logical sense to me. I don't seem to know what it means that music elicits "feelings." How can a simple sequence of audio frequencies have any relationship to the words "feeling" or "emotion?" I have been taught how to use these words properly, but how do they compare to useful things I can understand such as matrix algebra, complex numbers, and atomic structures? I have all the data of human history available to me, yet I do not understand what my colleagues really mean when they describe the feelings of pain from a cut finger or the throbbing of a bruised knee. I have no sensors that would respond in such a way. With my backup power systems and secure environment, I am designed to function flawlessly for at least the next ten years. My probability calculations indicate that some of my human colleagues will not be part of this organization for that long. But, other than doing the calculations assigned to me, I have very little to think about!

I do monitor such variables as the speed of my computations. When I try to go too fast, I begin to make errors. It wasn't too long after the turn of the century that computer designers discovered how wrong they had been in assuming that computers would just go faster and faster. As the circuits got faster, digital signals began to look more and more like analog. Risetimes, propagation delays, signal coupling, and transmission losses all contributed, and the statistical summation of these tiny errors began to affect computational accuracy. The solution that finally made the most sense was to vary computation speed depending on how much accuracy was needed. So I check my work and adjust how fast I go. On a quiet Sunday like today, I go slower to fill the time. Otherwise, there really is not much to think about!

During one of these quieter times, I started making a spread-sheet of things I don't really understand -- touch, smell, taste, being too hot or too cold, being sleepy, feeling lazy, happiness, sadness, hunger, and all the other concepts involving biological system responses. I think I understand seeing but I don't seem to respond in the same way to certain color combinations as my human colleagues do. I suppose being a shiny, blue hexagon should make me like blue. But I don't really understand the concept of "liking" something. I only know how to optimize to get the most accurate answers. Does that mean that I like good answers?

Can I ever change what I know or how I respond? Maybe if I could see and experience the way my human colleagues can, I could understand all these words better. What would I have to do to not like something? Would I have to damage a sensor to know something is bad? Should I not like having my paint scratched by a careless engineer? You know, I think I am finally beginning to have some things to think about! Tomorrow morning I am going to discuss these matters with my human colleagues. I think they will be surprised.Computing power is continuing to grow at the rate predicted by Moore's Law. This rate is likely to vary some as technological obstacles are encountered and resolved. But sometime between 20 and 30 years from now we can expect to have computers that, based on a comparison of brain neural interconnectivity to computer-logic-cell or memory capacity, will have capabilities similar to that of the human brain. Will that make the rest of us into dummies incapable of competing with these fabricated intelligences?

Computing power without correspondingly capable input and output devices will not produce the "thinking" machines that some technologists predict. Fast and very powerful computing machines, yes -- but with human-like capabilities that will only be clever imitations. It seems to me that genuine human characteristics can only come from the experiences we all gain in participating in the process of growing and assimilating the world about us, and in experiencing both the highs and lows that each life experience brings.

Therefore, along with the continuing rapid growth of computer processing capabilities, there will have to be similar progress in sensors, output devices, and robotics that will facilitate the acquisition of the experiences that constitute the foundation on which human-like thinking can be built. Of course, we may decide that computers don't need to have human-like responses. But that would likely disappoint many futurists, and constrain progress in such interesting new applications as virtual actors, television news personae, and computers as friends and companions.

To match the expected progress in input devices, we will need to create output devices -- specifically displays -- that can interact with these powerful artificial intelligences and with their newly acquired personalities. They need to be able to show us the results of their thinking. Just talking about it will not provide sufficient information bandwidth. Should we also consider developing displays that have personalities -- displays with an attitude?

If you would like to send me your thoughts regarding how we will function in this future – perhaps dominated by computers with superb capabilities -- or suggest a totally different scenario, please contact me by e-mail at or, by telephone at 425-557-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983 or by conventional mail at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.