Trends in Hardware, Software & Wetware
Daniel Dern – Moderator
Greg Bear
Ramez Naam
Allen Baum
Mark Van Name
  • How small can hardware become?
    • RN: The limits of physics are extremely distant: many orders of magnitude improvement left. But we don’t have any idea of how to get down to the level of quarks and stuff like that. Every decade we get a 100x improvement in cost, 100x reduction in energy. If it continues, we will one day have supercomputing grains of sand.
    • AB: One of the limits is batteries. Do you want to carry the equivalent of a nuclear power plant in your pocket?
    • DD: One of the constraints is heat dissipation, brownian motion (randomness interfering with the work you want to get done).
    • RN: Smallest computer someone brought me was smaller than the stem of a wineglass. What was the limiting factor to reduction in size was the USB port.
  • How about jacking into our brain?
    • RN: There’s lots of science going on now, starting with implants for disabled people.
    • GB: Voice recognition is becoming far more effective…80 to 90% of the time you can ask a question and get a useful answer. That’s better than most human communication. Computers don’t have real needs. What if computers become socially aware, and know what your needs and it’s needs are? All of a sudden, the interface to it is much better/easier.
    • GB: Proteins are small computers. Wetware does astonishing stuff. Lots of analogies to human interactions. A protein is more complex than even a giant Boeing factory full of workers.
  • Small things only need to do small tasks. Small, purpose built devices: your toe keeps you balanced, let you know if it gets hurt. Doesn’t do cognitive tasks.
    • GB: cells have their own lives. They don’t know they are part of a bigger organism.
  • GB: Quantum computing has the potential to blow all of these assumptions out of the water.
  • MVN: Even microphones can only get so small before the sound waves don’t fit.
  • RN: I write scifi about people having telepathic abilities via technology. But the thing that excites me the most is the democratization of technology through cell phones: the first phones cost $4,000 and were limited to the rich. Now the average cell phone is owned by someone in India, and it’s providing access to information, it prevents abuse of power through the camera, etc.
  • AB: I hope there are lots of people here supporting EFF. There are democracies, but then there are non-democracies who use these same technologies to control people. The internet of control. It’s governments and corporations. This worries me a lot.
  • RN: When we put a brain implant in someone, there’s two different adaptions that must happen: configuration of software (“when I pulse this neuron where does your vision light up?”) as well as the time for the brain to adapt to the signals: several weeks during which it doesn’t function at all.
    • Current state of implants is that they degrade over time. electrodes erode, break. High voltages cause neurons to retreat. Bleeding in the brain. Today requires very invasive surgery.
    • But advances too: neural mesh implanted in mice was rolled up into a tiny tube, injected with syringe, and then unroll inside brain.
  • Best brain interfaces today are ~256 electrodes. And we have a billion neurons. DARPA program is asking people to tackle 1 million electrodes, and some scientists think that can be done in 5-10 years.