It’s Evolution Baby!

Transcript of podcast below.

I’d like to throw some large numbers at you. How many transistors are there in Intel’s latest 18 core Xeon Chip? The answer is 5.5 billion. How many neurons are there in the human brain? There’s a staggering 86 billion of them. It’s worth noting that the part of our brain that does most of the thinking contains about 16 billion neurons, all the other neurons do specialist tasks like dealing with hearing, vision and speech, and so on.

Now comparing an Intel Xeon chip to the human brain is a little strange given that there’s no direct equivalence between a transistor and a neuron. On the other hand 5.5 billion transistors on a tiny CPU is quite a feat of engineering although it’s not a lot compared to the 86 billion neurons in the human brain.

Now consider this. It took Intel 44 years of design evolution to produce a 5.5 billion transistor chip, starting back in 1971 with the 2,300 transistor Intel 4004. It took humans about 30 million years to evolve an 86 billion neuron brain. Computer chip evolution is proceeding at a pace that living organisms should be quite jealous of.

Computer chips will undoubtedly become much more sophisticated in the coming decades but what of the human brain? Well there’s not much evidence that we’re going to get a lot more intelligent unless some dramatic evolutionary change occurs. In fact there’s some evidence that the human brain is actually shrinking.

If we accept that human beings might not get brainier, what about the computer chip? The co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore published a paper in 1965 stating that the number of transistors on a chip would double every two years. Whilst Moore’s law isn’t an accurate prediction of transistor count these days, if it were true someone would design a computer chip with more transistors than the human brain by 2023.

Raw transistor counts don’t mean much without software that does something, and whilst artificial intelligence software can do some quite clever things, no-one’s close to creating a virtual human brain, capable of the vast number of simultaneous tasks that the human brain has to cope with.

Whilst I don’t think human beings will be using computer chips to augment their intelligence in the very near future, I’m guessing that it’ll be inevitable given the pace of change in computer sophistication and complexity.

When that day arrives, posthuman evolution will begin, and given the rate of evolution of computer components, posthuman evolution may be exponentially faster than anything we’ve seen before.