Prediction: Could the Cloud Expand Human Brain Capacity?

You have to love the ideas that spill forth from a good futurist such as Ray Kurzweil, who recently remarked at an event that the cloud is potentially capable of expanding human brain capacity.

The “cloud” is a computing revolution (or evolution, or devolution, depending on who you ask) wherein data, programs, and more are decentralized from the machine sitting in front of you to a data farm at some remote location where everything is served up to users and accessed over the Internet. Or put another way, the cloud stores data--all of the data, really--which people can easily access with a computing device and an Internet connection.

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil

Metaphorically, our brainpower has already been immensely expanded by the paradigm of remotely stored data that is easily accessible. Just take the search engine as an example; before the ability to search the Internet and it’s deep wealth of knowledge, the simplest bits of information were frustratingly elusive. What to know the George Washington’s middle name, or can’t remember the specifics of the molecular structure of an element, or need to check on the best way to make a surgical incision of a certain kind, or are curious about how tall Jon Hamm is? Today, you can get the answers to those questions in seconds; 15 years ago, you needed to thumb through the family encyclopedias or head over to the library and dig--and that's assuming the information was actually available. In a sense, the search engine has changed the way we learn and access information; instead of reading something and committing it to memory, it’s nearly as effective to simply learn the fastest way to access that information and preserve your brain’s capacity for something else.

So what might help us access that data faster and more intelligently? Artificial intelligence.

It’s the mark of a true brilliance when a person can take an incredibly complex technology or idea and describe it succinctly and simply, which is what Kurzweil did when explaining the concept of AI. His explained it as one in which the artificial intelligence learns over time in a hierarchical fashion, which is exactly how the human brain works. We have about 300 million pattern recognizers in our neocortex, and those patterns help us learn new things based on things we already know.

If we think of artificial intelligence learning in the same way, the idea that a computer that can scan millions or billions of documents can learn as humans do doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

Obviously there’s more to it than that, and Kurzweil noted one deeply important aspect of learning, which is the ability to read and comprehend “natural language”; artificial intelligence technology can only advance so far without that capability, and there are plenty of attempts at enabling that all around us. For example, that’s exactly what Apple’s Siri is supposed to do.

If software can listen to us, predict our needs and the information we need, and fetch that information for us before we even ask for it, we can increase our capacity for knowledge by effectively increasing the pattern recognizers in our neocortex. As Kurzweil said, ”Why be limited to 300 million pattern recognizers? How about a billion or a trillion?”

BSG Rebirth
Don't worry, this probably won't happen

If this all sounds like the Singularity, it’s because that’s exactly what all of this is about. Despite all the terrifically terrifying science fiction about man-made machines that achieve self-awareness, rebel against their creators, and attempt to wipe out human existence, it’s more reasonable to see this as any technology: used correctly, it’s a huge help to humanity, but there’s a danger if it’s abused. Kurzweil used the example of fire. It cooks food and warms our bodies but also burns villages to the ground, yet that’s not a reason to fear it. It’s a reason to be responsible with it.

In any case, we’re certainly headed towards this technology becoming a reality. If you look at advances in wearable computing (which enables users to interact with the real world with an artificial device or overlaid with a virtual display), developments in language-recognition software, and the largest and most easily accessible store of human knowledge in history in the cloud via an Internet connection, you can see Kurzweil’s vision coming together.

Still, we’re going to try and remember to be polite to Siri, just in case. “Siri, what can I do for you today?”