MOLECULAR COMPUTERS – WHEN WILL WE GET THERE?
In previous posts I have talked about the absolute requirement of a computer system that can be totally relied upon to control a star mission. I have postulated that we need to advance from our current highly technical – but sometimes unreliable – systems to a level of reliability and logic that can only be realised by true artificial intelligence [AI].
We are probably at least 50 years from this level of AI and certainly 100 years before our AI network designs and constructs a Mars base. This would be the nerve centre to build a starship in Mars orbit for a voyage to the stars in the middle of the 22nd century.
But how far can we advance computer capability in the next 100 years and can we ever realise the ultimate design – a true molecular computer!
Current capability manufactures integrated circuits [microchips] on up to 450 mm diameter wafers of silicon at wire dimensions of 20-40 nanometres. Typically 1416 microchips each 10 mm square are fabricated on each wafer simultaneously to tolerances that are astoundingly minute. There are billions of transistors and other electronic components on each chip which is the size of a fingernail. A fabrication plant costs $5 billion and is built to resist earthquakes as NO vibration can be tolerated throughout the process.
All this process sophistication is aimed at cramming incredible numbers of micro-transistors into smaller and smaller spaces producing 5 terabyte hard drives and 8 gigabytes RAM memory chips. Basically each byte is a single memory slot which is a switch [in simple terms] that can either be ‘off’ for 0 or ‘on’ for 1. This is the basis of the digital age where all information can be expressed in binary code in 0’s or 1’s, stored and processed in our computers and wirelessly transmitted around the world via Internet and telephonic communications. For example the number 3245 is represented in binary code as 110010101101 which would occupy 12 bytes of memory set to on-on off-off-on-off-on-off-on-on-off-on. All our data can be stored and processed in this form but we need an awful lot of memory slots to do this.
Future computer development will pack increasingly more bytes into our chips but we will reach a physical constraint – there is a practical limit to how small we can make the circuits on the silicon wafers. The printing and etching processes will have reached their capability.
So where next for the computers of the mid and late 21st century?
Scientists at IBM have created an alternative to silicon for the logic gates on microchips that will ensure the continuing shrinkage of the basic digital switching mechanism for at least 10 more years. The IBM breakthrough, first reported in Nature Nanotechnology and by the New York Times, uses carbon nanotubes, a type of molecule that is an alternative to silicon, for the creation of miniature logic gates in microprocessors.
Now watch what IBM can do with individual carbon monoxide molecules at the molecular level!
Further, a group of future-minded researchers are expressing optimism about the potential of tiny nanoelectronic components, organic molecules, carbon nanotubes and individual electrons that could serve as the underlying technology for new generations of microprocessors in the future.
This is the direction of the ultimate molecular computer but we are a long way from this yet. However we will certainly need this technology to develop AI computers to build and control our star missions of the future.
MOLECULAR COMPUTERS – WHEN WILL WE GET THERE?
We must be 10 – 20 years away, but what do you think?
And what if something technologically evolved over hundreds of millions of years and became the ultimate molecular entity? How sophisticated could that be? I have imagined that, but you will have to follow the link below to find out more and learn The Quest of the Dicepterons.
IMAGINE LIFE ELSEWHERE?
IMAGINE THE UNIMAGINABLE!
ARTIFICIAL VERSUS HUMAN INTELLIGENCE
Let us start with the definitions of artificial and human intelligence.
Artificial intelligence [AI] is the intelligence of machines or software and is a branch of computer science that studies and develops intelligent machines and software. The field is also defined as “the study and design of intelligent agents” where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximises its chances of success.
Human intelligence is the property of mind that encompasses the capacities to reason, plan, problem solve, think, comprehend ideas, use languages, communicate and learn.
These two definitions [Wikipedia] demonstrate just how far we are away from true AI.
Our brain is a remarkable organ – a ‘computer’ with about 100 billion neurons [nerve cells] and an equal number of neuroglia which serve to support the neurons. Each neuron may be connected to 10,000 other neurons, passing signals via 1,000 trillion synaptic connections equivalent to a computer with a 1 trillion bit per second processer. Estimates of the human brain’s memory range from 1 to 1000 terabytes. The 19 million volumes in the US Library of Congress represent about 10 terabytes.
With this amazing computing power we should all be geniuses but human brains are remarkably inefficient in key ways – our memories are lousy, our grasp of logic is shallow and our capacity to do arithmetic is dismal. However, in some ways we outstrip our silicon based computers which are so good at maths, logic and memory. Your average ten-year-old, for example, can learn to play any number of games and well, if not quite at a world-class level. How do human beings manage to be so flexible, and what would it take to make a machine equally supple in learning new things?
Today’s’ computers are in every aspect of our life and they are very complex and fast – multi core processors operating at 6 Gb/sec with 1-2 terabyte hard drives and 8Gb RAM memory are typical of high end consumer specification. But they are designed [programmed by humans] to carry out specific tasks which they do exceptionally well but you cannot ask a computer to do something for which it has not been programmed.
A good example is Deep Blue the chess computer designed by IBM in the 90’s which defeated Garry Kasparov, the world champion, on May 11th 1997 over a 6 game-match. But this brilliantly complex computer only plays chess and cannot play any other games or learn by itself to carry out other tasks.
And this is the fundamental requirement of the AI computer – to learn and respond to changing circumstances and make the best decisions for success. There is a lot of research and development at present but we have a long way to go for true AI – the level that could control a spaceship on a 20 year journey to the stars. We are probably at least 50 years away from this criteria and certainly 150 years away from using it on a star mission.
I think it is time to meet Zec, my AI computer controlling the star mission to learn The Quest of the Dicepterons – follow link below.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE – A DANGER TO HUMANITY?
I have discussed in previous posts two of the critical factors for mans’ journey to the stars viz. how to travel at half-light speed and cryo-hibernation for a 20 year voyage. But how can our ‘sleeping’ astronauts have total confidence in the pilot of the spaceship as it hurtles through space at 150,000 kilometres every second?
They can hardly be woken up part way through the journey to inform them that something needs fixing. This would only happen in an ‘abort mission’ scenario. Nor can we consider asking mission control for help – if we are half way to our destination star then it will take five years for the message – “Houston, we have a problem!” to arrive at Earth. And more than five years for the answer to come back!
In short, we are totally on our own in a spaceship that has to be provisioned for every eventuality and for periods up to 50 years if we have a return ticket. A spaceship that is controlled by the most sophisticated and utterly reliable systems that can be designed.
We are talking in the realms of artificial intelligence [AI] – the ultimate extension of the current explosion in computer technology. But we are probably 50-100 years away from the level of AI that would be needed to totally control a 20 year star mission in the middle of the 22nd century. In fact, a Mars base and starship would be such complex undertakings that their construction would have to be totally project managed and accomplished by our AI computer!
I will talk more about AI in the next post but let us familiarise ourselves with computer progress in the last 40 years. In 1972 when Pioneer 10 took off for the stars with its gold plaque on board [seeding the idea for my story], computing technology was rapidly evolving.
In the 1960’s 3rd generation computers occupied whole rooms and used integrated circuits e.g. IBM System/360. In the 70’s the microprocessor revolutionised computing and the first single-chip CPU was the Intel 4004. Then came monitors and keyboards and suddenly computers started to look as they do today and became available to the general public.
I remember the BBC computer in the early 80’s with its ‘massive’ 32kB ram! – 32,000 ‘memory slots’. You hooked it up to the ‘tele’ as a monitor and added a cassette player to save your computer programmes! I learned BBC basic code and even wrote a playable game of Scrabble.
Since then capability has doubled every two years [Moore’s Law] and now we talk in Gigabytes[1 GB = 1,000,000,000] and Terabytes [1 TB = 1,000,000,000,000]. Modest computers today have 16 GB RAM and 1-2 TB hard drives and we have more computing power in our mobile phones than the whole of some of the early space missions.
We have a long way to go to realise true AI which I have visualised in my story. You may want to join my astronauts when, piloted by Zec, they depart on a 20 year voyage to the star Seren in 2150 to unravel the Quest of the Dicepterons. Follow link below.
You will also find out who or what Zec is.
WHO WOULD VOLUNTEER TO TRIAL CRYO-HIBERNATION?
I have talked in previous posts about the various medical and equipment requirements for a 20 year cryo-hibernation at 5 degrees Celsius. But how do you gain the confidence that the process works and that you will wake up and be mentally and physically fit to carry out your mission at another star?
Testing can be done on animals to give a high degree of confidence but the definitive trials have to be carried out on humans.
BUT WHO WOULD VOLUNTEER FOR A 10 YEAR CRYO TRIAL!?
I will let Dr. Astronaut Martha Baker explain but first let me set the scene. The year is 2150 and we are at Mars Base in a very special unit. Our 4 astronauts are about to see the cryo-cocoons that they will enter on their starship for a 20 year journey to the star Seren.
Martha was in her late 30s with a small neat figure and smooth dark skin encompassing large eyes. She looked very striking in the white hygiene clothing which they had all changed into before entering the air lock.
The inner door hissed open and AJ and the astronauts followed Martha into the cryo-unit. They had seen many strange sights but this white floor- tiled, white-ceilinged, igloo-shaped room shrieked cleanliness and the astronauts felt almost afraid to enter. There was a constant noise of equipment beeping, valves opening and closing and the hiss of air and other gases pressurising and venting.
Martha beckoned them towards the middle of the room where seven lozenge shape units stood on complex support machinery fed by a multitude of pipes and wires. Behind each an LCD screen bristled with data, graphs and various coloured lights. Six of the structures were closed and the seventh stood open with its upper half retracted.
The four astronauts peered closer into the dark translucent upper halves of the closed units and saw that each contained a body!
‘My God!’ Olivia gasped, ‘Are they alive?’
‘Very much so,’ Martha replied, ‘let me introduce you to our six cryo – hibernation volunteers.’
‘Who on Earth would volunteer to be frozen?’ Steve queried.
‘Well, firstly they’re not frozen but kept at exactly 5 degrees Celsius and secondly on Earth there are still some really bad human beings.’
Martha paused for effect and then moved closer to the first unit.
‘Let me introduce you to Freddie Riggs, 20 years for armed robbery, killed a security guard – no parole. We offered him 15 in cryo and he’s done 10, five to go – he’ll soon be our longest serving cryo.’
Before the astonished astronauts could respond, Martha moved to the second unit. ‘Lisa Greenfield, killed her young child, very sad case, 10 years but could be out in seven for good behaviour – accepted five from us – one down four to go.’
Martha detailed the next four criminals and then stood before the last open unit. ‘Joe ‘bully’ Saunders, 10 years for serious aggravated assault, no parole, accepted seven from us – went home 4 weeks ago in surprisingly good health and hardly looking a day older!’
Finally I will let Zec have the last word.
‘My biggest concern using criminals was maintaining the secrecy and security of the operation at Mars Base. Therefore I chose only those candidates susceptible to hypnosis so that all memories of their stay at Mars Base were erased before returning to Earth.’
So who are Zec, Olivia, Steve and AJ you may wonder? Join them on their starship in 2150 when they go in search of The Quest of the Dicepterons. Follow link below –
CAN WE EXERCISE OUR BODY DURING SPACE HIBERNATION?
We need to consider the equipment requirements for an extended cryo-hibernation at say 5 degrees Celsius. We will need a very sophisticated cocoon in which our astronaut can be connected to the many life support systems described in earlier blogs.
We are used to living and moving with gravity a key force on our bodies. However, an extended journey in the zero gravity of space is a major problem for our stationary form in its cryo-pod – we can hardly wake up every few days and run around our spaceship!
So a key issue is how to exercise the body during our 20 year hibernation. We often wake up after one nights’ sleep and stretch to remove stiffness – but after 20 years!
But again, let us get Zec to describe an important component inside the cocoon…
‘I am particularly proud of the design of these units especially the surface of the bed in contact with the user. This is comprised of thousands of vertically aligned sprung rods of PTFE plastic, whose smooth dome diameter is 2 millimetres, and they perfectly mould to the body shape providing comfort. But this is secondary to the key functions of the bed. Firstly the rods are raised and lowered a few millimetres in sequential horizontal rows from top to toe ensuring that no part of the body is in constant contact with the bed thus eliminating sores. Secondly, groups of rods are raised and lowered by significant amounts to gently flex the astronaut’s neck, backbone, limbs and fingers to maintain flexibility through the protracted hibernation. All these functions are controlled by the unit’s computer which is programmed with each astronaut’s precise morphology. Signals are sent to the hydraulically controlled pistons at the lower end of each rod enabling the smooth control of every flexing movement. I consider that these beds are a marvel of 22nd century micro-technology.’
AND HOW CAN WE GET OUR EYES OPEN AFTER 20 YEARS?
Again, Zec has the answer…
‘The average human blinks 30-40 times per minute during waking hours and this ensures that the surface of the eyeball remains lubricated with liquid from the tear ducts. After a night’s sleep we sometimes have a little difficulty opening our eyes but after 20 years? Inside the cocoon and during the day the computer is programmed to send a signal every 5 seconds to each astronaut’s goggles where a short burst of harmless radiation causes spasms in the muscle controlling the blinking process. At the same time, a tiny amount of synthetic tear liquid is atomised in front of each eyeball and condenses onto it thus maintaining lubrication.’
Even so when we arrive at our star it will be many weeks after we wake from cryo-hibernation before we are fit enough to confront what awaits us at a new star. We will need all our wits about us to unravel the Quest of the Dicepterons – please follow link below.
And who or what is Zec you may ask?