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Communications of the ACM

Letter from the President

Cognitive Implants

Vinton G. Cerf

We are already well into the second month of 2014 and well on our way to the middle of the second decade of the 21st century. One hundred years ago, World War I was about to start. Einstein's "annus mirabilis" papers were just nine years in the past. The first computers were about 25 years ahead, counting Conrad Zuse's 1938–1939 et. seq. work on the Z1 and Z2, especially, as seminal. Some 50 years ago—1964—marked the introduction of the IBM 360 computer. Roughly 40 years ago, the first paper on the Internet's core Transmission Control Protocol was published, the first hand-held mobile was being prototyped, and the Ethernet was invented. About 30 years ago the Internet was formally launched into operation and Apple announced the Macintosh. Circa 25 years ago, the World Wide Web was invented, the Mosaic Browser appears, and the so-called dot-com boom is poised to take off.

Every time I see calendar dates like 2014, I feel as if I have been transported by time machine into the future. It could not possibly be 2014 already! Isaac Asimov made some remarkably astute projections about 2014 in 1964,a so what might he say today?

What we can reasonably see today is the emergence of a crude form of cognitive accessory that augments our remarkable, but in some ways limited, ability to think, analyze, evaluate, and remember. Just as readily available calculators seem to have eroded our ability to perform manual calculations, search engines have tended to become substitutes for basic human memory. The search engines of the Internet have become the moral equivalent of cognitive implants. When I cannot think of someone's name or a fact (an increasingly common phenomenon), I find myself searching my email or just looking things up on the World Wide Web.

In effect, the Web is behaving like a big accessory that I use as if it were just a brain implant. Maybe by 2064 I will be able to access information just by thinking about it. Current mobiles, laptops, tablets, and Google Glass have audio interfaces that allow a user to voice requests for information and to cause transactions to take place. Whether we ever actually have the ability to connect our brains in some direct way to the Internet, it is clear we are fast approaching the ability to outfit computers (think "robots") with the ability to know about, perceive, and interact with the physical world.

It has been speculated that machine intelligence and adaptive programming will be the avenue through which computers will become increasingly cognizant of the world around them—increasingly behaving like self-aware systems. In addition to so-called "cyber-physical systems" that provide sensory input to computers and are expected to interact with the real world, an increasing degree of augmentation of our human sensory and cognitive capacity seems predictable. While we joke about memory upgrades or implants, search engines and the content of the Internet and World Wide Web act like exabyte memories that are reached through direct interaction with the computers that house them. Ray Kurzweil's virtuous, exponential computing functionality and capacity growth predictions, even if overly bold in the short term, strike me as potential underestimates of what may be possible in 50 to 100 years.

When we are on the cusp of generating an Internet of Things, humanoid and functional robots, smart cities, smart dwellings, and smart vehicles, to say nothing of instrumented and augmented bodies, it does not seem excessive to suggest the world of 2064 will be as far beyond imagining as 2014 was in 1964, except that Asimov had a remarkably clairvoyant view of what 50 years of engineering and discovery could achieve. A huge challenge will be to understand and characterize the level of complexity of such a world in which many billions of devices are interacting with one another often in unplanned ways.

For those of us who were around in 1964, we may recall our naïve aspirations for the decades ahead and realize how ambitious our expectations were. On the other hand, what is commonplace in 2014 would have been economically unthinkable 50 years ago. So perhaps exabyte, cognitive implants are a trifle ambitious in the short term, but a lot can happen in 50 years time. Just as we have adapted to the past 50 years, I expect we will rapidly embrace some of the functionality coming in the next five decades. It is already difficult to remember how we lived our lives without mobiles and the Internet. Now, where did I put that time machine?


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