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Moore’s Brain in Lake Michigan

The article below is about robots taking human jobs. In the middle of the article is an interesting analogy that compares the growth rate in artificial intelligence to a task of filling Lake Michigan using Moore’s law. Lake Michigan was chosen because of a parallel between its volume in fluid ounces and the number of calculations per second a human brain can perform.

Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don’t Fire Us?

Suppose it’s 1940 and Lake Michigan has (somehow) been emptied. Your job is to fill it up using the following rule: To start off, you can add one fluid ounce of water to the lake bed. Eighteen months later, you can add two. In another 18 months, you can add four ounces. And so on. Obviously this is going to take a while.

By 1950, you have added around a gallon of water. But you keep soldiering on. By 1960, you have a bit more than 150 gallons. By 1970, you have 16,000 gallons, about as much as an average suburban swimming pool.

At this point it’s been 30 years, and even though 16,000 gallons is a fair amount of water, it’s nothing compared to the size of Lake Michigan. To the naked eye you’ve made no progress at all.

So let’s skip all the way ahead to 2000. Still nothing. You have—maybe—a slight sheen on the lake floor. How about 2010? You have a few inches of water here and there. This is ridiculous. It’s now been 70 years and you still don’t have enough water to float a goldfish. Surely this task is futile?

But wait. Just as you’re about to give up, things suddenly change. By 2020, you have about 40 feet of water. And by 2025 you’re done. After 70 years you had nothing. Fifteen years later, the job was finished.

The point of this is that if we are progressing toward general or strong artificial intelligence at the same growth rate as Moore’s Law, then we may be very close to a huge breakthrough without the realization of most people.

And this is the basic concept at the heart of singularity theory.