The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 31, 2003
Time Off

Fast-forward to future shock
Manohar Malgonkar

LIKE the grains of sand on a beach we say when talking of an unimaginably vast number. It is just a figure of speech, for we don’t know how many grains of sand there are on that beach. Nobody has bothered to count them. Yes?

Not any longer, for that is just what Australia’s astronomers have done. Counted the grains of sand not just on one beach, but, of all the beaches of the world. And they have arrived at a number which you write down like this: the figure 7 followed by 21 zeros. That’s right.

Now multiply that number by ten, meaning add yet another zero; 22 in all, and that is an accurate estimate of the number of ‘visible stars in the universe, ten times as many as all the grains of sand in all the beaches in the world. And those are just the ‘visible’ ones; even the pandits themselves don’t know how many more zeros we would have to add to get at the real total of stars.

How do I know all this? I heard it on a B.B.C. radio broadcast on the morning of July 22; that’s how. Like most elderly people, I have long been accustomed to getting the day’s news from the early morning broadcasts on the bedside radio. On that Sunday, the "accurate" calculation of the number of ‘visible stars in the universe, actually figured as an item in the main news bulletin. Hard news.


From Adam to Saddam — capsule history
June 22, 2003

Building bridges across cultures
April 20, 2003

Throwing light on the ‘light of the world’
April 13, 2003

Smelling sahibs learnt to bathe in India
April 6, 2003

Heroic endings
March 16, 2003

They died for Vande Mataram
March 9, 2003

Vande Mataram: A song to die for
March 2, 2003

Hats off to breaking the mould
February 2, 2003

Poppies are both sacred and profane
December 22, 2002

The language of democracy vs dictatorship
December 8, 2002

Colossus follies and human desires
December 1, 2002

Out-of-bound holiday places
November 17, 2002

The backroom boys of history
November 3, 2002

But how futile? I could not help thinking. The zero, an Arabic term appropriated by the world, put to use with such reckless profligacy. What difference did it make if the number of grains of sand on a beach were a few zeros less or more?

But out of that quite staggering information overload, the men of science pick out what they need at the moment, and the progress they have achieved is dazzlingly spectacular. Because even while I was recovering from the impact of that long string of zero, there were further revelations on my bedside radio, of the headlong progress of man’s scientific achievements.

I may not have got it down in its entirety, but there is its gist: That every two years, the computer chip becomes twice as powerful while, at the same time shrinks to half its size. It grows wiser and wiser, and yet, smaller and smaller.

Given this giddy pace of development, what is the ultimate form of the magic chip likely to be? Even the experts shy away from such a question. After all, there can be no final form or size of something that keeps shrinking all the time. They’d much rather talk about the capabilities and limitations of the computer chips as they are today. Both the BBC’s own mandarin and the professional actually engaged in the development of the chip, seemed to be agreed on that. According to them, it is possible to manufacture a chip no bigger than a pinhead crammed with all the knowledge contained in the Encyclopedia Britannica with enough room left over to accommodate the complete Oxford English Dictionary’s 40-odd massive volumes.

And even such a spooky chip will be outsmarted by its successors in a matter of a couple of years. Wow! — And then the question naturally arises: To what purpose? To what use can they put such a wonderful object?

It seems that the scientists have thought out a number of ways to make that microchip serve some practical purpose, one of them being to build ever smaller and ever more powerful computers. We already see how that chip has been harnessed and tamed for the latest mobile telephones. They can display images, play music, record music, serve as an alarm clock, or beeper, take photographs, keep lists of your appointments and obey your voiced commands. Oh, yes, they can also enable you to talk with other phone users.

And almost as their knockout punch, the B.B.C’s own man as well as the professional wizard he was interviewing, gave it out that, it won’t be too long before that pin-head computer-chip has more knowledge than the human brain.

What a frightening prospect? I kept thinking, for any of us to face the fact that something so insignificant could be thought to be wiser, more scholarly, than ourselves. Absurd! And it was good to see that the B.B.C’s own man conducting the programme, himself did not want to be outsmarted by an object made in a factory — and maybe actually performing his job. Ugh! That may be why, after giving it out as his considered opinion, that a day would come when a computer-chip would be brainier than a human being, he expressed his relief that it was a somewhat remote possibility, "not in our lifetime," he pronounced, "or the lifetime of our children or grandchildren."

It seemed clear that he, personally, wanted no part of it. But his guest for the programme, a true-grit scientist of the ‘take-no-prisoners school of thought’, disagreed. Nonsense, he said. He, for his part, foresaw that, by the year 2020, or only 17 years from now, the industry will have developed and manufactured a computer-chip that will be smarter than a mere human being; and further that, he for one had every intention of being still around to welcome it.

The scenario he unfolded with obvious glee was weird and frightening. That scientists would implant this sub-microscopic chip into a human brain to make its possessor an instant genius, the equal of Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein.

But how small, how stupid, those da Vincis and Einsteins are going to feel when, only two years later, the next generation of chips hits the market? And where and how did that process of turning out geniuses stop? What is to prevent some mad scientist implanting them in the brains of cattle, dogs, birds, frogs? The mind reels at the dangers that our scientists are capable of releasing on the human race.

So it is just as well to ponder on something else that the discussion on air brought out, a vital statistic. It seems that the ratio of telephone instruments to the number of people in a country has a significance all its own, in that they’re an index of the awareness of fundamental human rights. That when number of phones in a land reaches one to every 30 people, they will be unable to abide dictatorships. They have the actual example of the Iron Curtain countries. When the number of telephones went above that fail-safe figure, the regimes collapsed on their own.

Food for thought — and worry — to North Korea, Cuba, and Pakistan. Their bosses will have to keep a strict watch on the spread of telephones in their lands. So put curbs on your telephone users, Senor Fidel, Comrade Kim, and Mian Pervez. Remember that there is danger in numbers. One to every 40 seems fairly safe, and one in 30 is the break-loose point of spontaneous implosion. That’s what the B.B.C.’s experts tell us.