Scientists are forever sounding alarm bells about artificial intelligence surpassing that of humans. It seems as inescapable as death, taxes and spyware. With the popularity of Hollywood's Terminator movies and their ilk, speculation is typically visualised in the form of walking automata, such as robots and cyborgs.
But a more direct threat to mankind's position at the top of the know-it-all table is from computer-generated intelligence or artificial neural networks. This synthetic intelligence was initially meant to mimic the way the human brain works. Inside a growing number of large multinational corporations, however, it serves a more practical purpose: as a decision-making tool, with algorithms that can find complex relationships or patterns in statistical data.
British computer scientist Alan Turing is often credited with introducing the concept of a neural network, based on his 1948 paper Intelligent Machinery.
In St Louis, in the United States, an engineering company called Imagination Engines, a fast-growing contractor to the US military, is trying to build the ultimate neural network - one that can solve any problem you care to name.
Company founder Stephen Thaler, who also serves as president and chief executive, proposes a radical form of neural network, one that can learn from its mistakes and successes to create useful ideas and strategies. It is designed to be capable of autonomously inventing and discovering products, services and procedures.
'The continuing inspiration for this project is the desire to build trans-human level intelligence in machines that can solve a broad range of pressing technological and societal problems, as well as serving as the vehicle for our immortality,' says Thaler.
The nuts and bolts of the project are largely based on Thaler's 1997 patent known as the Creativity Machine Paradigm.
Regarding the headwinds the project has faced, Thaler says the strongest is its enormity. 'Even I'm choking on the possibilities.'
Any invention, whether human- or machine-generated, requires marketing. 'It usually takes a good portion of a lifetime to sell what is inherently a good idea,' he says.
Still, advances made by artificial intelligence continue. The interconnected networks of computers worldwide are expanding, spawning more smart systems that hook up into a vast brain-like structure. As a result of the creative ferment, cognitive talents are arising spontaneously. Thaler claims he has witnessed emotional behaviour including (gulp) 'stress-induced frenzy' and a range of other human neuroses.
Thaler claims this current state of network links may eventually display thinking power that is on a level with our perceived understanding of extra-terrestrial intelligence.
As for future applications, Imagination Engine's project and other initiatives are 'extremely proprietary', says Thaler. What can be revealed is that they include paradigm shifts in space propulsion and non-chip-based cognitive systems. 'We've also got a surprise or two coming in the area of entertainment,' says Thaler.