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On the speed of research

posted Feb 28, 2008, 8:35 PM by Brian Tanner

Apr 3, 2006

I was at home for the holidays, and I found myself talking to old friends about Ray Kurzweil and his predictions about the future of technology and society. I'll admit, his book "The Age of Spiritual Machines, when computer exceed human intelligence" was important to me; it was one of the motivators that got me interested in strong artificial intelligence.

So found myself talking about how technological evolution is an exponential process, and how this has impacted the speed of research. I'm going to rehash the example I gave them here, because it's good to have things written down.

Let's say the year is 1990; and I have an interesting artificial intelligence idea. Is my idea novel? How can I find out? I'll mention it to my collegues, to determine if anyone has heard of similar work. I'll then take my leads and head to the library. Now I'll search through a book, microfiche, maybe a computer of conference and journal article titles (and maybe abstracts). This could take a very long time. Finally, I'll have a compiled list of works that may be relevant.

Some of these sources will be available in the well stocked University library. All I need to do is spend the afternoon running around, finding appropriate volumes, and marking down which volumes that I need are currently checked out. I'll have to fill out a form requesting the unavailable volumes when they return. That could take a week or so. For the sources not stocked locally, I'll fill out a request form, and those issues will be sent from wherever in North America they are to me; for an inter-library loan. Very cool. That will take several weeks as well. These are all short period loan items, so of course I'll have to spend a few hours photocopying everything that I might want a copy of.

So, after looking at these articles, I will probably learn that they are not exactly what I wanted. But!, they will probably cite related work that IS exactly what I wanted. So, I'll go back to the library with my new list of sources, and get my hands on what I can.

The funny thing about this story is that on one hand; it is fantastic. Using the library and inter-library loan procedure, almost any bit of published information is available to me. Quite amazing. The downside of course, is that it can take weeks to get access to some of the information, and it is not easy to search.

Of course, in todays information age, there are no such restrictions. Not only do we have access to most of these works; they are now accessible from our desk, they are also searchable, and it takes seconds instead of weeks to get the information. Literally, I can have an idea in the morning and have a feeling for the related work by the afternoon, while back in 1990 it would have taken weeks. That's the speed of research.

Also, a brief word on processing power. Computers are obviously much faster now than in 1990; but what has the impact of this been? In the past, it would have been necessary to commit significant computing resources to run a new algorithm (or a tweaked or bug-fixed algorithm) on some reasonable dataset, especially if multiple trials need to be performed to establish statistical significance. These experiments could take days or weeks. To run that same experiment now would take seconds or minutes. This acceleration of result availability means that we can try more ideas in a week than could have previously been done over the course of a research period.

In the past, after an interesting idea was published, it might take a year or two before other research groups could follow up on the idea and extend it. That latency has been cut drastically by the combination of the issues I've mentioned, along with others like prepublication manuscripts and online technical reports. This will continue, and we will see new ideas and improvements to existing ideas at an increasingly rapid pace.

Ok, so it's not deep, or life altering information. It's just a thought and/or musing. And it's exciting.

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