More Transistors Than Neurons

By Edward Cone  |  Posted Thursday, September 23, 2010 17:09 PM

by Tim Moran

As a technology leader in your company, the speed at which tech has changed, and continues to change, comes as no surprise to you. And the longer you've been on the job, the more massively sweeping advances you've seen in computing, software, and communications. A recent article by Fortune senior editor at large Geoff Colvin puts the scope of technological innovation in a perspective we've not before seen. "I have more transistors than neurons," writes Colvin. "So do you. That's something worth caring about, because it signals the advance of a weird new world that most of us aren't prepared for."

It is the transistor that, like Proust's "petites madeleines," sparks his memory of youthful ownership of a simple radio. "Remembering how proud I once was to own a transistor radio with five transistors, I wondered how many transistors I own today. . . When I performed this exercise nine years ago, I was astonished to find that the total was 4 billion to 6 billion."

Colvin proceeds to enumerate the devices he owns and calculates the number of transistors in each: laptop (37 billion); iPod (256 billion); Kindle (more than 16 billion); etc. "Even leaving aside shared family devices, my personal transistor count is in the hundreds of billions," he concludes. The brain? A mere 100 billion neurons. Explains Colvin: "The transistors-to-neurons comparison helps us nongeeks grasp the simply staggering pervasiveness of technology."

A list-maker and fact-slinger par excellence, Colvin spends much of the middle of the article telling us things like, "the world produced about 10 quintillion [one followed by 18 zeros (1018)] transistors in 2009, which is 250 times more than all the grains of rice consumed last year"; and the "Mercedes-Benz. . .new S550 uses 8 billion to 10 billion transistors"; and so forth. All of which is by way of making his point that "mainstream experts are now seriously considering the implications of machines far smarter and more capable than ourselves."

To Colvin this means that we must begin to imagine an "unimaginable future," and he points to the subject of a previous entry of ours: IBM's Watson. For those of us who started in journalism when "hot type" was still the technology for getting the written word to the printed page, none of this comes as any surprise.

Each week, it seems, there's some new technology to learn about and consider and cope with. Technology is moving so fast the one day it might actually pass itself--which could very well be the time when the machines run us instead of us running the machines. Colvin quotes a U.S. Navy's study that speaks of "autonomous military robotics" that create the possibility that "we. . .may not be able to halt some (potentially fatal) chain of events caused by. . .systems that process information and can act at speeds incomprehensible to us."

Even Colvin's simple counting game might be quashed by technology: "As for my counting exercise, it may soon become impossible. I asked IBM's experts how many transistors Watson has. The system is so vast, complex, and ever-changing that they just don't know." Five transistors to the incalculable in less than half a century. Staggering, indeed.