Software engineers will tell you that the longer they labor to solve complex problems by manually writing code, the more they respect the reasoning powers of the human brain. For years, artificial-intelligence researchers have gained some of their most useful insights from experts in brain function. And today the biological sciences are making similar contributions to all sorts of technologies useful to business, from software that "grows," "heals" and "reproduces" to tiny carbon tubes that will allow computer transistors to shrink to atomic dimensions even as they grow more powerful.
Last month TIME convened a five-member Board of Technologists to discuss how evolutionary biology--think of it as Earth's R. and D. department--is influencing the way we build computers, write software and organize companies. One member of our panel, Ray Kurzweil, an inventor, technology futurist and entrepreneur, observes that the human brain has no single "chief executive officer neuron." What gives the brain its power is not one boss but the ability of billions of neurons to conduct trillions of operations instantaneously. In computer lingo, that's called parallel processing, and it is something that today's man-made computers can accomplish only crudely. In everything from biology to business, this principle--a complex whole created by simple parts--is called emergence.
Emergence has become a common way of thinking about the world: zillions of little units--in this case neurons--do their own thing but together make up an entity of almost unfathomable complexity. Change the word neurons to "six-legged workers," and you'd have an ant colony. Change "ants" to "online buyers and sellers," and you'd have eBay. Change that to "stock traders," and you'd have NASDAQ.
The five visionaries on our panel are--in addition to Kurzweil--Paul Horn, IBM senior vice president for research; Sandeep Malhotra, vice president for nanotechnology at Ardesta, an Ann Arbor, Mich., venture-capital firm and industry incubator; Chris Meyer, director of Cap Gemini Ernst & Young's Center for Business Innovation in Cambridge, Mass.; and Melanie Mitchell, a research professor at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. They offer a glimpse of technologies--most of them already in use--that will reshape the way businesses are run and profits are made in the years ahead.
MAKE 'EM SWEAT
"It has become almost impossible for human beings to manage the kinds of information-technology systems that we have created and we have foisted on the rest of the world." --Paul Horn
Here's a head scratcher. New products for enterprise computing come online daily, automating more and more human activities, yet the networks are so complicated that companies must hire an increasing number of IT specialists to keep them running. Why not automate the automation?
It's a tough job and one that will take much more effort than Horn and his 3,200 IBM researchers can muster: it will take an entire global industry. Horn has begun a crusade to make a reality of what he calls "autonomic computing," a network equivalent to the body's autonomic nervous system. That's what tells your heart to beat faster when you run to catch a bus or tells you to sweat when you are hot.