While Watson may not be able to have an intelligent conversation, its appearance on "Jeopardy" heralded a sea change in A.I. brought about by multicore processors, clustered computing and sophisticated computer management software.
The computational power that got man to the moon in the late 1960s is now "embodied in Furby". "Admittedly, not the best use of that computational power," Lazowska said.
Ten years ago, one IT administrator was needed to manage 250 servers. Today, that person can manage thousands of servers. For example, Microsoft's Azure cloud computing platform requires only 12 support people for 35,000 servers divided between two continents, Lazowska said.
The exponential power behind computing has allowed the Internet to have a dramatic impact on our lives, more so than anything else in the past 40 years, he said. Over the next several years, consumers will see that power used to create smart homes, smart healthcare, smart robots and smart cars capable of reactive decision making, Lazowska said.
The key to future computer development is "system building," where instead of technologists developing technology within their fields of expertise, they work in teams that include a variety of disciplines.
"When speech recognition and vision people get together, they're able to build system that provides dramatically greater capabilities than they could do on their own," he said.
Anant Agarwal, a professor in the MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department, said computers need to be more like humans if they're going to be able to take advantage of engineering advances.
Agarwal said his department's vision is to build a processor with hundreds or even thousands of cores, something that could be a reality in as little as four years.
One major obstacle to building multi-thousand-core processors is controlling heat generation from the circuitry. One way to control heat generation is the keep the cores as close to the DRAM memory as possible, thereby shortening the circuitry and reducing the time for heat to build. Another way is to balance application performance with hardware capability.
"We need to rethink compilers, operating systems, architectures, how we program computers; The first thing you want to do is to have applications be able to communicate their goals to the operating system," Agarwal said. "What we need is self-aware computation."
That would be like having an application "tell" an operating system what it needs in terms of processing power, and then having the OS balance that need with the needs of other applications running at the same time.
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