TR: So we’re still at square one with neuromorphic computing?
MEAD: Actually, quite a lot of progress has been made. One of the exciting things that grew out of neuromorphic thinking is Lloyd Watts’s company Audience. They’ve got a working cochlear model that builds a significant portion of the auditory pathway – including precision signal recovery and sophisticated analysis – into a chip-level component. It’s more than just a better microphone; think of it as the auditory front end for any device that wants to use sound as an input.
TR: Voice recognition lives!
MEAD: Voice recognition as we know it is really brain dead. I shouldn’t say brain dead – a lot of smart people have worked on it for many years. But it’s an old paradigm. It’s advancing logarithmically with processing power; that’s about it. And yet we have these incredible working models right here – our own eyes and ears. That’s where we want to be looking.
TR: Hearing, vision – the same problems you picked out nearly 20 years ago are still interesting problems.
MEAD: They’re even more interesting, because we’re starting to know enough about them to make some progress. It’s taken this long to get the engineering-oriented people talking to the physiology people. Lawyers talk about “Chinese walls” in organizations; well, the barriers between scientific disciplines have been fierce.
TR: Is it the inherent difficulty of adapting digital technologies to our mostly analog human world?
MEAD: Digital abstraction is a wonderful thing. It substitutes a very simple set of logic operations – “and,” “or,” and “not” – for an infinite set of physical things. Working in analog is much harder, because there are essentially countless ways for the thing to go wrong. You’re working with the physics itself, rather than with some very small set of circuits that have been crafted to show digital behavior.
TR: We can’t let you get away without asking about Moore’s Law. You get a lot of credit for its formulation.
MEAD: Gordon had observed what was happening and asked me how far things could go, how small you could make the transistors. We did some work in the lab, and the answer turned out to be .15 microns [150 nanometers], maybe smaller. That was shocking at the time, but it turns out to have been conservative.
TR: So how far can it go?
MEAD: I looked at things again a few years ago, and if you don’t do anything differently, you can get down to 30 nanometers – a factor of five from what we originally said was going to be easy, and still a long ways from where things are today. So it’s certainly not going to stop.
And at the same time, we don’t have to keep doing things exactly the way we are doing them today. I for one certainly hope we don’t.
Salisbury, CT-based writer Spencer Reiss likes to interview people smarter than he is. The last time he did it for TR was with venture capitalist Michael Moritz, the man behind Google (April 2004).