Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Microprocessor Pioneer Frederico Faggin On: Could Quantum Computers Rival Human Consciousness?

Posted by Tom Foremski - November 3, 2011

By Intel Free Press

If you could ask only one person about the limits of computers past, present and future, the right person might be Federico Faggin. Forty years ago Faggin meticulously sketched the blueprint that brought to life the world's first microprocessor, which later sparked the personal computer revolution.

After a career dedicated to creating evermore intelligent computer chips, he has turned his attention to what a computer, even quantum computers, may never be able to do: reach the potential of human consciousness.

Quantum computers, which handle information radically different and theoretically much faster than today's mechanical, transistor-powered computers, have largely remained science fiction until recently when Lockheed Martin and University of Southern California researchers introduced their quantum computing center in California.

Even so, Faggin believes computers, in their current and future quantum states, are the key that will unlock a true understanding of how human consciousness works.

The impact of the 1st microprocessor

Faggin spoke about his role designing the 4004 microprocessor, a single integrated chip conceived by Intel's Ted Hoff and Stan Mazur.. It was considered the world's first microprocessor when it hit the market in 1971, and for four decades Faggin has witnessed its immense impact on society.

The 4004, which was about the size of a small fingernail, delivered the same computing power as the ENIAC, the first electronic computer built in 1946 that filled an entire room.

Just as engines powered the industrial revolution, Faggin sees the microprocessor as the core element that continues to drive the information age.

"The engine extended the muscular power of human beings, thus enabling the industrial revolution," said Faggin. "The microprocessor extends the intellectual capacities, the brain power of human beings, thus extending the human reach into areas that an engine cannot."

A speck of intelligence

Faggin says the microprocessor allowed the creation of thousands of different types of products, all powered by what he calls "a speck of intelligence." And these devices are now connecting with one another and connecting people through the Internet.

"I think [the] Internet represents the collection of all the power of this engine, and it's the defining capacity of microprocessors," said Faggin. "It connects people at a planetary scale. It connects things and provides flows of information, which are useful for communication, control and computation."

The future is sure to bring faster, cheaper, more power-efficient computers, says Faggin. However, even if quantum computers become a reality, which Faggin says could bring capabilities beyond today's mechanical versions, computers will not match the complex intelligence of human consciousness.

Machine versus human intelligence

"I think that human intelligence, especially in the lower manifestations of it, will be aided tremendously by computers, but there are aspects of human capacities that we don't define as intelligence, which have to do with intuition, will, intention, imagination and creativity," he said.

Although logic is a term the computer industry uses when referring to central processing units, or microprocessors, Faggin says human consciousness entails more than logical thought processes and the ability to rationalize. The human brain, he contends, gives a person keen awareness of oneself and one's surroundings. It is motivated by powerful subconscious and emotional processes that work beneath or alongside logical thinking.

"Consciousness is the ability that human beings have to experience, to think, to know that they know, or to know that they don't know," said Faggin. "A machine cannot do that."

Early years

Faggin, born and educated in Italy, spent a career turning complex ideas and blueprints for real-world computing. In November 2010, he joined Hoff and Mazur in receiving the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama.

"I grew up in Vicenza, which is near Venice in Italy," said Faggin. "When I was a child, I was interested in machines."

His first love was airplanes. He remembers wanting to become an aeronautical engineer so he could design and build large model planes.

"As I grew up, I became more interested in science and decided to study physics, which then gave me an understanding of the basic workings of the universe," he said.

Early in his career while working at SGS Fairchild in Italy in 1968, he recalls inventing and developing silicon gate technology, which would become the basis for building tiny transistors that could rapidly switch on and off.

A few years later, start-up company Intel came knocking. Les Vadez, one of the founding members of Intel, which at the time was a fledgling memory chip company, invited Faggin to help with a secret project. Faggin accepted and immediately began drafting the blueprint for what would become the Intel 4004. The chip was specifically built for an advanced calculator by Japan's Busicom, but Faggin knew it was destined for much more than just calculators.

"My major contribution was to figure out a way to integrate all the complexity of a central processing unit [CPU] into a single chip, which had never been done before," said Faggin. "It required a new methodology."

After helping the 4004 evolve into a multi-purpose, programmable processor for devices beyond the Busicom calculator, Faggin went to work on the 8080 processor, which was an 8-bit CPU used in early minicomputers several years prior to the first IBM PC.

"I did the architecture and directed its development, and the 8080 was the first high-performance microprocessor in the market," he said. "It really opened wide the application field for microprocessors."

The iconic Z80

In 1974, a few months after the 8080 hit the market, Faggin left Intel and started Zilog, where he conceived the Z80 microprocessor.

"The Z80 is one of the most successful microprocessors ever produced," he said. "It is still in high-volume production today, more than two decades after it debuted."

Before retiring a few years ago, he founded and was CEO of three start-up companies. At one of his start-ups, Synaptics, he helped bring the human touch as a way to interact with computers. Synaptics produces human-to-computer interface products using neural networks and mixed-signal technology, and is best known for capacitive sensing touch-screens and the TouchPad, which is used on many laptops today.

Passion for science, philosophy and design

Retirement has allowed him to return to his passion for science, philosophy and design, and exploring the role of technology in our lives.

"Since I retired from business a couple years ago, I have started a non-profit foundation for the study of consciousness," said Faggin. "Consciousness, in my way of looking at it, is the new frontier. It is what defines a human being, and distinguishes it from a machine.

"They [computers] will allow human beings to recognize what makes them human and people will recognize how much more powerful a human being is than a machine."

He believes that quantum computers could fundamentally change the nature of computing beyond the capabilities of today's mechanical computer.

"As for whether computers that are quantum or not can rival human intelligence, I have my doubts," said Faggin.

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