“While many people feel the rate of technological development is accelerating what they often miss is that this acceleration is also accelerating.”
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If you ask an audience whether they think the global rate of change is faster today than it was a decade ago you, like I, will find that almost all of them think it is. Furthermore, if you ask them whether they think the rate of change in another decade’s time will be faster, the same, or slower, than it is today, then again the vast majority of them will answer “faster.”
In fact, putting a statistic on it, when I ask the audiences I present to around the world this very question ordinarily over 98 percent of them feel things today are changing faster than in the past and that that rate is only going to accelerate, with only a very few of them either sitting on the fence or disagreeing.
Putting this into context, at the start of this millennium, for example, smartphones as we know them didn’t exist, and just three decades before that hardly anyone owned a computer. And as for the internet? Well, in 1983 that was still pretty much just a pseudo-military experiment in an American lab.
When you think about technology in this way it’s staggering to see just how far we’ve come in such short period of time and within just a couple of generations. Fast forwards to today and billions of people have a handheld supercomputer that, in one Reddit user’s words, “puts all the world’s information at their fingertips.” And much more.
So, intuitively at least, we can be forgiven for thinking that technology is progressing faster than ever. But is it really or is this accelerating rate of change just a figment of our collective imaginations?
Well, as it turns out the rate of technology development is absolutely is accelerating, and in this article I’m going to explore the driving forces behind this change and the surprising implications of technology’s acceleration.
MOORE’S LAW ISN’T THE EXCEPTION
Ever since the first computer chip came onto the market back in 1965 they’ve become increasingly powerful while costing less and giving you more bang for your buck. That’s because over the last five decades or so the number of transistors, or the tiny electrical components that perform basic computing operations, on a single chip have been doubling approximately every two years.
This exponential doubling, coined Moore’s Law after Graham Moore who first observed it, is the reason why today’s smartphones can pack more power than a 1990’s supercomputer into such a small package.
While computer chip’s technological progress is well documented surprisingly when it comes to exponential technologies computer chips aren’t a special case, a range of other technologies demonstrate similar exponential growth – whether it’s the amount of data that can be stored on a computer hard drive, or now flash storage, and tomorrow in atoms, DNA and molecules, or the speed at which we can sequence strands of DNA.
Irrespective of the technology though the outcome is the same, their functionality and performance have increased by thousands, millions, and even billions fold, for much less cost within just a few scant decades.
So, what’s going on here? Well, this is where a new law conveniently called the Law of Accelerating Returns comes into play.
According to the law the pace of technological progress speeds up exponentially over time because there is a common force driving it forward. Being exponential, as it turns out, is all about evolution.
LESSONS FROM EVOLUTION
Let’s begin with biology, a familiar evolutionary process. Biology is highly adept at honing “natural technologies” so to speak – after all as we keep getting told today DNA is just “the software of life,” and just look at how we’re manipulating it in new and incredible ways. Recorded within the DNA of living things are blueprints of useful tools known as genes, and due to selective pressure, or “Survival of the fittest,” advantageous innovations are passed along to offspring.
As this process plays out generation after generation across the eons, chaotically yet incrementally, incredible growth takes place. By building on genetic progress rather than starting over from scratch every time organisms have increased in complexity and capability over time, and this innovative power is evident everywhere we look on Earth today – from the frigid Arctic to the scorching Sarah.
Biology’s many innovations include bones, brains, cells, eyes, and thumbs, and from thumbs and brains, technology. According to some technology is also an evolutionary process, like biology, only it moves from one invention to the next much faster, in most cases exponentially faster.
It’s plain for all to see that civilisations themselves advance by re-purposing the ideas and breakthroughs of their predecessors, from the Aztecs and Egyptians, and the Mayans to modern society. Similarly, each generation of technology builds on the advances of previous generations creating a positive feedback loop of continuous improvement, meaning that each successive generation of technology is superior to the last.
Additionally, because each generation of technology improves over the last the rate of progress from generation to generation, and also within generations, speeds up. Imagine for example having to design and produce a simple chair, in the past a human designer would design it and a craftsman would build it. Fast forwards in time and those craftsmen were replaced with automated factory production lines, and then fast forwards again and those same chairs are now designed by AI’s and 3D printed on demand in just a fraction of a time it used to take. And in the future they could be assembled by molecular assemblers.
This acceleration can be measured in terms of the “returns” of the technology, such as its efficiency, functionality, price-performance, and overall “power,” many of which, if not all of which, improve exponentially as well.
Furthermore, as exponential technology becomes more capable it attracts more attention, including increased investment and R&D, and new developer ecosystems, all of which further accelerate its development. Then, once it’s commercialised the development process accelerates yet again as all of a sudden billions of people have the opportunity to develop it and innovate on top of it.
It’s this tsunami of new focus, funding, and resources which then triggers a second wave of exponential growth, where the rate of exponential growth is effectively boosted, and then we see the rate of acceleration itself accelerating.
All that said though an individual technology’s exponential growth rate will never last forever because it’s almost impossible to keep those kinds of gains up ad infinitum so these technologies grow until they’ve exhausted their growth potential, at which point they become superseded by a new exponential technology.
For example, in the case of computers and Moore’s Law this means moving from silicon based computer platforms to new biological, chemical, DNA, liquid, neuromorphic, photonic, and quantum computing platforms – all of which are many hundreds of millions times more powerful than today’s computers.
As for the implications of all this fury the net result is that overall our rate of technological progress is doubling every decade now, which in layman’s terms means that in the next 100 years we won’t experience 100 years or progress we’ll experience over 20,000 years worth. And that’s at today’s rates, bearing in mind that today’s rate, as we’ve discussed, is itself accelerating.
The consequence of all this suggests that the horizons for amazingly powerful technologies may be closer than we realise, whether they be in the form of self-evolving AI’s and self-learning robots, or the development of human supercomputers, space based power stations, and space colonies. And as for science fiction, well, for the most part, from holograms and molecular assemblers to light sabres and tractor beams, it’s all already science fact.
So, rounding this out, is technology progressing faster than ever? Are the things we can achieve with it increasingly out of this world? Absolutely, and the ride’s only just beginning – welcome to the Exponential Era.