“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity
— technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”
– The Law of Accelerating Return, Ray Kurzweil (March 7, 2001 )
Intuitive Linear View versus Historical Exponential View
The long range forecasts of technological progress in future are limited by our intuitive understanding of the current rate of progress and the assumption of continuation of the same rate. Even though the millennial generation has evolved from using CRT Television sets, Flat screen TV, LCD, LED and so on, their estimation of future of television is marred by their memories of the recent past and the influence of present. A serious assessment of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential. It is further mind-boggling that the rate of exponential growth is itself growing exponentially.
The Law of Accelerating Returns
A study of evolution of history reveals dramatically surprising observations which contrast our ‘obvious’ understanding of the past and future:
– The rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time
– The “returns” of an evolutionary process increase exponentially over time
– As a particular evolutionary process becomes more effective, greater resources are deployed toward the further progress of that process
– A specific paradigm, a method or approach to solving a problem provides exponential growth until the method exhausts its potential. When this happens, a paradigm shift i.e., a fundamental change in the approach occurs, which enables exponential growth to continue.
The hallmark example of application of these principles is evolution of life on Earth:
Historians map pre-historic civilizations on the basis of tool-making technologies evident in the respective culture. Today, technology has become the process of creating even more powerful technology, thus snowballing the entire process of innovation. Each new monument of innovation is built on the basis of previous innovations: not on their ruins, but on their pillars.
The paradigm shift rate (i.e., the overall rate of technical progress) is currently doubling (approximately) every decade; that is, paradigm shift times are halving every decade (and the rate of acceleration is itself growing exponentially). So, the technological progress in the twenty-first century will be equivalent to what would require (in the linear view) on the order of 200 centuries. So the twenty-first century will see almost a thousand times greater technological change than its predecessor.
Although technology grows in the exponential domain, we humans live in a linear world. Minor changes in technology are not noticed, unless their collective impact hits us hard in the face. As the technology explodes into view, the seemingly ‘small’ changes achieve monumental proportions. The paradigm shift in internet usage can be aptly summarised by this quote by Bill Clinton – “When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the World Wide Web… Now even my cat has its own page.” In December 1995, only 0.4% of the world population had an internet connection, by March 2017 almost half i.e. 49.6% of the population uses internet regularly.
The Singularity is technological change so rapid and so profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. Some ‘philosophers’ believe that we cannot determine the nature of Singularity as our contemporary brains are incapable of imagining and prophesising on the future.
The term ‘singularity’ implies infinity in mathematics. In physics, similarly, a singularity denotes an event or location of infinite power. The Universe itself is said to have begun with just such a Singularity.
As technological growth surpasses our collective imagination at a single point in time, a majority of our experiences in the practical world are becoming virtual. Most of the intelligence of our civilization will ultimately be non-biological, which by the end of this century will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than human intelligence. However, contrary to common fears, this will not imply the end of biological intelligence, even though human intelligence would lose its position at the top of the evolution pyramid.
It is important, however, to note that even this non-biological intelligence would have grown out of biological human intelligence. In a dramatic turn of events, the human civilization of this era would expand the understanding of the term ‘human’ beyond biological origins.
Note: This content is entirely based on Kurzweil’s article on ‘The Law of Accelerating Return’. This is the first in a small series of articles summarising and simplifying the same concepts for the benefit of the management community in general.