Saturday, June 1, 2013

Methods for Futuring: Part 2 Understanding the Laws that Drive Technological Growth


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Technological Change and Exponential Growth
To understand technological change and exponential growth and leads directly into the 6 super trends, the reader needs an understanding of the technological laws that drives our modern world. These laws are the driving force of technological advancement in the 20th and 21st century, and depend on the fundamental principle of exponential growth, which is now called the Law of Accelerating Returns.  To understand the Law of Accelerating Returns the reader needs a basic understanding of what it means to grow something, or a number exponentially. In this example, I am going to use the story of the Chinese emperor’s favorite game, chess, and his reward to the inventor of the game. The story goes something like this: The Chinese emperor loved the game of chess so much that he wanted to show his gratitude to the inventor. Thus, he said to the inventor, “I will give you anything in my kingdom. Just ask, and it shall be yours.” The inventor replied, “All that I ask is that you place one grain of rice on the first block of the chess board, and then two pieces of rice on the second block then four pieces on the third block, doubling the numbers of rice until you fill all 64 blocks of the chess board.” The emperor thought it was a modest request, said “okay” and granted it. After doubling each piece of rice 63 times the emperor went bankrupt, and the inventor had 18 million trillion grains of rice that required rice fields that covered the surface of the Earth twice, including the oceans.
        Now we can use the same concept of exponential growth and apply it to the growth of computer systems.[1] To first understand the Law of Accelerated Returns and how it applies to the exponential growth of computer systems, we need to have a grasp on where it first originated in the biological context.  The law of accelerating returns by Ray Kurzweil states that:
 1. Evolution applies positive feedback in that the more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress are used to create the next stage.
2. As a result, the rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time. Over time, the “order” of the information embedded in the evolutionary process (i.e., the measure of how well the information fits a purpose, which in evolution is survival) increases.
3. A correlate of the above observation is that the “returns” of an evolutionary process (e.g., the speed, cost-effectiveness, or overall “power” of a process) increase exponentially over time.
4. In another positive feedback loop, as a particular evolutionary process (e.g., computation) becomes more effective (e.g., cost effective), greater resources are deployed toward the further progress of that process. This results in a second level of exponential growth (i.e., the rate of exponential growth itself grows exponentially).

While there is more to the Law of Accelerated Returns, for this paper we only need to know the first four facts.  The first point states that the evolution of each organism is based, or builds upon the evolution of its predecessors. Thus, without the evolution of its past predecessor the evolution of the future organism could not continue, or in some cases even exist. The easiest way to think about this is to visualize the construction of a skyscraper. If you remove the concrete from the construction, you would not have a foundation or the columns to support the weight of the building. The same is applied to the Law of Accelerating Returns; if you removed one building block the whole system will fail.  The second and third point can be condensed into one explanation. As the complexity of an organism increases, as does the time at which new evolutionary milestones are met within a shorter period of time, accelerating with every evolutionary step it takes.
To summarize the words of Kurzweil, the evolution of life took billions of years for the first building blocks to form, then followed primitive cells and the process slowly started to accelerate as these single cell organisms turned into a multi cellular organism until we reach the Cambrian explosion, which took approximately tens of millions of years. Later, Humanoids developed over a period of millions of years and, finally, mankind during the last hundreds of thousands of years (Kurzweil).  The fourth step states that once evolution hits a certain point it starts to require more resources to further the evolution of that specific organism. Thus creating a second level of exponential growth, in other words the rate at which the original exponential growth starts to double.
Now that we have a basic understanding of how the Law of Accelerated Returns applies from an evolutionary stand point it becomes easier to understand how accelerated returns applies to technology in the twenty-first century.  If you were to look at the first technologies man developed, it would be basic rock tools, fire, and the wheel. This growth remained fairly constant. You could compare this growth to the evolutionary growth of the first organisms, very slow and time consuming, developing the building blocks of technology that helped form modern day technology. This growth remained fairly constant until around 1000 A.D when a paradigm shift occurred, and two centuries later in the ninetieth century (Kurzweil), after the discovery of electricity in the 1800’s the exponential growth of technology truly started to manifest itself.
Finally, when the Internet was first developed, the fourth stage of Kurzweil Law of Accelerated Returns started to apply to technology and double the rate at which technology started to exponentially double (see back to the fourth law). This is where I believe you could compare it to the evolution of mankind on the timescale of evolutionary events. However, there is one final evolutionary step that we have not yet discussed – the point of Singularity. However, before we dive into the ‘what if’ possibility of the singularity, There is one last fact about exponential growth that we need to know. As we learned from the story of the Chinese emperor and the inventor of chess, once you reach a certain number raised to a power (2^2 or grains_of_rice^blocks_on_chest_board), you start to experience extremely large numbers. According to the Law of Accelerated Returns, the same can be applied to the human knowledge (human_knowledge^number_of_years). Thus, as the amount of human knowledge increases and the time at which it happens. The number of scientific breakthroughs will turn into a downhill rolling snowball of exponentially, and the downhill is time.  In the twenty-first century over the next 100 years we will experience 20,000 years of technological growth (Kurzweil).
Click here for Part 3

Please note: All content from Part 1, 3, and 4 was summarized from the book Futuring:The Exploration of the future by Edward Cornish