How fast is exponential in technology

After my post “The new big is fast” I had in the sectionInvestments wrote that our perception of technological development is linear while actual technological progress is exponential. Obviously, many people who work in technology are not aware of this fact. They therefore fundamentally underestimate the technological possibilities of the next few years. The discussions that I have been able to have on this in the last few days also allow me to conclude.

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Literally I wrote:

... because technological development advances exponentially, but we do not realize it because we think that the past can serve as a benchmark for the future. It is the essence of an exponential development that for a long time you do not even realize that it is not linear. We therefore base our investment criteria on this historical linear perception. So we're fundamentally mistaken and that's why it's so dangerous.

A first objection to this was how I could say something like that, there was no basis for it. I have to reply: But there are. In his grandiose essay from 2001, "The Law of Accelerating Returns", Ray Kurzweil treated precisely this matter more or less scientifically and drew conclusions for the future. He has examined the historical biological and technological development and can statistically prove that this development occurs exponentially.

Why exponentially?

It's actually very simple: Technological development as we know it is basically nothing other than the continuation of evolution on a non-biological basis. To put it simply, an evolutionary process consists of an improvement that occurs gradually. In every step the evolving object is improved and tested in its environment. In small steps, the object is improved according to the try & error principle, in which the functioning variant is followed up.

It is this process that has made us what we are today: Complex organisms that are able to penetrate complex issues and thus gain advantages. Ray Kurzweil now says that with the help of non-biological tools we continue this evolutionary process, since our biological body is not able to increase intelligence at the same rate. Every technological improvement means that the next technological improvement can be achieved more quickly. Simple example: Without the invention of a hammer, the invention of the wheel would have been slower.

In the process, technology is improving rapidly and it is doing it faster and faster. If you look at Ray Kurzweil's historical data, you can see that this happens with incredible reliability. Even massive events such as World War II do not seem to be able to affect this development.

The exponential improvement of the exponential improvement

What Kurzweil also proves is that the rate of improvement in steps also grows exponentially. This is amazing at first, but on closer inspection it is logical. The combination of different technology strands enables an overall acceleration of the entire technological evolution. A (simplified) example: The rapid decoding of the human genome was made possible, among other things, by computer technology. The knowledge about DNA helps to better understand how the brain works, which in turn serves to develop better computer technology.

What are the results?

The result is that in the next few decades we will see a technological development that will overshadow everything that has been experienced so far. Things will be possible that we cannot even imagine today. And they will not only be possible in 200 years, but in 20. Kurzweil explains various points on this. I find his calculation in terms of computing power impressive. Kurzweil makes the following statements:

  1. We'll get the computing power equivalent of a human brain for $ 1000 in 2023.
  2. We will achieve the equivalent of the computing power of a human brain for 1 cent in 2037.
  3. We will achieve the equivalent of all human biological computing power for $ 1000 in 2049.
  4. We will reach the equivalent of the total biological computing power of mankind for 1 cent in 2059.

Ray Kurzweil, who has been working on the topic for a long time, also made a number of micro-predictions, all of which have come true. This is not surprising either, since he simply continued the historical exponential curve for these predictions.

Why most people underestimate the development

When we imagine this today it sounds surreal and we are inclined to say that it will all go on for much longer. Why? Quite simply because our perception over the past centuries is that of slowly developing progress. In addition:

From the mathematician's perspective, a primary reason for this is that an exponential curve approximates a straight line when viewed for a brief duration.

And Z. For example, a hundred years is a very short time in this case. We therefore perceive technological development as linear and relate this perception to the future, while actual technological development makes much greater progress.

Because we are doubling the rate of progress every decade, we will see the development of a century, measured by the rate of progress made today, in just 25 years.

Can this growth continue?

Kurzweil clearly says yes and describes possible ways. Much of this, however, is just beyond belief for most people. And it paints a world that most of today's people don't want to live in. Is that bad? I say no. A simple thought experiment on this: Would the 17th century man have wanted to live the way we do today? Probably not. Would our living environment and our social interactions have caused alienation? Very much. Our perception and attitude towards it will grow accordingly.

Ray Kurzweil is certainly also a freak who blindly assumes that people use all new technology for themselves almost immediately. He is also criticized for this. I also believe that all available technology will be used sooner or later, but until a social adaptation of the respective technology takes place, depends primarily on social parameters. Kurzweil consistently excludes this in what is sometimes a religious euphoria.

However, one must not be tempted to dismiss one's “law of accelerating returns” as nonsense for this reason. Kurzweil can demonstrate a corresponding development based on historical data too precisely, too often his predictions have so far been correct.

It is clear, however, that the next few decades will bring technological progress that will fundamentally rebuild our society and thus our economy. Almost all existing structures are being redefined. What we call digital transformation is only the mild beginning of a profound, irreversible technological upheaval.


Reading tip: Ray Kurzweil, "The Law of Accelerating Returns"


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