Thinking Exponentially

Exponential GrowthWe are at an interesting point in human history where there is rapid growth in a number of different areas that are all having or will soon have a profound impact on society. And by rapid growth I am talking about exponential growth, because most people assume that even fast growth is straight-line and linear.

Most things around us grow over time with linear growth, which is growth done at a consistent rate. But exponential growth happens with a repeated multiplication of the rate of growth. Linear growth results in straight-line growth while exponential growth results in explosive growth.

An example of exponential growth is the old Chinese story about a man who did a favor for an emperor and asked to be paid in rice. He wanted one grain the first day, two grains the second day, and so on for a month. The emperor though this sounded like a great idea until a few weeks into the process it became clear that he would soon be paying with all of the rice in China.

We’ve had a few examples of exponential growth in the US economy in the past. Consider the growth of televisions in households. These went from being in a very few homes in the late 40’s until practically every home in the country had a TV by the mid-50s.

We have one example of exponential growth in the broadband industry which is that the growth in the amount of data downloaded by the average home, which has been doubling roughly every three years since the late 80s. And we’ve seen the result of this growth manifested by the quickness with which any new broadband technology gets overwhelmed and obsolete within a relatively short time after hitting the market. Consider DSL. When we all got our first 1 Mbps DSL connection it felt extravagantly fast. I remember talking about how wonderful it felt to have a T1 in my house. But that excitement faded quickly when within a few short years that DSL felt inadequate.

The human mind does not easily grasp the idea of exponential growth. I’ve seen this many times with network planning. Engineers will plot out expected network growth linearly and will increase the size of the data electronics on a network only to find out, often within a very short time that the new facilities are full and overloaded. Exponential growth almost always surprises us.

We are now sitting at a time when there are a number of examples of exponential growth happening in different technology areas. Ray Kurzweil was one of the first to identify the impact of exponential growth in today’s world back in 2006 in his book The Singularity is Near. In that book he discussed five paradigms in the computing world that had grown exponentially in the 20th century: electromechanical, relay, vacuum tubes, discrete transistors, and integrated circuits.

Kurzweil has made very good predictions about the last decade and has made the following predictions about the next few decades:

  • Within a decade from now solar power will generate the majority of the world’s electricity;
  • By the late 2010s, glasses will beam images directly onto the retina. Ten terabytes of computing power (roughly the same as the human brain) will cost about $1,000.
  • By the 2020s, most diseases will have been cured by nanobots in our blood stream. Computers will easily pas the Turing test. Self-driving cars will be the norm and people won’t be allowed to drive on highways.
  • By the 2030s, virtual reality will begin to feel 100% real. We will be able to upload our mind/consciousness by the end of the decade.
  • By the 2040s, computers will be a billion times more capable than biological intelligence. Nanotech will enable us to make food out of thin air.
  • By 2045, people will be able to multiply our intelligence a billionfold by linking wirelessly from our brains to the cloud.

These predictions are all amazing and speak about a near-future world that is very different than today. But what they speak about even more is the power of exponential growth. In order for these predictions to be realized there needs to continual exponential growth in the fields of computing, artificial intelligence, biological sciences, etc.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Exponentially

  1. Yup, and remember the smarts cars and Jetport/homes we were supposed to have by the 1990s and 2000s? It only takes money and ingenuity…
    Yup, we’ll see…

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    • Absolutely right. One thing that Kurzweil says is that his actual predictions are not all that important, but are examples of changes that might be made possible by the big exponential improvements in the underlying technologies. So he’s really giving examples of the kinds of applications that ought to be possible, although there are many other ways the actual technologies might be used.

      The fact is that we are growing exponentially in our knowledge in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence and biological research and there are going to be huge societal changes that come from this. What exactly that might be is uncertain, but what is certain is that a whole lot of new technologies, all hitting us at the same time are going to be disruptive – more disruptive than anything we’ve ever seen before. We’ve seen some pretty amazing changes since the invention of the transistor and computers and we are about to see the simultaneous explosion of multiple new technologies, each as big and important as what computers have done for us.

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