Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger

There’s a well known story about the Emperor of China and the chess board. Enamoured with the newly invented game, the Emperor asked for the inventor to be summoned to him in order to be given a reward. The inventor humbly replied that all he would like is one grain of rice to be placed on the first square of a chess board, and the number of grains to be doubled on each successive square. The emperor laughed at the simple wish of the old man and granted it. Accordingly, one grain was placed on the first square, two on the next, four on the next, etc.By the time the last (64th) square had been reached, the emperor owed the old man enough rice to cover fields covering 2 times the surface of the earth, with the oceans included. You can read a more in depth discussion of how much rice this is here. The emperor once again summoned the man and had him executed for his sheer cheek.The inventor had asked for an exponential increase in rice. 63 doublings in fact. This story shows how powerful the mathematical exponent really is and we’re experiencing its effects right now, at a time when they are rapidly becoming noticeable. In the last entry I wrote that Moore’s law is an embodiment of this. In fact Moore’s law is only one example of the Law of Accelerating Returns as coined by Ray Kurzweil, which basically proposes that all areas of human endeavour are subject to the same exponential increases. Here’s a number of examples:

Size, Cost & Power of computers
This can be seen in a number of areas. In the late 1950’s a transistor was approximately 1mm in diameter. In the late 1970’s they were about 1000 times smaller. Today they are about 1 million times smaller. The type of technology used has changed, but the trend has continued.. A comparison between the Osborne Executive portable computer from 1982 and the iPhone from 2007 is relevant here.

Image Source: Wikipedia
The Executive weighs 100 times as much, is nearly 500 times as large, costs 10 times as much, and is one hundred times slower than the iPhone.

Network Capacity
According to Butter’s Law of Photonics the amount of data coming out of an optical fiber is doubling every nine months. As a result, the cost of transmitting information over an optical network decreases by half every nine months.

The human genome project was set up in 1989 to map out the DNA sequences in the human genome. Critics of the project said that at the initial rate of progress it would take thousands of years to complete the project. yet advances in techniques and technology used meant that the project was finished ahead it’s 15 year schedule.

Communications Technology
Before the 18th century, communication meant smoke signals, a message sent on a horse, or perhaps by pigeon. Advances towards the 18th century lead to networks of beacons, and reflected light signals being set up in some areas. Once electricity was invented we then saw a big increase in the speed of communication via the electric telegraph and the telephone. Once Radio was invented this lead to wireless communication (e.g Radio, Television, mobile phones). The Internet era has lead to a wide range of additional technologies (e.g email, Internet messaging, Skype). The rate of this development has increased markedly. There was very little development before 1850 and then a rapid increase once different enabling technologies (e.g. Electicity, Radio, Internet) appeared.

Development of Man
Even human beings themselves are subject to the same law. It seems hard to believe – however we need to look back in time to the point at which we were single celled organisms. At that time it took billions of years for evolutionary steps to play out.  Gradually we came on land and grew into ape like creatures. this evolution of humanoids took millions of years. Finally the evolution of Homo Sapiens has taken only a few hundred thousand years. The beginning of the next stage of evolution has been predicted as happening from around 2050…

The above is not an exhaustive list. The Law of Accelerating returns is arguably one of the Most important laws for mankind at this time in our history. Most people are still very much in the same mind as the Chinese Emperor all those years ago however. That will soon change as developments become more and more profound, more and more quickly.


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