Over the last 6-9 months American invetor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has had a profound influence on how I see the future and how I run my life today. His theories on the evolution of technology and its impact on society, and the impact technology can have on our health and longevity today have been around for a while, but it is only this year that I have become familiar with them, largely through reading two of his books (Transcend and The Singularity) and taking the weekly newsletter from his website, KurzweilAI.net.
I have only just finished reading The Singularity, which I found to be sufficiently profound and thought provoking that I’m going to summarise it over a series of blog posts, of which this is the first. (Regular readers will know I occasionally write single posts about books I have like very much. This is the first time I will write a series.)
The full title of the book is The Singularity is near: When humans transcend biology, and the subtitle gives a hint as to how far Kurzweil goes with his conclusions. I have very much enjoyed reading the book (despite the fact that it is a) weighty and b) densely written) and have talked excitedly with a number of friends about its various different parts. Those conversations showed me that getting Kurzweil’s arguments across clearly and convincingly is tough to do, I think largely because of the surprisingly far reaching nature of his conclusions and the fact that they involve a change in what it means to be human (or more properly what it means to be alive). So I thought I would set them out in a series of blog posts – probably around half a dozen.
In these blog posts I’m going to put his arguments together piece by piece and then finish with the conclusion. I’ve taken this approach as each of the steps on the way is very important in its own right and because I think it would be impossibly hard to make the conclusion seem credible in a standard length blog post. If you want to cut straight to the chase you can check out the wikipedia article about the book (also linked above).
The first idea to get across is that the rate of change in life/society/technology has always been increasing exponentially. I lump life, society, and technology together like that because their rate of change graphs look the same, although the time periods on the x-axis are successively shorter. The idea of the accelerating rate of change was first introduced to me by Anthony Giddens in my opening sociology lecture at Cambridge back in 1992 and is also something I mentioned on this blog before, when I first came across Kurzweil’s graph showing the continued exponential growth in computing power over the last one hundred years. I’ve reproduced the chart below because it is (along with its brethren) fundamental to Kurzweil’s argument.
This exponential growth in computing chart is one of many many examples Kurzweil gives of the exponential rate of change. In every case he produces historical evidence showing the trend going back over a long period of time and his argument at this stage is that the rate of change has been increasing exponentially for a long time and there is no reason why we should expect it to stop now. Other historical examples of exponential increases beyond the one above include evolution of the universe since the big bang, evolution of life from single cell organisms to humans, growth of the US fixed line phone industry, mass use of inventions, DRAM density, transistor prices, microprocessor clock speed, supercomputer power, DNA sequencing cost, number of internet hosts, decrease in size of nanotech devices, ecommerce revenues and indeed US GDP.
The important things to note here are:
- exponential increases are present in all walks of life (note the references to biotech and nanotech above – that will be important later)
- they are not limited to a single paradigm or technology – e.g. exponential increases in computing power pre-date Moore’s law and silicon substrates and will most likely continue long after the silicon chip becomes as dated as the valves we used to use
Kurzweil makes a big play of the fact that the human mind doesn’t easily grasp exponentials, and that at any given point the rate of change will be experienced as linear, particularly in the early stages before any given technology reaches the ‘knee of the curve’. In Kurzweil’s mind, and I buy into this, the intuitive ease of understanding straight line change coupled with the difficulty in imagining a future radically different from what we have today, combine to make us collectively under estimate the change that is coming.
Another way to look at this is to ask yourself whether people living in 1910 would have believed today’s reality to be possible.
Given the exponential rate of change we can expect people looking back on 2010 from 2060 to see a similar level of difference as we see looking back to 1910.
To close I want to return to the title of this post. You might have noticed that I used the word ‘progress’ in the header but until this point have been talking only about ‘change’ in the body of the post. I made that choice because change isn’t necessarily progress, and, whilst I believe that in this case it is, I wanted to separate the two arguments. Whether or not you believe all this change has been a good thing, and will continue to be a good thing, the most important thing to realise is that it has been happening, and absent some huge shifts in government or a huge disaster, will continue to happen. In fact absent total annihilation of the human race, the rate of change will probably continue to increase exponentially even if there is a big disaster – the two world wars of the last century didn’t have a noticeable impact on the rate of change. However, returning to progress, I’m with Kurzweil in believing that the world has become a significantly better place – as measured by human happiness, or more objectively, by the lessening of human suffering. On average we live longer, eat better, and endure less tragedy (e.g. infant mortality) than our forbears.