The acceleration of technology is the central driving force of our world. My goal is to explain what it means for you.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Technology, Computers and Innovation: Why Everything is Speeding Up

Our grandparents incredulously shook their heads at the moon landing, microwave ovens, nuclear bombs and computers. Theirs was the first generation to actually feel technology speed up. Today, crude replicators, new forms of Intelligence, immortality and the very reigns of evolution are within our grasp. Why IS everything speeding up?

Innovation MEANS Acceleration

Ideas trigger ideas. Step into any research lab, and you'd probably interrupt someone methodically confirming or disproving some theory. Boiling enormous amounts of information down to one bit of data. Either yes or no.

But once that tiny single grain of new truth is harvested, new knowledge, questions and ideas automatically spring forth. There’s suddenly a whole other set of things you can do. This is the classic feedback loop of discovery.

Time saving innovations create another self reinforcing loop. Think of all the things we use to save time. Our dishwashers, cars and computers free us from one set of demands but give birth to new urgencies. Our cars make it possible to live further from work. So we commute for an hour. Dishwashers make it possible to catch up on the Email we receive from all of those people around the world we could never have met any other way. So time saving solutions also incrementally speed up the pace of life. More events get crammed into shorter periods of time. Including world changing events.

As we shall see, these simple feedback loops have been speeding up for thousands of years. And we have arrived upon the scene in time to witness leisurely progress become super accelerated.

It's Been A Long Time Coming

"We didn't start the fire. It was always burning since the world's been turning." Billy Joel
The world seemed as still as stone for thousands of years and technology moved as slow as amber. Take a 100,000 year walk back with me. Notice ancient hands transform logs into levers, wheels and axles. Watch these three simple innovations morph into a wheelbarrow.

Flash forward as wheelbarrows transform into wagons going 2 miles per hour, chariots at 20 mph, cars at 100 mph, trains at 300 mph, planes at 2000 mph, rockets at 4000 mph, spacecraft at 18000 mph... Innovations beget ever more and powerful innovations because each advancement illuminates a new set of still greater possibilities.

Why Our World Is Noticeably Speeding Up

It was only last century that our grandparents incredulously shook their heads at the moon landing, microwave ovens that heated only the food and not the container, nuclear bombs and computers. Theirs was the first generation to actually feel technology speed up. A mere half generation later, crude replicators, new forms of Intelligence, immortality and the very reigns of evolution are suddenly within our grasp.

Computers Changed Everything

The BIG invention was computers because they are embedded with memory, logic and calculating power. Shreds of human intelligence. Things sped up dramatically since the computer (including computers) because each generation of computer chip could be harnessed to propagate the next. Now all of our world is speeding up in lockstep with the acceleration of computing.

Centuries ago the pool of innovations we sipped from was small and local. But on the Internet, our global ocean of knowledge and a worldwide pool of innovators are brought together.

Today's automobiles spring both from inventions, knowledge and processes as far back as fire and the wheel as they do from networked minds blanketing the globe.

Is There An End In Sight?

Most of tomorrow's inventions, from new drugs, to enhancing our abilities with embedded computing, to the progress we make with Artificial Intelligence, will be about coping with the acceleration. As a species, we CAN do more than survive. We could thrive and discover ourselves in ways we now believe impossible. But, as far as I can see, the acceleration will eventually go far beyond us. Soon AI will be as good at the same intelligence feedback loop we've been using since the evolution of our opposable thumbs - and accelerating.

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