Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Primer on Technological Evolution

Minor Update: Thursday April 7 2005

Technology is self-accelerating. In an ever quickening loop, technology inherently accelerates in speed, magnitude and global impact while dropping in cost. That's because technology is driven by innovation, and the whole point of innovation is to find better ways to do things. If it isn't faster, more powerful, useful to more people, cheaper etc., it isn't any better. And so the speed, power and social impact of technological evolution, feeding on itself, ever accelerate.


The world seemed as still as stone for thousands of years, and technology advanced as slow as amber. It wasn't until 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 feel technology speeding up. A mere half generation later, immortality, crude replicators, new forms of Intelligence, and the very reigns of evolution are suddenly within our grasp.

By 1970, Alvin Toffler (author of "Future Shock" "The Third Wave" and "Power Shift") pinpointed that technology naturally becomes increasingly powerful and able to affect greater numbers of people in deeper ways.

And finally, he illustrated how three basic forces, the speed, magnitude and global impact of technological change were accelerating so fast, inflexible world systems would crack. Centralized control of power, military, political, economic, social, utilities, education, you name it ... would distribute away from the hands in which it once congealed and toward the masses.

Many of these ideas sparked by Toffler stirred me. In 1998, I began pecking articles to cast my reflections upon this body of thought. Email and magazine readership grew into the thousands as I wrote about "The Dark Side of the Information Age", "When Intelligence is Everywhere", "What Happens when an Entire World Accelerates", "The Coming Torrent of Ingenuity" and more. But as the first Internet bubble burst, sponsorship blew away in the hot dry exhaust, and I returned to a life of calloused hands.

I mentally analyzed emerging global and technological events while lifting baskets of crackling chicken from the fryers. I liked physical work that made me sweat. 30 pounds dropped off like candle wax in the kitchen heat.

Evenings found me studying and stabbing thoughts onto a keyboard. Ray Kurzweils insights into a technological singularity, drawn from Tofflers and Verner Vinges work shone like a search light. Toffler, Vinge and Kurzweil all pointed to the bizarre but conceivable near future scenario of runaway technological evolution.

How Technology Accelerates over Time

Take a 100,000 year walk back into the dim recesses of human history with me.

Notice how the engines of technology began silently, slowly chugging as ancient hands transformed logs into levers, wheels and axles. Watch these three simple innovations morph into a wheelbarrow.

Fast forward as these simple tools multiplied across the centuries into ever more powerful machines. Wheelbarrows transforming 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 Technology Speeds Itself Up

Key inventions ever increase in frequency over time.

The wheel 5000 years ago, Paper 2000 years ago, Printing Press 700 years ago, Telescope 500 years ago, Microscope, 425 years ago, Steam Engine 300 years ago, Camera 275 years ago, Electricity 250 years ago, Light bulb and Telephone 225 years ago, Car, Radio, and Air Travel 100 years ago, Television and Penicillin 75 years ago, Computers and Nuclear Weapons 50 years ago, Internet 30 years ago, Personal computers 20 years ago, World Wide Web 15 years ago, Cloning 10 years ago...

Innovation means making something better by creating higher value. And time is of the highest value. We want faster solutions, service, and satisfaction. Technological speed-up is inextricably woven into progress.

Why Technology Power Grows in Magnitude

Innovations compound into increasingly powerful innovations as the knowledge and abilities gained from each new advance fuel the next.

Centuries ago the pool of innovations we sipped from was small. Today we draw from an ever deepening ocean of innovations, discoveries and inventions. The latest automobiles draw from inventions, knowledge and processes as far back as fire and the wheel, to the internal combustion engine developed 300 years ago, to mass production assembly lines 100 years ago, to computer chips, software and metallurgy advances developed over the past year.

Space travel, Genetic engineering, Nanotechnology and the rise of Artificial Intelligence are recent examples of the accelerating magnitude of technological innovation.

Why Technology Expands in Global Impact

Technology ever widens it's reach and impact because it increasingly connects more and more people. That means the next key innovation has a greater social impact than the last, economically, geographically, emotionally ... Globalism, feminism, CNN, computers and the Internet illustrate the scope of change.

These three forces of technological evolution; the acceleration in speed, magnitude and scope, continually compound the impact technology has upon us.

Did we Come to Laugh or Cry?

We are entering an extremely unstable part of history.

When events speed up, that means more events happen during shorter windows of time. The three accelerating forces of technological evolution mean virtually simultaneous events of great magnitude and scope will increasingly happen at or near the same time. The likelihood of perfect storms grows as the waves of multiple, global, colossal events combine.

The September day that became known as "The day the world changed" deeply shook the entire world within seconds. Markets and masses shrunk back in horror. Governments toppled. Droves cocooned at home. The shock waves are still large enough to topple governments. Other events of this or greater magnitude and scope occurring within the shock waves of each other set the stage for rapid breakdown of social support systems.

Even multiple concurrent positive changes of great magnitude and scope could tear the glue holding existing systems apart so forcefully that order could catastrophically collapse.

But the question nearly everybody eventually asks goes something like this...

How Long Can Technology Continue to Accelerate?

It takes time to design, manufacture and distribute things. So how, for example, would it be possible for computers to double in power in say, a month or less?

The short answer: As automated design converges with desktop manufacturing, the loop speeds up dramatically. But artificial intelligence is really the missing link.

Vinge drew our attention to runaway non-biological intelligence self-advancing and compounding so rapidly it quickly becomes smarter that it's best engineers. Intelligence, accelerating in speed, magnitude and scope within months, then weeks, then days spreading through our global networks.

The world has yet to absorb the implications of emergent artificial intelligence, but it makes it possible to conceive of technology literally continuing this juggernaut pace forever. Transforming life, merging with humans, heading out into space...

The rise of viable self replicating artificial intelligence strikes madness into the minds of many futurists. But it needn't. Great disruption lies ahead and no attempt to fuzz the picture will change that. But technology DOES always seek a better way to answer our collective desires.

There is a clear underlying bias in the direction technology takes. There is a built in order, right there from the beginning which bodes well for our species. That's because ...

Technological Evolution Follows Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

Not just the thrust of technology is driven by innovation. The direction it follows is too. And the direction can be decoded with a few simple rules. They are found in Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

The ever gnawing hunger to survive, thrive and self actualize. To live in security, without fear, to realize our potential as beings. To belong. To have exciting sex and adventures. If new innovations don't address these drives hidden within all of us, they aren't progress. And when we reach these touchstones of development it feels good.

The collective intelligent engineering that emerges from societies of bees, ants and termites is the result of members simply following their hierarchy of needs.

In a similar manner, simply by answering the call of our common innate drives, we have been building a mighty hive connected across millennia. The groundwork to realize every prophecy of heaven on Earth is in place. It seems we are in for some very good times ahead.

Could be, anyway.