Coming to grips with exponential growth

September 14, 2010
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The leading argument from Ray Kurzweil and oher evangelists of the Singularity rests on the power of exponential growth. The idea is that most of us tend to take for granted exponential growth of the past. We have no trouble accepting that seven decades after the Wright Brothers lifted a plane a few feet into the air man walked on the moon, or that the cell phones we (literally) toss to each other have the computing muscle of old mainframes, or that it’s perfectly normal to carry thousands of songs and photos in them.

The leading argument from Ray Kurzweil and oher evangelists of the Singularity rests on the power of exponential growth. The idea is that most of us tend to take for granted exponential growth of the past. We have no trouble accepting that seven decades after the Wright Brothers lifted a plane a few feet into the air man walked on the moon, or that the cell phones we (literally) toss to each other have the computing muscle of old mainframes, or that it’s perfectly normal to carry thousands of songs and photos in them.

But when we extend our vision into the future, it’s usually linear. The cell phones will be better, more powerful, images will be in 3d, video conferencing will get easier, etc. Only a few of us are able to imagine what could happen when machines have a thousand or a million times the computing power of what we have today. This is hard, because more than just projection from the present, it requires leaps, and that takes imagination.

And it’s really hard to understand just how powerful exponential growth is. In some 15 years, powerful computers reach a speed of 10 to the 18th calculations per second. The most powerful ones today operate at about 10 to the 12th. That’s pretty fast. According to IBM:

If each of the 6.7 billion people on earth had a hand calculator and worked together on a calculation 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, it would take 320 years to do what Sequoia will do in one hour.

But in some 15 years, powerful computers reach a speed of 10 to the 18th calculations per second. That’s a million times as fast. The easy thing is to say, here’s something that’s slow: We can do it fast. But it makes more sense to think of things that are impossible, but might not stay that way. Looking back, our grandchildren might consider them no-brainers. Any ideas?

For Power of Ten inspiration, check out this classic 1977 short by Charles and Ray Eames. My old colleague Steve Hamm told me about it yesterday, as we were pedaling around The Bronx.

powers of ten :: charles and ray eames from bacteriasleep on Vimeo.