Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What Is The Rush?

Commenter Pastorius commenting on my article on Moore's Law suggested I have a look at this article by Ray Kurzweil on the accelerating rate of the rate of change.

...a serious assessment of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential. In exponential growth, we find that a key measurement such as computational power is multiplied by a constant factor for each unit of time (e.g., doubling every year) rather than just being added to incrementally. Exponential growth is a feature of any evolutionary process, of which technology is a primary example.

One can examine the data in different ways, on different time scales, and for a wide variety of technologies ranging from electronic to biological, and the acceleration of progress and growth applies. Indeed, we find not just simple exponential growth, but "double" exponential growth, meaning that the rate of exponential growth is itself growing exponentially. These observations do not rely merely on an assumption of the continuation of Moore's law (i.e., the exponential shrinking of transistor sizes on an integrated circuit), but is based on a rich model of diverse technological processes. What it clearly shows is that technology, particularly the pace of technological change, advances (at least) exponentially, not linearly, and has been doing so since the advent of technology, indeed since the advent of evolution on Earth.
Yep. Change is happening much faster than when I was a kid (50s). We have so much more capable technology than we had then and so many more capable technologies.

What does this mean in terms of solving humanity's technical problems? Say energy for instance. It says we should put off implementing a solution for as long as possible because better solutions are just around the corner. Al Gore's idea that we need to rush to fix our reliance on fossil fuels chop, chop, double quick, is flat out wrong. It would be much better for us to rely on current technologies for as long as possible (at least until the alternatives become economically competitive) because the solutions we will have available in five or ten years will be so much better than the ones available today. The important thing is to avoid, through any kind of government program, getting locked in or promoting any given technology.

In the home computer market that is pretty much what we do. If we assume a doubling of capability every two years replacing your home computer every four to six years makes a lot of sense. In four years your "old" machine will have 25% of the power of what is currently on the market. In six years the "old" machine will have 12.5% of the capacity of the latest and greatest. Its economic value at that time (six years after purchase) will be around zero. Which is why if you go out on garbage day looking for a computer you will generally find machines about five to eight years old. Business is a little different. They can't afford to get too far behind in technology. Which is why they get new computers on a three year schedule. They can't afford to give up more than a factor of three to their competition.

Here is another example (based on hypotheticals). Suppose we do a big push on solar and then some kind of nuclear fusion "magic" comes along reducing the price of electricity by a factor of 10X? Under those circumstances the less we spend on alternative energy at today's prices the better off we will be. Given the accelerating rate of change we are bound to come up with some new kind of "magic" of one sort or the other.

It all depends on the learning curve of a particular technology. I'm not sure what the learning curve for solar is but I can guarantee that what we can do in five years will be much better and more cost effective than what we can do today. Kurzweil estimates that the rate of technological change in 2100 will be around 20,000 times the rate of today. That is pretty damn fast. How fast? Changes that we would see in five years at todays accelerating rate will happen in a day around 2100. (I haven't done the math so that number is just an estimated representation to give a feel for what is happening).

What does this tell us in general? Forcing change is wasteful. Real environmentalists (who inherently are conservative) will resist change until the market provides economic solutions, because forcing change increases waste. We saw this in the solar boom in the Carter era. It didn't work out. Because of government subsidies there was a huge amount of waste. Or as that most wise of sages once said:

Patience grasshopper.

Cross Posted at Classical Values


Pastorius said...

Speaking of the future of energy, I think Craig Venter is looking in the right direction, synthetic genomes leading to synthetic cells:


At Synthetic Genomics Inc., we are developing novel genomic-driven strategies to address global energy and environmental challenges. Recent advances in the field of synthetic genomics present seemingly limitless applications that could revolutionize production of energy, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and enable carbon sequestration and environmental remediation.

M. Simon said...