The following is an excerpt from GigaOm publisher Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. You can purchase the book here.
The Fourth Age explores the implications of automation and AI on humanity, and has been described by Ethernet inventor and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe as framing “the deepest questions of our time in clear language that invites the reader to make their own choices. Using 100,000 years of human history as his guide, he explores the issues around artificial general intelligence, robots, consciousness, automation, the end of work, abundance, and immortality.”
In this excerpt from The Fourth Age, Byron Reese explores the concept Moore’s Law and how more space, more speed, and more processor power impacts advancements in technology.
The scientific method supercharged technological development so much that it revealed an innate but mysterious property of all sorts of technology, a consistent and repeated doubling of its capabilities over fixed periods.
Our discovery of this profound and mysterious property of technology began modestly just half a century ago when Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, noticed something interesting: the number of transistors in an integrated circuit was doubling about every two years. He noticed that this phenomenon had been going on for a while, and he speculated that the trend could continue for another decade. This observation became known as Moore’s law.
Doubling the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles the power of the computer. If that were the entire story, it would be of minor interest. But along came Ray Kurzweil, who made an amazing observation: computers have been doubling in power from way before transistors were even invented.
Kurzweil found that if you graph the processing power of computers since 1890, when simple electromechanical devices were used to help with the US census, computers doubled in processing power every other year, regardless of the underlying technology. Think about that: the underlying technology of the computer went from being mechanical, to using relays, then to vacuum tubes, then to transistors, and then to integrated circuits, and all along the way, Moore’s law never hiccupped. How could this be?
Well, the short answer is that no one knows. If you figure it out, tell me and we can split the Nobel money. How could the abstraction, the speed of the device, obey such a rigid law? Not only does no one really know, there aren’t even many ideas. But it appears to be some kind of law of the universe, that it takes a certain amount of technology to get to a place, and then once you have it, you’re able to use that technology to double that again.
Moore’s law continues to this day, well past the ten years Moore himself guessed it would hold up. And although every few years you see headlines like “Is this the End of Moore’s Law?” as is the case with almost all headlines phrased as a question, the answer is no. There are presently all manner of candidates that promise to keep the law going, from quantum computers to single-atom transistors to entirely new materials.
But—and here is the really interesting part—almost all types of technology, not just computers, seems to obey a Moore’s law of their own. The power of a given technology may not double every two years, but it doubles in something every n years. Anyone who has bought laptops or digital cameras or computer monitors over time has experienced this firsthand. Hard drives can hold more, megapixels keep rising, and screen resolutions increase.
There are even those who maintain that multicellular life behaves this way, doubling in complexity every 376 million years. This intriguing thesis, offered by the geneticists Richard Gordon and Alexei Sharov, posits that multicellular life is about ten billion years old, predating earth itself, implying . . . well, implying all kinds of things, such as that human life must have originated somewhere else in the galaxy, and through one method or another, made its way here.
The fact that technology doubles is a big deal, bigger than one might first suspect. Humans famously underestimate the significance of constant doubling because nothing in our daily lives behaves that way. You don’t wake up with two kids, then four kids, then eight, then sixteen. Our bank balances don’t go from $100 to $200 to $400 to $800, day after day.
To understand just how quickly something that repeatedly doubles gets really big, consider the story of the invention of chess. About a thousand years ago, a mathematician in what is today India is said to have brought his creation to the ruler, and showed him how the game was played. The ruler, quite impressed, asked the mathematician what he wanted for a reward. The mathematician responded that he was a humble man and his needs were few. He simply asked that a single grain of rice be placed on the first square of the chessboard. Then two on the second, four on the third, each square doubling along the way. All he wanted was the rice that would be on the sixty-fourth square.
So how much rice do you think this is? Given my setup to the story you know it will be a big number. But just imagine what that much rice would look like. Would it fill a silo? A warehouse? It is actually more rice than has been cultivated in the entire history of humanity. By the way, when the ruler figured it out, he had the mathematician put to death, so there is another life lesson to be learned here.
Think also of a domino rally, in which you have a row of dominos lined up and you push one and it pushes the next one, and so on. Each domino can push over a domino 50 percent taller than itself. So if you set up thirty-two dominos, each 50 percent bigger than the first, that last domino could knock over the Empire State Building. And that is with a mere 50 percent growth rate, not doubling.
If you think we have seen some pretty amazing technological advances in our day, then fasten your seat belt. With computers, we are on the sixtieth or sixty-first square of our chess board, metaphorically, where doubling is a pretty big deal. If you don’t have the computing power to do something, just wait two years and you will have twice as much. Sure, it took us thousands of years to build the computer on your desk, but in just two more years, we will have built one twice as powerful. Two years after that, twice as powerful again. So while it took us almost five thousand years to get from the abacus to the iPad, twenty-five years from now, we will have something as far ahead of the iPad as it is ahead of the abacus. We can’t even imagine or wrap our heads around what that thing will be.
The combination of the scientific method and Moore’s mysterious law is what has given us the explosion of new technology that is part and parcel of our daily life. It gave us robots, nanotech, the gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas9, space travel, atomic power, and a hundred other wonders. In fact, technology advances at such a rate that we are, for the most part, numb to the wonder of it all. New technology comes with such rapidity that it has become almost mundane. We carry supercomputers in our pockets that let us communicate instantly with almost anyone on the planet. These devices are so ubiquitous that even children have them and they are so inexpensive as to be free with a two-year cellular contract. We have powers that used to be attributed to the gods, such as seeing events as they happen from a great distance. We can change the temperature of the room in which we are sitting with the smallest movement of our fingers. We can fly through the air six miles above the Earth at the speed of sound, so safely that statistically one would have to fly every day for over 100,000 years to get in an accident. And yet somehow we can manage to feel inconvenienced when they run out of the turkey wrap and we have to eat the Cobb salad.
To read more of GigaOm publisher Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, you can purchase it here.