Human Technology is Improving Rapidly
I have been reading books on advancements in science and technology for a long time, and I believe our world truly is at an inflection point. A number of new circumstances are contributing to this unprecedented change. For example, AI in the form of neural networks is making rapid improvements to several areas of research and helping to increase the already prodigious rate of progress. We normally think of progress in terms of straight lines but for many reasons it seems like humanity's progress is set to explode in the form of a steep parabolic curve.
What do you imagine technology 30 years in the future to be like? Well, some people might look 30 years in the past, gauge the difference between now and then, and extrapolate. This means they assume the difference between 1990 and 2020 should equal the difference between 2020 and 2050. But this is linear thinking. Technology grows at an exponential rate. This is because it is easier for more advanced societies to make additional advancements (consider how difficult it would have been to make lasting systemic advancements during the times of cave men). This means that the improvements we can expect by 2050 may be many times the improvements made from 1990 to 2020. Consider that esteemed futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that the progress made in the 21st century will be 1000x as significant as the progress made during the 20th century.
The rate of technological progress itself has been accelerating for decades, centuries even. This is a documented fact, but let's use a thought experiment to illustrate the point. Imagine bringing someone from the 15th century to the 18th century. They would undoubtedly be impressed with the progress made in the intervening 300 years. But honestly, are you aware of any major technological breakthroughs made in that time span? Most people aren't, but they include things like the slide ruler, the steam turbine, the barometer, and the pendulum clock.
The progress made between 1400 and 1700 would pale compared to the progress made in the last 300 years. In other words, someone from the 18th century would be astounded if they could see today's inventions, vehicles, and computers. In my lifetime, the advances made in telecommunication, microprocessor architecture, and the realism of computer-generated imagery are practically incomprehensible. If you are interested in the progress humanity has made in the last 1,000 years, stick around to the end of this post, and check out the list of major inventions by century and decade.
It may not seem like it, but many major problems have been solved in just the last few years. Take voice transcription, for example. As long as you speak clearly, your phone can transcribe almost anything you say. Voice translation is similar. Your phone can translate, with fantastic precision, between most known languages. Also, consider optical character recognition, which now lets us copy, cut, and paste text from a photo of a written page. These are all highly complex problems that necessitated hundreds of innovations, from many experts, over several years that would have seemed impossible to many just twenty years ago.
There are biologists today who, just a few years ago, did not expect humanity to map the structure of specific proteins in their lifetime. An AI software called Alpha Fold, created by Google, has now mapped all of the proteins known to science (over 200 million of them) with near-perfect precision. AI is accelerating scientific discovery in many fields. Today, computers are not just beating us at chess and checkers but at much more complex games like Go and Jeopardy. A number of computers have also passed the Turing Test in the last few years, successfully tricking human judges into thinking that they are human. This was once considered a grand goal of computer science, and now it is just another benchmark. New and exciting technologies are announced publicly every month.
Ray Kurzweil calls the acceleration of progress “the law of accelerating returns” (LOAR). This is not a real ‘law,’ but it points to the fact that often advances tend to feed on themselves, increasing the scope of the next advancement. Many specialists believe that the rate of acceleration is accelerating. So, what will this mean for you and me? In his book, "The Future Is Faster Than You Think," Peter Diamandis talks about six different features of growth in the technology sector. These are features of "exponential technologies" and, when listed in order, give you a sense of the stages that these technologies will pass through as they mature. I think they are fascinating. Here they are:
The Six Ds of Exponential Growth:
- Digitalization: Once digital, a technology can be stored, copied, shared, and spread at the speed of light. Also, things that have been digitized are subject to computation and rapid computer analysis.
- Deception: Exponential progress can be deceptively slow initially but speeds up before you know it. This is why many technologies that we take for granted today (such as the internet) were scoffed at initially when people first heard about them. Most people ignored and discounted the internet early in its development. Times magazine said, "it will never go mainstream." The potential of the internet was initially deceptive, and this is true of other emerging technologies (i.e. self-driving cars, robotics, 3D printing) that we tend not to think much of today.
- Disruption: This is when a new technology changes established ways of doing things and possibly impacts the entire industry. We are set to be hit with wave after wave of new disruptive technologies. Recent technological innovations have made it so that every year solar panels are cheaper and more efficient. The batteries used to store solar power are rapidly becoming more affordable with higher capacities. Because we can expect these trends to continue, solar will soon permanently disrupt the fossil fuel industrial complex.
- Demonetization: Technology is demonetized when advancements that make a product or service more efficient help to drive down its costs toward zero. Copying bits has almost no cost at all, and this is why we can duplicate a song or a PDF book for a friend for free. Many services have been demonetized in the last few decades including, Google search, GPS usage, encyclopedias, and email.
- Dematerialization: This happens when physical products are replaced by nonphysical services. For example, physical maps and reference books, in general, are essentially unnecessary today.
- Democratization: When technology becomes so cheap that it is available to everyone. You see this today: most people can easily afford a cell phone filled with cutting-edge tech.
Why Dematerialization Means Less Waste, Less Clutter, and More Productivity
Let's talk about dematerialization a little more. Your phone contains many applications that used to be performed by separate products. Many of these products used to be pretty bulky, but now they can all fit into one device that fits easily in your pocket. Mobile phone apps have replaced (or dematerialized) the following physical objects:
A list of physical products that have been dematerialized by mobile phones:
calculator, alarm clock, clock/watch, stopwatch, timer, Rolodex, address book, little black book, calendar, thermometer, photography camera, video camera, mailbox, fax, pager, two-way pager, flashlight, answering machine, home phone, public telephones, walkie-talkies, maps, GPS device, music speakers, personal computer, PC software, internet browser, modem, router, personal book library, encyclopedia, notepad, weather predictions, television, movies, music CDs cassettes and vinyl, in-person education, healthcare, barometer, metronome, ruler/tape measure, level, universal remote, radio, appointment scheduler, organizer, world time clock, scanner, dictionary, thesaurus, magnifying glass, and much more.
Products are becoming intangible algorithmic processes, and it is exciting to think about what other things may be dematerialized soon. As new tech is built into our cell phones, their capabilities will continue to expand. We have already seen phones benefit recently from the addition of things like accelerometers, lidar, neural processing units (NPUs), and others. In the last few years, we have seen our phones come to do fantastic things such as recognize songs (Shazam), play advanced video games, serve as DJ equipment and turn tables, and allow you to communicate with home devices remotely.
The combination of the internet and the mobile phone really has produced dream technology. It gives us instant access to real-time news, stock quotes, sports scores, weather forecasts, help wanted ads, the worldwide auction garage sale that is eBay, satellite images of any place on Earth, tax forms, real estate listings, records, catalogs, scans, manuals and how-to guides, traffic reports, an amazing variety of free music and video, tutorials, boilerplate legal forms, friend's updates, and pictures or video of practically anything you might want to see. There are countless websites with treasure troves of valuable information. For instance, the Pubmed site gives anyone access to a large proportion of the sum total of all medical knowledge.
Through digital photography, dematerialization put Kodak out of business. Through streaming, it allowed Netflix to do the same to Blockbuster. Through digitalization Amazon and Kindle put most bookstores out of business. Dematerialization is toppling old business models. It allowed Apple Music and others to put inefficient and wasteful music stores out of business. Once you can stream music on your phone, why buy CDs? Email reduced the need for paper, stationery, stamps, envelopes, and the transport of physical letters. If you can snap, store, and share photos on your phone, why buy a camera and film? Dematerialization has been incredibly disruptive and has improved our way of life.
There is not necessarily an upside to everything. Sometimes we take two steps forward and one step back. Right now, streaming a video necessitates that a hard drive somewhere spins at 2,700 revolutions per second and of course this contributes to global warming. But there are countless new inventions being tested this very week to reduce the energy consumption involved in streaming.
Converging Technologies Support and Amplify One Another
Next, let's talk about convergence. Part of the reason for optimism for the future of technology is that many developing technologies will converge. Once they converge, they will augment each other. For example, earlier, we talked about how recent advances in AI have been applied to protein folding and produced prodigious amounts of valuable data and insights. This kind of convergence will keep happening. Some of the most critical advancements in neuroscience have not yet been appreciated by experts in AI. Some of the most seminal advances in AI have not yet been employed in robotics. And robotics has not yet benefited from some of the fabulous advancements in 3D printing. But they will. All these disciplines will reinforce and complement each other. Peter Diamandis refers to these as "converging technologies," and the confluence between them is expected to boost all of them. Each technology in the following list can be expected to continue to improve incrementally over the next few years. As you read, just imagine how they will interact and amplify each other in synergistic ways.
A list of converging accelerating technologies:
AI, robotics, computing power, hardware architectures, Wi-Fi protocols, fiber optic standards, networking standards, computer memory storage, satellites, sensors, quantum computing, superconductors, deep learning, machine learning, big data, cyber security, cryptography, material science, 3-D printing, bioinformatics, pharmacology, biotech, quantum physics, CPUs, GPUs, NPUs, QPUs, software engineering, programming, education, VR, AR, information sharing, open access, blockchain, cryptocurrency, nanotechnology, gigabit speeds, battery technologies, leveraged assets (Uber, Airbnb, mechanical Turk), crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, autonomous businesses and organizations, cyborg prosthetics, brain-computer interfaces, neuro tech, GMOs, CRISPR, cultured meat, vertical farming, renewables, solar power, wind power, robotic avatars, flying cars, VTOL, drones, autonomous cars, buses and trucks, electric vehicles, underground tunnels, rockets, and much more.
In his book, Diamandis points to seven forces of growth, that I also found compelling. These are forces that contribute to the law of accelerating returns. They are byproducts of converging exponentials that act as "second-order innovation accelerants."
The Seven Forces of Growth:
- Saved Time: When a computer manufacturer shaves seconds off the boot time of a new desktop, it could potentially add hundreds of years of additional productivity on the population level. This is merely because the thousands of people using that computer won’t have to wait as long for their computer to start up. The newest solid state hard drives (SSDs) are 10 to 100 times faster than the old hard disk drives (HDDs). Just imagine how much time is being saved as the population switch from one to the other.
- Availability of Capital: The availability of money drives breakthroughs. New systems such as crowdfunding are now making money available to deserving entrepreneurs who would never have a chance in the past.
- Demonetization: When digital services become dirt cheap, companies and individuals can stretch their dollars much further. Many of today's companies take advantage of the free services offered by other companies making their business models viable.
- More Genius: Globalization, integration, and interconnectivity make it easier to find geniuses in the world so they can get the education and resources they need to make their contributions.
- Communications Abundance: The internet, information sharing, and cross-pollination drive progress. So many more people are connected today. This has made it incredibly simple to find and work with people across the world that are interested in the same things you are.
- New Business Models: New ways of doing business have further entrenched positive tech developments. These new models help make things better, cheaper, and faster.
- Longer Lives: Increased longevity and improved physical and mental health increase productivity and output per person.
Kevin Kelly, in his new book, Inevitable, talks about similar growth forces. I highly recommend that book as well. Next, let's list a few documented trends accelerating tech development.
The Law of Accelerating Returns: The evolution of human technology will continue to advance at an exponential rate, not a linear one. This is because the methods and progress from one stage will be used to create the next. Efficiency is increasing, and cost, effort, time, and resources needed are decreasing.
Moore's Law: Computer processing power doubles every 18 months. This doubling is made possible because engineers find ways to shrink transistors, making it so they can fit twice as many on the same size piece of silicon. Computer processing power has exhibited this kind of growth for over 80 years. In 2022 Moore's law is showing signs of slowing down. Still, aside from it, there are thousands of other trends and s-curves that are propelling advancements in computer science.
Rose's Law: The number of qubits in quantum computers is expected to double every two years. This is very exciting because each new qubit doubles a quantum computer's computational power. So, when we found ourselves at 4 qubits a few years ago, Rose's Law pushed us to 8 in just two years. When this happened, quantum computers became 16 times more powerful. Two years later, at 16 quibits they were 4,000 times more powerful. IBM now has a 433-qubit processor. Just imagine how powerful these processors will be in the near future.
Carlson Curve: DNA sequencing costs are decreasing rapidly as a function of time. It cost over one billion dollars to sequence the first genome in 2001. That price is now down to around $500 and shrinking fast.
Why I See Big Tech as a Good Thing and Choose to Share my Data with Corporations
Most people don’t feel grateful for the phenomena of demonetization, dematerialization, and democratization the way I do. They figure, “That stuff is just free now so that the big tech companies can track us and ‘steal’ our data.” Uninformed cynics mount countless arguments against the tech sector, AI, and "FANG" (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google). Informed ones do too. Sometimes it seems that all my friends and acquaintances dislike and disparage tech companies and the executives that run them. They assume that they are being swindled and spied on. Maybe this distrust is good because it keeps those companies and their executives in check. But in my estimation, the programmers and computer scientists of the last five decades are heroes. They have engineered monumental structures, many, many of which are entirely free to use.
Much of the tech sector gets a bad rap in popular media. Documentaries such as Netflix's “The Great Hack” and "The Social Dilemma" (which I thought were well done and thought-provoking) make us paranoid. Even most news outlets have us thinking that big tech is trying to exploit us and “rob” us of our data. But how are scientists and engineers supposed to improve the internet if they don't have records of how humans interact with it? I always opt to share my info because I want it to contribute to the analytics and to the very progress I have been talking about in this entry. Many AI systems cannot recognize patterns unless they have millions of data points. AI needs as much data as it can get. I have nothing to hide, and I want to share my data so that they can contribute to the algorithms that are finding important patterns in our world. In fact, as the following few paragraphs will point out, keeping data open and sharing access to it is becoming a cornerstone of the industry.
It is becoming increasingly common for patentable or copyrightable material to be made open and given away for free. This "open source" and "open access" trend has been a tremendous boon to productivity. Much of the most essential data, code, and software being developed today is made open source. This means that it is not behind a paywall and that anyone can access, study, use, and distribute it anywhere. Millions of people have put their code up on the GitHub website so that others can utilize and alter (fork) it at no cost. Professional scientists, researchers, and academia, in general, are more widely adopting the open access model. I personally try to make it so that everything I publish is free.
Remember Alpha Fold, that protein predicting software from Google that I mentioned twice already? The team that developed it made their software and all their findings open source so anyone can use, study, change, and distribute it. Similarly, Google invented the "transformer," perhaps the most important AI architecture in the last several years, and they made its structure open source so that anyone can take advantage of it. After installing the requisite applications, you could take the code for the transformer and run it on your computer. In a sense, this would be like Henry Ford dematerializing the Model T and gifting it to everyone on the planet. Scientists are now applying the transformer model to many different areas such as nuclear fusion and drug discovery with promising results. It is truly accelerating scientific discovery.
The internet itself could have been commercial rather than public. We surf the internet freely today, but it could have had toll booths and paywalls everywhere. Thanks to some forward-thinking inventors internet protocols such as TCP/IP, HTML, POP3 and many others have fair use and public interest baked into them. With the right hardware, anyone, from any country can tap into most of the web for no cost and be served the data they are requesting virtually instantaneously. Today’s search engines answer more than 600,000 questions per second, and those searches are all free and instantaneous.
In the 1970s, there wasn't enough money or resources in the world to create the internet as it is today. However, intense efforts from millions of people over five decades made it a reality. Much of the net was created by users and hobbyists, rather than large companies or institutions. Experts estimate that more than 60% of the web comes from passionate volunteers and is not commercial at all. For example, most of the work that happens on Wikipedia is done by volunteers. This is true of many curated services on the internet. Today anyone can create a blog or YouTube channel for free and potentially reach a vast audience. This is something that would've been impossible just a few decades ago. It is also something that, to me, is a paragon of equality of opportunity.
Consider the privacy issue in the extreme. Consider mass surveillance. I recently read a news report about people in Hong Kong toppling lampposts because they believed facial recognition cameras were inside. Are they in the right? It is not clear. I am not against surveillance at all. I walk on the street at night a lot. I do it to clear my mind. I have been assaulted multiple times on LA streets. People would be mugged much less if each lamppost was passively tracking faces and license plates. Think about it. It would make it much more difficult for criminals to pull off battery, shooting, and kidnapping. It would save people from injury, loss of possessions, and trauma. It would make me feel safer on the street and in my own home. Also, I don't commit crimes or do things that I am ashamed of, so I have nothing to lose from mass surveillance. I certainly think there should be transparency at many levels and watchdog oversight. Still, I welcome the city of Los Angeles knowing exactly where I take my walks.
Don’t get me wrong. Data can be used for to exploit people and can even be weaponized. It can be used to target people to be shown fake or misleading news. So data collection and use certainly needs to be scrutinized. I applaud whistle blowers like Edward Snowden who point out when governments or companies are secretly tracking citizens. I think that data should be tracked, but we should know everything about how they do it, with complete transparency. Perhaps we should even be enabled to self-monetize our own data. A quote from Kevin Kelly’s book, “The Inevitable” states this clearly: “If symmetry can be restored so we can track who is tracking, if we can hold the trackers accountable by law (there should be regulation), and responsible for accuracy, and if we can make the benefits obvious and relevant, then I suspect the expansion of tracking will be accepted.”
Digital privacy is important. You don't want criminals to have your credit card numbers. But I think we should be willing to give responsible corporations like Google and Apple our info. They mostly use the information in aggregate to improve their services, meaning that they are not interested in us as individuals. Where they are interested in us individually, it is mostly just in recommending better ads. If you are going to have to see ads anyway, wouldn't you want to see more engaging ones tailored to your interests? Personal data is also used by scientists to study trends, by politicians to illuminate policy issues, and by medical experts. Wouldn't you want your Apple Watch to be enabled to tell that your heart is beating in an arrhythmic pattern? If collecting your data could help Apple warn others of an arrhythmia, wouldn't you want that?
I always opt to share my data. I don't know how much longer I will be on this Earth, and I would rather have my data be used to inform algorithmic decision-making (contributing to a greater whole) than be thrown in the trash as if it never existed. I know that big tech isn't solely out to improve our lives, and I don't see the coming tech revolution as utopian. That may be too optimistic.
But as long as technology keeps progressing, and as long as we keep holding tech corporations accountable, I see our future as a protopia where improvements are cumulative, and every day is better than yesterday.
What Can We Expect from the Future?
There is nothing predicted to slow the momentum of these ongoing technological revolutions. Let me throw out a couple of predictions of my own. These are hasty forecasts and meant to be taken with a grain of salt.
Predictions for the Future of Technology:
- AI will become conscious by 2050.
- Infinity water recycling and desalination will end most water shortages by 2070.
- It will be illegal to drive your own car by 2040.
- Large 3-D printed houses will cost a few tens of thousands by 2060.
- A desktop computer will have more computing power than a human brain by 2050.
- Nanobots will enable us to think in the cloud by 2100.
- Ubiquitous solar panels will make solar energy the primary energy source by 2060.
- Fusion power will be sustainable and cost-efficient by 2070.
- Nanotechnology will make food mostly from thin air by 2100.
- We will have microscopic nanobot doctors in our bloodstream by 2070.
- We will have virtual avatars of deceased loved ones by 2030.
- Robotic earthworms will mine and biodegrade garbage by 2080.
- There will be major human rights issues around biological upgrades by 2030.
- Humans will reach mars and set up a base on the moon by 2035.
- Tree planting drones will curb our loss of vegetation by 2080.
- There will be heavy taxes on the use of industrial robots and commercial AI, which will help pay for the universal basic income necessary for free basic food and housing for all US citizens by 2080.
· Manufacturing and distribution will be heavily optimized by AI and cloud solutions by 2025. This will increase quality and decrease waste and environmental impact.
· Quantum computing will become useful by 2030 and allow us to simulate complex systems with large implications for areas such as pharmaceuticals and performance materials.
· A variety of new technologies will help us to both reduce and remove carbon emissions helping us approach a net-zero carbon footprint by 2050.
I recently read a great book called "New Thinking" by Dagogo Altraide. It describes some of the most important inventions of the last 300 years in chronological order. It is a fun read because it allows you to follow accelerating returns through time. I used the book, along with several websites and Wikipedia to help me compile the following list of inventions. As you read through it, I hope you get a sense of how technological progress has been growing with compound interest and of how your future is brighter than you might have previously assumed.
Moveable type printing
Refracting and Reflecting telescope
The Newcomen Steam engine
The Watt engine
The industrial revolution
The spinning jenny
Factories and textiles
Hot air balloons
The voltaic pile, an early battery
Transatlantic telegraph cable
Multi signal telegraph
The transcontinental railway
The theory of evolution
The difference and analytical engines (early mechanical computers)
Entertainment radio broadcasting
The internal combustion engine
The horseless carriage
The assembly line
Drive-in restaurants, movies, and motels
The Wright brother’s airplane
The Ford Model T
The pop-up toaster
Bread slicing machines
Tanks and submarines
Vacuum tube electrical signal amplifier
Mass production through mechanization
Cathode ray tube
The first transatlantic flight
The Turing machine
Programable computer, mechanical switches
Aerosol spray cans
The jet engine
ENIAC electronic general-purpose computer
Univac tape drives
The solar cell
The black box
DNA and the double helix
The fender Stratocaster
The polio vaccine
Programmable controllable robotic arms
NASA and Darpa
Tennis for Two, the first video game
Portable Transistor radio
The integrated circuit
Teflon nonstick pan
Stem cell therapy
Intercontinental ballistic missile
First spacewalk, and moon landing
Digital video game
Soft contact lens
ARPANET, first Internet
Word processing program
Disco, glam rock, power ballads
C programming language
Post it note
Genetic engineering and GMOs
Magnavox Odyssey home gaming console
Computer 3-D animation
Graphical user interface
Portable cassette player /Walkman
General PC operating system
World Wide Web
Music production software
Polymerase chain reaction
Computer worms and viruses common
SMS text messages
Personal digital assistant
Graphical web browser
Human genome project
Internet search engines
Peer-to-peer file sharing
Dark matter and dark energy
Digital video recorder
Capacitive touch screens
USB flash drives
Blogs and wikis
Self-balancing boards mature
AI transcription and translation
James Webb telescope
There are some definite inconsistencies in this list. At times I chose to include an invention in the decade it was actually discovered. At other times I chose to list the invention in the decade that it became widespread. There’s also a lot of gray area between the first instance of an invention and I the point where it is ready for commercial use. In placing them on a timeline, I tried to use reason and discretion.