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The Small Idea

Posted at salon.com in response to this story by John Horgan

Progress in nearly every scientific and technological field continues its growth on a double-exponential curve (the rate of increase is increasing exponentially). This is documented in Ray Kurzweil’s excellent book "The Singularity is Near," which reads like future history. What gives rise to this growth is continued scientific exploration at the small end of the physical spectrum (genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics). In approximately 2045, trends already in place for over a century will bring us to a convergence of intellect so stunning that it is impossible to predict what will happen after that. Humans may merge with their technology or launch off in entirely new directions. Either way, we will be millions of times smarter, and probably linked together in some sort of hyper-world-wide-web–Hence the term "Singularity."

What Horgan seems to be espousing is what Kurzweil calls the "intuitive linear view" of scientific progress. But it’s hard to see how Horgan could have ignored what has happened in just the past few years, and what’s happening now. We all already take for granted the approximate doubling in price-performance of computers every 2 years. But soon, this same accelerating trend will bring these improvements to other fields that have been more stagnant, such as energy and medicine. Kurzweil cites an example that the entire 20th century only achieved 25 years of progress at today’s rate. But the 21st century will achieve 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate), just by extrapolating existing trends.

Horgan states another common misconception regarding diminishing returns. Even exponential technology trends always approach an asymptote where they slow down–just before a paradigm shift occurs to a replacement technology. Kurzweil refers to this as the "paradigm shift S-curve." There have been 5 paradigm shifts so far in the development of computers, from mechanical relays, to vacuum tubes, to transistors, to integrated circuts, to microprocessors, soon to 3D processor architecture, next to optical and quantum computing and beyond. Another such progression would be wax cylinders to vinyl LP, to CD, to .mp3, and– Who knows what’s next in the audio world?

We better hope that Horgan is indeed wrong, because another type of convergence is happening: Human population explosion, climate change, and depletion of fossil fuels–all at the same time. If it we were on a linear or decreasing path of development, it’s hard to see how our species would even make it to 2045. We have invented ourselves into a corner where the only solution is to invent our way out of it. We need new energy sources, new ways of producing food, new ways of cleaning up the environment, and new ways of restoring the biodiversity that’s been lost to our brute-force industrial methods.

The answer is to think small, really small, toward fine-grained solutions. Genetic modification, self-replicating machinery and tiny robotics can make all of this possible. I’m tired of pessimists of all stripes. Some see entropic or mental limitations, others see looming dangers, but progress will have to save us in the end whether we like it or not.


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