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September 24, 2005

Measuring technological progress; a primer

I used to think it was just a silly idea that no one really took seriously, but here I am blogging about it. After reading Bill Tozier's rip on Ray Kurzweil's concept of The Singularity, I'm led to record some of my own thoughts. (Disclaimer: I'm not a regular reader of Bill's, although perhaps I should be, having found his blog via Cosma Shalizi.) I would briefly summarize this Singularity business, but best to let its inventor do the deed:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century -- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). ... Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity -- technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.

Bill contends that it's worthless for technological change to happen at an exponential rate if no one is actually using those ideas. But that misses the point of the Singularity a little - Kurzweil is actually claiming that the rate of change in the actual technological state of humanity is advancing at an ever increasing rate, and frequently employs figures showing exponential trends in certain metrics like CPU speed, number of genes sequenced, etc. Were it merely a production of ideas, well, you could argue that it could be exponential by simply claiming it's proportional to the current human population (i.e., if each person has one novel idea to contribute to the world), and be done with it. But the idea of the Singularity implies that the technological power of humanity grows exponentially, so it naturally assumes that ideas will be turned into applications.

Unlike Kurzweil, I'm a bad futurist. That is, I am loath to share my vision of the future because I'm pretty sure I'll be wrong; the future will be more interesting and less predictable than I think anyone gives it credit for. So, let me propose that there is at least one much better metric by which to chart the "growth" of technology's impact on human civilization. To be quantitative, let's measure the average amount of energy that an average human releases (e.g., internal combustion engines, jet engines, electricity, etc.) in a given year. Of course, this ignores, like all of economic theory, the environmental cost of such expenditure in the form of drawing down the bank of natural resources available to us on Earth, and also ignores the fact that energy efficiency is another form of technological advancement. However, my measure at least, is nicely well-defined and has none of the non-falsifiable overtones of Kurzweil's idea; plus, if it is increasing exponentially, then it has lots of nice implications about technology and perhaps even the stability of civilization.

Generally, though, you can't fault Kurzweil for his optimism; he truly believes that the future will be a good place to raise our children, and that the Singularity will ultimately bring about wonderful changes to our lives such as immortality (although, it's not settled if immortality will be a Good Thing(tm), for instance), an end to stupidity and computers that do what you want rather than what you tell them to. In his own words:

The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.

Since Kurzweil claims most of us today will be around to witness the Singularity, I suppose I'll just wait to see who's right, him or me (with my own secret and probably way off-base predictions).

posted September 24, 2005 08:05 PM in Thinking Aloud | permalink


You don't actually know me. But I was looking for a picture of Long's Peak to post in my blog and I came across your blog. I climbed Long's Peak in September of 2000. It was amazing. It was funny how you described you feelings going up the mountain. I think I was feeling similar but just didn't want to admit it. I was hiking with experienced hikers. Colorado and Long's Peak are very special to me and I find it interesting to read what other people think of it as well. Enjoy.

Posted by: Brownwyn at June 20, 2006 12:58 PM