Exponential Growth of Information Technology

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By taking a collection of data points on

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information technology (i.e. computing power per $1K, price of transistors, etc.), you’ll find that almost every factor associated with IT changes exponentially as a function of time. All of the data points fit remarkably well with an exponential curve for the past couple of decades and, in some instances, the past couple of centuries or more. For example, the falling price and increasing power of transistors since the 1970s and computing machines since 1890 fits remarkably well with an exponential curve for those entire intervals of time. It is astonishing that not even the stock crashes and wars which occurred over these time periods had any effect on these trends. 

The most famous one of these trends in IT is known as Moore’s Law which states that twice as many transistors will be able to fit on a computer chip every two years. By extrapolating and projecting these curves into the future, we can actually predict the future of IT—such as the future of computing power per $1K, the future price of a computer chip, and so on. Medicine and biotechnology (perhaps most promisingly, CRISPR) are starting to become digitalized into forms of IT and they also follow these exponential trends. Exponential change of a quantity means that it doubles every x number of years. Computing power, for example, doubles about every 11 months. Let’s say, to make the math simpler, that it’s one year. After 30 years, the computing power will have increased by a factor of \(2^{30}\)—which is more than a billion. It is this power of exponential change which is why computers today are several billion times more powerful and hundreds of thousands of times smaller today than they were several decades ago for the same price. We are naturally conditioned to think of things as changing linearly, but this way of thinking is not at all consistent with what we know empirically about the way in which IT, and technology in general, actually change with time. Our common sense intuitions do not count. Instead, we must rely on empiricism and natural laws to predict the future.

Perhaps over the next couple of decades, we’ll go through this exponential change again and end up with computers billions of times more powerful which are hundreds of thousands of times smaller—which would be roughly the size of a blood cell. Perhaps then, in the future, we could send dozens of blood-cell sized nanobots into the human blood stream to monitor our health and to repair damaged cells and tissues. These miniaturized nanobots could also autonomously deliver nutrients to our bodies, making the need for consuming food and drinks no longer necessary but, rather, something that is optional. In many ways, our biology is sub-optimal. It has been calculated that if we replaced 10% of red blood cells in our bodies with a specific type of nanobots known as respirocytes, we would be able to run an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes straight without taking a single gasp of air or sit on the bottom of our pool for four hours. I think that the use of miniaturized computers, as well as CRISPR, will play a profound role, over the next couple of decades, in improving the longevity and functionality of our bodies

The price of manipulating information (i.e. wirelessly sending or sharing information over the internet, sequencing base pairs of a DNA, etc.) and the price of computer chips are falling exponentially. If we extrapolate this trend into the future, then by the time of around 2030 the price of a computer chip will drop to about a penny. This is why, in the future, the computer chip will be ubiquitous and scattered throughout the environment everywhere. It is estimated that by the year 2050, there will be trillions of computer chips scattered throughout the environment. (This trend of rapidly decreasing prices is, as Jeremy Rifkin understands, a part of a much larger trend towards a zero-marginal cost society.) By the time these computer chips are ubiquitous in our environment, we’ll be able to make everything in our infrastructure smart: we’ll have smart vehicles, smart roads, smart homes and buildings, and so on. Whereas the first industrial revolution involved the electrification of infrastructure such as transportation and communication systems, this next industrial revolution will involve the cognification of infrastructure and will greatly surpass all prior technological revolutions.

This article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.