The slowing of technological progress

Tom James @ 02-09-2009

technology_plug_laptopAlref Nordmann writes in IEEE Spectrum of how technological progress is, contrary to the promises of singularitarians like Ray Kurzweil, actually slowing down:

Technological optimists maintain that the impact of innovation on our lives is increasing, but the evidence goes the other way. The author’s grand mother lived from the 1880s through the 1960s and witnessed the adoption of electricity, phonographs, telephones, radio, television, airplanes, antibiotics, vacuum tubes, transistors, and the automobile. In 1924 she became one of the first in her neighborhood to own a car. The author contends that the inventions unveiled in his own lifetime have made a far smaller difference.

Even if we were to accept, for the sake of argument, that technological innovation has truly accelerated, the line ­leading to the singularity would still be nothing but the simple-minded ­extrapolation of an existing pattern. Moore’s Law has been remarkably successful at describing and predicting the development of semiconductors, in part because it has molded that development, ever since the semiconductor manufacturing industry adopted it as its road map and began spending vast sums on R&D to meet its requirements.

there is nothing wrong with the singular simplicity of the singularitarian myth—unless you have something against sloppy reasoning, wishful thinking, and an invitation to irresponsibility.

This is the same point made by Paul Krugman recently. Nordmann points out that most of the major life-changing technological changes of the past 100 years had all already happened by about the 1960s, with the IT revolution of the last fifty years being pretty much the only major source of technological change[1] to impact him over his lifetime.

This arguments suggests that the lifestyle of citizens industrialised countries will remain fairly stable for a lengthy period of time. It raises the serious point that the best we can hope for vis a vis technological change over the next few decades will just be incremental improvements to existing technologies, and greater adoption of technologies by people in poorer countries.

This would be no bad thing of course, but the suggestion that Ray Kurzweil’s revolutions in nanotechnology, genetics, biotechnology, and artifical intelligence may not arrive as early as Kurzweil predicts is pretty disappointing.

It could be that, to paraphrase William Gibson, the future is in fact here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

[1]: By “major source of technological change” I mean things like antibiotics, mass personal transport, and heavier-than-air flight. There certainly have been improvements in all these areas in the last 50 years, and much wider adoption, but these have not had as great an initial impact.

[from IEEE Spectrum, via Slashdot][image from Matthew Clark Photography & Design on flickr]


Krugman on slowing pace of change

Tom James @ 12-08-2009

changeNobel economics laureate Paul Krugman, speaking at Worldcon, holds forth on the slowing pace of change:

“The pace of change has actually, generation by generation, been slowing down,” he claimed. “The world of today is not as different from the world of 1959 as the world of 1959 was from 1909.”

So let’s say that you travel 30 years into the future and find yourself in a shopping mall. You’ll be astounded at the “great gizmos” that are for sale there, but you’ll still be able to recognize it as a shopping mall, said Krugman. On the other hand, lots of trends are likely to come to a head over the next few decades, including climate change and peak oil, and they could result in a drastically different world.

It kind of makes sense. In the Western world technology – specifically consumer electronics, medicine, communications, and computers – have developed enormously in the past 40 years, but cultural and social change has been less pronounced. We still live a fairly automobile-centric, consumer-based, culturally egalitarian lifestyle[1] that would have been recognisable to someone living in 1959.

But Krugman points out that this could change in the future, with climate change, peak oil, disruptive biotechnology, radical life-extension, resource wars, AI, and the changes in attitudes and culture that these thing could lead to.

[1]: I think that we (i.e. the Western liberal democracies) are certainly a more culturally egalitarian society (with greater gender equality, gay rights, and less racism) than we were in 1959, but I’m not entirely sure that 1909 was substantially more racist, homophobic, and sexist than 1959. Question: did our *culture* (as distinct from technology) change more between 1959 and 2009 than between 1909 and 1959?

[from iO9][image from kevindooley on flickr]


Top 10 predictions for 2009

Tom James @ 11-11-2008

Every year since 1985 the editors of the Futurist magazine have selected their top ten predictions for the future:

1. Everything you say and do will be recorded by 2030. By the late 2010s, ubiquitous, unseen nanodevices will provide seamless communication and surveillance among all people everywhere. Humans will have nanoimplants, facilitating interaction in an omnipresent network.

6. Professional knowledge will become obsolete almost as quickly as it’s acquired. An individual’s professional knowledge is becoming outdated at a much faster rate than ever before. Most professions will require continuous instruction and retraining.

[via KurzweilAINews][image from Foxtongue on flickr]


Every day, in every way, things get better and better

Tom James @ 27-08-2008

stuffIt is nice when someone points out the obvious fact that for most people, most stuff (i.e. consumer durables) is pretty good nowadays – at least compared with equivalent stuff from a long time ago. Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand discusses this is the 2008 World Question “What have I changed my mind about?” – he now believes that good old stuff sucks:

Well, I bought a sequence of wooden sailboats. Their gaff rigs couldn’t sail to windward. Their leaky wood hulls and decks were a maintenance nightmare. I learned that the fiberglass hulls we’d all sneered at were superior in every way to wood.

Remodeling an old farmhouse two years ago and replacing its sash windows, I discovered the current state of window technology. A standard Andersen window, factory-made exactly to the dimensions you want, has superb insulation qualities; superb hinges, crank, and lock; a flick-in, flick-out screen; and it looks great. The same goes for the new kinds of doors, kitchen cabinetry, and even furniture feet that are available — all drastically improved.

(New stuff is mostly crap too, of course. But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.)

[via the Sachs Report][image from poagao on flickr]