The slowing of technological progress

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]

6 thoughts on “The slowing of technological progress”

  1. I think the issue here is that there has been no future shock, and with the lack of future shock everyone things that things are moving along same old same old.

    I started college in 2001. In 2001 I was one of the very few people to have a cell phone. I recall more than one friend decry cell phones as the work of the devil that they would never own. Fast forward just four years later. I am sitting around with some friends at a party and some other people we had just met. We are exchanging cell phone numbers so that we can meet up later. One person declares that they don’t have a cell phone. Conversation dies. Everyone is mildly shocked that there exist another 20 something in the world without a cellphone. No one is entirely sure how to proceed to meeting up with someone without a cell phone.

    The same goes for other things. I take it completely for granted that any piece of known knowledge that doesn’t take a few dozen pages to explain can be pulled up at a moments notice, and a lot of the explanations that take longer to understand are there for the taking as well. I have friends scattered across the globe in a way that my parents will never match, not because they have traveled more or met more people, but simply because I can keep in touch easily and for free with things like SMS and Facebook.

    The information revolution is a pretty profound revolution that is actually just starting to pick up steam. There are still a few billion people left to plug in. Just because the big technology hits didn’t turn out to be rockets and robots doesn’t make them any less profound. Google and a cellphone is going to have a far more profound impact upon your life than a space elevator.

  2. I believe it is useful to challenge ideas and hypothesis, and that is valid also for the singularity. The statement that progress of technology is slowing down I do however not find very justified. I am not so sure here into what class of changes Paul Krugman puts the internet and cell phones. I think it possible to make a case for them really having influenced and still influencing the world and they came definitely after last centuries sixties.

    I would be surprised if our advances in genetics, stem cells and system biology would not bring us significant changes in the next or latest the following decade. The visions in those technologies are too plausible and are already tested in laboratories.

    It is may still be possible to make a case that for AI to really work we are missing just too many technologies which are currently not even on real road maps not to speak that they would be working in laboratories. I refer to computerpower which is needed beyond what current technologies promise and a to understanding of general intelligence, which also still has a long way to go.

  3. I don’t buy that tech progress is slowing at all. The author’s contention that previous inventions were essentially brand new is incorrect. Those inventions had a precursor just like cell phones had rotary phones as a precursor. Let’s take phones as an example.

    Pointing/grunting was the precursor to talking, which was the precursor to writing, which were the precursor to messages, which was the precursor to mail, mail was the precursor to the telegraph, which was the precursor to the phone (old 2 handed operator connected phones), which was the precursor to the rotary phone, which was the precursor to the cordless phone, which was the precursor to the cell phone, which is the precursor to the smartphone, which is probably the precursor to your entire computer in your pocket, etc.

    None of these were original or completely new inventions. They were all built off of the desire to communicate better. The assumption that the current smartphone is related to Alexander Graham Bell’s phone in any meaningful way is ridiculous. Could Bell’s phone tell him where he was at? What restaurants were near? Call anyone in the entire world from almost anywhere in the world? Look up the periodic table? Mail a message with a photo attached instantly? I could go on and on.

  4. Good points all.

    On reflection I broadly disagree with Nordmann and Krugman’s arguments.

    ICT is still a big and ongoing technological revolution, and biotechnology is likely to have a huge, society-altering impact over the next couple of decades.

  5. All I have to say about this is that when molecular manufacturing and fully-roboticised construction methods become widespread, Nordmann and Krugman are going to look pretty foolish.

  6. Might there also be an element of “what we need from [information] technology has not grown apace with that technology?”

    The biggest barriers to the adoption of new technologies isn’t their existing (we have growing and ever expanding computing capacities) but rather for most of us a number of pragmatic bottlenecks: network speeds and connectivity for most of us, the speed and efficacy of HTTP as the “protocol of the future,” information organization and so forth. We even buy laptops that are underpowered, because they do everything we need… Technology continues to develop, we just having some catching up to do with regards to our utilization of that technology.

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