Friday, February 10, 2017

The Future: The Law of Accelerating Returns

Chad Huskins is the EVVY Award-winning author of sci-fi books such as The Sol Ascendancy.  Check out the first reviews for Zero Star

The future has always held an allure for us.  Raymond Kurzweil, a top modern researcher, has said that the entire function of the brain is to predict the future.  If, ten thousand years ago, you were walking alongside a river with spear in hand and saw a lion on the other side, walking in the same direction as you, you would have to imagine what would happen if you continued on your present course (you would intersect and be eaten, therefore, it's best to go in another direction).

So you see, predicting the future is essential to our survival.

We gravitate towards those who say they can take us to a better tomorrow, and campaign slogans such as "Forward Into Tomorrow" or simply "Forward" are obviously meant for us to look ahead.  The advent of science fiction, and its modern proliferation, clearly shows just how much we want to speculate.

In this article, we will be discussing the future, what it holds, and exactly how we can know what it holds.  We will start with the Law of Accelerating Returns, and how it allows us to know (not guess) what's next for us.

The Law of Accelerating Returns
The Law of Accelerating Returns is a term coined by futurist Raymond Kurzweil, a man so knowledgable and accurate with his predictions on technologies of the future that Bill Gates makes sure to read everything the man writes, and listens to every lecture he gives.  The Law of Accelerating Returns goes something like this: the rate at which technology is advancing is growing exponentially, never slows down, is not impacted at all by wars or economic recessions or depressions, and it is so predictable that it allows us to know precisely where we'll be technologically in the future, almost to the year.

Part of it is just doing the math.  It took the human race 400 years for the printing press to reach a mass audience.  It took us 50 years to get the telephone to a mass audience.  It took 7 years for the cell phone to reach a quarter of the population.  Social networks (blogs, wikis, Facebook-style sharing) took only three years.  Kurzweil shows clearly with his research that the rate at which technology grows in power is never--that's right, never--going to slow down, it's never going to plateau (it never has), not as long as human beings exist.  In fact, barring a world-ending asteroid smashing into the Earth, the rate at which technology grows in power and capability is only going to accelerate.

This is one of the reasons that the human genome was mapped so much faster than anyone (even those involved with the research) predicted it could be.  It took researchers seven years to get just 1% of the genome mapped, and they pretty much said, "See?  We told you so.  This is going to take about a hundred years or so to complete."

Meanwhile, Kurzweil was saying, "Nope.  If you're at one percent, then you're almost there."  This confused many, but his notion of Accelerating Returns quickly moved past theory and into the territory of Law when his point was made for him.  You see, if it took seven years to reach 1% of the genome, then the next seven years would yield about 2-3%.  Then, the next seven years would yield another 4-9%, so on and so forth.  (This is what he terms a "doubling".)

And viola, we now have the genome mapped!

This has to do with the compounding of technologies.  Advancements made in, say, information technology, allows for greater communication between biologists, pathologists, virologists, botanists, zoologists, and all the other "ists" of the world.  A single discovery in any of these fields almost immediately bleeds over into other fields of study in surprisingly beneficial ways.

Also, the discovery in one field of study can have multiple applications in various other fields of study: just as an example, advancements in metallurgy allowed for the Watt steam engine to revolutionize travel across waters, which revolutionized trade and travel by speeding it up, which brought goods and services more quickly to places that needed it, which stimulated the economy, which allowed for more funding of other projects, just one of which might be even further developments in metallurgy...

On and on and on it goes, never stopping, never slowing down.  A modern example of this would be how we use present-generation computers to create the next-gen computers, which are always more powerful, with superior computational power.  And, of course, we use those to build the next powerful thing.  (This, by the way, creates an interesting philosophical thought: If computers can essentially conceive of a more powerful computer, albeit with our help, then can we conceive a computer or organic lifeform that's better than us?  The answer appears to be an unqualified yes.  We'll get to that below.)

Back in the 80s, Kurzweil developed a chart that showed how quickly technology was spreading to a mass audience.  He was a little surprised to find that no matter what was going on in the world, no matter how good or bad things were, the level of technology on Earth and the rate at which it was spread across the planet doubled at the same predictable rate as the previous doubling.

Nothing affects it, nothing slows it down, nothing stands in its way.  The future is coming, and nobody can stop it.  This is evidenced by the fact that almost always, whenever a new innovation comes along, multiple people have it.  Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both invented calculus at nearly the exact same time, though they had never met.  We've all heard about the rush to make social network sites on the Internet, Mark Zuckerberg just stuck his flag in it first.  It was the next logical course of action considering the knowledge and technology of the time.  Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan both invented the light bulb separately.  Lists such as these go on and on.

(Here's a short video showing quantum levitation)

How This Works, and What This Means
The Law of Accelerating returns means we can now predict, quite accurately, where we'll be from year to year, from decade to decade, from century to century.  Kurzweil's predictions have been so spot on in the past that today's leading inventors, businessmen, and researchers all follow his every article, his every prediction.

Kurzweil predicted, to the year, when a "world wide web" would reach the people.  He accurately predicted the mapping of the human genome.  He has said that when he first set out to gather this data, his expecation was that no one can predict the future, that it's far too random.  However, he found that if you measure the underlying properties of information technology, such as the power of computers per dollar, instructions-per-second per dollar, and other such factors, it produces a "remarkably smooth exponential trajectory" that one can follow.  Again, a trajectory that never slows down, never wavers in the good times or the bad.  Nothing has an impact on it.

The future...just...keeps...coming!

Information technology has become the main reason behind exponential growth.  After all, knowledge is power, and that power has to be communicated.  For instance, it's very common now for people to diagnose themselves from the Internet (and yes, while this can't always be trusted, it's still helpful), and many times doctors are finding that their patients now know much more about their own rare disease than the doctors themselves because of constant research on the Internet.

We know more, about ourselves and the universe around us, than we ever have before.  We're living longer, and so therefore we can contribute more to the world in one lifetime.  Advances in dental care, for instance, has greatly decreased infection that once came into the body through cavities and gum disease, which in turn has lengthened lifespans considerably.  These advancements came both in technology and understanding--this is important, because it's not just the tech that's advancing, but our understanding of our bodies, what we are, what we're made of, and what we're capable of (predicting the future) that has advanced us.

It has been said that the future of science is born first in science fiction.  This, at least, makes a strong argument for it.  Our need to predict creates fantasy, and we literally make our fantasies come to life now.

I, for one, am a self-published author, a thing not possible just five years ago.  It's an entirely new set of rules for my career path now.  And yours, too.  And it's only going to keeping changing, so you had better learn to keep up.

(An hour-long video where Dr. Michio Kaku discuesses the next 15 years or so)

Kurzweil points out that there have already been nanomachines that go into the bloodstream and, in the near future, blood cell-sized devices will be created that can go into the bloodstream and perform therapeutic functions, and will be able to cure diabetes (one scientist actually cured Type 1 diabetes in mice and they're gearing up for human trials soon).  It lets insulin in, and blocks antibodies.  He also says that it could address limitations in your own white blood cells, and could attack cancer problems much sooner because your white blood cells don't attack cancer (they think it's you).  All of this, he says, is coming in the 2020s.

Kurzweil also demonstrates how we are less than 10 doublings away from producing 100% of the world's energy needs through solar energy alone.  There is 10,000 times more sunlight bathing the Earth every day than we would need to give the entire planet 100% of what it needs, and solar panel technologies are doubling every year (just like everything else).

Researchers now believe that by 2040, most cars on the road will be automated.  Just this year, GM's Cadillac division started on concept cars that are partially automated, and Audi and BMW are slated to do the same.  Google, meanwhile, is pushing for legislation in Nevada that would allow self-driving cars on the road, while at the same time manufacturing a group of autonomous Toyota Prius hybrids.

As for AI...well, we already saw the computer "Watson" defeat various intelligent champions on Jeopardy!, which Kurzweil points out is significant because Jeopardy! is a game show filled with word games, puns, and various plays on words.  This is one of the steps necessary to pass the Turing test (a test of a computer's ability to exhibit human-like intelligence), and it's a key one that Watson and other computers have already surpassed.

Right now, "Watson" is comprised of dozens of computer towers, so many that it fills a large storage area.  However, if you know your history, then you know that the first calculators used to fill a warehouse, and now calculators are just one of a thousand apps on your cell phone.

Questions Raised
All of this, of course, raises boatloads of ethical and philosophical questions, not the least of which is what will our role be in society once technology takes on so many roles once filled by humans.  Will there be job loss?  Some futurists say that there will actually be plenty of jobs, only we can't imagine or describe them now, just as you couldn't describe the job of a computer engineer to a factory worker in the 1950s.

Regardless, I'm reminded of a song by Gorillaz.  "The comin' on, is comin' on, is comin' on, is comin' on..."

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