Sep 12 2008

Telescopic Evolution

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the integrated circuit. In that time we have gone from five discrete components on chip (including transistors, capacitors, and resistors) to over a billion transistors alone. That is pushing nine orders of magnitude in five decades!

Can you imagine your life without IC’s? Electronics technology not progressing past vacuum tubes or, at the best, top-hat transistors? Basically we would still be operating at a 1950’s level: No MP3 players. No cellular phones. No personal computers. No Internet. No auto-sensing stoplights. And it doesn’t stop there! Nearly everything about our lives and modern culture has been touched by microchips somehow, somewhere.

The truth is that chips are in nearly everything. They are pervasive almost beyond comprehension. They don’t just provide cheap consumer products, they lower the cost of everything in our economy; from energy production, to manufacturing, to business management, to statistics gathering, to shipping, to beyond. They make our lives better, albeit somewhat more complex. They make our lives longer, via better drugs and medical techniques not previously available. They even enable lifestyles that would be impossible without them. (Some might argue this isn’t a benefit, but the point stands.)

All this in fifty years. To really get a feel for this telescoping of technological windows you need to think historically: We took tens of thousands of years to go from writing on clay tablets to printing on lead type. We took thousands of years to go from water-wheels to steam engines. We took hundreds of years to go from a basic understanding of chemical reactions to making dyes and epoxies from coal and oil. Each of these leaps was shorter than the previous. All of them together took us only to the Industrial Revolution. After that we moved into the Atomic Age within seventy years and to Internet Time within fifty.

And only ten years from that to you reading this…

The timescale keeps compressing and the technology moves ahead by orders of magnitude at each historical quantum level. What is the next step? Today, at work, I emailed around a link to a Wired article about the anniversary of the IC, the same one that I link to at the beginning of this essay. In one of the responses I was asked “Can you imagine 50 years from now?”

I had to answer that I couldn’t imagine 50 years from now. Hell, if Vernor Vinge is right I can’t imagine it by definition!

But, you know what? I think it might be something like the scene the movie “Waking Life”, where real-life chemist Eamonn Healy is ranting about ‘Telescopic Evolution’.

EDIT: In the original I had a link to a YouTube clip from “Waking Life” with that scene. It is no longer available on YouTube, but I did find it on Vimeo, with a note that it keeps being deleted. 

Eamonn Healy speaks about telescopic evolution and the future of humanity. from Brandon Sergent on Vimeo.

(Note: farmgirl1146 poked me because I haven’t posted in a while, so here is some classic Jack ranting for you…)


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  1. ron_drummond

    Hey, great post, great links, thanks!

    One thing that has struck me in the last year is the disparity between “worldly” exponential growth and supertechnological exponential growth. The former has been going on for about 200 years and includes growth in wealth, industrial and food production capabilities, population, environmental degradation, crude energy consumption, and so on. Exponential growth is inherently limited — it can only go on for so long before it collapses. The worldly kind of exponential growth is heading for collapse now, and quickly. That collapse of exponentiality [i]will[/i] happen in the next few decades in one of two ways: catastrophically, or by collective gloobal action to intentionally ease ourselves down to slowler, more sustainable levels of more or less linear growth. We can all see that, as of now, we are collectively heading down the catastrophic path and not the intentional path.

    The other kind of exponential growth is what you’re talking about, the super-technological GRIN set of technologies, and that growth is continuing to accelerate unto and even beyond exponentiality and might very well continue to do so for several decades — and it just may contribute to our ability to shift course on handling the inevitable slowdown in worldly growth or yes to transcend it completely. But this latter, more exciting kind of growth will also eventually reach a limit, even if it is merely the physical limit in scales of size — the question is, is that eventual limit far enough off that it won’t make a difference in terms of the universality of the changes that that growth will lead to in the nature of reality?

    Much sooner, of course, is the question of whether our reaching the limits of exponential worldly growth will in any way short-circuit the continuance of the exponential super-technological growth, or, flip side, whether the pace of super-technological growth will save our asses from the looming catastrophe of the slowdown in worldly growth.

    The big problem, to me, in Kurzweil’s writings on these topics is that he refuses to acknowledge the reality that the continuance of exponentiality is not only not open-ended, but that it is in herently unmaintainable beyond certain points. His rosy predictions might still come true (though perhaps as equal parts nightmare), but he should at least acknowledge those limits. The law of accelerating returns has an expiration date.

    None of which means growth of all kinds can’t and won’t continue — just not exponentially. Simple arithmetic growth will come to be seen as having its own virtues, especially as we endlessly intermelt down and intermelt up into the various realities our period of exponential grace will have vouchsafed us.

    1. Jack William Bell

      It’s funny that you responded with a fully formed essay. You should do a polish and post the essay on your own blog! (And link back to me, of course.) I think that people who don’t read me might still want to read what you just wrote.

      1. ron_drummond

        Thanks for encouraging me — it took me a while, but I just now posted a slight revision of my mini-essay to my LJ. Bless you!

  2. ron_drummond

    It also turns out that today is the 50th anniversary of the release of the classic horror-sf movie The Blob. Why does that conjunction of events seem oddly appropriate? Neighboring Lives!

  3. farmgirl1146

    nodding and agreeing

    Probably the integrated circuit was the most radical and disruptive technology in hundreds of years: therefore it is a true singularity. I have been reminded many times that the type of computers we have today, since the late 70’s, were not even dreamt of in SF or elsewhere, but they aren’t a true singularity since they were made possible only by the integrated circuit. Yes, there are plenty of other ground breaking technological advances, however even the movable type printing press (often cited as the greatest breakthrough) did not touch everyday lives the world around like the integrated circuit. There is very little in my life that is not directly affected by it — perhaps nothing.

    Thanks for the rant. I’m just nodding and agreeing. The Chihuahua, with her ID chip (another integrated circuit) is woofing at people shouting in the street (something people always have done) about their bundles of integrated circuits — I mean cars.

    1. Jack William Bell

      Re: nodding and agreeing

      “. . . people shouting in the street (something people always have done) about their bundles of integrated circuits — I mean cars.”

      As I always say: Raise a human being by any power and you will still have humanity as part of the equation.

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