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