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Is Exponential Acceleration Part of Evolution?
Evolution affects computers, too
Could exponential acceleration go on forever?
And just how long has it been going on in the first place? In , a precursor to The Age of Intelligent Machines, Ray Kurzweil suggests that we can begin measuring the acceleration of technological innovations (which will ultimately lead to the Technological Singularity around the year 2045... spoiler alert!) as far back as the US Census of 1890. But could we go back further? What if we could trace this exponential learning curve as far back as we've been human? Could we trace it back even further? The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
Let's explore how far back the "Moore's Law" concept could possibly go back, and how much a part of evolution computers really are. Join me for this fascinating ride encompassing the distant past, and possibly the distant future as well.
"Jumps", or paradigms, in life
Exponential growth goes all the way back to the origins of life on Earth. Each paradigm does represent a jump, but when you look at the next order of magnitude up in time, the plot looks smooth.
- single cellular life began around 4 billion years ago.
- Multicellular life began around 1 billion years ago.
- Animals began about 500 million years ago.
- Mammals began 200 million years ago.
- Primates, around 50 million years ago.
- Genus Homo, 2.5 million years ago.
- People, 200,000 years (ballpark).
Note that there are 3 billion years between the first and second paradigms (or "jumps"), then just 500 million years between the next ones, then 300 million years, then 150 million years, and so on. Each "jump" is shorter than the previous one.
When are we due for that "next great leap forward"?
Incredibly, this same trend continues with technology, as we (humans) are evolving into something beyond what we used to be. Every year, there’s more change than there was in the previous year, and even the pace of change itself is changing.
Starting with our inventions, before we were even modern humans:
- Language: 1 million years ago (extreme ballpark)
- Counting with numbers: 50,000 + years
- Writing: 10,000 years
- Paper: 3000 years
- The printing press: 1000 years ago (block printing was around before Gutenberg invented his efficient model)
- The telegraph: 200 years ago
- The telephone: 150 years ago
- The digital computer: 75 years ago
The history from the invention of the digital computer until today is well documented, with clear exponential growth that’s easily measured.
My point is that I believe we are just continuing with inevitable evolutionary trends that go back to the very beginnings of life (and probably before that, but that’s an even more trippy conversation to have). Complexity (and what now passes for intelligence) has increased exponentially over time. If you look at the trends over long enough periods, this is more clear. The reason this happens is simple: the previous paradigm always aids in the creation of the next paradigm. For example, without language, there would be no writing; without writing, there would be no need for writing on paper, which led to the printing press, which led to easily distributed information on a global scale, etc etc etc etc.
Beyond that, each paradigm that is invented is the beneficiary of many other paradigms happening simultaneously. For example, the invention of the digital computer was certainly aided by the printing press; without thorough dissemination of information, Konrad Zuse (and others) wouldn’t have had access to all the mathematical processes needed, nor the logic used, and without the industrial revolution, the parts wouldn’t have been manufactured in any reasonable time frame (in fact, Babbage tried this 100 years earlier and failed mainly because of this!).
Ways of life
One other (much quicker) way to look at the exponential growth is by considering much broader human paradigms of lifestyle:
- The hunter/gatherer age: 2 million years ago
- The agricultural age: 20,000 years ago
- The industrial age: 300 years ago
- The information age: 50 years ago (give or take)
Since the paradigm from the industrial age to the information age was only 250 years, the next paradigm from the information age should be less than 100 years or so. We are due for another giant leap forward.
What will this giant leap be, and how will it change our way of life? Consider how much the agricultural age catapulted us forward from the earlier hunter/gatherer epoch. We were able to settle in cities, no longer needing to constantly run all day to chase after food. Because we were in one place with many other people, knowledge began to spread far more rapidly. Fast forward to the industrial revolution, with the invention of the printing press and subsequent methods of spreading knowledge, with each method faster, more efficient, and more wide-reaching than the ones before. The information age is well upon us, and we communicate at the speed of light, across the globe, unifying the world as never before, and allowing us to solve problems never before attempted.
Whatever is right around the bend for us, it's going to be a doozy.