The Reality and Implications of Exponential Change

Driven mostly by technological advances, linear change became exponential change in the last decade of the 20th century. Futurist Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns replaced Moore’s Law as one of the telling benchmarks for illustrating the rapidly increasing speed of change in our lives.

Kurzweil, whose predictions in past provide a degree of credibility to his future forecasting, posits that the technological paradigm shift (innovation) will double every decade. In other words, by applying his law, all the significant achievements of the 20th century would have taken only 20 years to accomplish at the current rate of change. We will make another 20 years of progress in the next 14 years and then we’ll do the same again in only 7 years. At this rate of exponential change, the equivalent of 100 years of progress will take place in just 25 years. In 100 years, we’ll see the equivalent of 200 centuries of progress.

Kurzweil’s thesis was tested in his predictions about the Genome Project (genetic code deciphering). Begun in 1986, the first year was spent transcribing one ten-thousandth of the genome and, at the time, scientists suggested it might take a century to complete the entire project. The first chromosome (#23) was deciphered in November, 1999, and the view at the time was that it would take another decade to do the rest. About that time, Kurzweil forecasted that the complete genome would be mapped by the Spring of 2003. And he was right.

Computer circuitry today is a million times faster than the electrochemical switching in human brains. Kurzweil forecasts that we will have the requisite hardware to emulate human intelligence with supercomputers by 2012 and with PCs by 2020. He bases his prognostication on some incontrovertible facts – namely that the power of information technologies (price-performance, speed, capability and bandwidth) is doubling every year. Transistors have become faster by a factor of 1,000 over the course of the past 30 years. And the power of wireless communication doubles every 10-11 months.

Examples of exponential growth abound. Take the Internet as an obvious illustration. The U.S. blog reading audience is now over 20% the size of the newspaper-reading population and the growth in blogs is indicative of the power of the Internet to act as a knowledge amplifier. In March/03, there were no blogs, in Jan/04 there were a half million, in Jan/06 over 30 million, and by July 06 there were 50 million worldwide with 2 new blogs being created every second. As of this writing, there are 175,000 new blogs created and 1.6 million new posts added every day.

YouTube aired its first video in April, 2005. In November/06, it aired 100 million videos and added 70,000 per day. Today, 2 million video clips uploaded and 100 million viewed daily. My Space, Facebook and LinkedIn are creating new communities of interest for social networking and information sharing on an unprecedented magnitude. In 2006, Wikipedia was 42 times bigger than Encyclopedia Britannica and was viewed 7 billion times a month. There are an estimated 150,000 open source projects under development with 1.6 million contributors.

But we also need to put this exponential growth in some perspective. Extrapolation has its limits as a predictive tool. TIME magazine once reported the following: “During the past two years, the average Internet user increased on-line use from 4.4 to 7.6 hours – a 32% increase.” Were that rate of growth to hold up, by 2025, the “average Internet user” would be on-line 590 hours a day!

What needs to keep pace with technological growth is a commensurate expansion of our knowledge to use it. In 2007, the National School Boards Association in the U.S. reported that all of the knowledge we possess today is about 1% of what will exist in 2050. The report noted that our knowledge base doubles every 2-3 years (7,000 scientific and technical articles are published every day). Medical knowledge alone doubles every 8 years. We produce as much new information every six months as we produced in the first 300,000 years of human existence. The implications for our educational system are profound: half of what most freshmen students learn is obsolete by their senior years and 65% of children in pre-school today will be employed in careers and jobs that don’t yet exist.

So exponential change is not just about accelerating technological innovation. It’s also, and perhaps more importantly, about having the leadership smarts to be able to channel it to productive ends.