Human Progress Seems Unstoppable – or: The Law of Accelerating Returns

Yesterday, a friend at the dinner table asked the question: Why does all progress (technical, medical, social…) seems to have happened in the last 100 years, or an even shorter period? In terms of IT, think of the Apollo Program and the much larger capacity your modern cell phone has. An interesting question, so I asked the internet… and came up with this:

Progress is not (as one would intuitively think) linear, but exponential. It is not just one event/invention, but many, on several fronts, multiplying themselves at a faster and faster pace

A simple explanation is here in an article about progress in Slate:

This question reads: Modern humans are estimated to be about 200,000 years old, but it seems that 99 percent of technological progress has occurred in the last 10,000 years. What were we doing before that?

Answer by Pratyush Rathore:

Suppose, I give you a magic coin worth 1 cent, which multiplies itself 100 times every year.

At the end of 1 year, you would have a negligible amount: $1.
At the end of 2 years, you would have a very small sum: $100.
At the end of 3 years, you would have barely enough: $10,000.
At the end of 4 years, you start seeing a modest $1 million dollar heap.
At the end of 5 years, you would have a good $100 million.

Now, at the end of the fifth year, you come to me and say, “I have kept the coin with me for 5 years, but 99 percent of the money it made came in last year. What was the coin doing before that?”

So, to answer in one word: compounding.”

This is the law supporting it: Ray Kurzweil is the guy who came up with The Law of Accelerating Returns.

“We can organize these observations into what I call the law of accelerating returns as follows:
• Evolution applies positive feedback in that the more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress are used to create the next stage. As a result, the
• rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time. Over time, the “order” of the information embedded in the evolutionary process (i.e., the measure of how well the information fits a purpose, which in evolution is survival) increases.
• A correlate of the above observation is that the “returns” of an evolutionary process (e.g., the speed, cost-effectiveness, or overall “power” of a process) increase exponentially over time.
• In another positive feedback loop, as a particular evolutionary process (e.g., computation) becomes more effective (e.g., cost effective), greater resources are deployed toward the further progress of that process. This results in a second level of exponential growth (i.e., the rate of exponential growth itself grows exponentially).
• Biological evolution is one such evolutionary process.
• Technological evolution is another such evolutionary process. Indeed, the emergence of the first technology creating species resulted in the new evolutionary process of technology. Therefore, technological evolution is an outgrowth of–and a continuation of–biological evolution.
• A specific paradigm (a method or approach to solving a problem, e.g., shrinking transistors on an integrated circuit as an approach to making more powerful computers) provides exponential growth until the method exhausts its potential. When this happens, a paradigm shift (i.e., a fundamental change in the approach) occurs, which enables exponential growth to continue.”

And here is something about the history of the theory.

Now, the question is, what does the future bring? There is a debate about whether “singularity” (“smart machines outrun human capacity”) is going to happen, and when.

We’ll see…


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