The Future’s So Bright…

If I’ve learned anything from reading, and watching, science fiction all my life it’s that anything we can imagine we can eventually accomplish.  For example, in the late sixties a show called Star Trek featured hand held communications devices that the crew of the Enterprise used to routinely communicate with each other wirelessly. Ok, so this wasn’t that far fetched. We had radio transceivers that could do that job. The were called walkie-talkies.

The thing that was missing was the infrastructure to allow the solution to scale to the point where everyone could have their own communication device, we call them cell phones, and could talk to practically anybody else on the planet. Not only that, but these cell phones now embody computers, cameras, music players, as well as no less than three radios on different bands for different purposes.

The cell phone exists because Gene Roddenberry imagined it and some engineer decided that he could build it. What’s next? We already have self driving cars. We are well on our way to building fleets of space ships with which to colonize the solar system.

Our electronics gets smaller and smaller. Intel just announced a CPU chip with eighteen cores on it. And while I sit here wondering what we’ll do with eighteen cores on a single chip, another part of my brain is remembering the old adage that applications expand to consume all resources available to them. The question becomes what will we be able to do with eighteen cores?

Artificial Intelligence is another area of rapid advancement. We have been predicting the advent of Artificial General Intelligence in science fiction for many decades. Now, it seems like it is actually going to happen in the near future. We have an entire stable of specialized AI applications. For instance, face recognition, sound recognition, pattern recognition, just to name a few.

We have Siri, Alexa, and Echo, all listening to hear what we are asking and searching the web, one of the more surprising developments of the last decade or so, for any and all knowledge know to mankind. Gone are the days of bar bets about who recorded what song and when? Or who played Billy Mummy’s big sister on Lost in Space (Angela Cartwright)?

In short, all of these wonders, even search engines started life in the fertile imaginations science fiction writers. If you want to know what new product tomorrow’s headlines are going to announce just dig out your back issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction or Analog Magazine. At the rate we’re going, we’ll have a hard time remembering what the world was like ten years ago, much less fifty.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Power of Exponential Growth

Technological advancement is happening at an exponential rate. What does that mean from a practical standpoint? Take computer capability as an example. Computer capability can be boiled down, in a very simplistic sort of way, to the number of transistors that you can fit on a chip of a particular size. This is in part because every binary digit (or bit) takes at least one transistor to store a one or a zero.

Rather early in the development of microcomputers, Gordon Moore made the observation that the number of transistors in a given circuit doubles every eighteen months. This pattern has been observed for the past forty five years or so. It is no great feat to extrapolate from there to see how it will in all probability project on into the future for a good many more years.

Some observers have voiced fears that we will hit the wall beyond which we will not be able to fit any more transistors onto such a compact area. The laws of physics are going to draw a line beyond which we can’t continue to improve a circuit in a particular way. This has, in fact, already happened. We were able to discover new ways to increase the density of the circuits on the chip. One way was to organize them into smaller circuits or cores that had a small number of lines through which to communicate with each other and the outside world. Another,  largely unexplored tactic will be to build the circuits up vertically off the surface of the chip. This should also help solve the problem of removing heat from the chip.

Taken more generally, exponential advancements will mean that the number of and kinds of magical technological devices will double at a regular interval much like Moore’s law predicts for transistor densities. You might think that such rapid change would be mind boggling and might even cause adverse reactions in people. The fact is, the change is gradual enough that we mostly don’t even notice.

Think back ten years. In 2007 122 million cell phones were sold. In 2016 1495 million cell phones were sold. That is over 12 times growth in sales in less than ten years. There is a principle called Metcalfe’s law that the connectivity in a network increases proportionally to the square of the number of devices. So imagine how much more connected we are when there are twelve times more phones sold each year. That doesn’t even address the question of how many phones are already deployed and how many of the phones sold were to first time buyers of cell phones.

The same growth trends are happening across the board in scientific and technological fields. I have personal experience of at least two distinct eras in my field of computer programming in the forty years that my career spans. And when I think about it, it is probably more like four or five eras. And they keep coming closer together. I’m afraid I’ll get whiplash trying to keep up.

Just thought I’d try to get some of these ideas down so that I can think about them. I’ve been reading about exponential growth for a number of years now but it has only begun to truly boggle my mind the last couple of years.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.