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.