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Plant More Rice!

Many people are afraid of our accelerating future. I doubt that the name for our destination - "The Technological Singularity" - helps relieve any fear. There's something sinister-sounding about any singularity, but this is a black hole in our timeline. You don't have to be especially prone to worry for this to cause concern

In some ways "Singularity" is the perfect name. It accurately represents our ability to predict the future at some point - perhaps after super intelligence arrives. But for glass-half-full guys like me, the Singularity is less a falling to zero than an explosion in personal power - more life, more liberty, and more happiness.

The engine powering all this is exponential increases in computation. This is a trend commonly called Moore's Law. Moore's Law states that the size of each transistor on an integrated circuit chip will be reduced by 50 percent every twenty-four months. The result is the exponentially growing power of integrated circuit-based computation over time. Moore's Law doubles the number of components on a chip as well as the speed of each component while price remains roughly constant.

dozen doublings.JPGRay Kurzweil takes a broader view of this trend. Computation via the integrated circuit is just the latest paradigm that goes back to the arrival of RNA, if not before.

Wherever you place the starting line, the effect of exponential doubling is mind boggling. Here's a graph showing the effect of twelve doublings. Each step forward is equal to all the progress of the past in just one unit of time. Phil has illustrated the power of this trend with an old parable:

A prince wanted to reward the inventor of chess for the wonderful new game. So the inventor asked for one grain of rice for the first square on the chessboard, two grains for the second, four for the third square and so on doubling for each square.

[The prince] dispatched one of his stewards to fulfill the order. It took the steward a while to report back, and when he did the news was not good. Although harvest was just completed, the gift was going to completely exhaust the royal granaries. And they were only on the 40th square!

In fact, it turns out that if you were to keep doubling until you reached the 64th square, you would have an amount of rice greater than the total yield of every rice crop in the history of the planet earth.

3d graph.JPGAs remarkable as this story is, it fails to capture the full power of the trends we are experiencing. We aren't just getting better computers. The exponential improvements in computation are fueling exponential trends in all areas of technology. To picture this we have to add a z-axis to our graph.

Our civilization is playing the rice game on Mr. Spock's chessboard! Advancement on the computation board buys our way onto new boards: nanotech, genetic engineering, life extension, self-replicating universal constructors, etc. Advancement on the new boards can further fuel the progress of any other board or create new boards. It's an explosion of knowledge in all directions.

3d spock chess.jpg


Could someone explain what the three axis stand for, and in what direction time evolves in the second graph?

Nevertheless, thanks for this nice summary!



That 3D graph is not the best. As with the 2D graph, time is on the x-axis. That's the bottom right of the graph pushing to the right. As with the 2D graph, the y-axis (which is the vertical axis) represents the level of technological development.

The third axis, the z-axis (which you see at the bottom left of the graph pushing further into the illustration), represents other areas of technological development that are brought about by advances in computation. Their development is also exponential.

I used "Mr. Spock's chessboard" as another way to explain this. Rice on a chessboard is a good way to explain the power of doubling. But this doubling trend - computation - has the power to spawn other doubling trends which may feedback into the original doubling trend, other spawned trends, or may spawn entirely new trends.

For example, improvements in computation lead to improved understanding of quantum mechanics which may allow us to continue to improve computation when our ability to shrink transitors onto an integrated circuit runs out.

Clearly we are at the beginning of something very powerful.

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