Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Ray Kurzweil

Dan Gillmor, writing in his weblog "eJournal" about attending PopTech has a number of interesting observations about the speakers. I was particularly interested in his comments about Ray Kurzweil as his most recent book, The Age of Spiritual Machines has given me a lot to think about. I take Dan to be skeptical about Kurzweil's vision of the future, but you can draw your own conclusions by reading his comments. I was particular interested in this reminder from Kurzweil's book:

(Kurzweil's) ...into implications of things, besides his inventions. The rate of change, he notes, is accelerating exponentially. We are "doubling the paradigm shift rate" on a constant basis. This century will be the equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today's rate, and people don't appreciate the implications of this.

Testing the Hypothesis
It seems to me that a reasonable test for this hypothesis would be, what happened during the last century? If the rate of change has been accelerating smoothly, were there 20,000 years of progress, at the 1900 rate? Kurzweil answers this question by drawing graphs of the number of inventions, changes in certain key technologies, etc.

However I, like Gillmor, am not satisfied with the graphs -- I want to answer this at a more basic gut level. How fast did things seem to be changing in 1900? At that rate did 20,000 years of "progress" occur over the past 100? Since I am only 36 years old, it occurs to me that I cannot have a very good gut instinct about the rate of change in 1900. So I re-ask the question in a way I can comprehend -- How much has changed in the past 10 years vs. the previous 10 years?

The past 20 years
The past two decades can be, from my experience of the world, defined by two distinct seminal events. In the past decade, the emergence of the world wide web. In the previous decade, the personal computer. Each of these technologies changed MY world, and I would argue the whole world, an enormous amount. My gut feeling is that the Internet has changed the world a lot more. And even within each of these two trends, I can see that the early stages started out slowly, and then accelerated.

Thus my gut evaluation of Kurzweil's hypothesis is that it is roughly accurate. At the rate of change of the year 2000, over the course of the first century of this new millenium, 20,000 years of progress will take place. No wonder we increasingly feel out of touch as we age.

The next 20 years...
So how much progress will there be in the next 20 years at the rate I am comfortable with in 2000? At some point I stop being able to adjust my "comfort" with the rate of change. Then the world pulls away from me... How do you stay comfortable with the world's rate of change for a longer period of time?

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