Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Computation Economy

From the 18th century and for about 200 years the world was radically transformed by something we now call the industrial revolution during which substantial changes in the methods of production and the organization of human society led to exponential growth in per capita GDP, an accompanying improvement in the standard of living and longevity, and a sustained period of accretive scientific and technological innovation unmatched in any previous period of social and economic growth.

For the past 50 years or so, a variety of writers and educators have spoken of a postindustrial economy, in which economic improvement has been driven by continuing innovation and knowledge. Some have called this the "information age" or the "knowledge economy." The language is derived from an observation that value creation is increasingly driven by the information content of a product rather than by mining, refining, and assembling the raw materials (value drivers in the industrial economy).

The idea of the "knowledge economy" was explored by Peter Drucker in his 1966 book The Effective Executive in which he contrasts the manual worker and the knowledge worker as ones which work with their hands or their heads respectively.

But trying to understand the changes coming in the next hundred years through the prism of information, knowledge, or thought misses the transformation that is at the root of the change. It would be as if one tried to understand the industrial revolution by simply observing that people had raw materials, methods for making them into things, and bodies to do so.

The transformation in the industrial revolution was about the mechanization of labor -- the ability to build a machine that augmented or supplanted labor. Division of labor was a step in the process toward mechanization - a kind of mechanization in itself as it transformed work from skilled craft to unskilled repetition.

The transformation that we are in the early days of experiencing is one in which computers are augmenting or supplanting thought. Computation is eradicating the cost of communication and the cost of coordination in our social, economic, and political systems. The initial "knowledge workers" performed tasks which will be increasingly computerized just as the workers of the industrial revolution found that once production had been efficiently divided into narrow tasks, people could be replaced by machines in those processes.

And just as the industrial revolution changed what we were capable of manufacturing, so to will computation increasingly change what we are capable of thinking. Stephen Wolfram in his 2010 talk at TED gives us some glimpses of what is possible and what is coming.

The Computation Economy is rapidly replacing the Industrial Economy - computation is the true heir to industry, not information or knowledge which are merely the raw materials of the computational engines. When we look back from a vantage point of 50 or 100 years from now on the early steps of these last 50 years, the accelerating per capita GDP, increased quality of life and longevity, and the transformation of our species will be credited to a rapid doubling and redoubling of computational power. Just as in the industrial age it was through the doubling and redoubling of physical power.

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