The Pace of Change

THE PACE OF CHANGE….Chad Orzel was ruminating the other day about something that’s been in the back of my mind for years:

One of the Big Ideas in modern SF is the idea of a “Singularity,” a term coined by Vernor Vinge (I’m not sure if he originated the concept, but I’m pretty sure the term is his). The idea is based on the observation that the pace of technological change has increased dramatically in the last several decades, and if anything appears to be accelerating. Extrapolating out from this, Vinge (and others working with the idea) predict that there will come a point in the near future when changes occur so rapidly that humans (or our post-human descendents) will become essentially unrecognizable. The complexity of our technology is growing exponentially, so humans of the relatively near future will be so far beyond the humans of the past, or today, as to be utterly incomprehensible.

(Vinge explores this idea in considerable detail in Marooned in Realtime.)

Chad’s problem with this idea is that exponential growth never stays exponential forever. Eventually technological progress will flatten out and the Singularity will never occur. But when?

I’d take that a step further: is technology even progressing exponentially now? Or has it already started to plateau? Consider the truly decisive technological developments of the past 50 years:

  1. Digital computers (includes transistors, ICs, and the internet)

  2. New prescription drugs (and medical/biotech advances in general)

  3. Spaceflight

Now look at the major inventions of the 75 years before that:

  1. Electrification (includes a wide variety of electrical appliances)

  2. Automobile

  3. Radio

  4. Penicillin

  5. Telephone

  6. Nuclear weapons

  7. Airplanes

  8. Television

I’m limiting myself to genuinely new inventions that substantially changed our lives. Cell phones are great, but they’re still phones. Everything else on the second list has also gotten a lot better during the past 50 years, but they don’t fundamentally do things that couldn’t be done before. They’re improvements, not brand new things.

So here’s my observation: the second list seems a lot more impressive than the first. It’s possible that the digital computer alone will turn out to be more important than every other invention in the history of humanity ? in fact, I think it will ? but for now it isn’t. It’s a great invention, but no more so than the electrification of the world or the development of the steam engine.

In other words, I’m wondering if scientific progress has already begun slowing down. Creating these lists is a judgment call, of course, and there are plenty of things you could add to either one, especially if you’re actively trying to argue a case. But when you consider that the 747 was invented in the 60s and has only been incrementally improved on since, or that spaceflight hasn’t really improved much since the 70s, it’s hard not to be skeptical about the idea that technological change has continued to accelerate unabated. In fact, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s even kept pace with the century from about 1850 to 1950.

It’s a good thing computers will probably take over the scientific progress biz in a few decades. It looks to me like homo sapiens is starting to run out of steam.