Will Technological Progress Continue to Accelerate?


Reports of Ray Kurzweil’s conceptions of the future (link) indicate he’s making some pretty amazing predictions about reaching “technological singularity” (link) and achieving major advances in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. Kurzweil is predicting that Moore’s law (link) applies not just to computers and computing, but to human progress across the board, and exponential progress will continue until, within a few decades, computers will surpass humans in intelligence, among other things. I must confess: I am not so optimistic.

I believe there are plenty of potential changes in our near future that will hamper technological progress or at least the implementation of new concepts, including economic issues that will constrain financing, and  governments lacking the will to provide sufficient support to advanced research. I also have my doubts as to whether it is possible to create any machine smarter than its creator, and wonder if this will reflect the basic paradox of trying understand ourselves: the very act of understanding ourselves changes us so that our understanding no longer holds. Also, Wirth’s law (link) says that progress in software development will become slower as hardware becomes faster and of higher capacity, and I believe this is evident in the greatly increased complexity of personal computing software and the many problems we have keeping our personal computers working.

I can remember a time when I knew people who understood computing from the electron movements and charge field changes in the individual components, up through levels of layered complexity all the way to the user’s blue screen of death, but I don’t know how many people have that depth of understanding any more. With a decrease in the holistic understanding of the computing environment I have to question how much better the engineering can become.

Certainly, though software development has been made easier through many advances such as the organization of software into functional layers and the use of re-usable object-oriented programming, issues occur that cross the layers and involve the interactions of systemic features and errors that, by themselves, are not detectable as being sources of problems. I don’t believe problems of this nature can be solved without a holistic understanding of the computing environment involved, and the sheer complexity of this is greatly reducing the numbers of people capable of solving such problems. Hence, many of us get the “blue screen of death” from time to time, and the support staff and software engineers can only tell us to reload the software that appears to be involved and cross their fingers.

I do agree with Mr. Kurzweil, however, that the business environment will change significantly. I have previously cited the short-sightedness of a majority of corporations, who are driven to achieve their current quarterly and annual projections above all else, and who do a poor job of long term planning. These are certainly the organizations which will suffer as the population increase and world economic shifts bring “a lot of chickens home to roost” in the next one to three decades. Those “chickens”, to be clear, include climate change, drought, famine, global epidemic, and the strife (including wars and mass migrations) that will result.

Certainly we need rapid technological progress, but we need a lot more than the exciting developments occurring in the ivory towers of academia, government, and commercial research labs. Public education to enable both the understanding of our situation on a global scale, and the dissemination of information about the situation, are essential. It is all well and good to invent ever faster computers, but we also need the invention of better systems of education. Increased education has many benefits we urgently need in every part of the globe, including both lower birth rates and more ecologically-responsible behavior, not to mention better software to enable those super-fast computers to provide real value.

One of my favorite assessments of human motivation, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (link), suggests to me that, when scientists are worried about keeping their families fed and a roof over their heads due to the economic problems presented by globalization and overpopulation, scientific progress may slow. That said, I am still hopeful that we will see corporations increasing their focus on long-term planning.  I am also hopeful we will see a global recognition that improved education is essential to mitigating the problems of overpopulation and the environmental impact humans are having on the planet, and a worldwide grass roots movement driving national governments to adopt policies more conducive to the pursuit of a sustainable existence on the planet.  Overpopulation must be publicly recognized as being at the root of our problems, with ecologically-irresponsible industrialization as a contributing factor.  Major changes and sacrifice will be required, if we are to make a transition to sustainability with the least possible disasters, but I believe we can plan ahead and take action that will prove we have self control and intelligence like no species before us.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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3 responses to “Will Technological Progress Continue to Accelerate?

  1. Hear! Hear! Great post!

    I have a couple of comments:

    1. Don’t count on any help from corporations when it comes to population management and transitioning to sustainability. It is in the best interest of corporations to continue promoting never-ending population growth because, even though per capita consumption and our very quality of life go into decline as population density rises beyond its optimum level, total consumption (and thus sales volume) rise with a growing population. Growing sales volume is the only thing corporations care about. Thus, they will continue to attempt to influence government policy in that direction. Our leaders need to recognize that what’s in the best interest of corporations isn’t always in the best interest of the common good.

    2. We don’t need to wait for technological innovation to help us solve our problems. It doesn’t take any technology to implement policies designed to stabilize or even reduce our population, not through the crude methods employed by China and India, but through intelligent reform of immigration policy and through economic incentives.

    Keep up the good work on raising concern about the issue of overpopulation, the most critical issue of our time.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, Five Short Blasts

  2. Considering the singularity concept further, I am not too worried that we will develop machines far more intelligent than us, or, if we do, we can rely on the fact that they will be flawed, as are we. After all, isn’t that one of the oldest science fiction themes? The mad scientist creates the intelligent machine, but it is fatally flawed. Though it may do him in at the end, in a moment of poetic justice, it never proves a threat to humanity in general.
    I sure hope that’s the case, as the Terminator series was way scary ….

  3. I agree with you quite a bit, Pete, but I think corporate motivation is just a bit more complex than that. For example, growing sales do no good unless they are profitable. It is the challenge to us and our leadership to change the structure of things so that corporations will be driven to do the right things, and this is an often-abstract undertaking that is frequently misunderstood or mishandled. In the end, it is up to us to gain understanding and express it to our leaders, as otherwise they will not know what we want or need and may do the wrong things.
    Thanks for your comment. – Tim

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