Since the sixties, analysts have been using Moore’s Law to summarize the expansion of computing power and, by extension, the growth of information technology as an industry. Named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, his “law” can be summarized to state that computing power per-dollar spent can be expected to double every 1-2 years.
Moore himself expected the phenomenon to hold for a decade or so across the early life of the computer industry but it remains fairly consistent forty years later. If anything, there are signs that this phenomenon may actually be accelerating. Though computing based on silicon chips may struggle to keep up with Moore’s Law, the introduction of quantum computing and even biocomputing may soon make Moore’s Law seem quaint.
The authors of The Second Machine Age argue that one of the challenges of adapting to this new economic reality is our mental struggle to comprehend the power of exponents. They illustrate the point with a reference to an Indian folktale:
As the story goes chess was invented by a very clever man who traveled to Paliputra, the capital city, and presented his brainchild to the emperor. The ruler was so impressed by the difficult, beautiful game that he invited the inventor to name his reward.
The inventor praised the emperor’s generosity and said, “All I desire is some rise to feed my family.” Since the emperor’s largess was spurred by the invention of chess, the inventor suggested they use the chessboard to determine the amount of rise he would be given. “Place one single grain of rice on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third, and so on,” the inventor proposed, “so that each square receives twice as many grains as the previous.
If his request were fully honored, the inventor would wind up with 2 to the 64th power, or more than 18 quintillion grains of rice. A pile this big would dwarf Mount Everest; it’s more rice than has been produced in the history of the world.
What’s truly fascinating about this process is the way the growth curve bends upward on the second half of the chessboard. This is not a bell-curve phenomenon, but a launch.
Why does computing follow a steeper growth curve than earlier technologies? The chess board analogy helps us recognize that this is a misunderstanding of the situation. It’s not that computing is such a unique technology as compared to, say, the steam engine. The difference is that computing is arriving on the second half of the chessboard.
Looking at the growth of technology across all of human history, almost nothing happens until about 1750. The development of fire, agriculture, and the wheel were thousands of years apart. Gunpowder was another few thousand years later. Steam and mechanical technology were rather farther along this curve, but still early.
It’s not that computers are so special. It’s where they fall on this general expansion of knowledge that makes them more dynamic than previous technologies. And seeing the growth of technology along this long timeframe, we begin to recognize that this phenomenon is not about computing at all, and that it is likely to accelerate from here in ways we that our brains can barely process.
What this means beyond computing can perhaps be illustrated with a look at the industries spawned by this expansion in computing power. Again, from The Second Machine Age:
The ASCI Red, the first product of the U.S. government’s Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, was the world’s fastest supercomputer when it was introduced in 1996. It cost $55 million to develop and its one hundred cabinets occupied nearly 1600 square feet of floor space at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Designed for calculation-intensive tasks like simulating nuclear tests, ASCI Red was the first computer to score above one teraflop – one million floating operations per second – on the standard benchmark test for computer speed. By 1997 it had reached 1.8 teraflops.
Nine years later another computer hit 1.8 teraflops, but instead of simulating nuclear explosions it was devoted to drawing them and other complex graphics in all their realistic, real-time, three-dimensional glory. It did this not for physicists, but for video game players. This computer was the Sony Playstation 3.
The ASCI Red was taken out of service in 2006.
It took humans about 3000 years to move from ox-driven plows to mechanical plows. In fact agricultural technology at the time of the American Revolution was no better, and in some regards perhaps less advanced than that practiced by the Romans. By contrast it took 25 years to go from Pong to Halo.
Why does this matter politically? This kind of growth is a major adaptive challenge for traditional institutions. We need them more than ever, but they groan and occasionally fail under the strain. Government built to meet the bureaucratic demands of 20th century Industrial Capitalism is struggling to remain not just relevant, but intact.
Industrialization destroyed an old political order based on aristocracy and land ownership. How will automation transform our order?