The News – 05/09/01
The Accelerating Pace of Change
Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and a deep thinker about the
future. He’s also perhaps a bit odd, having performed White
Rabbit as a virtual reality female named Ramona at the recent TED
XI Conference in Monterey, CA in February. He’s invented many innovative
things, from synthesizers to speech recognition. And he’s finally put into
words something which we all have probably sensed: the rapidly accelerating
pace of change.
In a book précis for his upcoming book, The Singularity is
Near, Kurzweil asserts that we’re doubling the rate of progress every
decade, which will result in a century’s worth of technological change in only
25 calendar years. He says that we tend to think of the rate of change as
constant, and adjust to this acceleration automatically. When people make
predictions about how long it will take to accomplish some innovation, they
unconsciously base their estimates on a constant rate of change. Kurzweil
argues that the rate of change is actually exponential, and this is the
characteristic of any evolutionary system.
Kurzweil calls this the law of accelerating returns and he
claims it has been in effect since the beginning of the evolution of life.
The first technological steps-sharp edges,
fire, the wheel--took tens of thousands of years. For people living in this
era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand
years. By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required
only a century or two. In the nineteenth century, we saw more technological
change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first twenty
years of the twentieth century, we saw more advancement than in all of the
nineteenth century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years time. The
World Wide Web did not exist in anything like its present form just a few
years ago; it didn't exist at all a decade ago.
The paradigm shift rate (i.e., the overall rate
of technical progress) is currently doubling (approximately) every decade;
that is, paradigm shift times are halving every decade (and the rate of
acceleration is itself growing exponentially). So, the technological
progress in the twenty-first century will be equivalent to what would
require (in the linear view) on the order of 200 centuries. In contrast,
the twentieth century saw only about 25 years of progress (again at today's
rate of progress) since we have been speeding up to current rates. So the
twenty-first century will see almost a thousand times greater technological
change than its predecessor.
I often ask a question of my audience when I speak: “How many
of you think the pace of change will slow in the future?” I’ve never had a
hand go up. Businesses need to understand that they can’t stick their heads
in the sand and hope that the paradigm shift of the day (dotcoms, B2B
exchanges, peer-to-peer computing, wireless, whatever) will blow over and
they can go back to the old ways of doing things.
The obvious joy felt by the bricks and mortar businesses at
the dotcom implosion may have been a smug pleasure (“I told you they wouldn’t
last”), but the innovations the Internet has introduced won’t go away.
Sure, lots of essentially worthless dotcoms have blown away. And it’s fun
to ridicule the excesses of the 20-something dotcommies and their lack of
class in handling their short-lived success. But the reality is, something
has fundamentally changed about business, and that bell can’t be unrung.
Your business’ ability to absorb change and to recognize
paradigm shifts will be its most critical success factor in the coming
years. Those who can’t foresee how the need for their products can
disappear are doomed to go the way of the buggy whip manufacturers of last
century. Heck, forget the buggy whip companies, they’ll go the way of
modern long distance providers, who have seen Internet long distance providers
drive rates to under 7 cents a minute, generating a problem so severe that
the Baby Bells no longer hunger for the long distance market.
What new idea is sprouting in a garage somewhere that will
threaten your business?
IBM has announced they’ve created transistors
using nanotubes of carbon that are 10 atoms across. This yields
transistors 500 times smaller than today’s silicon-based ones.
Think that’s small? How about packing
a terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) into a cubic centimeter?
Today I spoke at the Eleventh Annual EC
Breakfast with Executives sponsored by the Twin Cities Electronic Commerce
topic was Boom or Gloom? The Future of B2B Exchanges, and the PowerPoint is available
Can’t Get Enough of ME?
In the unlikely event
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fashionable thing for pundits to do, and I’m doing it too. A Weblog is a
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can create your own Weblog. You need to have a Web site that allows you FTP
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This allows you to right click on a Web page and append your pithy thoughts
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I’ve dubbed my Weblog
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