Why Things Are Getting Better All the Time

[Cross-posted from The Speculist, Stephen Gordon here explains why we're not kidding with the name of this blog.]

In his speech - "Amazing Exponentials" - Phil told a version of the following story:

Back in ancient India, a certain Prince wanted to reward the inventor of chess for his wonderful new game. He asked the brilliant man how he'd like to be rewarded. The inventor asked for one grain of rice for the first square on the chessboard, two grains for the second, four for the third square and so on doubling for each square.

The prince, somewhat taken aback by this modest request, dispatched a servant to fulfill the order. It took the servant a while to report back. But when he did the news was not good. Although harvest was just completed, the gift was going to completely exhaust the royal granaries. And they were only on the 40th square!

In fact, had the servant kept at it through 64 squares, the inventor would be the proud owner of all rice ever produced on Earth.

Depending on who tells the story, the Prince either recognized the brilliance of the inventor and elevated him to chief advisor... or had the smart ass beheaded.

30 linear steps will take you from your front door to your mailbox, 30 exponential steps would take you around the world... 20 times... if there was a walking path at the equator. Seriously.

Ray Kurzweil has suggested that we humans need illustrations like these to understand the power of exponential development. Our species developed in a linear world. If the antelop is at point a, moving at speed b, then our hunter-gatherer ancestor would have to throw the spear to point d to bring him down.

That's very complicated math, but all linear.

Today we live in an increasingly exponential world. We benefit from the chess inventor's trick - but instead of rice, we get exponential improvement of computation... and everything that computation touches.

And computation touches more and more things.

Picture Spock's 3D chess board (yeah, I know that's Sheldon, but it'll always be Spock's game). Let the base board represent computation. Each move from one square to the next over time represents a doubling in computer power - something that Gordon Moore observed back in 1965.

The exponential computation board buys our way onto other levels of the 3D chess set: nanotech and genetic engineering are improving exponentially too. Advancement on these new levels can feedback to fuel the progress of the computation board - or any other board. It can also spawn new platforms.
Last week the Journal Science briefly mentioned what is, I think, the arrival of a new board. Materials researchers have been awaiting computational power sufficient to simulate the nearly infinite variety of potential materials that could be used to advance technologies like batteries, or solar cells.

researchers think steady progress in technology has now made supercomputers powerful and available enough to make the task worth starting. The White House announced a new federal effort last June to promote the use of high-performance computing to cut in half the time it takes to develop a new material. Known as the Materials Genome Initiative, the effort promised $100 million just this year to drastically accelerate materials discovery—particularly in alternative energy, a field heavily reliant on advanced materials.
Not only will computation give materials science an exponential boost, materials science will most likely return the favor - giving us new materials for better integrated circuits. This cycle of virtue has been hard for me to get my head around. But its essential to understanding why the future is coming at us so fast, and in ways that always surprise us.


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