The exponential pace of change

I bought a new laptop recently, and was surprised by the computer power available for $700. ┬áBut I’ve been surprised by the exponential growth of computer power ever since I was aware of it. In 1980 when I started working with computers, I was amazed by the power of microcomputers – they weren’t called PC’s yet. I compared them to the first computers that were built in the 40’s, and they were unimaginably more powerful, smaller, and cheaper. The “big” system my company was selling had 64K bytes of memory. The system I have now has 4 gigabytes of memory. This is almost exactly a doubling of memory size every two years.

This is an instance of Moore’s Law, which says that the power of semiconductors doubles every 18-24 months. This has been about right, and it has meant that I have been surprised every couple of years by the pace of change. But now I suddenly realize that I will continue to be surprised for the rest of my life, even though I expect to be surprised. The reason for this is that exponential growth is literally impossible to imagine. I can write down the equation, I can project out the numbers, but when they arrive they blow me away. Try to graph the function y = 2^x. You can’t. Try it! Your paper isn’t big enough.

So this is my theme, these days – the exponential pace of change. Moore’s Law applies only to semiconductors, and some say it is trailing off as they get down to the size of an atom. But I personally believe that the pace of change we are experiencing will continue, perhaps via other technologies – quantum computing, nanotechnology, DNA computing, or something not yet visible. Consider Facebook as an example – three years ago it didn’t exist, it now has 300 million users. Wow. What will we see three years from now? Dimly I can see a world in which my entire life is stored on the Web, in the cloud, accessible from anywhere via a netbook. But that’s just an extrapolation of where things are now – what new applications will be available I cannot say. And when I think about 10 years from now, I am really in the dark.

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