Are You Ready for the Freight Train of Exponential Growth?

by Edwin on December 7, 2011

You know that nagging feeling that the world’s changing faster and faster? That’s exponential growth at work…

Every couple of years, the transistor count on computer chips doubles. That’s what has taken us from the slow bulky computers of the 80s and 90s to smartphones, netbooks and tablets. Computer memory has been equally affected, with a typical modern PC shipping with 8,000,000 times more memory than a home computer of 30 years ago.

So far, no real surprises. Sure, it’s “amazing” when you really step back and think about it, but day to day it just means more sophisticated and responsive apps, cheaper web hosting, speedier web browsing, better digital photos, etc.

But as you can see from the exponential doubling curve plotted above, it’s the last few doublings that completely overwhelm everything that’s come before. Indeed, on the scale of the graph you can’t even see the first 10 doublings as they’re less than a pixel high. Then suddenly they become visible, and then shoot skyward like a rocket!

And that has profound consequences for business, and for the world.

Think about Apple’s much-hyped voice agent service, Siri. Right now, it’s anywhere from a neat trick to a bit of a letdown, depending on your point of view. But it, along with similar applications, is going to get exponentially better (especially as they harness the “wisdom of billions” by operating in the cloud and “learn” from ever-increasing numbers of corrections). Which in turn means that in a few years (quicker than you’d think) all service-related “voice” interactions (think customer support/call centres for example) will be done by computer.

Or look at Google Translate. Sure, it can produce some laughable manglings (glaringly so if you’re familiar with both the source and target languages) but it’s getting better FAST. Exponential growth is playing its part here as well, and within a relatively short space of time you’ll be as comfortable reading web content in French, German or Chinese are you are in English. Indeed, the “underlying language” will be less and less important, as you’ll have access to an instant, perfect translation. Throw voice recognition and synthesis into the mix, and all translation and interpretation jobs just went up in smoke.

What about movies? Right now, you can store about 500 DVDs on a typical hard drive, or 40 Blu-ray quality movies (with compression you could already store MUCH more). But there’s an exponential growth curve in storage, too – and in 10 years time you’ll be able to store over 5,000 Blu-ray quality movies on a hard drive (or 2,000,000 digital photos!) That’s over a year’s worth of film, recorded 24/7 in high definition.

Or think of eBook readers such as the Kindle. Right now they store a thousand books or so – in a decade, they’ll be able to store a copy of every book ever published! You’ll have the equivalent of the Library of Congress or the British Library in your back jeans pocket…

Imagine a scenario where a computer-driven car takes 10s to make decisions that are “safe enough” to keep it (and other road-users) out of danger. In ten years time, improvements in processor power will cut that reaction time down to 1/4s…

It’s important to stress that we’re really not talking about long timeframes either! After all, we’re at the point on the curve where it starts heading straight for the sky… The next 10-20 years in computing are going to lead to more change than the last 150 years put together. It’s both an exhilarating and a terrifying prospect! Are you ready for the wild ride?

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