Photo credit: Greygouar
By Declan Butler
In March 2001, futurist Ray Kurzweil published an essay arguing that humans found it hard to comprehend their own future. It was clear from history, he argued, that technological change is exponential — even though most of us are unable to see it — and that in a few decades, the world would be unrecognizably different. “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate),” he wrote, in ‘The Law of Accelerating Returns’.
Fifteen years on, Kurzweil is a director of engineering at Google and his essay has acquired a cult following among futurists. Some of its predictions are outlandish or over-hyped — but technology experts say that its basic tenets often hold. The evidence, they say, lies in the exponential advances in a suite of enabling technologies ranging from computing power to data storage, to the scale and performance of the Internet (see ‘Onwards and upwards’). These advances are creating tipping points — moments at which technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), biology, nanotechnology and 3D printing cross a threshold and trigger sudden and significant change. “We live in a mind-blowingly different world than our grandparents,” says Fei-Fei Li, head of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in California, and this will be all the more true for our children and grandchildren (see ‘Future focus’).
Kurzweil and others have argued that people find this pace of change almost impossible to grasp, because it is human nature to perceive rates of progress as linear, not exponential — much as when one zooms in on a small part of a circle and it appears as an almost straight line. People tend to focus on the past few years, but pulling back reveals a much more dramatic change. Many things that society now takes for granted would have seemed like futuristic nonsense just a few decades ago. We can search across billions of pages, images and videos on the web; mobile phones have become ubiquitous; billions of connected smart sensors monitor in real time everything from the state of the planet to our heartbeats, sleep and steps; and drones and satellites the size of shoeboxes roam the skies.
If the pace of change is exponentially speeding up, all those advances could begin to look trivial within a few years. Take ‘deep learning’, a form of artificial intelligence that uses powerful microprocessor chips and algorithms to simulate neural networks that train and learn through experience, using massive data sets. Last month, the Google-owned AI company DeepMind used deep learning to enable a computer to beat for the first time a human professional at the game of Go, long considered one of the grand challenges of AI. Researchers told Nature that they foresee a future just 20 years from now — or even sooner — in which robots with AI are as common as cars or phones and are integrated into families, offices and factories. The “disruptive exponentials” of technological change will create “a world where everybody can have a robot and robots are pervasively integrated in the fabric of life”, says Daniela Rus, head of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
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