This is a pretty exciting time to be alive. Possibly the most exciting time ever.
Technological progress is happening at a higher rate than ever before. In fact technological progress is no longer linear as it once was – now the growth rate of technology is exponential. And along with technological growth comes better living standards, and the ability to buy more with less money. But how does technological progress happen in the first place? Where have we come from, and where are we headed on the scale of progress, and what implications does it have for humanity as a species?
These are important questions, that need answering, so let’s start with what we know.
What we know
We know that there is pretty smart dude over at Google called Ray Kurzweil, who for some time has been preaching the gospel of the singularity. What is this singularity that you speak of you might ask. Well, to explain the singularity we need to start somewhere different from Google in the early 21st century. In fact we need to go back to the middle of the 60’s, where a guy called Gordon Moore predicted that computing power doubles every year. If you chart that progress it looks like this:
Now this graph shows a fairly slow development to begin with – one might say that it is a fairly linear relationship – but as time goes by, the speed of the progress picks up, meaning we arrive at the law accelerating returns. Another Kurzweil-ism. What Kurzweil argues, fairly convincingly I might add, is that the growth in computing power will eventually take on an exponential growth-trajectory. Like this
And if we look at where we are on the graph it is not hard to see that we are right at the epicenter of this enormous shift, but what does that mean for us humans?
History of technological progress
Well if we look at the bigger picture, i.e. the much bigger picture, we need to go back to when we humans had just become an individual species, and we were hunting things to eat, in order to earn our place in the foodchain. What did technological progress look like back then? It looked like this:
The first significant discovery in human history was the stone projectile weapon. A pretty cool technology which allowed our ancestors to hunt bigger game. Like mammoths and stuff. Not bad. Now I’m sure that humans iterated on these weapons, and made better and sharper pointy-ended things, but how long did it take for us to invent the next significant thing? 800.000 years. Eight. Hundred. Thousand. Years. Is how long it took to invent the next big thing, which was the controlled use of fire. That is a heck of a long time if you ask me. But then it only took us 500.000 years to invent the next big thing, namely the concept of being inside. Sort of. Living in “Purpose-built shelters” counts as being inside. Next discovery? Long-distance trade 360.000 years, then 40.000 years, then 30.000, and so on, until the technological discoveries keep coming like pearls on a string. The pattern is unmistakable – Invention begets invention, and at the end of the day, we end of with accelerating returns and what Kurzweil calls the singularity, which is essentially that human civilization will eventually arrive at the invention of Super-human artificial intelligence, which will trigger massive growth in technology, which will in turn provide unfathomable beneficial changes to human society.
Technology and living standards
Because there is one thing that has always been true, and that is the fact that on the whole, technological progress means an increase in living standards. That rang true when we invented spears to eat better food, when we learned how to harness the power of fire, and it rings true today when technology enables us to do things that would have been completely incomprehensible just 30, or even 20 years ago. For instance solar energy and electrical cars are pushing us head-first towards a sustainable future. The internet of things allows to literally have the entire world at our fingertips. Almost every industry today, is radically different than it was just 10 years ago. And the best part is, most things today are cheaper, made with less resources and are available to more people than ever before. For instance, the developing world has leapfrogged ahead, skipped the step of landlines, and have gone straight to mobile phones, which in turn have enabled them to control their financial resources and have massively enhanced their standard of living. The same is now happening with energy, and access to the internet. How profound is this change? If we look at the data it’s pretty clear that the change is huge. The graph below is a representation of data from the world bank outlining GDP per capita across the globe from 1960 to today.
As you can see the evidence is pretty clear. Even though there are bumps along the way, which seem significant at the time, there is an unmistakable upward trajectory. This means that as we get more technologically advanced, and more connected as a species, we also increase our standard of living. Unfortunately the data only goes back to 1960, but I’m sure that if we had data from 1.8 million years ago, and to today, the trend would be similar.
Where we stand
So if we follow this argument all the way to the finish line, we are forced to conclude that as we approach unlimited technological progress we will also approach unlimited quality of life. What does this mean exactly? I can’t tell you, because I don’t know, and any attempt at guessing can only be qualified as pure speculation. What I do know however is that people are working on some fairly intense projects. For instance the end of ageing. Meaning effectively that people can no longer die from old age. Which is pretty cool, because age is the number one killer in the world. Kind of a bitch. Aubrey de Grey talks about it in this video, and if you can disregard the weird beard, his message is super cool. Then there’s cryonics, which is literally bringing people back from the dead. I’m not sure where I stand on this, but if what they’re doing is actually possible, then that is probably one of the most intense and incredible projects to have ever been undertaken. Tim Urban from – probably my favorite blog – waitbutwhy.com, makes a pretty good argument as to why the idea might not be as far fetched as it sounds, as well as go into detail about why it is actually a pretty cool idea.
What’s even more cool is that this is not science fiction. It’s real, actual science science. Some people are actually working towards making the human species immortal. I think this is kind of intensely inspiring and jaw-dropping at the same time. However, this also increases the necessity of colonizing other planets. Another thing that people in the real world are working on. Again super weird. But also intensely cool, and something that would have been unfathomable just a few decades ago.
So what does this mean?
I think the data shows pretty clearly that the future will be better than the past. I also think that it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the ingenuity of the human species is incredible, and I think that whatever challenge we are faced with, we can overcome it. I also believe that the evidence shows that in 10 years, or maybe even 5, we are going to have technologies that are inconceivable today, and these technologies will allow us to do things we never thought possible. In the overall scheme of things, there is definitely reason to be optimistic.