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It's too late to hide - the doubling curve is already here

Kaila Colbin, Guest post. 20 July 2016, 7:15 am
It's too late to hide - the doubling curve is already here

You've heard it all before. Technology. Moore's Law. Disruption. It's your industry, after all. You pay attention.

I know how you feel. I'm not in the tech business, per se, but I am in the be-across-new-developments business. Seven years of curating TEDxChristchurch means lots of innovative ideas coming across my desk (IITP President Ian Taylor spoke at our 2012 event. Simply stunning).

So when I got the opportunity to attend the Executive Programme at Singularity University - an organisation founded by tech titans Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis - I was simultaneously excited and cynical. It'll definitely be fun, I thought, but surely it won't upend my entire freaking life.

March 2015. Up I rock to the NASA Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley, ready for a week of nanotechnology, bioinformatics, medicine, neuroscience, the future of work, the future of crime, and more.

But what, exactly, do these topics have to do with each other? More importantly, what do they have to do with us?

There is a theme here, based on a few of Kurzweil's core insights. But first, a quick background.

In 1965, Intel's Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits would double every 18 months or so: Moore's Law. You've probably heard of it.

Well, Kurzweil zoomed out on Moore's Law. Instead of looking at the number of transistors on a circuit, he looked at the price-performance of computing: how many instructions per second you can buy for $1,000. Turns out that number has been doubling for over a hundred years, starting with electromechanical punch cards, moving on to relays, vacuum tubes, then transistors, then integrated circuits. Every time we max out on a particular technology, another one comes along to continue the underlying doubling trend.

So Insight Number One: the doubling curve isn't about the number of transistors. It's about price-performance.

Doubling curves are inherently deceptive, because they look flat for a really long time. If something goes from 0.001 to 0.002 to 0.004 to 0.008 it all just looks like zero. But consider this: if you take 30 linear steps, you'll end up 30 metres from where you started; if you take 30 doubling steps, you'll go all the way around the world 26 times .

The problem is that you won't be halfway there until the 29th step, so it's really hard to know how you're tracking. A doubling curve is like nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, inflection point OH MY GOD HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?

Now for Insight Number Two: this same doubling of price-performance can be found in any information-enabled technology.

Think about photography. It used to be substrate enabled - that is, dependent on physical film. Then it became information enabled - dependent on ones and zeroes. Today you can get a smartphone with a 41 megapixel camera.

Turns out all of the technologies we were studying at the Executive Programme - nanotech, biotech, medicine, energy, and more - have become information enabled. They're all following doubling curves. They're all starting to hit those inflection points and they're all starting to converge.

This is what's making self-driving cars not only possible but inevitable. It is what is allowing the invention of a Star Trek-like medical tricorder: a small, handheld device that, by the end of this year, will beat the diagnosis of seven out of ten Board-certified physicians.

It's also what's making it possible for a single criminal to rob millions of people, or hack a police car, or hack a US military drone. It's why we can fully expect 47% (or more) of jobs to be automated by 2034.

Exponential technologies offer exponential promise and exponential threat. They are not science fiction; they are already here.

So, yeah. Once I learned this stuff, I couldn't unlearn it. It upended my entire freaking life. It affects all of us, and it's coming faster than we think.

Which is why we're bringing a SingularityU Summit to New Zealand in November.

SingularityU is essentially a condensed version of the executive programme, with the same world-class instructors plus some incredible Kiwi talent. We all need to understand these trends, trajectories and implications if we want to adapt to and thrive in an exponential world.

Hope to see you there.

Kaila Colbin is the New Zealand Ambassador for Singularity University, the curator of TEDxChristchurch, and the co-founder of Christchurch's Ministry of Awesome. She spoke at this year's ITx conference.


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Prashant Khanna 03 August 2016, 2:23 pm

Its looks to be a promising summit... do we have any advanced flyers on the speakers and what they intend to cover in a more condensed PDF?

A peek into the future kind of summits are always exciting... just that we all appear to be on the second last step on understanding the creativity behind it when all of a sudden it comes up as an amazing concept or even better as a product.

Roger Willcocks 03 August 2016, 3:00 pm
Matthias Otto 04 August 2016, 8:29 am

I'm always worried when Moore's law is embraced and celebrated as the saviour of all things human. This article only just mentioned the "threat" aspect of the exponential curve. Everyone knows that exponential growth is another word for "explosion" and also the guiding principle of cancer.

Luckily, one could say, we live on a finite planet, and that will put paid to the nonsense of infinite growth. Incidentally, on this same forum Paul Brislen reported about the inability to power all this (admittedly "current") technology by 2040 (

As for the self-driving cars, I am still waiting for Moore's law to kick in as far as electricity storage is concerned to power them (the e-versions anyway). For how many years have we been watching battery development going nowhere fast as far as capacity/weight or capacity/cost is concerned? Let alone life-span.

There are industries really desperate for Moore's law to materialise, especially in the (renewable) energy sector.

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