Technology and Transition
History and future trends:
The best summary of the history of information technologies is a graph that shows the calculations per second per $1,000 from 1900 to today. (Try googling calculations per second per $1,000) What we see when we look at these figures is exponential growth.
Up take of the printing press took hundreds of years; uptake of the radio and TV took decades; uptake of the computer and mobile phones took years. The kitsch and yet astonishing comparison that is usually trotted out in conversations like this is that there is over 100 times more computing power in our smart phone than there was in the Apollo Space Program.
Each time we reach the capacity of one technology, a new one appears that takes the technology to the next level. Vacuum tubes were replaced by transistors, which were replaced by chips, which will probably be replaced by 3 dimensional self-organising molecular circuits or perhaps even quantum computers.
I very much like the observation by Ray Kurzweil in his TED talk that this exponential growth is the result of worldwide chaotic behaviour and when we view it from a distance we see the pattern and the trend.
I also like the observation from the same talk that while we cannot predict the behaviour of a single molecule we can predict the behaviour of gasses. While we cannot predict the behaviour of an individual, we can predict the behaviour of crowds. This, combined with Philip Rosenthal’s observation that when the internet was being built no one knew or had time to think what it would become, provides us with a glimpse into the nature of evolution. Evolution is:
- Chaotic at the micro level
- Predictable at the macro level
- Out of any one person’s control
- Happens through market (for want of a better term) forces
- Is exponential
In the 1950’s predictions about life in the year 2000 primarily revolved around a continuation of the transport revolution; flying cars, space travel etc. Rarely was the revolution in ICT predicted. While people like Ray Kurzweil might be able to predict the continuation of the deflation of price and the increase in the computing power of technologies, it is unlikely that we can predict the area that will have the most profound effect.
“We will succeed in reverse engineering the brain by the 2020’s” Ray Kurzweil.  And according to Kurzweil’s figures, it will be available for $1,000!!!
The key areas that technology is affecting presently include:
Interestingly, from my experience working with a number of companies in the pharmaceutical industries, the revolution in the chemistry industry seems to be passing and being replaced by the biotech industry. Pharmaceutical companies’ pipelines of new drugs are slowing in comparison to the heydays of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.
According to Jeremy Butler there are four key stages in the development of information technology. They are:
- pre-mechanical (3000 BC – 1450 AD)
- mechanical (1450–1840)
- electromechanical (1840–1940)
- electronic (1940 to present)
There is no doubt that ICT has provided us with the opportunity to be more aware of issues and incidents with an increased breadth and depth. While the volume and speed of information has dramatically increased, the quality of that information and where the public choose to focus its attention is still in question.
ICT can also exacerbate the well documented psychological preference for confirmation bias.Users of ICT can search for and find information to support current biases, incorrect assumptions or factually incorrect information. You can even join groups to further your own ignorance.
There is an increased ability to capture and store information about us. This will always be used for good and bad purposes. Yes some people use it to market and advertise … and perhaps that isn’t a bad thing … at least now I only have to sit through ads for things I’m actually interested in. The drawback is the reduction in serendipity of the discovery of something new outside of my current interests.
Yes, we lose privacy and perhaps even our identity, and what we gain is sharper information about how we act and how to improve our society and environment to better suit our preferences.
There are an increasing number of studies that suggest that ICT is rewiring our brains. Professor George Patton from the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Centre for Adolescent Health in Melbourne says he sees kids who engage in electronic media for the whole day and believes it is rewiring the brain.
Concerns around the social effects of ICT include:
- decreased attention span
- a preference for width of information rather than depth
- increase in obsessive behaviours such as ‘liking’ things on Facebook and constant monitoring of incoming messages
- Increase in distractibility
Science fiction or fact:
After reading Sam Harris on free will, Robert Wright on evolutionary psychology, listening to Ray Kurzweil and seeing things like Harvard bioengineers and geneticists storing 700 terabytes of info in 1 gram using the double helix of DNA … And you start to wonder that perhaps life is binary and perhaps we are not that far away from being able to create life itself!!!