Co-authored with Lila Rieber.
In The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil writes that “every aspect of information and information technology is growing at an exponential pace.” In Abundance, the authors list eight fields — including nanomaterials, robotics, and medicine — as “exponentially growing fields.” The Second Machine Age says that “technical progress” in general is “improving exponentially.”
These authors are correct to emphasize that exponential trends in technological development are surprisingly common (Nagy et al. 2013), and that these trends challenge the wisdom of our built-in heuristic to ignore futures that sound absurd. (To someone in the 1980s, the iPhone is absurd. To us, it is an affordable consumer good.)
Unfortunately, these and other popular discussions of “exponential technologies” are often very succinct and therefore ambiguous, resulting in public and professional misunderstanding. I (Luke) regularly encounter people who have read the books above and come away with the impression that all information technologies show roughly exponential trends all the time. But this isn’t true unless you have a very broad concept of what counts as “roughly exponential.”
So, without speculating much about what Kurzweil & company intend to claim, we’ll try to clear up some common misunderstandings about exponential technologies by showing a few examples of exponential and not-so-exponential trends in information technology. A more thorough survey of trends in information technology must be left to other investigators.
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