Kurzwei's Law of Accelerating Returns (10/18/05)

In his Law of Accelerating Returns, Ray Kurzweil contends that the rate of increase in the rate of technological progress is reaching the point where it will reach a point where societal collapse will take place. Upon reaching what he terms The Singularity, Kurzweil argues that humanity will become unable to sustain the increasing waves of change and chaos will result.


Now for my response ...

This theory presumes other factors will not come into play. One cannot deny the rate of progress has been picking up speed. The two uncertainties here are 1) the rate at which it will continue in the near future, and 2) if circumstances which facilitate this progress won’t change to inhibit progress, or stop it entirely.

Here are factors that I would suggest this theory overlooks:

1) Cultural changes that start to push against the push of change. In the course of human events, Luddite anti-progress efforts fail, but some societies and cultures are longer to absorb, and if the pace of change becomes too fast, an increasing pace of change may result in the rise of a movement to slow the train down.

2) The reaching of a “plateau” in which the pace of change becomes too fast for new technologies to be practical. For example, how often will companies invest in updating technology? After a while, it becomes impractical to keep replacing hardware, machinery, etc. any faster than is already being done. Or several successive advances in technologies will be kept in R&D, and products only released at such a pace that that consumers, businesses, etc. can absorb them.

3) Humanity spreads out in spatial terms, requiring longer amounts of time to distribute and implement new technologies among human settlements on other planets or beyond. Odds are that space travel will still require some time to complete. Of course, technology may find a way to bridge large interplanetary or even interstellar distances quickly enough to make a trip among the stars as quick as travel among states, nations, and continents is now. If that happens, then my third consideration becomes invalid.

4) The absence of competitive or crisis events that have often greatly accelerated the pace of progress, such as World War Two, which brought about rapid advances in electronics, aviation, manufacturing capacity, health care, or the Space Race of the 60s, which led to more advances in aviation, communications, and electronics, or the Cold War, which led to the Internet as a super-redundant means of telecommunication that would survive a large-scale nuclear war. A more peaceful and less competitive world may see a slower pace of change and progress.

5) Technology forces a sort of catastrophic “over the edge” event. This could have been a large-scale global nuclear conflict. It could still be the result of a deadly germ or virus from a medical research program, or even something like a large space craft hitting the earth at a speed much faster than light, which physicists suggest could case global devastation.

6) The occurrence of some catastrophic event. Alien invasion, asteroid collision or some unforeseen factor that either wipes us out or forces us into a radically diminished mode of existence.

This Law, like all others, fails to consider how Murphy’s Law is virtually inescapable. This is the random element which is the downfall of most theories.

What do YOU think?

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