Why the Rapid Advancement of Technology Is Exponential

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Singularity Is Near" by Ray Kurzweil. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When was the last time you upgraded your phone? How different is it from the previous version?

Ray Kurzweil predicts a point in the future when technological progress will be so great that, for all practical purposes, it will appear infinite. We have to use our imagination to picture a world with such dramatic rates of change, but Kurzweil started looking at this in the 1970s.

Read more to learn about the exponential nature of the rapid advancement of technology.

The Rapid Advancement of Technology

Kurzweil worked in the computer industry during the 1970s. While mapping the rate of technological progress so he could guess the best time to bring products to market, he saw that the path of technology’s advancement takes the shape of an exponential curve, with a flash of mind-boggling advancement due to arrive in the 2030s and ’40s.

Kurzweil grounds his predictions in an analysis of ongoing trends in technological advancement. These trends suggest that our capabilities as a species are increasing at an exponential rate. We’ll explain what exponential growth means in practice, how it applies to the rapid advancement of technology, and what Kurzweil sees as exponential advancement in parts of human society beyond what’s governed by mere machines.

When we say that something’s growth is exponential, we mean that it increases by multiplication rather than by addition, as is the case with linear growth. For example, if a factory produces 20 widgets each day, then the pile of widgets it’s created grows linearly—20 on the first day, 40 on the second, 60 on the third, and so on. But consider the population of an invasive species when it moves into an area with no natural predators. Each generation may be double the size of the one that came before, growing exponentially. If you begin with 20 individuals, the second generation will include 40, the third, 80, then 160, 320, 640, 1280, and so on, until their habitat is changed beyond recognition because of the effects of their presence. 

Kurzweil applies this same principle when charting the progress of technological innovations. Each advancement multiplies the power of what came before, in turn fostering and speeding up the next round of innovations.

The Power of Exponentiation

The concept of exponents—raising a number to “the power of” another—was introduced in the 3rd century BCE in the book The Sand Reckoner by the mathematician Archimedes. An exponential notation, such as 24 (pronounced “two to the fourth”) means that you multiply the number 2 by itself 4 times (2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 16). In a graph like the one shown above, the exponent is a variable that increases over time. The implications of exponential formulae in real-world systems were popularized by economist Thomas Malthus, who predicted that exponential population growth would one day lead to mass starvation.

Other examples of exponential growth in addition to Kurzweil’s technological trends can be found in the world of finance, the spread of disease, and the proliferation of memes on the internet. In finance, exponential growth is observed in the accelerating returns of compound interest on investments. In virology, exponential growth is witnessed as a pathogen spreads through a host population, followed by a rebound of exponential decay as a virus’s pool of potential hosts is used up. Online, we’ve all seen exponential growth in action when a clever internet meme catches on and spreads like wildfire across social media.

When applied to technology, exponential trends may be hard to spot in the short term. But, when you look at long-term progress, the evidence is compelling. For example, consider the advances in communication over the expanse of human history. For millennia, information could spread no faster than humans could travel via foot, horse, or boat. It’s been only 200 years since the invention of the telegraph allowed instant (if sporadic) communication across long distances. The telephone came 50 years later, phones you could dial came 50 years after that, and portable phones after another 50 years. Today, we upgrade phones every few years, increasing their collective capacity to send and receive pictures, sound, and all manner of data.

(Shortform note: There are many exponential trends in human development in addition to Kurzweil’s examples of progress, such as the world’s exponential increase in energy usage and the exponential growth of urbanization. The most widely known trend is global population growth, which remained steady for thousands of years before accelerating rapidly in the industrial age. However, exponential trends don’t necessarily last forever. Some experts expect that the global population will peak by the end of the 21st century. In some countries, it’s perhaps already done so—China, Japan, and some European nations are already reporting population decline.)

The Pattern of Change

Kurzweil explains that these advancements go in phases. As every new technology is introduced, it catches on slowly as its kinks are worked out. Following this is a burst of rapid growth as the technology is accepted and spreads throughout society. Once a technology has spread and matured, advancement within it seems to slow down, but this pause is just an illusion. Once a technology hits its “plateau,” its limitations become apparent and work begins on the next innovation that will replace it and propel the next paradigm, just as cell phones have replaced landlines. Kurzweil’s point is that these technological changes are happening faster and faster—years instead of decades, decades instead of centuries.

(Shortform note: Some might argue that Kurzweil’s exponential projections haven’t held true for all fields of science and technology. One example is manned space exploration, which went through dramatic growth through the 1950s and ’60s. Many people believed that manned spaceflight would continue out into the rest of the solar system, yet as of 2023, humans have traveled no farther than low Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Progress in this field stalled due to governmental budget cuts and the expensive logistics of going into space. Similarly, a slowdown in scientific innovation has been noted across many fields.)

Kurzweil also argues that the coming tectonic shifts in society won’t be due to growth in one field of human endeavor but in every aspect of society all at once. These include accelerating economic growth, especially in the developing world, an exponential increase in the availability of education worldwide, and the rapidly multiplying power of computing available in cheaper and faster devices as measured by the amount of computation per dollar. Writing in 2005, Kurzweil predicted that all these forces would result in a dramatic decrease in global poverty coupled with personal computers running at near-human brain capacity by the 2020s. However, every field of advancement brings with it a new host of problems and concerns.

Poverty Numbers Versus Kurzweil’s Predictions

According to the World Bank, whose goal is to end poverty by 2030, the percentage of people living in poverty has indeed gone down. Defining poverty as living on less than the equivalent of $5.50 per day, the global poverty rate fell from 64% at the time of Kurzweil’s writing to 47% in 2018, the most recent year for which the World Bank provides data.

In terms of population, the actual number of people in poverty fell from 4.2 to 3.6 billion during this same period, even as the global population increased. The number of people living in extreme poverty, defined as surviving on less than $1.90 per day, fell to 10% by 2015, but the World Bank is concerned that the rate of poverty decrease is slowing while the global gross domestic product (GDP) is on the rise. This goes against Kurzweil’s prediction that as the rate of technological growth (a key driver of GDP) increases, poverty should diminish even faster.
Why the Rapid Advancement of Technology Is Exponential

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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