Does Evolution Go Fast-Forward?
By John Tierney
As life and then technology evolved, the big changes kept occurring more quickly, according to Ray Kurzweil. The rate of progress accelerated so predictably since the beginning of life that the paradigm shifts fall along the straight line plotted on this logarithmic graph. (Each unit of time is 1/10th as long as the preceeding unit as you move down the vertical axis or move to the right along the horizontal axis.) (Ray Kurzweil)
Does this graph help explain why you could soon live forever? That’s one theory, but let’s start out with a simpler question to debate: Is it evidence that life and technology evolve at a predictable pace – faster and faster?
It’s one of Ray Kurzweil’s many graphs illustrating his theory of technological change discussed in my Findings column. He argues that the pace of evolution and technological change has kept accelerating at a remarkably predictable rate since the beginning of life. As he explained in his 2001 essay, “The Law of Accelerating Returns”:
The evolution of life forms required billions of years for the first steps (e.g., primitive cells); later on progress accelerated. During the Cambrian explosion, major paradigm shifts took only tens of millions of years. Later on, Humanoids developed over a period of millions of years, and Homo sapiens over a period of only hundreds of thousands of years. . . .
The first technological steps-sharp edges, fire, the wheel–took tens of thousands of years. For people living in this era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years. By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required only a century or two. In the nineteenth century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, we saw more advancement than in all of the nineteenth century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years time. The World Wide Web did not exist in anything like its present form just a few years ago; it didn’t exist at all a decade ago.
Now, you might argue that there are other paradigm shifts that don’t fit so neatly on the graph’s straight line. Did Dr. Kurzweil choose his points to make a point? To address that potential criticism, he drew up another graph plotting key events identified by 15 other sources, including the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the American Museum of Natural History, Carl Sagan and other authors.
The result, once again, is a straight line. You can see this exponential trend by clicking on the chart at right. To identify the key events, click here to see reach Dr. Kurzweil’s original graph.. There you can also find the other graphs of exponential acceleration in the power and spread of technologies. After the telephone was introduced more than a century go, Dr. Kurzweil says, it took 50 years for a quarter of the American population to get one. After the cell phone was introduced, it took only seven years.
Dr. Kurzweil’s bottom line:
The paradigm shift rate (i.e., the overall rate of technical progress) is currently doubling (approximately) every decade; that is, paradigm shift times are halving every decade (and the rate of acceleration is itself growing exponentially). So, the technological progress in the twenty-first century will be equivalent to what would require (in the linear view) on the order of 200 centuries. In contrast, the twentieth century saw only about 25 years of progress (again at today’s rate of progress) since we have been speeding up to current rates. So the twenty-first century will see almost a thousand times greater technological change than its predecessor.
As you can see by clicking the graph at right, Dr. Kurzweil expects the exponential growth in computing power to result in machines more powerful than the human brain before 2030. I’m happy to debate the possible implications of that development — whether the brain can be reverse-engineered, whether the Singularity will usher in a new era of history with ever-smarter humans and post-humans, whether immortality is possible — but I’d rather save that discussion for a separate post.
For now, I’d rather focus on a simpler question: Is Dr. Kurzweil right about the Law of Accelerating Returns? Has the law held since the beginning of life? Is it still in force? What do the graphs mean?
For a critique of Dr. Kurzweil’s law, see Alfred Nordman’s article in IEEE Spectrum. For more on Dr. Kurzweil’s work, including his 2005 best-seller, “The Singularity Is Near,” see Singularity.com and kurzweilai.net.