Futurist Ray Kurzweil has made headlines with his provocative yet often accurate predictions, like that a computer would beat a human in chess (already happened) or that self-driving cars would take us everywhere (starting to happen).
But, to paraphrase fellow futurist Peter Diamandis, Kurzweil’s brilliance isn’t in the predictions themselves.
It’s in what the predictions represent — Kurzweil’s core thesis, a little thing called “the Law of Accelerating Returns.”
It states that “fundamental measures of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories.”
“The reality of information technology is it progresses exponentially,” he told the Financial Times. “30 steps linearly gets you to 30. One, two, three, four, step 30 you’re at 30. With exponential growth, it’s one, two, four, eight. Step 30, you’re at a billion.”
The most famous example is “Moore’s Law,” named for Intel cofounder Gordon Moore.
In case you haven’t heard, Moore’s Law has held true. It’s been integral to computers shrinking from filling up a room to filling up your pocket, all while becoming way more powerful.
While the empowering of computers is indeed amazing, it’s still a little abstract.
I am fond of telling the tale of the inventor of chess and his patron, the Emperor of China.
In response to the emperor’s offer of a reward for his new beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square, two on the second square, four on the third, and so on. The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign and humble request.
One version of the story has the emperor going bankrupt as the 63 doublings ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. Another version of the story has the inventor losing his head.
Therein lies the most terrifying, exciting, and mystifying aspect of Kurzweil’s thesis.
To him, we’re somewhere in the middle of that chessboard.
“It should be pointed out that as the emperor and the inventor went through the first half of the chess board, things were fairly uneventful,” Kurzweil continues. “The inventor was given spoonfuls of rice, then bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field’s worth (4 billion grains), and the emperor did start to take notice.”
And it’s only when a technology like a smartphone comes in and suddenly shifts our entire culture that we start to realize how quickly things are accelerating.
That’s because, Kurzweil says, humans are linear by nature — and technology is exponential.
Technology’s relentless, predictable, and exponential growth will, according to the law of accelerating returns, bring humans into the era that Kurzweil is most closely associated with, the singularity.
“As exponential growth continues to accelerate into the first half of the twenty-first century,” he writes. “It will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans.”
The singularity (or Singularity) is used to describe the era when artificial intelligence supplants human intelligence as the most-capable processing power around.
The consequences of that moment — which is possible if Kurzweil’s theories hold — are widely debated.
Kurzweil seems optimistic. In 2013 he told the New York Times that nanobots will enhance our immune systems by 2030 and that he’s planning on living forever, more or less. Last April he told the Financial Times that he is planning on creating a simulated version of his late father and that any given brunch could be had on a Mediterranean beach with the aid of virtual reality. Larry Page was so impressed with Kurzweil that he made him chief engineer at Google so he could work on artificial intelligence for the search giant.
But some of the world’s other great innovative minds are less excited about the whole singularity thing.
Elon Musk has repeatedly said that we should be afraid of these high technologies. He’s said that “with artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon,” and that it poses the “biggest existential threat to humans.”
But for the rest of us, the issue isn’t whether the Law of Accelerating Returns is good or bad. Simply that it exists.
“As humans, we are biased to think linearly,” writes Peter Diamandis, the futurist and XPRIZE CEO. “As entrepreneurs, we need to think exponentially.”