David Kirkpatrick

August 20, 2010

Ray Kurzweil on exponential growth and reverse engineering the brain

Via KurzweilAI.net — At the conclusion of a longer blog post refuting PZ Myers characterization that he “doesn’t understand the brain,” Ray Kurzweil concludes with a very salient point on exponential versus linear thinking and why many of seemingly fantastic predictions (from the coming of the Singularity on down) may not be so unreachable after all.

From the link:

Halfway through the genome project, the project’s original critics were still going strong, pointing out that we were halfway through the 15 year project and only 1 percent of the genome had been identified. The project was declared a failure by many skeptics at this point. But the project had been doubling in price-performance and capacity every year, and at one percent it was only seven doublings (at one year per doubling) away from completion. It was indeed completed seven years later. Similarly, my projection of a worldwide communication network tying together tens and ultimately hundreds of millions of people, emerging in the mid to late 1990s, was scoffed at in the 1980s, when the entire U.S. Defense Budget could only tie together a few thousand scientists with the ARPANET. But it happened as I predicted, and again this resulted from the power of exponential growth.

Linear thinking about the future is hardwired into our brains. Linear predictions of the future were quite sufficient when our brains were evolving. At that time, our most pressing problem was figuring out where that animal running after us was going to be in 20 seconds. Linear projections worked quite well thousands of years ago and became hardwired. But exponential growth is the reality of information technology.

We’ve seen smooth exponential growth in the price-performance and capacity of computing devices since the 1890 U.S. census, in the capacity of wireless data networks for over 100 years, and in biological technologies since before the genome project. There are dozens of other examples. This exponential progress applies to every aspect of the effort to reverse-engineer the brain.