Monday, July 14, 2008

The Future Is Now?

Ray Kurzweil on the Law of Accelerating Returns:

Our forebears expected the future to be pretty much like their present, which had been pretty much like their past. Although exponential trends did exist a thousand years ago, they were at that very early stage where an exponential trend is so flat that it looks like no trend at all. So their lack of expectations was largely fulfilled. Today, in accordance with the common wisdom, everyone expects continuous technological progress and the social repercussions that follow. But the future will be far more surprising than most observers realize: few have truly internalized the implications of the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating.

Our brain... is organized in three dimensions. We live in a three dimensional world, why not use the third dimension? The human brain actually uses a very inefficient electrochemical digital controlled analog computational process. The bulk of the calculations are done in the interneuronal connections at a speed of only about 200 calculations per second (in each connection), which is about ten million times slower than contemporary electronic circuits. But the brain gains its prodigious powers from its extremely parallel organization in three dimensions.

There are many technologies in the wings that build circuitry in three dimensions. Nanotubes, for example, which are already working in laboratories, build circuits from pentagonal arrays of carbon atoms. One cubic inch of nanotube circuitry would be a million times more powerful than the human brain. There are more than enough new computing technologies now being researched, including three-dimensional silicon chips, optical computing, crystalline computing, DNA computing, and quantum computing, to keep the law of accelerating returns as applied to computation going for a long time.

Much, much more after the link. Read Wikipedia's entries on Ray Kurzweil and the Accelerating Change. Also, here is a New York Times article on him too.



While I don't necessarily agree with all of Kurzwei's projections, his ideas are quite intriguing and underscore the power and progress that comes from technological advances. These advances are in turn driven both by the ability of people to profit off of their innovation and the ability to exchange ideas, technologies, and goods freely. Combined with the power of competition in the marketplace, these forces serve to propel the ever-increasing changes in technology and, in turn, economic growth. Institutions that support the freedom of exchange, and protect and incentivize competion and innovation play a critical role in all of this.
For example, here is the graph Kurzweil uses to show the growth in patents over the years. While the numbers have indeed been increasing no doubt, in large part due to the acceleration of technological process, I also suspect it is also partly driven by the legal environment, the creation of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in 1982 (which lead to greater stability in how patent cases are decided). Note that this roughly corresponds to the sudden acceleration in the number of patents issued. (This is also around the time when personal computing started taking off.) As greater certainty arose in the courts, pursuing patents became more predictible and therefore more profitable, leading to an increase in companies pursuing them.Changes in antitrust law also likely play a significant role in the increase in patents, particularly replacing the 9 No-Nos of 1970 to more streamlined guidelines for intellectual property recommended by the DOJ and FTC in 1995:

1) for the purpose of antitrust analysis, the Agencies regard intellectual property as being essentially comparable to any other form of property;

2) the Agencies do not presume that intellectual property creates market power in the antitrust context; and

3) the Agencies recognize that intellectual property licensing allows firms to combine complementary factors of production and is generally procompetitive.

It's not entirely clear to me that the rise in the number of patents is a good thing for economic growth. While predictability in law is in general a good thing, it may be the case that patent protections are too strong right now to the point where they stifle innovation more than they incentivize competition. The intuition is that this could lead companies to try to be the "first one through the gate" with a given technology so they can exclude competitors from using it or profit from any technology utilizing the sequence. The patenting of human genome sequences with no known use is a possible example of this.

Copyright law is another area with much debate about optimal protections. This has become particularly prominent as digital media becomes more popular and people are running into restrictions on how they can use their purchased digital content. For example, few people today would purchase a CD that can only be played in Sony CD players. Yet many digital music and eBook files are facing precisely this challenge. If I buy a physical copy of Freakonomics at the bookstore, I can read it and then resell it or lend it out to whomever I please. If I buy a copy of it on an Amazon Kindle, it is forever locked into my account with no ability to view it on another platform (such as an iPhone) or sell or lend it to another person. This could be particularly pernicious as copyright protections last much longer than patent protections.

I expect a combination of changes in the legal system and marketplace will combine to solve many of these challenging issues in the near future. Already, there is a big change in the music industry regarding the digital rights management and standardization of digital music formats. I expect to see similar changes in the area of eBooks. I will start taking intellectual property classes this fall and am excited to learn more about these areas.It will be fascinating to see how all of these challenges work themselves out in the near future. In the meantime, I fully agree with Kurzweil that the we can expect technology to only get better from here. The future truly is now.

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