March 7, 2011

Key Trend: Exponential Growth of Technology

By Tom Mulally, March 7, 2011

The exponential growth of technology today is counter-intuitive to our human cognition. We are wired to think linearly. We intuit our world in equalized steps, progressing through daily challenges and solving problems in a linear time domain by moving in predictable steps from Point A, to Point B, and then to our ultimate destination at Point C. Large, complex projects typically progress linearly through the time constrained, well defined phases of Concept Design, Schematic Design, Production, and Implementation. This way of thinking and problem solving has worked for us throughout history.

However exponential technological growth breaks with this paradigm. The clock speed of change is accelerating faster than evolution has wired us to comprehend. We are accustomed to a simple 10-step process progressing in even measures of 1,2,3,4, eventually arriving at 10. However in an exponential growth curve, ten steps progress exponentially: 1,2,4,8,16,32,64, eventually arriving at 512 after ten steps. Extend this sequence out further, and by step thirty we are at over a billion.

This is the growth trajectory technology has followed since our earliest use of technology (sharpened stones) more than 1 million years ago. The rate of change was slow and even at first. We harnessed fire, improved our stone tools, then created and assembled deadly hunting devices 40,000 years ago. A sharp acceleration of change started with the introduction of the wheel, and especially writing approximately 5000 years ago. Technology has followed an increasingly sharp upward slope ever since.

In the past 500 years the curve entered the sharper upward slope. Mechanical computing devices were introduced approximately 150 years ago (Babbage’s Differential Engine design). A half-century later the U.S. census was processed by machines. Another fifty years to the first electronic computers. Since then Moore’s Law has been in effect with processing power doubling approximately every eighteen months. Moore's law follows a more linear trajectory; however within the context of over a million years of technological change it's a point on the exponential curve. What’s most exciting (or disturbing depending on your perspective) is that we are just now entering the part of the exponential growth curve that is steep and accelerated.

Increasingly accelerated exponential growth is further evident in how, in little more than a decade the world wide web has proliferated. Or how in a matter of few years since its introduction, web-based social networking has hundreds of millions of users. Or how in a matter of days a new iPhone app is being used productively by tens of thousands. This exponential growth and proliferation of technologies, services and knowledge contradicts our conventional, linear mode of thinking. It is imperative to get our heads around this paradigm shift and plan accordingly.