Accelerating Change 2004 :: Physical Space, Virtual Space, and Interface
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What is Accelerating Change?

In both universal and human history, there are a special subset of physical events (e.g., Carl Sagan's Cosmic Calendar at the universal scale, Gordon Moore's Law of IC Transistor Density at the human scale) that have continually increased both their speed and efficiency of change. Continually accelerating systems are able to accomplish more with fewer resources; as a result, they avoid normal limits to exponential growth. Over the 20th century, several areas of computational and technological capacity have continuously accelerated, even independent of economic recession, driven primarily by powerful new physical and economic efficiencies discovered by physicists and engineers working at small scales. Even more interestingly, looking ahead we can see no near-term limit to several of these accelerating physical and technological efficiencies of the microcosm.

A combination of scientific discovery and human innovation have continually removed temporary barriers to this accelerating computational and technological advance. In the mid-1990's, the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) consortium noted that depositing metal on silicon for integrated circuit production would run into a miniaturization block circa 2005. Then in 2001, a University of Massachusetts team learned how to deposit metal as a supercritical fluid, rather than as a gas or liquid, sidestepping the roadblock. In 2003, Intel's Andy Grove noted that gate leakage current has become a significant problem in the miniaturization of gallium arsenide semiconductors. Meanwhile, Lucent researchers discovered that hafnium arsenide exhibits 1,000 times less leakage, making it one of several contenders expected to keep Moore's Law healthy for many years hence.

Even when we consider what has been called an approaching "Moore's Law limit" (circa 2015) to chip miniaturization, when gate sizes are so small that electrons can no longer be kept from spontaneously "quantum tunnelling" between neighboring circuits, we realize this will simply move us into an era of system miniaturization, rather than circuit miniaturization. This latter process is already well under way (e.g., systems-on-a-chip: cellphone-on-a-chip, GPS-on-a-chip, etc.). In other words, as future chips become minimum-sized and fully reconfigurable commodities, development of massively modular (both highly parallelized and differentiated) computing systems (e.g., Danny Hillis and his Connection Machine) will become economically feasible. Today's modestly-parallel computer architectures (e.g., graphics render farms, distributed computing, and early grid computing) portend tomorrow's massively-parallel, irreducibly complex, and biologically-inspired platforms. Such "horizontal acceleration" must remain subdued until the exponential economies realized through today's "vertical (miniaturization) acceleration" reach at least a temporary plateau.

We live in a world where fat-fingered 21st century humans have learned such miracles as the creation of multi-million mirror MEMS devices (i.e., optical waveguides), to teleport light, and to run quantum computing algorithms on a single atom of calcium. How long can this continue? Will we continue to make astounding hardware discoveries in the microcosm? (Note, for example, this 2004 optoelectronics advance that provides a millionfold greater conversion efficiencies than previous solutions).

Rolf Landauer and others note that there is no minimum physical energy of computation. We are beginning to see, and may eventually utilize physical structure as far down as the Planck scale, the minimum dimensions of space and time as revealed in modern physical theory. Seth Lloyd has estimated that the "ultimate laptop" has black hole-level energy densities. Today's Pentium chips already have several orders of magnitude greater energy densities than any living system on Earth.

We have entered an era of continual surprise. Many serious observers now expect the capacities and intelligence of our information, sensing, storage, and communications technologies to continue their stunning rate of progress for as far as we can see into this new century. This profound growth in computational capacity will predictably enable a host of new products and services that are presently impossible. If Moore's Law, for example, continues to double approximately every 18 months for microprocessors, then continuing this process another 15 years will yield another 1,000X greater technological capacity. What new emergences will this enable? Even more surprisingly, in a special subset of areas (such as graphics processors), computational capacity doubling has been progressing even faster than every 18 months, for at least eight years.

Which coming applications, enabled by accelerating change, have the greatest strategic importance? Which will be the most useful and enduring, and why? How can we best promote their balanced development?

Understanding accelerating change requires a new way of thinking. Gaining foresight with regard to the meaning, implications, risks, and opportunities of accelerating technological change has become both our greatest lever for moving the world and our most fundamental educational priority. Join us as together we improve our collective insight in Accelerating Change at Stanford each year.

[For more, see "Understanding the Accelerating Rate of Change," Ray Kurzweil and Chris Meyer, 2003.]

Key Questions
What is accelerating change?
Why is accelerating change important?
What are the historical drivers of accelerating change?
What is the "technological singularity"?
Where will accelerating change take us in the 21st century?
What are our major benefits and risks with regard to accelerating change?

Analysis • Forecasting • Action

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