Accelerating Change 2005. September 16-18, Stanford University. Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Amplification. Transforming Technology, Empowering Humanity
 
 

Why is Accelerating Change Important?

Several scholars, such as Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute, have observed that accelerating and diversifying social interaction is a prime way to create economic value in modern society.

In the late 19th century, the railroads transformed and greatly accelerated U.S. society. When the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869, transcontinental travel time was reduced from six months to six days, both culturally accelerating and unifying our nation. By 1903, a handful of railroad companies had become the largest, most capitalized firms in the U.S., U.K., and Japan.

In the 1910's, the assembly line compressed Model T production time from several days to 90 minutes, catalyzing many domains of industrial production and social interaction. Ford's automobiles greatly accelerated human social interaction, highway and city development. Acceleration can also have major unintended consequences as well. In the 1920's Ford tractors, high-yield hybrid seeds, and new fertilizers greatly improved U.S. productivity in the farming industry. Yet these major technological advances also created a massive unanticipated price deflation at home that motivated the American farm lobby, with unwitting politicians, to initiate a global tariff war, led by Herbert Hoover with Smoot-Hawley in June 1930. The coincidence of worldwide trade elimination with the bursting of the speculative bubble in 1929 caused, according to several economists, the "perfect storm" of the Great Depression. Yet even in that severe economic climate, by 1937 the auto company General Motors had become the world's largest industrial corporation.

Today, we have entered the era of the multinational corporation, the networked society, and the beginnings of an intelligent digital economy. Telecommunication and computer companies are among our largest corporations, and the supply chain management and solutions companies that our global IT infrastructure supports have enabled networked corporations to become the current leading planetary drivers of change.

In 2003, seventy six of the the top 100 revenue-producing entities on the planet were corporations, and only twenty four were governments. The governmental fraction is declining, as governments are comparably less effective both at gaining new "customers" and at employing technology to build revenue in our globalized, newly networked environment.

Yet due to accelerating effectiveness of small actors in a networked society not only corporations, but wealthy individuals, nongovernmental organizations, and even the increasingly empowered masses have gained broad new financial power. As of 2003, remittances to Latin America (due primarily to extensive undocumented immigration from Mexico into the U.S.) exceeded both government aid and foreign direct investment combined. In the same manner but to a lesser degree at present, an increasing number of guest worker visa programs for African emigrants, primarily to Europe, are having an increasingly important effect on African development. It is quite possible that this pluralized and distributed new network power, when defined in total revenue flows, will increasingly counterbalance the financial power of large economic actors.

Appropriate to the new network-centric era we find Wal-Mart has taken the top position of the Fortune 500. Wal-Mart is a company whose business model requires creating pennies of greater value per transaction than its competitors, and passing on that value as rapidly as possible to the largest number of suppliers, manufacturers, and consumers that can be aggregated within the network. Companies with superior network infrastructures (Google, Amazon, eBay, Dell, the University of Phoenix) are quickly overtaking traditional competitors. Acceleration of network capacity continues unchecked, periodically delivering new value to human society in a process of permanent phase change, paradigm shift, or "punctuation."

What great economic and social opportunities (e.g., ubiquitous sensing, wired and wireless communication, simulation, social software, new media, the conversational user interface, persuasive computing, digital identity) are being enabled today due to accelerating technological change? Which are still too soon to emerge? What types of acceleration are we confident must continue, and which are regulated by near-term business strategy and market choice? What great political, legal and social forces are mediating technological innovation and network collaboration?

Such questions are among the most interesting and important of the coming decades. As Everett Rogers notes, today's technology innovation, diffusion, assessment, and policy (IDAP) processes offer many uncertain evolutionary pathways, yet also impact us in grand and unstoppable waves of developmental destination. In such cases we either recognize and rapidly adapt to the new realities or we are caught unaware and unprepared.

The early 20th century's Industrial Society soon became the late 20th century's Information Society, which is now becoming the early 21st century's globalized Network Society. American executives and technical workers will either remain leaders, managers, employers, and partners of the world's rapidly developing technological workforce, or we will become subject to some other country's more efficient and productive infrastructure.

Pierre Wack and Roger Rainbow at Shell's Scenario Planning Group would say that technological and economic globalization is an internet-driven TINA trend: 'There Is No Alternative.' Are our present U.S. political, educational, and social systems ready to recognize that the world has yet again changed?

As technology roadmapping expert Richard Albright explains (see "What Can Past Technology Forecasts Tell Us About the Future?," TF&SC, 2002), various forms of technological capacity growth have been uniquely predictable for at least half century. If the developmental record of 20th century computing continues for only another thirty years, we must rapidly and permanently move to a very different world. How do we best prepare to enter that world? How do we best define, benchmark and measure accelerating change? Which accelerating developments are highly probable? Which others are a matter of personal, institutional, and cultural choice?

As we look beyond today's Network Society, today's futurists can forsee a simulation- and interface-enabled Symbiosis Society that must be even further tuned for accelerating change in the decades ahead. Some predict an era, post 2020, where simulation-enhanced and "hyperreal" versions of increasing numbers of human activities in our emerging virtual and inexpensive "fastspace" of online worlds will become socially and economically preferred to our present activities in today's real and expensive "slowspace."

We can also forsee an era (circa 2020?) of semi-intelligent, conversational computers ("conversational user interfaces") that increasingly educate us and mediate our use of all complex technology. We can expect that our personal conversation-capable avatars ("digital twins") will begin to model our preferences, goals, and values, conduct business for us, and even coach us, reminding us of our past performance and declared goals.

There will be tremendous new opportunities to use these new systems as natural, symbiotic extensions of ourselves. There will be other possibilities, at least at first, to use them unethically, in ways that increase social disparity, to develop new addictions, and to view them as threats to our independence. How do we ensure that our interactions with our increasingly intelligent systems educate us to be more empowered human beings even when we are not connected to them? As our technology landscape continually changes, we'll have the ability to create real solutions to longstanding and presently insoluable human problems. We must do our very best to ensure these solutions don't create worse problems of their own, and minimize disruption, particularly in their first generation implementation.

Imagine the inevitable day when your avatar will be able to complete your sentence for you when you are having a senior moment. Many of us will welcome such abilities, as long as our avatars are also coaching us to be more independent and capable when operating without them, so that we are noticeably more self-actualized than our parents were at age-equivalent periods of their lives.

Certainly there will be many difficulties, problems, and dangers ahead. Foresighted change often begins with caring (advocacy) then counting (metrics), then generating a broad and balanced consensus for acting (policy) on the issues in question.

We believe that foresight and dialog in using and directing accelerating change has become our prime political, economic, social, and personal priority. Accelerating Change is a community exploring accelerating domains of science and technology, and their implications for the near and longer term future of business and society.

We hope you consider our community worthy of your energy, insight, and support, and we'd love you to join us in Palo Alto as we investigate some of the most fascinating and important issues of the modern era.

Key Questions
How does computation affect our environment?
What is accelerating technological change?
Why is accelerating change important?
What is the universal story of accelerating change?
What is the "technological singularity" hypothesis?
Where might accelerating change take us in the 21st century?
What are our main benefits and risks with regard to accelerating change?
How do we improve the study of accelerating change?

 

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