Why Is Tech Accelerating? We Use Already Powerful Tools to Build Even Better Ones

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No doubt you've heard of Moore's Law.

What you might not realize is that Moore's Law only refers to the exponential price-performance improvements of integrated circuits (over the last 50 years).

Did you know that exponential growth has been going on for a much longer period? Or that such growth is occurring in other fields outside of computing, such as communication and genomics?

Such exponential growth is actually described by "The Law of Accelerating Returns," a term coined by my friend and Singularity University Chancellor/Co-founder Ray Kurzweil.

This blog aims to explain the difference between Moore's Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns — an important distinction to understand for the exponentially minded.

What Is Moore's Law?

In 1965, Gordon Moore (a founder of Intel) published a paper observing that between 1958 and 1965, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit have been doubling roughly every 18 to 24 months. He projected this would continue for some time. This concept has held true for 50 years and is known as "Moore's Law."

To get a gut feeling of Moore's law, let's look at the physical evolution of the microchip. In 1958, a scientist at Texas Instruments developed the first-ever integrated circuit. It had two transistors (the more, the better) with a "gate process length" (the smaller, the better) of about ½ inch. This scientist would go on to win the Nobel Prize.

Now, fast forward 13 years.

In 1971, Intel came out with its first commercial product, a 4-bit CPU called the Intel 4004 integrated circuit. The 4004 had 2,300 transistors with a gate length of 10,000 nanometers, and computer power of about 740 KHz.

By this time, each transistor cost about $1, on average.

Now fast forward another 40 years…

In 2012, Nvidia released a new graphical processor unit (GPU) with 7.1 billion transistors, a gate length of 28 nanometers, and processing power of 7GHz.

The cost of a transistor: ~ $0.0000001

In just 40 years, the technology experienced a 100 billion-fold improvement, right on schedule for Moore's Law.

The Law of Accelerating Returns

But Moore's Law only describes the latest period (the 5th paradigm) of computational exponential growth.

As Ray Kurzweil described in his most excellent book, The Singularity Is Near, exponential growth in computation has existed for over a century, and has gone through five different paradigms of exponential growth:

  • 1st Paradigm: Electromechanical computers
  • 2nd Paradigm: Relay-based computers
  • 3rd Paradigm: Vacuum-tube based computers
  • 4th Paradigm: Transistor-based computers
  • 5th Paradigm: Integrated circuits (Moore’s Law)

Moore's Law (the 5th paradigm of computation) is therefore a subset of a much broader exponential principle described by Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns.


Graphic from The Singularity Is Near demonstrating "Law of Accelerating Returns" in the field of computation.

It's important to note that Ray recently mentioned to me that the sixth paradigm – three-dimensional computing — is already underway.

Why Is Technology Accelerating?

It is important to understand the underlying drivers for the Law of Accelerating Returns. Why is technology accelerating? As Ray references, "We won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate)".

Here's the basic reasoning:

  • Evolution (biological or technological) results in a better next-generation product. That product is thereby a more effective and capable method, and is used in developing the next stage of evolutionary progress. It’s a positive feedback loop.
  • Put differently, we are using faster tools to design and build faster tools.
  • In biological evolution, the more advanced life form (think cellular) is able to gather energy and reproduce more effectively, and therefore outperforms and out-evolves other life forms.
  • As a result, the rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially over time, and the “returns” such as speed, cost-effectiveness, or overall “power” also increase exponentially over time.
  • As a particular evolutionary process (e.g., computation) becomes more effective (e.g., cost effective), greater resources are then deployed toward furthering the progress of that process. This results in a second level of exponential growth (i.e., the rate of exponential growth itself grows exponentially).

Is Biology and Life Advancing Exponentially?

To paraphrase Kurzweil: The Law of Accelerating Returns also explains exponential advancement of life (biology) on this planet. Looking at biological evolution on Earth, the first step was the emergence of DNA, which provided a digital method to record the results of evolutionary experiments. Then, the evolution of cells, tissues, organs and a multitude of species that ultimately combined rational thought with an opposable appendage (i.e., the thumb) caused a fundamental paradigm shift from biology to technology. The first technological steps — sharp edges, fire, the wheel — took tens of thousands of years. For people living in this era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years.

By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required only a century or two. In the 19th century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first 20 years of the 20th century, we saw more advancement than in all of the 19th century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years' time. The World Wide Web did not exist in anything like its present form just a decade ago, and didn't exist at all two decades before that. As these exponential developments continue, we will begin to unlock unfathomably productive capabilities and begin to understand how to solve the world's most challenging problems. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive.

Image Credit: Steven Jurvetson/FlickrCC

Peter Diamandis

Dr. Peter Diamandis was recently named by Fortune Magazine as one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

He is the founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation which leads the world in designing and operating large-scale incentive competitions.

He is also the co-founder and executive chairman of Singularity University, a graduate-level Silicon Valley institution that counsels the world’s leaders on exponentially growing technologies.

Diamandis is also the co-founder and vice-chairman of Human Longevity Inc. (HLI), a genomics and cell therapy-based company focused on extending the healthy human lifespan.

In the field of commercial space, Diamandis is co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, a company designing spacecraft to enable the detection and prospecting of asteroids for fuels and precious materials.He is the also co-founder of Space Adventures and Zero Gravity Corporation.

Diamandis is a New York Times bestselling author of two books: Abundance – The Future Is Better Than You Think and BOLD – How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World.

He earned degrees in Molecular Genetics and Aerospace Engineering from MIT, and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.

His motto is, “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.”

Discussion — 4 Responses

  • Damianocon January 11, 2016 on 1:27 pm

    What is the effect if it is true that difficulty of the problems which need solving is also increasing exponentially.
    A possible example is video game image quality. It steadily improves, but does not seem to improve as fast as the chips. I mean that the overall subjective experience seems to only improve at a slow steady rate.

    • Matthew Damianocon January 24, 2016 on 11:12 am

      it is the nature of exponential growth to start at a slow steady rate. and if you were born in the 80s or 90s or even 2000s, you were (relatively) at the very beginning of this technology’s inception. 8 bit sprites Nintendo, then 16 bit systems like genesis and snes, were arguably worlds away from the next leap in realtime cgi technology: polygons. having a bfa in animation I have a bit of an understanding of the current technology. basically there is an industry revolving around polygons and they don’t want to upset the status quo with new imaging technology (kinda like oil vs more efficient energy alternatives now). luckily, (like fossil feuls becoming cleaner), polygons are still advancing at an exponential rate. I dunno if you have a ps4 but (a well designed game, like final fantasy XIV or XV) displays a rather noticeable difference between ps3 and ps2. someday when animation techonology is smarter and design is more automated that level of detail will be seen everywhere. and this is a gradual process that is already happening. you’re starting to see much more lifelike emotion in facial animation detail in Capcom’s resident evil games, in the tomb raider series (also animated by square enix), and practically many other places in the gaming industry.

      an analogy for this topic, which fits in perfectly is the “uncanny valley” effect. in robotics (much like animation) we began with very symbolic stylized depictions of characters that were immediately relateable, only because of our deep evolutionary instincts to recognize eyeballs, mouths, voices, motion, etc. but as that character becomes more and more human like in appearance, that high level of relateablity/empathy (on the left side of the valley), takes a major drop. suddenly (also because of deep and powerful evolutionary instincts), all those characteristics of life become defined as a human being. except, that human being doesn’t look normal. a common word people use to describe primitive robots or badly animated low polygon characters is “creepy.” and it’s the reason people loved SNES sprites so much, but then called ps one and ps2 games’ characters creepy. that reason is uncanney vally, because those were the first video game characters at the bottom of the valley. the creepiest possible. the stiffness in the lips/jaw (paralysis? stoke?), the twitchiness of the eyes (some nervous system/mental disorder?), how the hair looks fake (nutritional deficiency?), the stiffness of the limbs (paralysis? old age?) etc. while people only called it creepy, those were the deeper reasons why. millions of years of evolution programming us to find certain traits acceptable, and others unacceptable so that positive traits and hence life prevails.

      but anyway back on topic, we’re only a decade into the birth of polygons. and they are advancing exponentially. and just because you can see corners on the world map of Zelda/ff games still doesn’t mean it’ll always continue to be like that or even be like that for much longer. there are new technologies (like the unlimited detail rendering technology that is having trouble taking off business wise, but is capable of generating like millions of times more 3d detail with the same computing power), and ones yet to be invented, and polygons are still on that exponential growth trend anyway with new chips by NVidia as mentioned in this article. at a certain point. in both animation and robotics, we WILL come up the other end of that valley and achieve perfection. and characters will become 100% relatable again, but on a whole new level of awesomeness inconceivable right now.

      just check out what we can already do with robotics (imagine this paired with some of the best AI in the world. what would it even have to say to convince us of emotion? just look at the face without words or a brain. it already looks alive and conveys emotion. that is the power of our instincts):


  • Quantium January 12, 2016 on 2:55 am

    There are many people who seem to be concerned that some of the things suggested by science fiction haven’t appeared, the most famous of which seems to be the personal aeroplane, or “flying car”. Improvements in health technology have certainly occurred, but nothing like as fast as electronics. For another example, there is still no way to cure or vaccinate against many chest infections (colds, flu).

    This may partly be due to the fact that if a personal computer crashes it is unlikely to kill anyone, but if a failed vaccine or medicine certainly can kill people, and therefore greater regulation is required as of necessity. However regulatory processes have little changed over the centuries, and the slower and more inefficient they are, the more those working in regulation can earn.

    The best world changing event would be if someone could invent some method of regulation where this damaging feedback loop does not exist. I suppose it doesn’t exists in a dictatorship, but “absolute power corrupts absolutely” therefore this is not the answer either.

    • Sine Arrow Quantium January 16, 2016 on 9:37 pm

      “The best world changing event would be if someone could invent some method of regulation where this damaging feedback loop does not exist.”

      The negative feedback you describe is inherent in the agency cost (the cost each agent of an organization imposes by spending a portion of his effort and power for his own ends, instead of those of the organization) of social hierarchies, including regulatory hierarchies. This means that to obviate those particular agency costs you must substitute freedom of action for regulated action. That, of course has its own costs. In general, freedom of action within communicating networks produces far better results, both in terms of lives saved and abilities enhanced, than does coercive regulations. It does, however, require acceptance of the reality that we live in a mostly noncalculable universe, and many find the fantasy of a beneficient hierarch more comfortable.