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Why technology accelerates

By , 15 Jan 2013

Technology has certainly been grabbing the headlines in recent years. Smartphones, search engines, social networking - there seems to be a flood of new innovations and it's having a big impact on the way we live our lives.

Is this a temporary phenomenon? Perhaps we've seen a big surge recently and things will start to quieten down again soon? But on the contrary, despite the economic downturn, technological progress doesn't seem to have missed a beat. There are more and more new developments coming to market, more startups, more people designing, building and using new devices and systems with every year that passes.

Technological development is getting ever faster, and there's no sign of it slowing down any time soon.

This is not a temporary phenomenon

The first thing to understand is that what we are seeing is just the latest in a very long history of technological development. Inventing things is what humans do. Here are some of humanity's most significant inventions:

Date Invention
2,000,000 BC Stone tools
400,000 BC Use of fire
10,000 BC Agriculture
5,000 BC Metalworking
4,000 BC Writing
3,000 BC Cities
3,000 BC The wheel
1440 Printing
1765 Steam engines
1800 Electricity
1879 The light bulb
1885 Cars
1888 Cameras
1903 Aeroplanes
1926 Television
1928 Penicillin
1944 Computers
1961 Space travel
1975 Digital cameras
1979 Mobile phones
1981 Personal computers
1983 The internet
1983 Laptops
2000 Smartphones
2002 Tablet computers

There are other inventions I could have included, and everyone will have their own personal favourites. That's not the point. The point is when these things were invented, and crucially, how many more inventions there are in recent years. If you counted the total number of inventions per year, you'd see that this number increased steadily from fewer than one per year in the Stone Age to millions per year now. If you plotted this data as a graph, it would be an exponential curve.

In fact, here is a graph showing the number of United States patent applications per year for the past 170 years:

As you can see, technology has been accelerating for a very long time, probably since the dawn of history or even earlier. We've just started noticing it a lot more recently. That's because in previous ages, change happened slowly. Now it happens before our very eyes.

Why progress gets faster

OK, so change happens faster. But why? The answer is simple. Improvements in machines, or processes, or ways of working make it easier to make more improvements.

How difficult was it for the Wright brothers to build the first powered aircraft back in 1903? How much easier would it be to do that now, with the benefits of computer-aided design software, advanced materials, the ability to source components from around the world and access to crowd-sourced funding via the internet?

How much easier would it have been for William Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade with the benefits of modern democratic government, social media, and 24 hour news reporting?

Advances in one area of human activity enable more rapid advancements in other areas to be made, and so the overall rate of technological, social and cultural change keeps on getting faster.

Some inventions aren't even possible until a previous invention is in place. We couldn't invent computers before inventing electricity. We couldn't invent text messaging before inventing mobile phones.

Where will it end?

There is no reason for this process to end. Only a global catastrophe could stop technological change from continuing to advance at an ever faster rate. In the past, even global crises like the Black Death or the First and Second World Wars had at best temporary effects.

It's hard for us to imagine technological progress without end. We're used to seeing the world change gradually, or in fairly short bursts of activity. We're conditioned to think that the recent rapid pace of invention - mobile phones, the internet, decoding the human genome - is sure to come to an end soon. Yet the evidence tells us that the opposite is true.

In the coming decades, rapid progress is likely in the fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Developments in each of these fields is poised to shake up our world. Combine them all and the effects are certain to be enormous.

The Technological Singularity

Some writers have suggested that accelerating progress will lead to a Singularity. To understand what this is, think of how long it takes for the next "big thing" to come along. I'm talking about inventions like mp3 players, voice recognition, HD television, Twitter. In the past decade we've seen perhaps one or two of these things arrive every year. What happens when something big happens every month? Every week? Every day?

When technology changes at that speed, what will our world look like? It's hard to imagine, and that's the point. That's why it's called the Singularity. It's a time when literally anything might become possible.

Some people think that it'll be here by the middle of the 21st century. If that's true, you'd better strap yourself in tight and get ready for the ride!

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Comment by Charles from England on 17th Dec 2013
The transistor is up there with the wheel. Imagine living without anything electronic (worth having).

I think progress might slow down when oil runs out or becomes prohibitively expensive. If we can master cold fusion though the sky is the limit

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