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The future of the future

The first 10 years of this century will yield a 20th century's worth of tech innovation, goes the theory--but CNET's Michael Kanellos isn't so sure.

Which will have a greater impact on the history of humanity--Friendster or penicillin?

I bring it up because I've been hearing more references lately to Kurzweil's Law, otherwise known as the Law of Accelerating Returns. Coined by futurist Ray Kurzweil, the theory states that building on past accomplishments, the pace of technological change doubles every decade--leading to a Moore's Law vision of progress.

"Early stages of technology--the wheel, fire, stone tools--took tens of thousands of years to evolve and be widely deployed. A thousand years ago, a paradigm shift such as the printing press took on the order of a century to be widely deployed. Today, major paradigm shifts, such as cell phones and the World Wide Web, were widely adopted in only a few years time," Kurzweil wrote in the original essay outlining the theory.

"In the 19th century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first twenty years of the 20th century, we saw more advancement than in all of the 19th century," he added.

The first 10 years of the present century will yield a 20th century's worth of accomplishments.

Venture capitalists love this kind of thinking, because it implies that something huge is just about to emerge. Meanwhile, futurists at the TED conference and other future-technology events have predicted massive sociological impacts for emerging ideas such as blogging, utility computing and RFID.

The theory, though, may need some fine-tuning. At this rate, the first 10 years of the present century will yield a 20th century's worth of accomplishments, with each year contributing a decade of achievements. (The ratio may be higher, but my abacus keeps sticking.)

The social networking site Friendster debuted in 2002. Penicillin was invented in 1928. The 1920s also saw the debut of rockets with liquid fuel, television, the robot and the Pez dispenser.

Even the first 10 years of the 1900s--which saw the Zeppelin, the tea bag, neon lights, the Theory of Relativity, the tractor, the safety razor, air-conditioning, sonar, cellophane and instant coffee--seemed blazingly revolutionary when compared to 2000, which saw advent of the 1GHz processor and the Audrey, an Internet appliance that could be cleaned with a sponge. Sure, most people had just gotten laid off from a bunch of Internet start-ups, so quite a lot of time was spent sending out resumes, but the record still seems woeful.

Pyramid schemes
According to Kurzweil, the pace will only get more torrid. The current century is slated to produce the technological achievements of the preceding 200 centuries--or everything since the dawn of the Pharaohs, plus 16,000 years.

We're almost at the end of February 2005, people, and we don't have a lot to show for it. By the first two years of the 1950s, inventors had already come up with the credit card, superglue and power steering--and the bar code and Mr. Potato Head were just around the corner.

Kurzweil's theory actually founders due to what I to think of as Kanellos' Law, which is: The past often sounds more primitive than it was because you weren't around for it. Every culture likes to think of itself at the vanguard of civilization. Those cave dwellers would have progressed more rapidly if one of them had just had the foresight to say, "Better, cheaper, faster--that's what we need to think about when we look at a piece of obsidian."

Similarly, past accomplishments often look easy in hindsight. The bra (1913) and frozen food (1923) seem like the kind of things that could be knocked out over a weekend.

In reality, progress undulates. When the Romans erected the Arch of Constantine in A.D. 315, they had to decorate it with carvings stolen from other monuments, because sculptors had declined in ability. The Mayans created extensive astronomical charts and even devised a complex mathematical system based around the number 20, according to Yale University anthropology professor Michael Coe. Soon after, the civilization collapsed.

The past often sounds more primitive than it was because you weren't around for it.

The pace at which a society adjusts to technological change also varies over time. The futurists may be right--technology may actually be accelerating--but the impact isn't nearly as strong. My grandmother, who saw the arrival of smallpox vaccinations, refrigerators and airplanes, can even so recall villagers draping their homes in wet towels on the roof as a precaution against Halley's Comet.

In my lifespan, technology seems to have mostly fine-tuned preexisting inventions (CDs for cassettes, and so on). Two big earth-shattering changes have emerged because of technology--the Internet and global warming--but one was unintentional. No one commutes to the moon or rides a hydrofoil.

Progress no doubt continues, but it's not like we're reinventing the wheel.