Accelerating Change (Law of Accelerating Returns)

The American technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil has proposed that technological change does not occur at a predictably linear rate. Instead, technological changes build and feed upon each other in a way that enables the rate of change itself to increase over time: to accelerate. The pace of technological change and progress increases exponentially as technology advances. This is related to something called ‘Moore’s Law,’ a prediction about the exponential increase in the number of transistors in an integrated circuit over time. This claim about the explosive increase in processing power—that the density of circuit boards would effectively double every two years, with the gains compounding exponentially—has mostly proven true so far, although it may run into insurmountable obstacles in the coming decades.

Kurzweil’s hypothesis extends far beyond computer circuitry, applying to advances in virtually all technologies, know and unknown. In fact, he borrows the logic from biological evolution, where evolutionary ‘gains’ are constantly built upon, resulting in positive feedback loops that drive evolutionary progress. Over time, evolutionary change progresses at an exponential rather than linear rate. Even the rate of exponential growth itself grows exponentially. Kurzweil argues that all technological progress operates according to the same logic.

Based on his observations of the history of human technology, Kurzweil posits that the rate of technological change doubles every ten years (and that number itself could easily shrink in time, the exponential growth curve itself growing at an accelerating rate). When it comes to concrete, material predictions about what a future shaped by this exponentially accelerating growth in technology might look like, Kurzweil believes that computer processing will be able to inexpensively replicate not just the computing power of a human brain but the power of all human brains within a few decades from now.

This will permit everything from reverse engineering individual brains (and downloading minds) to granting humans immortality. Ultimately this leads to what Kurzweil calls ‘The Singularity’—a future in which technological change happens so rapidly that it fundamentally reshapes humanity itself by merging human and non-human intelligence, creating immortal (and possibly software based) human beings, and the emergence of unimaginably high levels of intelligence capable of spreading throughout the solar system and the wider universe