Exponential technologies – What are they and what is the end game

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Change Is Fast

Change is taking place everywhere. One prime example of change is digitization. The world around us is turning digital like never seen before. There is something unique about digitization- things tend to grow exponentially. Remember, all of this is happening at an incredible rate.

We all know how to count the numbers. Let’s repeat the drill once over. Shall we?

We begin with 1. To realize the pace of change, let’s double up 1. It gives us a simple two. Now that is not a big change. Indeed!

Now, the twice of 2 is 4; 4 is 8; 8 is 16; 16 is 32 and so on. There is a change, but the speed of this change is not mind-boggling. We can safely assume that the development is at its nascent stage.

But what will happen if we keep on with the process of increasing the numbers by the way of adding them over and over again?

Let us see for ourselves. Continuing with the previous number pattern, we get 1,…,32, 64, 128, 256, 1024…

Now here, in a span of 10 steps, we reach the milestone of a thousandth. How much would be the gain if we extend it to 20 steps? Over a million. Interesting isn’t it!

And what if we stretch our process till the 30th step? Over a billion. Now, this is where the rate of change becomes extremely fascinating.

Now that is where you see the entire game changing in front of you. That is what we call the Exponential Rate Of Change.

Linear Growth vs. Exponential Growth

Exponential technologies

Linear growth is represented by the green line, whereas the blue curve represents exponential growth.

There is hardly anything around us, physical or living, that is not affected by the change. There is no denying that not all things have the same rate of change, but one cannot deny its impact, nevertheless. To observe an exponential increase, we have several examples like the number of smartphone users, the number of computer systems, the change in speed and computational ability of such electronic devices, etc.

On the other hand, the cost of generating sustainable energy; genome sequencing; man’s endeavor to explore Mars; researching the diversity of life on Earth. These are some prime examples reflecting an exponential decrease of something.

Technology has revolutionized everything about our lives. From what we think to how we dress; nothing is untouched from the influence of technological progress. Sure, there can be several arguments of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ of such progress. But hey, analysis and critique are the bedrocks of any development.

Seeing this, there are 2 questions which arise in my mind:

  • Can we characterize the factors of exponential growth by way of technology?
  • Can the exponential growth in technology make us achieve infinite progress?

Computing power

This graph shows the growth in the computational capabilities of supercomputers from the year 1993 to 2017.

In computing, floating point operations per second (FLOPS, flops or flop/s) is a measure of computer performance

The CDC 6600 is regarded as the first supercomputer. It was released in September of 1964. In June of 2018, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy announced the top speeds of its Summit supercomputing machine at 200 petaflops or 200,000 teraflops.

Genome DNA Sequencing

Genome Sequencing is understood as the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s genome at a single time. This entails sequencing all of an organism’s chromosomal DNA as well as DNA contained in the mitochondria and, for plants, in the chloroplast. Technological advancements over the past two decades have led to substantial reductions in the cost of genome sequencing. This has an overwhelming significance not only in the world of science but also in our everyday lives. This process has a revolutionary influence on scientific advancement and healthcare technology.

The following graph represents the number of human genome base pairs sequenced per US$ in the period of 2001-2015.

Back in 2001, you could sequence 189 genome bases for 1 USD. Whereas, in 2015, the numbers increased to 33.32 million sequencings.

This graph has only seen an upward trend in the years following 2015. For the year 2019, the cost of sequencing a full human genome was estimated to be USD 1000$. Mind you, the total length of the human genome is over 3 billion base pairs.

Exponential Growth In Technology

There have been a number of different fields in the technology sectors that have benefited multiple folds out of the advancement in science and tech. These are responsible for reshaping the entire realm of scientific development, human calibre and shaping up of our future. Following is  list of some of these fields of technological development which are an example of exponential growth.

Computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Data Science

A computer system was conceived for the purpose of solving a critical number-crunching crisis. From punch-card based computers which occupied an entire room to today’s pocket version of computers, i.e., smartphones,  we have come a long way in building our comparable capabilities.[1]

Artificial Intelligence and Deep Science have been credited for revolutionizing the learning and creation of algorithms necessary to achieve greater performance and efficiency.  Such developments have led to the birth of technologies such as cloud computing, facial recognition, chip technology, among several others[2]

  10 Must know facts on AI

Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR)

AR and VR technologies have witnessed acceleration at an unprecedented rate. The impact of this can already be seen in the way sectors such as education, healthcare, real estate, manufacturing, etc. have transformed.[3]

Companies are designing software which use AR technology to provide an engaging user communication experience. The exponential rise in the platforms and users of social media is a great example of this.[4]

Digital Biology, Biotechnology and Medicine

As we discussed earlier, the best-known example of digital biology is the genome editing program. Genome sequencing or genome editing is like the construction of computer code. The ‘debugging’ of DNA source code is vital in adjusting and eliminating diseases.[5]

Healthcare industry has leveraged immensely from the rapid growth in the fields of biotechnology and medicine. This has allowed diseases and epidemics to be tracked in real-time on a micro level. This is highly instrumental in furthering human safety.[6]

Nanotechnology, Digital Fabrication and 3D Printing

Nanotechnology is credited with generating a new industrial revolution, progressing from passive nanostructures to productive nano systems. It has positively impacted areas such as ophthalmology, dentistry, clinical and translational research, sustainable delivery systems, etc.[7]

The 3D printing market has grown from USD 2.5 Billion by the end of 2013 to USD 17.5 Billion in 2020.

The exponential growth in the 3D printer technology has enabled us to create very complex structures of mixed materials and print almost anything, from jet engines to jewelry to houses and even medical prosthetics. 3D printing transforms the entire manufacturing process.[8]

Robotics and Autonomous Vehicles

Robots are designed to operate autonomously, operate in all kinds of terrain, walk on two legs, swim through the water, and even fly through the air. At present, a robot can do human tasks if it is presumed to be either dull, dangerous or dirty. In the near future, robots are going to have a massive influence on key areas of our life. They will be commanding those professions where accuracy and patience are key.[9]

The rise of autonomous vehicles is a classic example of the “knee of the curve,” where the exponential goes from doubling small numbers to produce more small numbers, to doubling more substantial numbers that quickly become huge.[10]

Food and Agricultural Technology

We are moving from land farming to vertical and rooftop farming. The use of 3D printing and modular farm systems are examples of how the phenomenal changes occurring in this sector.

In the case of agricultural technology, the use of data, sensors, IoT, cloud computing; biotechnology, nanotechnology and synthetic technology, etc. are being employed. Such and several other innovations and trends are being worked to combine in some form to disrupt the current unsustainable industrial food system.[11]

Alternative and Sustainable Energy

The transition from the exploitation of finite resources to renewable energy is regarded as almost exponential in nature.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in the next five years, generation capacity from renewable sources will grow by 43%, equivalent to half of what is currently produced by coal, which, on the other hand, took 80 years to be built.

The digitization and the advancement of solutions for energy efficiency is on the path of gaining more and more significance, bringing together various industrial sectors and becoming enabling factors of the circular economy.[12]

Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain Technology

Blockchain technology, in particular the cryptocurrency, has been a disruptive force in the industry.[13]

The development of blockchain’s distributed ledger system, the action of reconciling, along with many other processes categorized as “post-trade”, has been rendered largely redundant. Further, the explosion of innovation in the blockchain industry will result in growth from “hundreds of companies” today to “thousands, tens of thousands of applications” extending to “every possible different type of transaction”.[14]

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