Friday, September 04, 2009

Is technological progress slowing?

We have seen exponential progress in electronic, communication and storage technology during the last 60 years. As a result, computers and networks are now used by billions of people for a great number of applications. This "information revolution" has had an impact on our individual lives, organizations and society.

No doubt, computers and the Internet are a big deal, but Alfred Normann argues that they have not changed our lives as much as earlier inventions -- that he has not seen as much technological innovation as his parents and grandparents did. As we see in his illustration, shown below, a host of important inventions occurred during the 50 years between the Civil War and World War I and many others occurred during his grandmother's life. He feels that technological progress measured in terms of impact on our lives has slowed, not accelerated.

Ray kurzweil would disagree with Normann. He argues that accelerating improvement in information technology facilitates an accelerating accumulation of knowledge, which is leading rapidly toward an understanding of our own biology and intelligence. Kurzweil foresees radical medical breakthroughs, leading to the possibility of immortality, and machines that surpass human intelligence and continue to improve without us.

How does the impact of the Internet on individuals, organizations and society compare to the impact of inventions like the automobile, radio, television, antibiotics, electric lights, telephones, and nuclear weapons?

Will today's exploding knowledge of genetics and biology lead to a longer life for you and your children? Can you think of examples of things computers do today that would have been considered "intelligent" 50 years ago?