Abundance and Exponential Growth

I am reading a book entitled Abundance.    Here is a synopsis of the book –

“We will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp. This bold, contrarian view, backed up by exhaustive research, introduces our near-term future, where exponentially growing technologies and three other powerful forces are conspiring to better the lives of billions. An antidote to pessimism by tech entrepreneur turned philanthropist, Peter H. Diamandis and award-winning science writer Steven Kotler.”

This is clearly a vision worth understanding.

And it is a vision supported by many different elements of our technologically based society.

But the foundational argument for the book is that technology and the progress it brings is essentially growing at exponential rates.  This compounding is manifest in many areas –

  • computing power grows along with Moore’s law so that every 18 months or so computers get 2x as fast or capable and you pay the same price
  • disk drive storage expands at rates also aligned with Moore’s law
  • shipped fiber optic bandwidth has been expanding at a rate of 10x every 5 years for more than 25 years

There are many more examples.

Similar facts helped NASA in the early 1950s feel it was possible to land a man on the moon in ~15 years even though no human had ever left the earth beyond flying in an airplane!

Perhaps the leading futurist today is Ray Kurzweil.  He published a series of books that have proven uncannily accurate – The Age of Intelligent Machines, The Age of Spiritual Machines, The Singularity is Near.

Clearly if you look around you there have been inventions or products introduced in each of the last 4 decades that never existed and before the end of the decade they were pervasively owned by many people throughout the first world – microwave ovens, VCRs, CD players, DVD movies, Video Games, Internet, Google, FaceBook.

Clearly some things that looked impossible in the past now are possible due to exponential growth in technology.

But …

Such growth does not apply everywhere.  It was predicted in the early 1960s that you would be soon flying on supersonic aircraft for intercontinental travel.  However as Boeing has introduced the 707, 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and now the 787.  The speed of the aircraft has not increased exponentially as earlier predicted or hoped.  In general it has not grown at all.  Why?  Because it was not practical to operate aircraft at such speeds economically.

Are there other such examples that are today not generally recognized?  Sure!

Optical fiber cable today carries about 1 Tb/s typically using individual channels of 10 or 40 Gb/s and then using multiple wavelengths or different colors of light on the same fiber.  But it is not clear at all that the growth of the last 25 years can be sustained.  Why?  Because optical fiber has bandwidth that is limited by Shannon’s law and other electrical and optical physics.  And in that technology and physics we are reaching the limits of what is possible.  So the growth will slow now over the next decade.  There can still be an enriching of the technology platform and clearly many more fibers can be put into a cable but the actual information carried on a single fiber is reaching its limit just at the amount of information carried on copper wires reached its limit about 20 years ago as modem technology matured.

Other examples are around as well –

  • automobiles are essentially the same as there were in the 1940s: same top speed, same basic construction
  • shipping is essentially the same
  • building size and construction technology has not changed much: we have today only slightly taller buildings than the empire state building where the design was complete and construction started in 1930!

Just to name a few.

It is easy to get caught up in this fervor but in reality exponential expansion in capability never lasts very long before running into limitations imposed by physics or economics.

So be careful when you read how these trends of the past 20 – 40 years are going to solve the problems of the next 40.


Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Investing, Optical Technology, Spiritual Threads

  1. Ian Moss says:

    Anyone who’s read Diamindis and Kotler’s Abundance or Kerzwell should also read WWF co-founder Bjiorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist

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