Building. It’s a word usually used interchangeably with the word “structure.” But the more I think about the word, the more some interesting ideas start to occur to me.
Why would we call a structure a building? I remembered the cathedrals and castles of the past; many of them would take generations to complete. Imagine working on something and knowing that it wasn’t going to get finished within your lifetime, maybe not even during your children’s lifetime, who will also spend their lives on it.
Organization to that scale and with that amount of continuity just doesn’t exist today.
THE SPEED OF TECHNOLOGY
Within microchip design there’s something called Moore’s Law, which basically states that processor capacity will double every year. Gordon Moore espoused that theory in 1975. So far, he’s been right.
INTRO TO COMBINATORIAL MATHEMATICS
There’s a story about a Mathematician who came to the King when the King had a problem. The Mathematician said, “I can solve your problem, but in payment I would like one grain of wheat, and double that grain once for each square of the chess board.”
The King agreed.
A chess board has 64 squares. The number of grains of wheat can be expressed as 2^63. That’s 2x2x2… 64 times. And, to save you time, 2^63 = 9,223,372,000,000,000,000. That’s 9.2 quintillion, or a billion billions.
The story continues and that Mathematician became King because he now owned everything.
Moore’s Law has been working since 1975, that’s 46 years. That’s 2^46. And Moore based his “law” on progress that he’d seen in his industry, meaning, it didn’t start in 1975.
THE FUZZY FUTURE
For a while computer scientists thought that the key to artificial intelligence lay in a kind of math called “fuzzy logic”. The oversimplified version of this is that things don’t have to be exactly right. They can be close to right; they can be approximately right.
The reason people used to be able to think in generations was because society wasn’t going to change much in the next century or two. That’s not the case today. Here’s some points of reference:
1. 100 years ago: electricity was a rare thing; most people didn’t have phones; most people rode horses and had never seen a car;
2. 114 years ago, two men flew the first airplane in the united states; most people used kerosine lamps; humans still only theorized what outer space was like; the only kinds of rockets used gun powder;
3. 115 years ago, Einstein first announced his theory of General Relativity; most people had never heard nor owned a radio, except maybe at a fair; and movie theaters had to have a piano player for the audience to hear anything.
4. 10 years ago: the iPhone hadn’t been released; the commercially purchasable hard drive was measured in gigabytes; the biggest portable music player held 20 gigs of music; there was no iPad; the first Blu-ray players were being shipped.
5. Today: I have a portable super-computer that runs on a battery and uses Einstein’s theory of relativity to give me driving directions; 20 miles from me there’s a remote-controlled robot that does surgery on people; 50 miles from me there’re people driving an RC car on Mars; 5 miles from me there’s a dealership of cars that drive themselves; 50 miles from me there’s a factory for rockets that fly themselves to space, and then land again, on a platform in the ocean; I write this essay and post it to a series of connected computers, some of which can translate it into any/every language currently spoken by humans; and my wife can stream movies in real-time to my portable super-computer while I drive us faster than any train from 150 years ago.
The Singularity is an idea originally invented by the brilliant Speculative Fiction writer and former university professor, Vernor Vinge. The Singularity is a time after which it will be impossible to express the present to uninitiated people of the past.
The logic goes like this: If we had a time machine, we could go back and bring Benjamin Franklin to the present. Within a few weeks he’d have a pretty good idea what’s going on. He might even be able to drive a car and stream Netflix.
The key to The Singularity is A.I., specifically strong A.I. Strong A.I. is a computer that is self-aware. A learning computer that can chart it’s own learning course. It’s speed and development will increase at such a staggering rate that one guy theorizes that whoever develops the first strong AI, within a single week they will be 10,000 years ahead of whoever develops it next.
The A.I. will evolve that quickly.
The next stage is human/AI integration. In science fiction this is called “wet wear.” It’s computer chips implanted in the brains of humans to allow our brains to be augmented by computers. This will enable humans to consider more possibilities than any single disconnected human or group of humans could do on their own. An excellent book on what this transition might look like (and yes, it gets a little weird) is Air by Geoff Ryman. Another great book is Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.
IN SUCH A TIME AS THIS
In tech there’s the idea that no one has any idea what the future looks like. People have guesses, and some people’s (Gordon Moore, for instance) guesses are better than others.
Since we have no idea what paradigm-changing technology will come next, it’s impossible to think in generations. Instead, technology thinks in iterations, small incremental adaptations to the new way things are.
And then there are leaps.
We can’t plan ahead because we don’t know what’s coming. This has lead most tech companies to exist not as intentionally planning the future but reacting to it. That mentality has led to something I see as deeply problematic known as the MVP (Minimum Viable Product). The main reason this idea catches on is because it seems to work, but the implications of the product aren’t considered.
Take the Apple iPhone. I used to pitch the iPhone to my friends like this, “I didn’t know what I needed until I got an iPhone.” It was amazing how much more mobile and productive I became. It changed the computer industry, such that most computer and tech companies now think mobile is the future, and they’re designing accordingly.
UNLEASHED TECH BITES BACK
As amazing and revolutionary as the iPhone is, it comes with a nasty consequence, human connection. I don’t mean connection in the Internet sense. I mean being with people in the physical sense, actually being present with the person with whom we’re in close physical proximity.
This problem became so severe that Apple thought society needed a fix. That fix is the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch was designed to create a buffer between the iPhone and the user, thus limiting the need for the user to constantly check the screen or respond to every digital summons. Instead, only critical (as defined by the user) data gets through.
The flaw in that logic, of course, is that since the iPhone, no one wears watches anymore. Why would they? It’s a big heavy burdensome device that’s function is now redundant to something that does far more than the watch.
When we can’t know the future, we can’t plan for it. When we can’t plan for the future, we can’t live with intention. When we don’t live intentionally, the laws of entropy tend to win.
Thus, the adoption of MVP as the driving motive for technological innovation probably means decay. It isn’t until someone like Elon Musk comes along with a clear vision of what he wants and the will to see it through that decay is once again held at bay.
PLAN FUZZY AND ADOPT AS NEEDED
While that subtitle may sound like the same ideals as the MVP, it’s not. Instead of building whatever works today to work for today, it takes the long-view as the primary motivation.
Musk doesn’t know the future. He just wants to live on Mars. When new stuff comes along, he adapts. When battery technology switched from Nickel Iron Metal Hydride and gave way to Lithium Ion batteries, the power needed to make his dream a reality became available. And he built the Tesla Gigafactory as a response.
How many of us dream? How many of us hope that the future can be better than what it is now and have an idea of what that future looks like? How many of us are willing to reverse-engineer that future back until we get to the present and then take the necessary steps today to get to that desired tomorrow?
Elon Musk wants Mars.
Steve Jobs wanted the personal computer.
Martin Luther King wanted racial equality.
What do you want?