Driving Force of the Singularity

TRS80 Model 1 ComputerTechnical advances are coming at a seemingly unstoppable pace. Between eighteen months to three years, technologies experience a doubling in performance or capacity, and still manage to get cheaper. But as new as new gadgets come out to satisfy our current problems or desires, we find ourselves with even more problems to be solved and grander dreams.

Back in the 80’s computers where running at 4.77 MHz, which means they could roughly perform four million simple math operations per second. Today processors are running around 2GHz or more, which is over 400 times faster. The numbers were 16-bits, making 65536 the largest number it could handle easily. Then came 32-bit systems making the largest integer around four billion, followed by the up and coming 64-bit processors whose integers are around 18 billion billion. Graphics cards can deal with 128-bit and 256-bit numbers which are numbers larger than we normally find comfortable to think about. Hard drives are getting up towards a terabyte which is a million million bytes, or enough to hold about 200 DVDs. A hard disk of twenty years ago would have struggled to hold just a handful of YouTube videos.  Hard disks have grown in capacity by nearly 100 thousand times over 30 years.  Computers of the early 1980s could be found with 48 kilobytes (49,152 bytes), whereas today 4 gigabytes (4,294,967,296 bytes) is becoming common. Memory has grown by over 80,000 times. A computer of the 80s cost around $5000, while one today is often under $2000. What is driving the need for more speed, memory, larger disks, etc?

In the early days of computers it was primarily businesses and governments that had pockets deep enough to invest in computing, and what they ended up with was large and heavy, but had little more capability than a calculator today. But over time technology doublings, let to shrinkage in size and weight, along with increases in capability. Going from vacuum tubes to microprocessors has resulting in many technologies coming and going, but along the way the need for more and more capability has remained. In the 70s computers started becoming something that hobbiests could get involved in, which opened the door for today’s personal computers. Personal computers did not originate from some grand plan in a corporation’s board room, but more from the garages of electronics enthusiasts. This experimentation made it possible for small businesses and families to afford computers. And this really opened the flood gates. No longer were computers for calculating artillery tables, or hidden away in universities or large corporations. Instead they were vying for space on the dining room table.

Computer then started to be used for games, personal finance, education, and so much more. Sure, many of these things were also going on in the corporate and university environments, but a 12-year old is so much more demanding than a professor ever could be. The early computers were pretty primative, and simple things like sorting a couple hundred names in an address list took forever. Also, the computer really could only do one thing at a time. Trying to watch a movie on the computer back in the early 80s would have been pushing things. Computer screens were amber and black, or green and black, or black and white, which did not really lend themselves to viewing movies or sharing photos. They also did not make very good music players. Yet, looking back there were definitely people who saw these limitations as challenges to be overcome.

The more one worked with a computer, the more its limitations stood out. There was definitely need for more memory, more speed, and more disk space. As newer computers started to feel faster, new applications would come along to bring the computer back to a crawl. This has not changed in over 20 years, and is unlikely to change in the next 20. Now we can easily listen to music, edit photos, balance our check books, edit letters, and so much more that would bring the early computers to their knees. And we can do all this at the same time, freely bouncing back and forth between dozens of programs running simultaneously. But there are still applications today that push even the best personal computer to their limits. Editing family videos is one example where computer processing power never seems to be enough, and with each new birthday, more and more footage accumulates to fill our hard drives. Also, computer games are moving closer and closer to being interactive movies. The ever increasing degrees of realism will be consuming ever increasing amounts of computation power.

Other areas where the computer hasn’t peaked is in helping us to manage all the information we accumulate on a daily basis. As people gather video, photos, documents, etc. keeping track of where everything resides gets harder and harder. Sure applications like google desktop, Picasa, and others help to manage the problem to a degree, but the problem is just going to keep getting harder, and we will always desire more intuitive ways to figure out where in the heck we put those all important files.

In countries like Japan the population is gradually declining, and the average age of the population is steadily increasing. As the population ages, more and more people will be needed to aid the elderly, but fewer will be available. This is one area where robot manufacturers are looking to get involved. Simple monitoring robots that can help to identify problems early are much easier than fully mobile robotic gardners and maids. Also, this demographic will likely be very receptive to technologies like self driving cars as they lose their driver’s licenses. I’m sure that when I’m eighty plus, the car will be a much safer driver that I will be. Over time as the body is able to do less due to age, and robots will be able to compensate.

This discussion has been a little long winded for a blog, so I’ll bring it to a quick close by saying that: convenience, safety, cost cutting, entertainment, community involvement, health, science, education, curiosity, and so much more are driving the singularity. There is always more to learn, more to integrate, and a desire for our gadgets to be smaller and lighter, to have longer battery life, to be more capable, and to easy keep us connected with our chosen communities. And if big companies don’t keep providing new bells and whistles, they would have to keep dropping their prices until today’s technology would be nearly free. Since they can’t run a business that way, they have to keep innovating just to keep up with their competitors. Which benefits us since we still end up with more capability at a cheaper price.

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