Exponential Technological Growth vs. Humanity
Elon’s words, virally spread all over the internet, sparked a lot of emotions in all of us. These terrifying words that were spoken in such a calm and cold hearted way by the most famous and respected persona in the technology world today; do they actually mean anything or have they only been mentioned to create fear in order to gain more popularity? It’s a hard guess. However, the truth is that the human build technologies such as AI grow at a very rapid pace. The big question I would like to answer here is “can we, regular people keep up with this rate of technological growth?” and if not, what can we do to prevent the possible disaster.
The Exponential Growth
I remember the time when my father decided to introduce me to the computer world by giving me his most precious, super fast computer that he used for his business. It was a i386 with 4MB of RAM and 40MB hard drive. I was thrilled, it blew my mind with what this machine could do! This was just 27 years ago. Just 5 years before, no one even imagined to have a personal PC at home. Today, my little (and very outdated) smart phone is 32,600 times faster than the best Apollo era computers and could perform instructions 120,000,000 times faster. Now, that’s not only some progress, that my friends means that technologies move forward at the speed defined by exponential function.
An interesting way to illustrate the concept of exponential growth is with a little scenario. Imagine that it is noon (12:00) at some major league football stadium, made water-tight for our demonstration. You are seated in the highest row of the bleachers. Someone places a single drop of water on the grass floor. Now let’s say the volume of water on the floor doubles in size every minute. That is, at 12:01, the single drop becomes two drops. At 12:02, the two drops become four, and so on. Now comes the question. How much time do you have before the water reaches your seat high up in the bleachers? At 12:45, the stadium would still be 93% empty, with the water just reaching the first row of seats around the field. Still plenty of time left before it reaches the bleachers, right? No! Wrong! At 12:48, the stadium would be half full. That’s from 93% empty to half full in three minutes! Since the volume of water doubles every minute, the stadium would become filled to the top with water at 12:49.
What’s so important about this experiment? It shows us that exponential progress may lead to a situation where things get out of control very rapidly and unexpectedly. (Remember, at 12:48, 48 minutes of into the water drop “growth” and not much is happening. It’s the last minute when the water overflows the entire stadium!) I mentioned that technology grows at the rate that this little “magic” drop of water on the stadium does, didn’t I? Yes, it’s supposed to scare you!
The impact of technological growth on our lives today
The constant growth of technologies has definitely lead to a major improvement of quality in our lives. The invention of computers, together with automation and robotics made it easy to create high quality products at a much lower cost ever. Efficient use of energies, complex power grids, electric autonomous vehicles is the reality of today. Thanks to this, an average mid-class person on earth enjoys a life that aristocracy could only dream of a 100 years ago. Smart phones tell us directions, remember our schedules, remind us of birthdays of our friends and family. AI and AI driven algorithms are so powerful that they can now bring old movie stars back to life on the cinema screens. Life has never been that amazing before… or are we missing something here?
The three sides of the coin
There are three sides to every coin (Heads, Tails and The Edge). Your ability to understand contrasting points of view and your ability to glean what information you believe to be valuable from each side is a crucial skill. - Robert Kyosaki
While the technological advances have led to improvement in the quality of our lives, they also demanded sacrifices. That sacrifices are very hard for us to see if we’re not paying enough attention. Some people may actually never realise that their lives were negatively impacted by the quick pace of technological improvements until after it is already too late. A good example of this may be with the invention of the smart phone. These devices are integral parts of our lives now. We use them all the time, we give them to our children. What we do not see so clearly is that we become silently addicted and dependent on them. They affect our psychological and physical health without us realizing it. You want to go somewhere; you use the smartphone to show you the directions. You want to meet a friend? Easy, just arrange the meeting using the phone. You need to remember the birthday of your friend? Great, the smart phone is there to help you out. Need a date? Perfect! Just start this app and you’re ready to go. You’re bored? Nice! The smartphone is there to entertain you. Our devices are now integral part of our lives. We even take them to toilet with us!
But what happens if the smart phone and the internet is suddenly taken away? And let’s just imagine that it’s taken away not from you, but from children of your children. Will they still be able to make friends and meet new people outside? Will they be able to understand a map? Will they be able to find out how to grow food? Will they even be able to have normal conversations with each other? How about their mental and physical health? Did we think about all this questions when the first smart phone was introduced? Of course not, why would we? Technology is just good and great! Right? Well, not quite!
Today’s data already shows the impact of technology on young generations and it is super scary. According to the fairly recent article by Child Mind Institute, when kids spend a significant amount of time on social media, it often leads to lower self-esteem. In 2015, the Times published an article explaining how an average attention time span has dramatically decreased in people using social media services. Cerritos College published a full list of potential positive and negative impacts of technology on the lives of our little ones. These include some very scary physical and mental health problems.
Smart phones are just one of the vast many “smart” technological improvements that were introduced into our lives a while ago without any understanding of the consequences we had to pay. This now relatively “old” technology still comes with our very limited understanding of it’s impact on us, humans. Technologies move and grow exponentially, we don’t. AI, is without a doubt the next step in humanity’s technological growth. As amazing as it seems, it is also a step the consequences of which cannot be easily foreseen and understood right now. Are we humans mentally and spiritually ready for it? The past experiences tell us that it’s highly unlikely. “The gift” of AI may appear to be just a next technological improvement to our lives today, but it can also be humanity’s biggest regret tomorrow.
Finding the balance = the hope for humanity
The good thing is that more and more of humans wake up to understanding that constant technological growth does not necessarily mean better life for everyone right now and in the very near future. By studying and observing the past we wake up to understanding that there will be unforeseen consequences of “uncontrolled” rapid growth in technology (2x every 18 months). E.g. more of us are limiting the time spend on social media, or on the smart phone. We monitor our children’s access to internet and make sure they spend time out in nature, or hang out with their friends away from computer screens. This type of behaviour confirms that we’re still in position of power. We need to use this power now and decide if we, the humanity, need to keep up with the extremely fast technological growth or if the technological growth needs to keep up with us. If we fail to keep the right balance, one day, we may wake up to the fact that it is not us, but the technology making all the decisions.
Even though technological growth leads to truly extraordinary amount of improvements in our lives, the exponential and uncontrolled nature of this growth opens up the door to many unintended consequences that come with it. We humans simply do not grow at the same pace as the technology does. If this technological growth is not adjusted to fit humanity’s rate of growth, we may find ourselves in a very difficult place one day. Right now is the time for us to decide how much is enough (at least for now).
Firstly, we should all begin with understanding the speed of change when it comes to exponential technological growth. Knowing that technologies grow exponentially and we don’t should bring the understanding of how important it is for us to be ready for the new advancements. Secondly, learning about the impact the modern technologies have on us today will lead to more balanced use of those devices. There is plenty of studies telling us about the bright and the not-so-bright side of staying on social media, playing computer games, using smart watches, etc. We need to educate ourselves about this and take appropriate actions in our lives.
Simple decisions, like keeping your kid away from the phone in his/her early years or spending more time socialising or going out to the nature may have an enormous impact on the future life of our society. Appreciating and valuing the role and wisdom of our older generations, putting a limit on usage of modern “life improving technologies” such as ChatGPT, Alexa or Siri. Saying “no thanks” to the “smart” devices we believe are taking our “thinking power” away may have a huge impact on our lives too. Let’s get responsible. After all we do not want to not let the technologies of the future take away our ability to think and act independently.
Our lives are already great with what we have now. Let’s appreciate that fact and introduce new tech to our lives when we fully understand its impact and feel like we truly desire it. In the meantime, let’s take time and cherish our existing abilities to create, feel, lough, touch with understanding that no machine will ever be able to replace them!
https://www.cerritos.edu/hr/_includes/docs/August_2021_The_Impact_of_Technology_on_Children_ua.pdf - Technology impact on Children
https://childmind.org/article/social-media-and-self-doubt/ - Social Media and Self Doubt
https://childmind.org/article/what-selfies-are-doing-to-girls-self-esteem/ - Selfies and Self-Esteem
https://hbr.org/podcast/2021/10/techs-exponential-growth-and-how-to-solve-the-problems-its-created - Podcast, Harvard Business Review
https://www.tidio.com/blog/how-does-technology-affect-us/ - How does technology affect us?
https://mediapeanut.com/how-fast-is-technology-growing-statistics-facts/#:~:text=Exactly how fast is technology,growing at a steady rate.
Adam Nowakowski, Senior Software Entwickler, INTEGRATE Informatik AG