The Software Society

How digital technology is changing our culture and economy

Chain reactions in technology

November 12, 2013
[Continuing discussion on themes from The Software Society: Cultural and Economic Impact (2013), by William Meisel]

Much has been made of the exponential improvement of parts of technology. Moore’s law on the steady improvement of gate density on chips is the most common example. The rate at which speech recognition makes word errors also seems to be dropping exponentially. Vlad Sejnoha, CTO of Nuance Communications, has stated that the error rate of the company’s primary speech recognition package dropped 18% since the previous release, and that that rate of improvement could continue indefinitely. A recent announcement by Google that the error rate of the speech recognition in voice search had dropped 25% since the last Android release is in the same range.

Exponential growth in itself creates an incredible acceleration of technology development. But there is a compounding acceleration beyond exponential growth of technology modules. That acceleration is compounded by what I called the “modularity principle” in The Software Society. The short version is that modules can be improved independently (some at an exponential rate), and they can be assembled into new technology by rearrangement of those modules or the appearance of new modules. A new module can be created by a combination of other modules, adding to the options. The number of possible combinations grows rapidly with the number of modules or variations of each module. Every combination doesn’t necessary make a useful product, of course, but the number of options grows very quickly. Exponential improvement in some technology modules and new options for combinations of modules is much like a chain reaction in atomic physics, with every combination creating the possibility of more combinations using it.

The Software Society notes the positive potential of this rapid technology evolution, particularly in tightening the human-computer connection, but also notes the potential for automation to eliminate jobs faster than individuals or the overall economy can adjust (a problem clearly reflected in recent job statistics):

“Society is evolving through cultural evolution at a pace that makes genetic evolution almost irrelevant. We may feel that we have become accustomed to this pace. But there are times when an accelerating trend breaks through an invisible barrier and causes changes we don’t expect – some good and some bad. It’s a bit like a chain reaction – the impact can expand quickly, and, like a nuclear chain reaction, be destructive if not controlled. If controlled, it can generate a huge amount of useful energy. Software expansion has reached a point where its impact is central to the evolution of human society.”

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