Title: The Second Machine Age
Rating: 4 Stars
This was a very optimistic book regarding the explosive growth of computing technology over the last several years and the fact that there is no sign that it is slowing down.
The authors believe the inevitably of this growth lies in three factors: exponential, digital, and combinatorial.
The exponential relates to Moore’s Law, which states (it sometimes varies) that computing power will double roughly every two years. An example of this is a chessboard where you double the amount of rice on each square. That is, you start with 1 grain of rice on the first square, 2 grains of rice on the second square, 4 grains on the third square, and so on. From such small beginnings you quickly get to tremendous numbers. There are 64 squares on a chessboard. Starting with just 1 grain of rice, by the 32nd square you have 4 billion grains of rice, which is about equivalent to a rice field. That’s only the first half of the chessboard. The authors’ belief are that we’re just now getting to the second half of the chessboard, from a technology point of view. With such incredible growth, the amount of computing power available to us will be nearly incomprehensible. In an interesting coincidence, I just saw an article in the local paper that Microsoft researchers had just made another leap forward in storage using DNA. If this proves out (still experimental and expensive), this would be a revolutionary advance in data storage technology. Entire data centers housing thousands of servers could store all of their data on a single strand of DNA. This is mind-boggling.
A good example of the dramatic exponential growth is that, in 1997, a $50 million supercomputer was developed that reached an unheard of value of 1.8 teraflops (trillion floating point operations per second). Nine years later, a Sony Playstation 3, costing $500, was able to match it.
Digital refers to the fact that, well, digital data is stored digitally (duh!). This means that data can be replicated perfectly with nearly zero cost (or at a minimal, very tiny cost, especially relative to non-digital means). With such cheap storage, all data can be stored, which opens up all kinds of opportunities for data analysis.
The combinatorial aspect of this is that technology change feeds upon itself. People invent new technology on the back of old technology. People recombine technologies and from that invent new technologies. The barrier to entry is so low that previous research that was limited to advanced research institutions is now available to millions of amateurs armed with their laptop.
The authors’ believe that all of this will lead to continued exponential growth in technologies for many years to come. In fact, they see no end in sight.
Two results will come of this, both of which we’ve already experienced. One is the bounty, which is the incredible benefits that we’ve already received and that will keep coming. The most obvious example of this is the smart phone. Fifteen years ago, a hand held device that allowed you to talk, send messages, browse the internet, take pictures, count your steps, and run millions of applications that have been developed specifically for it would have been science fiction. Now, huge percentages of the people even in the developing world have access to this. The authors’ mentioned that such phones are arguably now more ubiquitous than access to clean water. Any other number of technological marvels can also be listed.
The other is the spread. This is the gap between the haves and the have nots. In the technology race, there are clearly winners and losers. And given the fact that replication is so cheap (data being digital) the difference between being number one and number two can be a chasm. Therefore there can be a very few winners and a very large number of losers. This puts the lie to the old economic adage that a rising tide lifts all boats. For very many people, especially poorly educated people, not only are they not rising but they are actively falling over time.
This is a critical element of our time because if there comes a time when tens of millions of people see change for the worse with no hope for the best, then that is how revolution starts.
The authors offer several remedies for this, all of which seem weak. After such a strong and positive argument praising the growth of technology, it seemed dispiriting to me to be provided such a pablum of solutions. It includes calls for better education!, better pay / more accountability for teachers!, upgrade the infrastructure!, increase government research funding!
So, the book was pretty compelling reading (even if I was reading it in 2016 when most of it was written in 2013, a lifetime ago in technology). I found it illuminating, optimistic, yet realistic concerning the challenges of technology. It probably would have been one of my favorites if the conclusions had just been more striking and creative.