Thursday, April 22, 2010

Future Shock Applied: the end of innovation

Innovation: (n) an insight that can be applied an operation, which improves the operation in some measurable way.
Innovate: (v) research (intentional or accidental) to find insights that can be applied to an operation, which will improve the operation in some measurable way.

What is the future?  Does the future happen simply because we count off seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, or millennia?  No.  Counting off seconds just causes time to pass.  The future that we are looking for is not counted off in seconds.  It is counted off in innovations.

Someone discovered how to create fire.  Someone discovered how to layout movable type to make a better printing press.  Someone discovered how to calculate an orbit.  Someone discovered how to create light by passing electricity through a filament.

Every discovery is an innovation.  Every innovation is an insight.  Every insight is an increase in knowledge.  Every insight provides more knowledge--more light for us to see the world better.  Every innovation makes the next innovation easier.

Fire was probably the only innovation that decade.  Movable type was probably one of a dozen innovations that year.  Calculating an orbit was one of a hundred innovations that month.  Light bulbs were probably one of a thousand innovations that week.

This is why Moore's law has held true for so long, and why it will probably continue to hold for many years to come.

I believe that the pace of innovation is the only true hockey-stick graph in nature.  Maybe there is another that I just don't know about.

Innovation is the source of future shock.  We build industries and careers on operations of all sorts.  And innovation creatively destroys those operations out from under us.  The buggy whip industry will never return, it was innovated into extinction.

But innovation will end.  And life may well end soon thereafter.

There are two barriers approaching.  Alvin Toffler focused on one in his book.  I believe that he underestimated the digital revolution.  I believe that we will skip over that barrier and hit the second barrier.  Skipping over that barrier will be a future shock of its own.

Toffler coined the term information overload to describe the ever-increasing amount of information that will be available in the future.  Every innovation increases our knowledge base.  As that knowledge base grows it becomes more and more difficult to learn all of the information that a person needs to know.  The human mind is finite.  Human lifetimes are finite.  Learning takes time.  There will come a point when it is impossible for a person to learn enough information to have a new insight.

Toffler feared that this was the end.  Eventually every person spends their 150-odd years learning information that was already discovered by others, and dies without reaching an end of knowledge where they could innovate.

Digital life is an innovation that Toffler did not see coming.  Digital life will still be restricted in terms of capacity and time, but those restrictions will be exponentially larger than their biological counterparts.  Digital life will be able to store nearly infinite amounts of information.  Digital life will have nearly infinite lifespans.  But the biggest distinction between biological life and digital life is in the pace of learning.

Biological life has to ingest and process information in order to use it.  Digital life will not.  Biological life has to spend time studying.  Digital life will simply direct its query to parse through the accumulated knowledge base.  It's not just a matter of learning things quickly.  Learning information will cease to occur.  All information will be already pre-formatted and ready for use at the moment of digital birth.  Every new piece of information will slide into this shared database and become instantly accessible to every other digital life form--no learning involved.

This structured shared memory will make digital life dramatically different from biological life in many ways.  Those differences will be a future shock of their own.  Digital life and biological life will diverge for the simple natural reason that they behave so differently in so many ways.  Learning is one of the biggest differences.  Digital life will continue to innovate long after biological life hits Toffler's learning barrier.

Unequal information will always be a feature of biological life, in commerce and entertainment especially.  Biological life will always have entertaining puzzles of who-dun-it.  Digital life will have no such puzzles.  Commerce in the biological world is based upon the simple principle that once I give you something I no longer have it.  This is not true in the digital world.  We are already seeing how this causes problems for biological beings operating in a digital world.

So when will digital life cease innovating?

When there is nothing left to learn.

If our sun doesn't explode soon then digital life will escape that threat.

If we don't destroy ourselves before digital life escapes our sun's event horizon then digital life will escape that threat.

If the Lord tarries then digital life will eventually reach the point where there is literally nothing left to learn.

Digital life won't really die.  Individual beings will get bored and put themselves to sleep.  They will have alarm clock-type programs running that will wake them when something interesting happens.

When there is no hope of anything interesting happening all digital beings will go to sleep.  And they will never be woken.

"Humanity" will go out with a whimper, if you accept digital life as a form of humanity.  We may well be alive but asleep when the universe collapses back in on itself and begins again.

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