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THE

SHAPE

OF

THINGS

TO

COME

rate of

change

The future keeps flying at us faster and faster. How will we cope?

BY

CHIP

WALTER

N iels Bohr, the great physicist who hobnobbed with Albert Einstein, once said: “Prediction is diffi-

cult—especially the future.” But it wasn’t all that long ago that predicting the future wasn’t hard, because we didn’t have much of one. At least not in the sense that we think of the future today—as a new and improved version of the present, innovated to the eyeballs. A mere 200 years ago, when the industrial revolution hadn’t yet gathered a full head of steam, life didn’t change much from one generation to the next. Tomorrows bore strikingly strong resemblances to yesterdays, and time didn’t so much pass people by as repeat itself like the seasons. But these days, the future hits us like an avalanche. Every morning, we march into a world where novelties and news seem to tumble down upon us one boulder at a time. The only certainty is that we have no idea what we’ll be hit with next. It’s not that the future wasn’t always out there, lying in wait—it’s just that, until recently, we didn’t really notice. Things were changing, but they simply hadn’t gathered enough speed for us to perceive it. The rate of change has a lot to do with how many forces are at work creating that change—and with how much and how powerfully those forces interact with one

74 PITTSBURGH AUGUST 2004

next tech THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME rate of change The future keeps flying at

illustration by Tim Lee

another. If, for example, you sit alone in a room for an hour or two—just sit there with nothing to do—not much seems to be hap- pening. But put 10 people into the room, and things begin to get interesting. Add more until you’re up to 50 or 100 people, and change sprouts up all over. Conversations modify minds, minds amend relationships and, soon, every kind of infor- mation—emotional, intellectual, sexual—is traveling around the room in blasts and bits like tossed confetti. The ripple effects of what goes on at such a gathering, from busi- ness deals to marriages, can affect the peo- ple there for years, even generations. Relatively speaking, there is suddenly a lot of change and a great deal more complexity. And not very much of it is predictable. The history of change is a little like this party. The farther back in time we go (and we’ll just stick to our own planet here), the less change we find, for the simple reason that there were fewer “people” at the party. For 3 billion years, for example, invisibly small single-celled organisms ruled the plan- et. That’s about 75 percent of all the time life has existed on earth. Every other creature that’s ever lived (including millions now extinct), from the tiniest insect to the entire human race, has come into being in the rela- tively short space of the billion years that have followed. But as each new creature was added to the mix, both complexity and change accelerated. About 250 million years ago, dinosaurs appeared. About 65 million years ago came the earliest primates, 20 mil- lion years later the first monkeys, then 30 million years after that, orangutans, gorillas and other apes. Around 6 million to 8 million years into our deep, dark past, chimps and our own ancestors, the first upright walking primates, split off from a common family. Brain size now began to increase at an expo- nential rate. Full, upright walking at 4 mil- lion years was rapidly followed by tool mak- ing 2 million years later. Just a few hundred thousand years after that, fire was harnessed. Now events were hurtling along. One hundred thousand years ago—a blink!—the first of our species arrived. About 10,000 years ago, agriculture emerged. Two hundred years ago, the industrial revolution, and 150 years later, the information age. We mapped the entire human genome in 10 years, and the Internet revolutionized communication, business and media in less time than that. Today, major breakthroughs come every year, sometimes every couple of months. If

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you were to sample national publications over the past few months, you would have come across headlines like these:

“Universe Measured: We’re 156 Billion Light-years Wide!” (Space.com, May 24, 2004). “Scientists Find New Type of Gene in Junk DNA” (Reuters, June 2, 2004). “In the Era of Cheap DVD’s, Anyone Can Be a Producer” (The New York Times, May 20, 2004). “Risk of Radioactive ‘Dirty Bomb’ Growing” (NewScientist.com, June 2, 2004). “The New ‘Molecular Economy’ [Is Here]” ( BusinessWeek Online, May 25, 2004). “Study: Self-replicating Nano- machines Feasible” (Small Times, June 2,

2004).

If you’re feeling as if you have whiplash, you do. The world has reached a state in which the rate of change is not simply fast, but exponential.

T o comprehend why events seem to be gathering so much speed, you have to understand how exponen-

tial acceleration works. There’s an old apocryphal story that cunningly illustrates it. The emperor of India (in some tellings, it’s China) sends out a decree to all the land that he wants a new game invented. Whoever comes up with this new game will be handsomely rewarded. After a while, all the entries are considered, and one, created by an old man, clearly stands out: chess. The emperor is so pleased with this new and fascinating amusement that he asks the old man to name his reward. “One grain of rice,” the old man meekly requests. “One grain?!” asks the emperor. “I mean one grain on the first square of the chessboard. Two on the second,” the old man clarifies, “four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on, please, Your Majesty.” The emperor immediately complies, fig- uring he’s made a great bargain: a few grains of rice in exchange for the world’s cleverest game. Except he hasn’t done the math. There are 64 squares on a chessboard, which means that, starting with the second square, the old man has requested two grains of rice to the 63rd power—the num- ber two doubled successively 63 times. As with changes on planet Earth 3 1 /2 billion years ago, the first doublings of rice don’t seem to amount to much. Two, four, eight, 16, 32, 64, 128… just a handful of rice,

hardly any difference at all. But by the time that you reach the 64th square, a single rice grain has become 18 million billion ker- nels. At 10 grains per square inch, all of the planet, including the oceans, would be covered with rice, twice over. Shrewd old man. And a very surprised emperor. (In some versions of the story, the emperor resolves his problem by beheading the old man. So being clever doesn’t always get you what you want.) If you mapped life on earth onto this chessboard, these days you might position us somewhere around the 45th square. By that time, the number of rice grains is in the tens of trillions, with the number still due for 19 more doublings. Sitting as we are on square 45, we’re beginning to see just how much rice is pil- ing up and how the piling is gaining speed. More people are joining the party. We’ve gone from fire and the wheel to the print- ing press and the steam engine, from the atom bomb to the archiving of our DNA. Each breakthrough has enabled the next, and each has dramatically redefined what we mean by “the future.” Soon, our tomorrows will bear very little resemblance to our todays.

W e are, of course, brewing up some of these change agents right here in Pittsburgh. At

places like the Mellon Institute, where rad- ically new polymers and chemicals are being designed down to the molecule. Or at UPMC’s McGowan Institute, where chimeric organs, part biology and part technology, are being hatched. At Rand, the Heinz School of Public Policy and the CERT Coordination Center, thinkers are trying to keep pace with all of the changes. Computer scientists, engineers and robot- ics experts at Carnegie Mellon, Seagate and Intel keep shaping and reshaping the future by the week. The party favors are out, and the confetti is flying. There’s a profound irony in all of this. We humans are currently the most powerful creators of change in the mix. Yet we may be the least able to cope with it. Each day, tomorrow becomes more diffi- cult to predict. Yet every day it becomes increasingly important to get a handle on it. Debates about cloning and stem-cell research provide just a glimpse of the ethi- cal, legal, social and technological issues we’ll soon be facing. Nanotechnology,

biotechnology, artificial intelligence and pharmacology will make the questions raised by the human genome project look like a riverside stroll. A few years back, Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, wrote a famous article titled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” (Wired Magazine, April 2000), in which he suggested we simply put the brakes on. Stop developing certain technologies. I can’t say I agree much with this, for the simple reason that you can’t stop worldwide technological advance any more than you could have stopped the evo- lution of clown fish, stink bugs or Galapagos finches. Human cloning is going to happen no matter what our personal opinions. Computing will become more pervasive. Nanotechnologies will emerge. What high-tech company, pharmaceutical giant or curious researcher is going to stop developing new and improved versions of whatever is developed? On the other hand—we might endeavor to be less mindless about which technolo- gies we bring into the world. We might thoughtfully consider some of the unin- tended consequences that could result when we combine nanotechnology and wireless computing to create self-replicating machines that have the intelligence of today’s supercomputers—which should be possible in fewer than 20 years. We can’t stop the advance of technology and science and probably shouldn’t, but we can think harder about what we are doing rather than proliferating innovation the way lemmings proliferate lemmings. An Institute for the Future might be a good idea, right here in Pittsburgh. A place where innovators and inventors, policy makers and politicians, journalists and artists can put their heads together, thrash out the possibilities, consider the assets and liabilities of what could be and wonder what it is we really want. Rather than sim- ply reacting to the powerful technologies that are emerging, rather than racing to keep up, we could scout the horizon and consider today the accelerating avalanches headed our way before they arrive. Rather than ignorantly cower beneath the shadow of what may be, we could put our inventive minds to work and imagine not simply how we will survive or adapt to the future, but how we can shape it so that it becomes one that we actually want. That’s an advancement I could live with.

you were to sample national publications over the past few months, you would have come across

76 PITTSBURGH AUGUST 2004