Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Thought Experiment

I would like to suggest a simple thought experiment on change.  

Lets take roughly equal intervals of time and look at how something has changed over those intervals. From our history classes, we all remember major conflicts, so lets pick some and look at change over intervals between some conflicts we all studied (at least in the US):
  • American Revolution, about 1780
  • American Civil War, about 1865
  • World War I, about 1915
  • Vietnam War, about 1965
  • Today, 2014
Each interval is roughly 50 years  (the first is a bit longer, the last 1 year shorter).

Lets pick a technical subject and describe several major features of that technology at each of these points in time. 

Lastly, lets look at how much has changed between intervals.  

My presumption is that a lot more has changed in the LAST interval than in ANY of the previous intervals. We will demonstrate this using a single technology.

Lets pick communications.

1780:  very low-bandwidth but instant line of sight, or very slow medium bandwidth data 
  • optical, line-of-sight, low-bandwidth communications (lanterns, smoke, flags)
  • low-bandwidth, slow (3 Knots), letters and papers (weeks from US to Europe)
  • medium-bandwidth books that take a long time to setup for printing
  • sailing ships to carry mail across the ocean, very slow
1865:  low-bandwidth but long-distance instant communications, slow medium-bandwidth
  • early steam ships carrying mail and messages (1819 first to cross the Atlantic)
  • early, very slow photographs (1820s), first color image (1861)
  • telegraph (1830s), low-bandwidth, long-distance, wired instant electronic communications
  • trains for delivery of mail (1930s) 
  • Trans-Atlantic cable (1858)
  • Pony Express fast mail delivery (1860)
1915:  long-distance speech, primitive wireless, limited bandwidth, all analog
  • signal lamps (1867)
  • printing telegraph, low-bandwidth, long-distance printed text
  • ocean liners for fast mail delivery (1870s)
  • telephone (1876)
  • audio recording using the phonograph (1877)
  • invention of radio (1880s)
  • black and white, silent films (1890s)
  • image transmission (1909)
1965: radio, television, radar, radio navigation, crude mobile communication, some digital
  • first commercial radio broadcasts (1920s)
  • talkies, film with sound (1920s), color movies (1932)
  • TV (1928) and color TV (1953)
  • FM radio (1933, stereo 1961)
  • RADAR (1934)
  • modern film, kodachrome (1935)
  • audio tape (reel-to-reel 1935, cassette 1962)
  • early LORAN (WWII)
  • low-speed, analog modems (1942)
  • early commercial satellites (1962-1964)
  • first generation digital telephone trunks (T1, 1962)
2014:  high-def/cable/4K TV, satellite TV/navigation/phones, cell phones, Internet, mostly digital
  • computer to computer communications (1968-1972)
  • LORAN C widely adopted (1970s)
  • digital telephony adopted (1970s-1980s)
  • floppy disk (1971)
  • electronic books (1971)
  • voice over IP (1973, 1991) [I helped develop an e-book reader about 1992.]
  • barcode and optical scanners (1974)
  • home video tape, movie rentals, VHS and Beta (1970s)
  • Cell phone (1973)
  • High-speed modems (1970s-1980s)
  • ship-to-shore via satellite (INMARSAT)
  • Internet (1980s)
  • fiber optic cables (1980s)
  • E-mail (1980s)
  • digital cameras (1981)
  • CD-ROM for digital audio (1988)
  • Satellite navigation systems, GPS (1989-1995), GlasnostGalileoBeidou
  • high-speed Internet (non-dialup), DSL 1990s, fiber to the home 2000's
  • DVD (1995), BluRay, HD-DVD, 4K DVDs
  • Smart phones (1992), iPhone (2007)
  • interplanetary Internet (1996)
  • digital movie projection, digital 3D (2010s)
  • high-bandwidth LASER communications from the Moon to the Earth (2013

As you can see, each interval has more new technologies than the previous interval.  Technology is changing at an exponential rate.  

Try this for another subject or field, for example Physics or Medicine, and you will see the SAME trend! I have used this thought experiement to demonstrate the accelerating rate of change to many kids and adults. For each subject we discuss we find the same trend!

This is a fantastic challenge for kids.  Ask a class to come up with 5 technologies in one subject invented since they were born.  Then ask them the teacher to come up with 5 between when the teacher was born and when the kids were born.  Finally, compare the lists.

What will the next 50 years hold?  

How many new technologies will be invented, deployed, and utilized by our society?  We are already working on the Internet of Things (light-weight, machine-to-machine communications).  The Interplanetary Internet is in its infancy (and we don't have any remote human presence beyond the ISS).  We are working on wireless power distribution, liquid metals, nano-technology and many other fields....

What do you think will be the biggest invention the next 50 years?  I bet you will be wrong!

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