Dear Curious Aztec,
Will there be a point in time where technology will NOT be able to get faster or continue advancing? —@grapeee_SODA viz Twitter
Wow, first question this column has tackled, and it’s a doozy. Strap in, because before we’re done we’ll be exploring the edges of space and time. But first, let’s get our terminology straight. “Technology” has a few definitions, but let’s work with this one: Technology is anything built or configured using information to achieve some practical purpose. Information—any information—can be encoded as a series of 1s and 0s, with each binary digit called a bit.
Got it? OK.
Over the years, a number of mathematicians and information theorists have set out to quantify the relationship between technological progress and our ability to compute information. The most famous of these is probably Moore’s law, named after Intel honcho Gordon E. Moore, which states that the number of transistors per microchip doubles approximately every two years.
It’s not really a law in the way physicists and mathematicians use that word, but it’s held pretty well true over the past several decades. It accurately predicted that processing speed, memory capacity, and a handful of other useful markers of technological progress would grow exponentially between the 1960s and today.
But will Moore’s law always hold true? I called Vernor Vinge, San Diego State Emeritus Professor of computer science and Hugo Award–winning science fiction author to ask him. He said that even though we’ve frequently encountered apparent bottlenecks in the progress of technology, we’ve found ways around them.
“There’s a theoretical limit to the number of bits per second you can transmit over, say, a phone line, and it’s a very well thought-out and strict limit,” Vinge said. “We’ve far exceeded that, but we didn’t exceed it by breaking the laws of physics. We did it by changing the characteristics of the communication channel.”
In other words, what humans have always excelled at is finding ways around technological limitations by building new technology.
“So my short answer is: In the absence of physical disaster, I suspect that technological progress will continue for some time,” Vinge said.
So far, so good. But then he went on: “After that, it might be impractical for us mere humans to assess the nature of future progress.”
That sounds ominous. Vinge, it turns out, is one of the founding fathers of an idea known as the technological singularity. It sounds like something straight out of science fiction—and indeed, Vinge has written several books about it—but he and other futurologists believe that sometime in the not-too-distant future, humans will create an artificial intelligence that surpasses human intelligence. After that, pretty much all bets are off and all predictions are moot, as human beings won’t be able to comprehend the designs and maneuverings of that superintelligence.
“The analogy I like to use is that it would be like us explaining our technology and society to a goldfish,” Vinge said.
While that is an unsettling notion to some, including your Curious Aztec, know that this is a highly controversial suggestion. Experts from fields ranging from computer science to neuropsychology disagree vehemently on when, or even if, a technological singularity could occur. Many scientists think it’s pretty far out there, but then again, a number of them take it seriously.
But putting aside arguments over the singularity, either we or superintelligent computers or some other intelligence out there in the galaxy likely will continue to create and innovate and build new technology well into the future. How long can any of us keep it up?
Let’s go back to the idea that technology is essentially applied 1s and 0s. Well, the properties of subatomic particles can also be described in 1s and 0s. Based on estimates of the age and temperature of the universe and the relationship between matter and energy, a number of physicists have worked out theoretical upper limits to the information content of the universe. The universe, they say, contains between 1090 and 10120 bits. No one can tell you when we (or someone or something else) will hit that upper boundary, but it’s going to happen eventually, quadrillions of years in the future.
Unless, as Vinge points out, a speculation by theoretical physicist and polymath Freeman Dyson comes to pass: “Perhaps one of the late-term projects of our ultimate descendants will be engineering the immortality of the universe,” Vinge explained.
If that happens, then the answer to your question is no. Otherwise, yes—when either supercomputers take over or we literally run out of information in the universe. Told you it was a doozy.
Do you have a question for The Curious Aztec? E-mail him at email@example.com, leave him a tweet @TheCuriousAztec, or leave a message on SDSU’s Facebook page. You stay curious, San Diego State.