Monday, June 26, 2006

The Pace of Inventions

Earlier this month I learned a new phrase: "technological singularity", used to describe a hypothesized future day when the pace of inventions forever skyrockets because of a sufficient advance in computer (or other AI) creativity.

Maybe, but the concept does not make much sense to me. From the admittedly little I have seen in my lifetime, the pace of inventions is too closely tied with the desire and ability to implement them. Inventions can happen like crazy but if they are not a Better Mousetrap nothing happens.

Consider white LEDs as an example. During my undergraduate college days, they were almost unheard of. Even green LEDs were rare and expensive (I had a friend that special ordered one for a stereo he was building). A few years later I saw LEDs used in traffic signals and knew something had changed. I did some research in an attempt to find what companies were on the cutting edge of LED manufacturing to perhaps invest in this new trend. (It was only the large, existing light bulb companies, so that insight went nowhere.) Today my wife and I own everything from flashlights to counter lights to camping lanters with white LEDs. The moral: in a practical sense they were invented ten years ago, but despite their obvious benefits it took them a while to become a Better Mousetrap.

Similarly, tiny robots that could fool cockroaches to play Pied Piper have been around for a half-dozen years. But only recently have they become news-worthy.

This effect is true socially, too. Here's an interesting article (warning: PDF) about massage stations like the ones I see at at airports, describing a company and their efforts to be the "next Starbucks".

Maybe militaries have the funding to hasten the pace of inventions when a neat idea for them comes along. And I admit that open source software has prompted me to do far more things with my computer than I otherwise would. But I expect that we'll see social changes that prevent any technological singularity.

For example, consider this diaglogue between a 14th century French noble and a visitor from the future (link):
"I'm told you don't have wars where you come from."

"Not really. Not big ones."

"Everyone's learned to get along?"

"Oh, no, not by a long shot. It's just that if anyone started a war, it would be over in an hour or two, and there'd be no one left to have won. We're not peaceful. We just defeated the point of fighting."
Real life is rapidly approaching that status, thanks largely to how terrorists have killed large groups of civilians (on 9/11 and elsewhere) and also forced Israel into a policy of assassinating enemy leaders. Those used to be big taboos in warfare, but the precedents are now thoroughly set. When dealing with Iran, who would repeat invading a Middle-East country now that nations can simply defend against nuclear attacks by killing leaders?

Compared to fifty years ago, non-nation groups are able to cause more death, and are being treated by international law not as pirates but as nations. Yet at the same time a nation without allies is able to be treated more like pirates. The military solutions of fifty years ago that each took a decade to become Better Mousetraps are becoming increasingly obsolete.

I just can't see a faster pace of inventions counteracting (or even successfully navigating) the continued effects of human unpredictability, even where nations have money to spend. The scale of one will simply transfer to the second, because technology solves problems rather than creating contentment.