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Carl Sagan once advised the public to “never underestimate the power of exponential.” It was sound advice. Unfortunately, as with so much other wise counsel, it is easy to dismiss.
Consider just a few recent examples of exponential growth. In 1998, a small Silicon Valley start-up was conducting 25 million web-based searches a day. The company had developed an impressive technology but it hardly seemed transformative. Ten years of exponential growth later, though, and Google has changed everything from how people get their news and entertainment to how politics and health care are practiced.
Wikipedia offers yet another example of exponential growth. Who amongst us could have imagined in 2001 when the first 100 Wikipedia entries were placed on the Internet that within eight years the site–which relies on free labor no less–would become the most widely used information source in the world?
It would be easy to believe that Google and Wikipedia are unique and, as such, represent one-time anomalies. They are not.
Ironically, if you type the word “exponential” into Google, the first search item that comes up is an entry from Wikipedia. If one then clicks on the list of “exponential topics” at the bottom of the definition there is an odd looking word: zenzizenzizenzic.
The term is defined as a number to its eighth power. Thus, the zenzizenzizenzic of 2 is 2(8)–or 256.
Now, zenzizenzizenzic might seem like a rather innocent concept but recall that Google and Wikipedia both experienced zenzizenzizenzic-like growth and, in the process, transformed a number of industries; and, in the coming decade, so too will a number of other emerging technologies.
Consider, for example, that Intel Corporation recently announced it had successfully doubled–to 2 billion–the number of transistors it has crammed onto its next-generation computer chip.
The real world manifestation of Intel’s zenzizenzizenzic is that we can now purchase a computer over 200 times more powerful than the one we bought a 1997–at one-third the cost.
Moreover, because the semiconductor industry will likely continue its little trick of effectively doubling the number of transistors it can place on a computer chip every 18 months this implies that by 2020 the zenzizenzizenzic of today’s 2 billion transistor could morph into a 500 billion transistor computer chip. Try wrapping your mind around what such super-powerful computers might enable us to do and achieve.
Exponential growth is not simply limited to the computer and Internet industries. Data storage, bandwidth, gene sequencing and even the growth of synthetic diamonds are all expected to undergo zenzizenzizenzic progression in the coming decade.
In fact these fields are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. According to Gartner Research, the field rapid prototype manufacturing (i.e. machines which can physically print objects) will grow more than 100-fold. And in the past year, researchers in Finland have replaced a patient’s lower jaw with synthetic material growth from stem cells; researchers at the University of Minnesota have successfully demonstrated that they could grow a beating rat heart from living cells; and self-driven robotic cars have successfully navigated through an urban environment. Progress in these fields will not stop.
It has been said that the future is here, it is just unevenly distributed. This is true and if one studies the amazing technological progress occurring in information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, neurotechnology and robotics and then applies the power of zenzizenzizenzic to these advances, it is easy to understand how it would behoove us all to reconsider Carl Sagan’s sage advice and begin preparing ourselves for a great deal of unlearning.