Published on Mar 26, 2023
Essays

I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that

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Take a chess board and place a grain of rice on the first square. Then, for each additional square, double the amount of rice each time – two on the second, four on the third, and so on. How many grains of rice would be on the chessboard at the finish?

The answer is 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 (eighteen quintillion, four hundred forty-six quadrillion, seven hundred forty-four trillion, seventy-three billion, seven hundred nine million, five hundred fifty-one thousand, six hundred and fifteen). 

I would ask this question during presentations to demonstrate the power of exponential growth of technology. This question always captivated an audience and I knew I had their attention. It made me feel so smug everytime. Ha! I really understand the power of an exponential curve. These past few weeks have been a slap in the face. I truly have no idea what’s going on. I’m of course referring to all the insane progress in the world of AI.

Why exponential curves are hard to understand

The concept of exponential growth in technology came from the co-founder of Intel,  Gordon Moore who sadly passed away this past week at 94. The universe is trying to tell us something!

He famously predicted that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every two years – a prediction that came to be known as Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law was referred to often as a way to demonstrate progress in the world of software. What’s hard for the human brain to understand is the slope of the curve. At first, it seems that very little progress has been made. Then the slope goes vertical. 

In 1956, it took four men and a truck to transport 5MB of memory. Today, 1TB of memory fits on one fingernail. The difference in scale is not 5 or 10 times, it’s a million times. We simply cannot comprehend this order of magnitude. 

The AI industry felt nascent 15 years ago. These past few months feel like we’ve hit an inflection point. I know a few folks that work in the AI space and I’ve been asking them the same question – what the hell is going on? Is it just me that doesn’t understand or is the progress significant? Their answer is eye opening, the current rate of progress is following the same type of vertiginous curve. 

A new Epoch

The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone Gates Notes

Many folks have been trying to compare the current breakthroughs to other recent technological innovations. A common one is the comparison to the last big paradigm shift, the advent of the smartphone. Jensen Huang, the founder & CEO of Nvidia has said this is AI’s iPhone moment. The reference on the surface makes sense. Steve Jobs presented the iPhone at the keynote address in 2007, there weren’t any predictions that the phone would become your food delivery service or car keys.

Yet, with all due respect to Mr. Huang, this time feels viscerally different. The software industry is much more mature. There is an order of magnitude more engineers, founders and investors that work in the technology space than there were 16 years ago.  When that first iPhone was presented on the stage, there were 6 in existence. Today, Chat-GPT is already being used by tens of millions of people. 

The more substantive counter argument is that the nature of the innovation itself is much more momentous and historic. We are now able to harness the collective knowledge of humankind and make it accessible to anyone, for any use case imaginable. This is fucking wild.  

General Purpose Technology understates what this really means. Imagine having a personalized agent that will help you with whatever task you have at hand. What does this mean for new scientific breakthroughs? For our current economic model? I haven’t the faintest.

Fear of the unknown

You might recognize my ode to Hal-9000 & Space Odyssey in the subject. I’m not concerned about the new machine overlords taking over. My monkey brain is reacting to all the unknown that lies ahead. The possibilities are truly remarkable. 

This newfound capability of universal hivemind intelligence can only be net positive in my view.  Yet, at the same time, this opens the door conceptually to ideas that I thought used to be far fetched. Topics like brain implants don’t seem like science fiction anymore. The second and third order consequences are difficult to imagine. As with any big tectonic shift, there will definitely be negative aspects. 

One thing is for sure, the pace of innovation will be much faster than anything we’ve seen before. Entrepreneurs are going to tackle these ideas and try to improve upon them. Now, the added plus is that they will have a superhuman agent to help them along the way.

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