Sunday, July 29, 2007


Last evening, after welcoming us to an air-conditioned apartment and serving us icy drinks and dinner, James suggested we watch a video about the future. It was the sort of thing computer-savvy guys under thirty might suggest. Reluctant techno-peasants of my age are unlikely to suggest such a thing at a party, but I went along with it because the futurist on the video is Ray Kurzweil, the guy who invented the first reading machine for the blind back in 1976. At the time, it was completely revolutionary to think that a blind person could lay a page on a machine and have it read aloud. Today we take this technology totally for granted. Kurzweil is now demonstrating a PDA that will read signs, labels, and full pages to any blind person with a hand to point the camera. It’s a little pricey right now, but then, so was the reading machine when it first came out. When Kurzweil talks, I listen.

Kurzweil was talking about predicting the pace of change. Change, he said, happens exponentially, starting slowly and gathering speed, doubling itself all the time. Each technology, he says, is the tool that builds its successor. Each new technology gets smaller and faster and cheaper until it cannot get any smaller, faster or cheaper, and by that time, it has given us the capacity to build its successor and start the cycle all over again.

I of course, was listening carefully, and also remembering how I once told Lydia that there would never be a time when we could tell clients not to smoke in our offices. I think that was about two years before every office in the city adopted a non-smoking policy and the process of no-smoking by-law making first began. The change was near at hand, but I never saw it coming. I figured that if powerful people had been happily smoking in offices for hundreds of years, they would be doing so for hundreds of years in the future as well. I was using the pace of past change to predict the pace of future change, a fatal error, according to Kurzweil.

If Kurzweil had been in James’s living room, instead of somewhere inside a video, I would have asked him how long it might be until we humans learn to live peacefully together.

Some really good food for thought after dessert. Thanks James!

1 comment:

jamesmartymartin said...

Sounds like a good research topic. Lets hope for an exponential peace trend.