Matthew Yglesias had a really interesting post last month that I keep thinking about, so I've finally decided to post on it.There's an old story about a king who agrees to pay someone by putting one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, two grains of rice on the next, four on the next, then eight, sixteen, thirty two, etc. Each square has twice the number of grains of rice as the previous one. The king things he's got a bargain, but with 64 squares on the chessboard, he's actually bankrupted the kingdom. By just the 20th square it's up to one million grains of rice. If you were going to fill the chessboard all the way, the total number of grains of rice under that progression is 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, which is a few trillion tons of rice. I'd heard the story before, but Yglesias applies it to a technological phenomenon (Moore's Law, which has held true since the 1960s–processor performance doubles every 18 months, and have consistently done so for the last fifty years). Here's Yglesias:
The point of this, in terms of technological progress, is that we’ve gotten so accustomed to Moore’s Law that we sometimes overlook the implication that the deeper we get into the chessboard, the bigger the changes. We all know that computers advanced a lot between 1991 and 2011, but we should expect the scale of change over the next 20 years to dwarf those changes. This is a straightforward application of a well-known principle and some pretty basic math, but it’s usually not discussed in quite the right way. We think we’re used to the idea of rapid improvements in information technology, but we’re actually standing on the precipice of changes that are much larger in scale than what we’ve seen thus far.