Blog Post

Moore's Law and Technological Progress

Very busy week right now so I only have time for a short blog post. Next week I plan on posting a map I did of Iron Age coins in Wales. But now I turn to Moore's Law and its implications for the digital humanities. Let me preface this post by saying that many of these ideas are highly controversial amongst scientists and futorologists. But the general idea remains: Moore's Law (exponential increase of processing power) has had, and will continue to have, beneficial implications for the digital humanities in regards to a variety of fields (I mention text analysis). 

Basically Moore's Law states that processing power increases exponentially and becomes increasingly cheaper at the same time. Ever notice how computers from three or four years ago have substantially less processing power for a price that currently seems ridiculous? That is Moore's Law at work. (Though there are definitely criticisms of the law such as those who state the trend has not been consistent in regards to price or processing power, etc. For the purposes of this short post, I will leave these aside.) 

I am very interested in the author Ray Kurzweil's work on the Singularity which borrows its name from the concept in physics where a specific point reaches such a point that it is infinite and technically undefinable. Kurzweil's singularity refers to a time in the near future (possbily as early as the 2040s, he says) where humans transcend biology and become technological, immortal animals. Of course, this is only a very general definition. There are many different ideas, predictions, etc. included (i.e. the ability to download your brain onto a quantum computer). The implication for Moore's Law is that computers will become more evolved to deal with such high activity and will one day pass the processing power of the human brain.

Although the Singularity (I know... it's wacky but supported by substantial evidence) definitely has connections to the digital humanities (such as higher cognitive abilities) I refer to Kurzweil because of his Law of Accelerating Returns. This builds on Moore's Law by adding an exponent to the already exponential increase. The jist of it is this: each major event in history builds upon the last and the period between them shortens. For example, the time between the Big Bang and the first single cell organisms on earth (life) was about 14 billion years, give or take. Then from single cell organisms to multiceullar life was about two and a half billion years. From that to mammals was about 800 million years and then to the Homo genus  was almost 200 million years. From Homo to human was over 2 million years. It also works for human achievement (i.e. fire to tools to agriculture to democracy to technology, etc.). Thus Kurzweil's method expands and increases Moore's Law. 

Finally, how does this affect the digital humanities? Ever hear of the semantic web? (Wikipedia gives a good description.) Basically the web is becoming more connected, complex, but most of all interactive. Books are becoming more available online and easier to digest, for example. This is one way the evolution of technology is already being applied. I would even argue that one day that computers will become conscious (though this is a hugely complex discussion). We are already feeling the effects. I wrote last week about Voyant Tools which takes massive amounts of text and offers a way to easily analyze the data up close. Also, OCR, which turns images of text into plain text to work with. 

The implications mean greater access to technology and science. Access and freedom are essential - this means, above all education, open source and open access to free software. This is not necessarily an essential but definitely a crucial element.

I truly hope to expand on this later specifically because of how complicated and controversial it is.


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