Exponential End

Computers are now more than a million times faster than they were when the first hand calculator appeared back in the 1960s. (An engineer working at Texas Instruments, Jack Kilby, had invented the first integrated circuit, or semiconductor, in 1957.) This incredible, exponential increase was predicted via ‘Moore’s Law,’ first formulated in 1965: that is that the number of transistors in a semiconductor doubles approximately every two years.

Another way to state this Law (which is not a natural ‘law’ at all, but an observational prediction) is to say that each generation of transistors will be half the size of the last. This is obviously a finite process, with an end in sight.  Well, in our imaginations at least.

The implications of this end are not so small. As we all know, rapidly evolving digital technology has hugely impacted nearly every sector of our economy, and with those changes has come disruptive social change, but also rapid economic growth. The two largest arenas of economic growth in the U.S. in recent years have been Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and Wall Street has prospered on the manipulation of money, via computers, while Silicon Valley (Silicon is the ‘plate’ upon which a semiconductor is usually built.) has prospered upon the growing ubiquity of computers themselves.

Intel has predicted that the end of this exponential innovation will come anywhere between 2013 and 2018. Moore’s Law itself predicts the end at 2020. Gordon Moore himself—he who formulated the Law—said in a 2005 interview that, “In terms of size [of transistors] you can see that we’re approaching the size of atoms, which is a fundamental barrier.” Well, in 2012 a team working at the University of New South Wales announced the development of the first working transistor consisting of a single atom. That sounds a lot like the end of the line.

In November of last year, a group of eminent semiconductor experts met in Washington to discuss the current state of semiconductor innovation, as well as its worrisome future. These men (alas, yes, all men) are worried about the future of semiconductor innovation because it seems that there are a number of basic ideas about how innovation can continue past the coming ‘end,’ but none of these ideas has emerged as more promising than the others, and any one of them is going to be very expensive. We’re talking a kind of paradigm shift, from microelectronics to nanoelectronics, and, as is often the case, the early stages of a fundamentally new technology are much more costly than the later stages, when the new technology has been scaled up.

And of course research dollars are more difficult to secure these days than they have been in the past. Thus the additional worry that the U.S., which has for decades led the world in digital innovation, is going to be eclipsed by countries like China and Korea that are now investing more in R&D than is the U.S. The 2013 budget sequestration cuts have, for instance, directly impacted certain university research budgets, causing programs to be cancelled and researchers to be laid off.

Bell Labs 1934
Bell Labs 1934

One of the ironies of the situation, for all those of us who consider corporate monopoly to be abhorrent, is evident when a speaker at the conference mentioned working at the Bell Labs back in the day when Ma Bell (AT&T) operated as a monopoly and funds at the Labs were virtually unlimited. Among the technologies originating at the Bell Labs are the transistor, the laser, and the UNIX operating system.

It’s going to be interesting, because the need is not going away. The runaway train that is broadband appetite, for instance, is not slowing down; by 2015 it’s estimated that there will be 16 times the amount of video clamoring to get online than there is today.

It’s worth noting that predictions about Moore’s law lasting only about another decade have been made for the last 30 years. And futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Bruce Sterling believe that exponential innovation will continue on past the end of its current course due in large part to a ‘Law of Accelerating Technical Returns,’ leading ultimately to ‘The Singularity,’ where computers surpass human intelligence.

Someone should tell those anxious computer scientists who convened last November in Washington: not to worry. Computers will solve this problem for us.

Guns

The Gaiety Theatre became a church, then a parking lot. pinkmoose photo
The Gaiety Theatre became a church, then a parking lot.
pinkmoose photo

The game was derived directly from ‘the westerns’ we watched every Saturday afternoon at the Gaiety Theatre in downtown Grande Prairie, wherein the final act of every movie consisted of the good guy and bad guys (the baddies always outnumbered our hero) running around and shooting at one another. “Guns” we called it. “Let’s play guns!” we would shout, and soon we’d be lurking/sneaking around the immediate neighbourhood houses, blasting away at one another with toy weapons, inciting many an argument as to whether I had or had not “Got ya!” If indeed you were struck by an imaginary bullet, a dramatic tumble to the ground was required, followed by rapid expiration.

Let no one ever doubt the influential power of the ascendant mass medium of the day. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I grew up without television, but those Saturday matinees were more than enough to have us pretending at the gun violence that is all too real in the adult world. Video games seem an even more powerful enactment of the gun fantasy that can grip children, but the difference may be marginal. I doubt that movies have lost much influence over young people today, and I further suspect that in the majority of Hollywood movies today at least one gun still appears. Check out how many of today’s movie ads or posters feature menacing men with guns, with those guns usually prominent in foreground. Sex sells, but so it seems do guns.

And of course the rest of the world, including those of us in Canada, looks with horror upon the pervasive, implacable gun culture in the U.S., wondering how it is that even the slaughter of twenty elementary school children isn’t enough to curb the ready availability of guns. Because, from a rational perspective, the facts are incontrovertible: more guns do not mean greater safety, quite the opposite. You are far more likely to die of a gunshot in the U.S. than you are in any other developed country. Roughly 90% of Americans own a gun. The next closest is Serbia at 58%. In Canada it’s about 30%. Australia 15%. Russia 9%. And a higher rate of mental illness does not mean greater gun violence. It’s pure and it’s simple: more guns mean more gun violence, more people being shot and killed.

But we are, by and large, not rational animals, and no amount of logical argument is going to convince members of the gun lobby that gun ownership should be restricted. It’s an emotional and psychological attachment that cannot be broken without causing increased resentment, anger, anxiety and a sense of humiliating diminution. Guns are fetishes to those who desire them, sacred objects that allow the owner to feel elevated in status, elevated to a position of greater independence and potency. After all a gun will allow you to induce fear in others.

And yes the American obsession with guns has historical roots, the revolution and the second amendment to the constitution and all that, but, as Michael Moore so brilliantly pointed out in this animated sequence in Bowling for Columbine, much more essentially it has to do with fear. People enamored of gun ownership feel threatened; without a gun they feel powerless in the face of threats from people they view as dangerously different from themselves. And nothing but nothing empowers like a gun.

You might think that people who love guns do not wish to play with them. Guns are not toys to these people, you might say; they are genuine tools used to protect their owners, mostly from all those other people out there who also own guns. But just down the road from where we live on Galiano is a shooting range. On quiet Sunday afternoons we invariably hear the sound of gunfire echoing through the trees, as gun aficionados shoot repeatedly at targets, trying to do exactly the same thing over and over again, hit the bull’s eye. Those people are indeed playing with their guns; they are recreating with their guns. Why? Because it makes them feel better.

Successful movie genres are manifestations of broadly felt inner conflicts; in the case of westerns those conflicts are around issues of freedom and oppression. And the western may still be the most successful of all movie genres, remaining dominant from the very birth of dramatic film (The Great Train Robbery, 1903), right through to the 1970s (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971). The problem is that the western offered ‘gunplay’ as the answer to oppression, and therefore the suggestion that everyone should have a gun. But once everyone has a gun, everyone is afraid. And once you are afraid, no one is taking away your gun.