The Limits of Moore’s Law: Technological Exponential Growth Is Not Inevitable

For futurists, like Ray Kurzweil, the belief that technological development will inevitably continue on an exponentially upward growth model is, to put it mildly, overly optimistic.  Although, throughout recorded history to this point, one can trace this development and accept Moore’s Law in general, thus far, this will not continue exponentially. The growth will level out. The two biggest reasons are physical and political.

First, for increasing technological advances to occur requires access to resources and raw materials.  We must have enough minerals, metals, etc., to build these new machines and to distribute them and do so affordably.  Scarcity of resources raises the price and promotes increased conflict and competition for them. Yet, the principle of diminishing marginal returns says that as a inputs into a product or service increase beyond a certain point, the output will diminish. It is the concept of low-hanging fruit. At some point, innovative breakthroughs become more difficult, expensive and less fruitful.

Second, as scarcity and diminishing marginal returns come to the fore, political disagreement over distribution and allocation of these resources and technologies become more pronounced.  Population increase exacerbates this as well. In this foreseeable future, at least, these two objections seem to hold.

What would be required to overcome these objections?  One option would be general global cooperation, but also accepted limitations on individual freedom.  I hope for this but, what usually happens with human nature, is that we fight over dwindling opportunities rather than unite and cooperate.  A second option is access to new raw materials outside of Earth. This would require commercial/industrial access to the Moon or nearby asteroids.  For this to be viable, we need investments and breakthroughs in the technology and affordability of space travel. Hence, we’re stuck in a little bit of a loop with option two.  

When times are good is when we should be investing in the technologies of tomorrow and further exploration.  It is more politically palatable as opposed to during times of struggle and conflict. When there are other more immediate or visible concerns present people may feel that financing N.A.S.A. and other ventures is a needless luxury.  People have the tendency to hunker down and double down when faced with stress and challenges (this is related to the “sunk costs”, “cognitive dissonance” and “belief perseverance” and myriad other fallacies and biases). They are less open to new unknown risk (“loss aversion”, “familiarity bias”, etc.). They choose a worse familiar option over a potentially beneficial but unknown one. If we wish to address problems which require large investments in technological innovation when we’re not at war, then we need to act before it is too late.

A Question for Politicians About Job Creation & Innovation

Dear Politician,

I would like you to consider this question on a larger scale of time, perhaps 25+ years.

We know that politically Americans are becoming more polarized for multiple reasons.  Gerrymandering and technological innovation (social media, etc.) are two.

I believe that the concern for “good” jobs, that pay a livable wage, is one of the few things that unites most all Americans.  Yet, despite the rhetoric of bringing back the jobs of yesterday, we all know that technological progress is almost inevitable.  The manufacturing base of America was enlivened by WWII and Bretton Woods, Lend/Lease with the British, the Marshall Plan, etc.  But then other countries caught up and even took the lead in many regards.  For example, the implicit bargain of globalization and NAFTA, CAFTA, etc., is that developing countries would take over the old, labor-intensive, low-tech and low education, jobs of the past and that America would produce the advanced manufacturing products like iPhones, solar panels, etc.  But China is now the world leader in solar panel manufacturing and they assemble the iPhone.

Moreover, as technology progresses, some economists have begun talking about “productive inefficiencies” whereby companies, or systems, are deliberately inefficient for the sole purpose of employing humans to do the work and earn a living.

Given that, likely, ongoing development, what do you think is in store for us as a country, both economically and politically, as the battle between technology and education versus jobs continues?  How do you propose to promote innovation but create opportunities for work?