Michael Baxter

The technological revolution gathers momentum

Written by: Michael Baxter on August 30th 2013

Category: Thought for the day

If you read some of the tip sheets, or indeed some of the more bearish finance magazines, you may read there is a storm coming – a tempest of such venom that the crisis of 2008 would not so much have seemed like a perfect storm as a mild breeze in comparison.  Well I agree, there is a storm coming all right, but the storm is quite different from the one the one that cynical analysts are warning us about. Instead I am talking about a new economic gale that will wreak havoc on the traditional way of seeing things; on traditional business and investment. Strap yourself in, or better still take to your wind surfer, and get ready to ride the new technological revolution, because it is now close to changing the economy in a very profound way.

Maybe it is just me; maybe it is just the editorial I read, but I puzzle why we don’t read more about it in the mainstream media. The innovations coming online right now are not just incredible – they will affect us all in very profound ways.

Have you heard about the miniature brain grown in a lab? It is only the size of a pea – a size which my wife seems to think is roughly commensurate with the size of my brain. In fact it is about the same dimension as the brain of a nine week old foetus. Because the manmade brain is pretty much identical to a human brain, minus consciousness, or indeed any sense of feeling, scientists can experiment on it without any moral misgivings. Amongst other things they hope the knowledge this will bring them might be enough to work on cures for schizophrenia or autism.

But of course, this is just the latest in a long line of news of wow technologies that have hit the media in the last few months. The World Economic Forum has drawn up a short list of the world’s 36 most interesting innovative start-ups. You can read about all the companies here, see: Technology Pioneers 2014

If you want one paragraph summary, I can tell you that included on the list is a company which has built on our knowledge of the HIV virus to develop a way of inserting a muddying gene into a patients’ cells to fight many diseases, including cancer. Another has a found a way of producing nanoparticles to take on cancer. Then there is a company that appears to be developing a device that can enable blind people to see (think Geordi from ‘Star Trek’) and a transparent solar panel, meaning that glass windows can not only let in light, and give us views of the outside, but generate electricity too.

But there is a deeper point here. Half way into the human genome project – that’s five years in – things were not going well. Scientists had only been able to map a mere 1 per cent of our genome and cynics questioned whether it was possible. Incredibly, another five years later the whole genome had been sequenced. Why was that? In part it was down to Moore’s Law; over the ten year course of the project, computers got so much faster that it became possible to process information at the end of the project in a way that seemed inconceivable at the beginning.

Now I read about another project with the aim of mapping the human brain – that is to say its 100 billion neurons. I read that at the current rate of progress it will take around 50 million years to complete the project, but the point is the current rate of progress will not be maintained; it will double in speed then double again, and again, and again. I suspect this project will be complete within a decade. See: 70,000+ have played ‘Eyewire’ game that trains computers to map the brain  

Technology is making it possible for certain advances to develop at geometrically accelerating rates.

Until now the results of the completion of the human genome project have been disappointing. In the year 2000, Bill Clinton said: “[We are] learning the language in which God created life.” The then US president predicted that humanity will gain “immense new power” and a new ability to “heal.” But just because that has not happened so far, it doesn’t mean it won’t – remember geometric acceleration.

And returning to the human brain mapping project, I am not sure what it will mean when this project is complete I doubt whether we will be able to pinpoint specific neurons and network connections corresponding to very specific thoughts, or diseases, which we can then manipulate, But who knows?

What I can say is that contrary to a widely held belief that the rate of innovation is now close to peaking, it is in fact accelerating. The economic implications of this are not clear, but how anyone can predict economic doom without factoring-in current advances is beyond me.


These views and comments are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees

Tags: artificial brain, human genome poject, innovation and the economy, mapping the brain, miniature brain, technological revolution

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