The second half of the chessboard

There’s a great metaphor in Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine which they in turn take from Ray Kurzweil:

In one version of the story, the inventor of the game of chess shows his creation to his country’s ruler. The emperor is so delighted by the game that he allows the inventor to name his own reward. The clever man asks for a quantity of rice to be determined as follows: one grain of rice is placed on the first square of the chessboard, two grains on the second, four on the third, and so on, with each square receiving twice as many grains as the previous. The emperor agrees, thinking that this reward was too small. He eventually sees, however, that the constant doubling results in tremendously large numbers. The inventor winds up with 2 to the power of 63 grains of rice, or a pile bigger than Mount Everest. In some versions of the story the emperor is so displeased at being outsmarted that he beheads the inventor.

Their point is that in an era of exponential increase in the power of technology, things get only get really interesting in the second half of the chessboard. I don’t think anyone can predict what this means but there are a few things that it seems to me are almost certain to be possible in the next five to ten years. Let’s go for a round number and say that by 2020…

  1. Automated translation will be almost perfect. If you’ve tried Google Translate you’ll know that it’s not bad already and the number of languages being added is pretty impressive. It won’t just be on text either. Text from image recognition and speech recognition are improving rapidly too. Just try Word Lens or Siri and imagine when they’re ten times better.
  2. It will be possible to track data about location, velocity and acceleration of any object in real time. My Fitbit Ultra is just the start of getting useful feedback – in that case on my own movement but I think the same will be true of vehicles and more. Phones or course can do this but at the moment it drains battery life and the software for doing anything useful with the information is a bit basic.
  3. Three dimensional printing of objects will be normal. The question will be one of price but with the printers themselves getting cheaper and the materials as well as companies start to compete to provide them in the right form, companies like Makerbot Industries and Shapeways are just the beginning.
  4. Humans will be routinely assisted in physical tasks requiring strength by machines. Even in the gap between James May filming this in 2008 in Japan and this filmed at CES this year, exoskeleton devices have come on a lot. I think they’ll develop further to help us in an ageing society.
  5. Road transport will be routinely automated. I think it will happen in trucks first because the driver is a significant cost for haulage companies because not only do they cost tens of thousands of pounds in wages and taxes, they can only work for 4.5 hours before they need a break (legally). The technology for cars is already pretty good – but expect a lot of resistance from the industry.
  6. Commercial space flight and delivery of objects into orbit will have begun. This is one of those areas where prizes has really helped but also one where the retreat of the state (NASA) has left a gap for different models to develop. What will the eventual craft look like? Maybe like this or this.
  7. Almost all financial transactions will be electronic. Square and NFC devices are examples of how much easier it’s getting to pay for things if you do things electronically. I’d definitely expect a possible all electronic tax system whereby if companies agree to only deal electronically and give tax authorities automatic access to their transaction logs they will be liable to a lower tax regime.
  8. Renewable energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels. Almost every week I hear of a new company with a different take on generating electricity whether it’s semiconductors that are thermoelectric or more efficient photovoltaics.
  9. Genetic and protein based diagnosis of medical conditions will be common. It took $3 billion and ten years to complete the first sequencing of the human genome. It costs a lot less than that now. companies like 23andme and scientists like Danny Hillis are pushing what’s possible both in terms of price and functionality further and faster.
  10. Stem cell therapies will be common. There’s a lot of work going on around the development of stem cell technologies for the treatment of deafness, heart disease, corneal injury and diabetes amongst other things. Whether these will have become available beyond trials I don’t know. But I think they’ll be possible.

Lots of other things will develop and I’m sure I’ve missed some obvious ones. How we’ll have adapted I have no idea – looking at the political world today I struggle to see how our institutions are equipped to adapt. But overall I’m optimistic about the technological tools we will have at our disposal. As always, whether they make the world a better place or not will be up to us.

 

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