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Living in a World of Accelerating Returns

Written by: Bill Sherman on Saturday, 21 June 2008, 4:18 PM

We’ve long heard about Moore’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns, but a recent article in Wired drives home how the powerful intersection of “better, cheaper, faster” impacts our lives.

As [industry expert Jon] Peddie observes, it was only 11 years ago that the U.S. government spent approximately $33 million to build ASCI Red, one of the first supercomputers to achieve 1 teraflop. The new [AMD] graphics chips offer similar power to the 1997-era supercomputer for a fraction of the cost.

“Now we can go down to Fry’s or Best Buy and buy a graphics board that has 1 teraflop of processing power for $600 or less,” says Peddie.

As individuals, we continually learn and grow. As infants and toddlers, we are sponges. Parents proudly celebrate each of their childrens’ accomplishments. Yet, as we grow older, that rate of learning slows. The curve plateaus.

During our adult lives, we continue to learn, but it occurs more slowly. W learn from our successes and struggles. We may even study something new–a new language, a new process, or take on a new role.

Yet, these improvements are incremental improvements, maybe a few percent each year our adult life. There’s no way that our skills can grow to match the rate of accelerating returns in technology. It’s the difference between incremental and accelerating growth. The two curves will diverge. That simple fact leads to a challenge.

In a world of constantly accelerating returns, we find ourselves specializing more and more. No one individual can keep up with the rate of change–let alone the rate of change in every field. “Renaissance Individuals” cannot become deeply read across many topics (or keep up with the annual production of knowledge across fields).

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