Photo: File
Photo: File

Tech News: Rapid evolution of new technologies speeds the world up, but at some cost

By Opinion Time of article published May 10, 2021

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By Louis Fourie

FOR MANY years we have been told by technologists that technology would free up our time and make leisure time abundant.

This will even be more so as computers increasingly take over the mundane tasks of humans while robots are being used in the workplace to do the work of humans such as cashierless stores, driverless vehicles, and robofactories. Over the years, some psychologists were even concerned about how people will handle this new problem of an abundance of free time.

But unfortunately, this scenario has not been realised. Instead of living in world of time wealth, we are living in a world of time poverty characterised by anxiety attacks, depression, burnout, heart attacks and strokes from living an accelerated life. Instead of the luxury of time freedom, we are experiencing the burden of constant urgency.

The Red Queen Effect

Many books have been written about this problem with different perspectives. They mostly point to the same fundamental root cause, namely that time is accelerating due to the Red Queen effect.

In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll tells the story of Alice who was running faster and faster on demand of the Red Queen but always stayed in the same place. This let Alice exclaim: “Well in our country you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing” upon which the Red Queen remarks: “A slow sort of country! Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

The Red Queen effect means that if we do not want to fall behind, we must run extremely fast. We must co-evolve with the technology and systems we have created. In a very competitive world, if a competitor makes a major technological improvement or breakthrough, you must make an equal or greater improvement not to fall behind. Due to digitisation this competing is now against the best in the world. Any company that stands still will move backwards in a rapidly changing world. About 80 years ago the lifespan of top companies were 90 years while now it is on average only 14 years.

The evolution of new technologies, unlike forecasts in the past, do not slow things down or create a leisurely life, but speeds things up and makes the world more competitive.

2020 a compacted year

Why was 2020 such a difficult year for most of us? Because it felt like five years crammed into one: the devastating Covid-19 pandemic; social movements such as Black Lives Matter; destructive wildfires; and numerous technology breakthroughs such as Covid-19 vaccines; quantum supremacy; the AlphaFold artificial intelligence programme that predicts protein structures; and the Generative Pre-trained Transformer, an autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text; to name only a few.

And I doubt it if we will ever go back to the old normal. Life is constantly accelerating, and it seems that we are not totally prepared for it. This exponential growth in technology is accompanied by an increase in the pace of life and leads to people wondering how they should keep up.

The rate of change is accelerating

According to the futurist, Ray Kurzweil, “The future will be far more surprising than most people realise” because not many people realise that it is not only technology changing at an exponential pace, but that also “the rate of change itself that is accelerating.”

Commentators often look at the exponential curve of technology innovation for a short period of time with the result that it appears like a straight line. They then extrapolate the current pace of change over the next number of years to determine their expectations. But if we look at the exponential curve of technological development over a much longer duration of time, the exponential acceleration becomes more obvious.

According to Kurzweil, the paradigm-shift rate is doubling every decade. This means that in 30 years from now the rate of change will be about eight times what it is now. In 30 years from now, we will experience one year of change according to today’s standards crammed into one and a half month. This means that one hundred years of technological advance in the 21st century will be a thousand times greater than achieved in the 20th century or 20 000 years of progress according to 20th century standards.

No wonder that we are experiencing life as a treadmill. If we get off the treadmill even for a short time, we will fall irreversibly behind. This is reason why Netflix due to demand made it possible to watch Netflix at 1.5 times normal speed. Unfortunately, this time acceleration has brought increased anxiety. Perhaps one way to counter the acceleration is to find time every day to read and learn to let your knowledge compound and carry you in the future.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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