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Watching the Law of Accelerating Returns

12 March 2007 (updated 6 June 2020)

Watching the Law of Accelerating Returns

Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel Corporation, observed in the 1960s that the ratio of complexity to cost for computer components doubled approximately every two years. Today this observation is known among computer scientists as “Moore’s Law.”

In its original formulation, Moore’s Law reflected the rate of advance of the transistor-based computer architecture of the time. More recently, Kurzweil recognized that Moore’s Law also accounts for the rate of advance of previous computer architectures (electromechanical, relay, and vacuum tube computing) and subsequent computer architectures (integrated circuit computing), and that the rate of advance has been increasing.

Furthermore, Kurzweil observed that Moore’s Law could be generalized to describe accurately the rate of technological advance broadly, well beyond the field of computing. This generalization of Moore’s Law is known among futurists as the “Law of Accelerating Returns,” which holds that technology as a whole is advancing, and will continue to advance, at an exponential rate.

Some of the latest evidence for the Law of Accelerating Returns can be observed in information storage and parallel processing trends. Total information storage in 2003 was estimated at 5 exabytes. Applying the Law of Accelerating Returns, we may have predicted the following:

  • 5 Exabytes in 2003

  • 10 Exabytes in 2004

  • 20 Exabytes in 2005

  • 40 Exabytes in 2006

BusinessWeek reports that information storage at the end of 2006 reached an estimated 40 exabytes, as the Law of Accelerating Returns would have predicted. In 2006, parallel processing became popular among consumers, as Intel pushed its dual core processors into the market. Already, in early 2007, we are seeing quad core processors entering the consumer market. Assuming these are the beginning of a parallel processing trend, the Law of Accelerating Returns may predict the following:

  • 2 Processors in 2006

  • 4 Processors in 2007

  • 8 Processors in 2008

  • 16 Processors in 2009

  • 32 Processors in 2010

  • 64 Processors in 2011

As it turns out, Intel has pledged to introduce 80-core processors into the consumer market by 2011, much as the Law of Accelerating Returns would predict.

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