The Tunnel is Near

I started watching the Ray Kurzweil documentary Transcendent Man but gave up about halfway through because it’s a hagiography and I’m a skeptic about the Singularity. Yes, Moore’s Law (or, as I like to call it, the Trend that Moore Observed) has been the source of rapid growth within the field of information technology, but it’s easy for those of us who work in this field to overlook the fact that vast improvements in computing do not automatically translate to improvements in other areas of human endeavor. We forget that computers don’t actually do much of anything. They can help you think through a problem, communicate, and marshall resources to solve it, but they can’t do the work for you. For instance, I have it on good authority that Amazon’s grocery delivery service uses all kinds of sophisticated algorithms to optimize its efficiency, but at some point somebody still has to drive the damn trucks. It’s also not surprising that we’d see a spurt of growth in information technology, because the physical constraints on working with information are relatively small: all you have to do is create a perceptible difference with whatever resources are at hand, and the human mind does the rest.

There’s a fundamental difference between information technology and other kinds of technology that explains why we haven’t seen exponential progress in, say, robotics or space travel over the past fifty years. It’s the difference between boring a mile-long tunnel through a solid granite mountain and walking up to the face of the mountain with a can of spray paint and writing the words “Tunnel goes here”.

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