Times They Are A Changin’

I consider myself a technophile but our teenage son and daughter are transcending my ability to keep up with the latest and greatest.  If you have children of your own, then you can probably relate.  The fact of the matter is that these kids are growing up in a world that is changing at a rate that we never could have fathomed when they were born.  We are talking about a world that is exponentially different from one year to the next.  

Let’s focus on that for a moment.  To conceptualize the difference between fast and exponential growth, consider a fairly well-known ancient Indian legend.  As the story goes, a king loved to challenge visitors to a game of chess.  To motivate his opponents, the king would sometimes offer an opponent any reward they wanted for a win.  As the tale continues, a visiting sage accepts the king’s challenge and asks for what seems like a modest prize.  Knowing his family to be struggling with hunger, he asks for a few grains of rice to be distributed in particular manner.  The king was to put a single grain of rice on the first chess square and double it on every consequent one.  The first square would get one grain.  The second would get two.  The third would get four, and so on and so forth.

Well, the king of course loses the game.  Being a man of his word, he orders that a bag of rice be brought to the chess board.  The king begins to place the grains of rice on the board as requested.  He manages to get through the first row, as follows:


However, as he works through the second row, he begins to sense that he may have made a big mistake in granting the sage’s request.  Consider the composition of the second row:


The king calls upon someone to perform calculations for the remaining chess squares.  What he discovers is an exponential growth in the number of grains of rice.  At the twentieth square, the king would be required to place 1,000,000 grains of rice.  On the fortieth square, the king is obligated for 1,000,000,000 grains of rice.  And finally, at the sixty fourth square, the king is saddled with a debt of more than 18,000,000,000,000,000,000 grains.  This final number is equal to about 210 billion tons of rice.  At ten grains per square inch, that amount would require rice fields covering twice the surface areas of the Earth, oceans included.  Such is the magic of exponential growth!      

How does this relate to how technology is evolving now versus when our children were born?

Consider this.  The number of transistors per square inch on an integrated circuit is a measure of the power of a computer.  In 1971, that number was at about 2,300.  Now, get this.  The number of transistors has doubled every twelve to eighteen months since 1971!

When my children were born in 2002 and 2004, the number of transistors was about 12,000,000.  In 2011, the count reached 2,600,000,000.  Today, Intel is packing 100,000,000 per square millimeter!  There are just over 645 square millimeters in a square inch.  All signs point to the fact that the number of transistors will continue to double every 12-18 months at least into the 2020’s.  Now THAT is exponential growth!

All of this applies to my children how?  When they were born, the power of computers was still in the first half of the chess board.  Now, the growth of computer power is pushing into truly insane territory.  If you need a real world example of how this changes society rapidly, just take that mobile phone out of your pocket and compare it to the mobile phone you had four years ago, six years ago, etc.  The scope of the ways in which computers changed our lives in a very short time is truly incredible.  

And we are just at the beginning.  Brace yourselves.  And hope that your children will be willing to repeatedly teach you how to operate and understand the latest and greatest.