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Is Exponential Acceleration Part of Evolution?

Evolution affects computers, too


Could exponential acceleration go on forever?

And just how long has it been going on in the first place? In The Age of Intelligent Machines, a precursor to The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil suggests that we can begin measuring the acceleration of technological innovations (which will ultimately lead to the Technological Singularity around the year 2045... spoiler alert!) as far back as the US Census of 1890. But could we go back further? What if we could trace this exponential learning curve as far back as we've been human? Could we trace it back even further?
Let's explore how far back the "Moore's Law" concept could possibly go back, and how much a part of evolution computers really are. Join me for this fascinating ride encompassing the distant past, and possibly the distant future as well.

"Jumps", or paradigms, in life

Exponential growth goes all the way back to the origins of life on Earth. Each paradigm does represent a jump, but when you look at the next order of magnitude up in time, the plot looks smooth.

For example:

  • single cellular life began around 4 billion years ago.
  • Multicellular life began around 1 billion years ago.
  • Animals began about 500 million years ago.
  • Mammals began 200 million years ago.
  • Primates, around 50 million years ago.
  • Genus Homo, 2.5 million years ago.
  • People, 200,000 years (ballpark).

Note that there are 3 billion years between the first and second paradigms (or "jumps"), then just 500 million years between the next ones, then 300 million years, then 150 million years, and so on. Each "jump" is shorter than the previous one.

Intelligence Explosion


Technological paradigms

Incredibly, this same trend continues with technology, as we (humans) are evolving into something beyond what we used to be. Every year, there’s more change than there was in the previous year, and even the pace of change itself is changing.

Starting with our inventions, before we were even modern humans:

  • Language: 1 million years ago (extreme ballpark)
  • Counting with numbers: 50,000 + years
  • Writing: 10,000 years
  • Paper: 3000 years
  • The printing press: 1000 years ago (block printing was around before Gutenberg invented his efficient model)
  • The telegraph: 200 years ago
  • The telephone: 150 years ago
  • The digital computer: 75 years ago

The history from the invention of the digital computer until today is well documented, with clear exponential growth that’s easily measured.

My point is that I believe we are just continuing with inevitable evolutionary trends that go back to the very beginnings of life (and probably before that, but that’s an even more trippy conversation to have). Complexity (and what now passes for intelligence) has increased exponentially over time. If you look at the trends over long enough periods, this is more clear. The reason this happens is simple: the previous paradigm always aids in the creation of the next paradigm. For example, without language, there would be no writing; without writing, there would be no need for writing on paper, which led to the printing press, which led to easily distributed information on a global scale, etc etc etc etc.

Beyond that, each paradigm that is invented is the beneficiary of many other paradigms happening simultaneously. For example, the invention of the digital computer was certainly aided by the printing press; without thorough dissemination of information, Konrad Zuse (and others) wouldn’t have had access to all the mathematical processes needed, nor the logic used, and without the industrial revolution, the parts wouldn’t have been manufactured in any reasonable time frame (in fact, Babbage tried this 100 years earlier and failed mainly because of this!).


Ways of life

One other (much quicker) way to look at the exponential growth is by considering much broader human paradigms of lifestyle:

  • The hunter/gatherer age: 2 million years ago
  • The agricultural age: 20,000 years ago
  • The industrial age: 300 years ago
  • The information age: 50 years ago (give or take)

Since the paradigm from the industrial age to the information age was only 250 years, the next paradigm from the information age should be less than 100 years or so. We are due for another giant leap forward.

What will this giant leap be, and how will it change our way of life? Consider how much the agricultural age catapulted us forward from the earlier hunter/gatherer epoch. We were able to settle in cities, no longer needing to constantly run all day to chase after food. Because we were in one place with many other people, knowledge began to spread far more rapidly. Fast forward to the industrial revolution, with the invention of the printing press and subsequent methods of spreading knowledge, with each method faster, more efficient, and more wide-reaching than the ones before. The information age is well upon us, and we communicate at the speed of light, across the globe, unifying the world as never before, and allowing us to solve problems never before attempted.

Whatever is right around the bend for us, it's going to be a doozy.


Wayne Caswell from Frisco, TX on July 06, 2016: is a related article that examines a future driven by Moore’s Law and the trend of circuits and components getting smaller, faster and cheaper exponentially over time and the eventual blending of science and technology (INFO + BIO + NANO + NEURO).

As small computer processors shrink to the size of a cell or smaller, futurists believe they’ll communicate with neurons directly. So what might be the result of converging Information and Cognitive Computing?

According to Ray Kurzweil, by 2045, we'll be able to multiply our intelligence a billionfold by linking wirelessly from our neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud. Think of symmetric multiprocessing on a global scale with Internet-connected human brains, each with thousands, millions or billions of neuron-attached pico-processors, and all with access to supercomputer powers external to the brain. Think of realtime sharing or thought and creative ideas with other intelligent beings and machines - ALL intelligent beings and machines simultaneously.

Given the exponential nature of such innovation, this gets really weird real quick.

Timothy Arends from Chicago Region on June 06, 2015:

A very interesting theory by Ray Kurzweil that technological progress is just part of the natural progress of evolution. So when we become cyborgs it will just be a part of the natural trajectory we're already on!

Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on March 28, 2015:

Rogelio - I would gladly consider breaking these articles up more. I love easily digestible snippets of text any time I'm reading on the web.

Fraser- you lost me somewhere in there. Can you elaborate?

Fraser Sigsworth on March 23, 2015:

What if the next big jump is not about information technology,what if its just a BIO/INFO LOGICAL COUNTDOWN,ie mathematically it could be a countdown as well as a count up .The paradigm could be .CAN we live together with the power and intelligence we think we have.

Rogelio on February 19, 2015:

I was curious if you ever thuoght of changing the structure of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on December 18, 2014:

Thanks, Emi Sue! I can't wait to see where this wave takes us.

Emily Lantry from Tennessee on December 18, 2014:

Amazing article, as usual. It's astonishing to see all those numbers beside each other really. We have really taken off. Sometimes I can't help but wonder if that's a good thing, or a bad. I love my computer and gadgets as much as the next person, but sometimes I dream of a world with no electricity and everyone living off the land. haha. maybe that's the hippie in me.

Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on September 12, 2014:

SheGetsCreative, I can tell you for certain that there are many folks who are anticipating the next wave of tech, and I think 90% of them work for Google!

Angela F from Seattle, WA on September 12, 2014:

I would hope that with the amount of exponential growth we've seen just in the new millennium that we would find ways to anticipate the "next wave" instead of playing catch up as we do with so much of the uses for today's technology. Aside from that, I'm looking forward to the next few decades :)

Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on September 10, 2014:

Thanks, Billy! I'm honored and tickled to be a part of this wild ride.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 10, 2014:

My friend, when I was young, we had party lines for's been quite the tech ride over the past sixty years. It should be fascinating to see what comes next. Nice research!

Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on July 28, 2014:

@CWanamaker - Do it! I'll definitely check it out. :)

Christopher Wanamaker from Arizona on July 28, 2014:

Great article man! I love thinking about this kind of stuff. So what's the logical next step after the information age? Many would argue that a technological singularity is on our horizon (a doomsday proposition). This is certainly a possibility. However, others would point out that all this technology is leading to paradigm shift towards isolationism, virtual reality, and ultimately transhumanism. This could be a so called "Virtual Age."

Imagine a future where we are always connected to a virtual world that is built on the foundation of the internet, social media & connections, and technology. This utopian world could eventually fulfill our every human desire. However, in this new world, we will never have to leave our homes (or perhaps even our room) and the physical reality that we live today with in slowly fades away into nothingness. It's happening right before all of our very eyes.

I do think that a singularity is near, but not quite as near as some of the most popular futurists portray nor do I necessarily believe the doomsday aspects of the event. We have so many challenges left to conquer when it comes computing power and artificial intelligence. Man, now you've got me interested in writing another hub on this subject.

Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on July 28, 2014:

Thanks, @mbuggieh. I think it's all relative- we've been steadily using information more and more to our advantage, and steadily relying more and more on connectivity since... well, since the beginning. I think you make a valid point especially with regard to radio, which was nearly ubiquitous in America in the 1930s.

mbuggieh on July 28, 2014:

Interesting hub though I must say that the Information Age is much older than 50 years.

I think we need to look to the mid-19th/beginning of the 20th century to find the roots of the Information Age; looks to the telegraph, telephone, radio television.