With the exception of mathematicians, we humans can’t handle big numbers.
The blame falls squarely on our ancestors. To survive, our knuckle-dragging ancient forebears needed to count how many people to feed, and estimate if enough animals were nearby to hunt. These were small numbers that changed little over many generations. Since there was no evolutionary requirement to understand either large numbers or the concept of exponential growth, we humans never developed these abilities.
But we need to start. Ever since the first microchip rolled off the line, digital technologies have been advancing at an exponential rate. So far, this has been apparent mostly in faster boot-up times when we get a new laptop. But soon we’re going to experience exponential in a new way: it’s going to change everything about the ways we do business. We need to better understand what these changes will mean to our complex world.
To illustrate the power of exponential, futurist Ray Kurzweil tells a story about the inventor of chess, whose demo to the Emperor was such a hit that he was allowed to name his reward. This clever inventor was also a mathematician, and he requested his reward in rice; one grain for the first square of the chessboard, two for the second, four for the third, and so on, doubling at each square up to the board’s total of 64 squares. The Emperor granted his request, viewing it as humble, and for a while things progressed as expected. However, after 32 squares, when the prize passed four billion grains, the Emperor started to take notice. By the 64th square the sum had zoomed to 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 grains of rice, a pile that tops Mount Everest!
The Emperor’s failure to foresee this result was completely human. What’s more, this is pretty much where we are today; about 32 doublings since the first real computers were introduced during World War II. Indeed, exponential acceleration continues across the full range of digital technologies including raw compute power, data storage, bandwidth, transmission speed, miniaturization and myriad others. Three years ago IBM’s Watson supercomputer fit into a bedroom. Today it’s the size of 3 pizza boxes.
But wait, there’s more!
Here’s where things get really interesting. Because digital technologies are designed to work together – to combine with each other in systems and networks that multiply value – the exponential growth occurring in individual technologies means that their power in combination is also increasing exponentially. In short, exponential growth in today’s Networked Economy is increasing at an exponential rate. For the mathematically inclined, this means the line on the logarithmic scale isn’t straight, it’s actually curved.