Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Expecting the unexpected

Exponential change is  fundamental to many processes in nature and in human society. See this youtube video to understand what it really means.

Here are some examples of exponential growth which you may find interesting. (They are approximate but easily checked on the web. Also, the ‘time to double’ does of course assume that the growth rates will continue. GDP stands for gross domestic product, which is normally applied to a particular country, and is a measure of economic output).

World population growth = 1.1 %  p.a. 
Time to double = 64 years
World GDP growth = 4.2 % p.a. 
Time to double = 17 years

World GDP per capita growth = 2.6 % p.a.
 Time to double = 27 years
World scientific, technical and medical knowledge growth = approx. 5% p.a.
 Time to double = 14 years
The most steeply rising parameter is knowledge, measured by the number of peer-reviewed academic papers published in journals and on the web. In a sense you can't measure knowledge but this is the best guide we have.

Increasing literacy, female emancipation, breaking down of cultural barriers, adoption of English as a world language, internet communication between labs, independent of distance, and possibly new ways of thinking encouraged by electronic media, are probably largely responsible. The rate of knowledge growth could even increase. So in the next decade or so humanity’s knowledge of nature and how to use it could have increased by as much as in all previous history. This continues a growth that started in northern Europe 400 years ago and since it does not depend much on economic growth or environmental exploitation or large amounts of energy, there is no obvious reason for it to stop short of a failure of faith in the underlying order of nature.

As mentioned in a previous post there could be game-changing advances in our understanding of nature; and the GDP and population trends could be radically altered by the type of knowledge which is unveiled. Here are just a few possibilities to make the point:

  • A new type of pollution-free energy could allow us to spread to, terraform and colonise other planets; and this would allow, possibly encourage, faster population growth as well as huge increases in GDP.  
  • Breakthroughs in biotechnology and medicine could extend and enhance human life as well as wipe out all diseases and boost eco-friendly food production, thereby causing population to grow within the confines of our biosphere.
  • New production technology could emerge which would vastly increase the rate of GDP growth per person without using more natural resources or which allow a greatly increased cottage industry worldwide, thereby allowing local production of goods as efficiently as is possible today only by using mass production and cheap labour.

At the same time that knowledge is racing ahead the debt burden is fast catching up with a capitalist world operating in a spiritual desert. When it does so it could force western society and its financial system to reform itself completely and this again would affect GDP, population and knowledge growth.

Unfortunately there is no guarantee that such radical discoveries or reformations will be made but given what previous doublings of knowledge have yielded, such as the unleashing of the power of the atom and the discovery that germs come from germs, rather than spontaneously create themselves from nothing, it does not seem an unreasonable assumption.

What is certain is that no mathematical model can possibly predict what lies ahead. Expect the unexpected.

Author, 2077 AD