A Closer Look at Moore’s Law

In 2015, the year that Back to the Future II was supposed to have taken place, many of us that grew up in the 1980s looked back to the promises of that film and asked, quite reasonably, ‘Hey, where’s my flying car?’

Despite some cosmetic and performance changes that have made automobiles more comfortable, more fuel efficient, and less polluting, the basic mechanics of a car have changed little over the past 80 years. Under the hood and at its most fundamental level, a car engine and basic car design is little different to the horseless carriage first developed by Karl Benz in the 1880s and made accessible to a mass market by Henry Ford in the twentieth century. Even the autonomous car is following these basic design principles. This is true of other hardware and infrastructure innovations: the airplane, electrification, housing design, mass transit all took large leaps in design and innovation in the late-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, and then have changed incrementally since. A house is still built using similar materials and using similar methods to those used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. A wheelchair may have improved suspension, but the basic design has not changed since it was first invented in China, one thousand years ago. Science journalist Mike Hanlon wrote in 2014, “there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It sputtered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before.” Hanlon was writing about a period of the twentieth century in which humans went to space, designed life saving vaccines, created television and the silicone chip, and advanced human rights through feminism and civil rights movements. That change has been incremental over that period has had some positive outcomes for humans with regard to employment and employability. Incremental change meant that humans could continue working in roles like manufacturing, retail, and agriculture with similar levels of education and skills to their parents, and stay in those roles until they retired or moved to better paying jobs. However, over the past fifty years, one innovation has had a greater impact on productivity and labour than any other: the micro-processor. This is due to the exponential growth of micro-processing power, which Moore’s Law predicts will double approximately every 18-24 months. This prediction, first made by Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel in 1965, has held steady and has accurately predicted an exponential growth in the capability of computing power over the past fifty years. The effects on the way humans work and the future of work have been profound. A 2015 study by MIT found that since 1995, information technology has been responsible for a 25% growth in productivity in the United States, while the industry itself created just 3% of GDP over that period. This is due to the capacity of software technologies to improve rapidly and take on many of the routine tasks of humans. This growth has been so rapid that a comparison of the growth of computer software capability compared to computer hardware capability is useful: computational power has grown by a factor of 43,000 compared to improvements in computing hardware (desktops, laptops and mobile devices) of a factor of just 1,000 in the five years between 1998 and 2003 (Ford, 2016). That shows that the power of software is not constrained by our capacity to build better devices. We can easily see this ourselves in the release of new smartphones each year: while the computing power of the iOS and Android software improves each year, the basic design and functionality of the smartphone itself has changed very little since it was introduced in 2007. Minor cosmetic changes, such as a larger screen or Bluetooth headphones are revealed and promoted as a stand-in for real innovation in hardware. What does this mean then for employability and the future work of humans? The doubling of computing power every two years and the concurrent improvements in productivity has meant that in some specific work areas, human brains have already been made redundant – human brains cannot evolve as quickly as the software we have created. This is evident in certain areas where software has already shown its diverse capability: Google has largely supplanted the encyclopedia and the dictionary, and in many respects, the doctor and the library; accounting and taxation software has improved the accuracy of accountants and tax lawyers and has replaced many of their simpler tasks; a single automated checkout operator can undertake the routine scanning and charging tasks of multiple human checkout assistants. Task-specific software has taken over many of our simple and routine tasks so quickly and so efficiently that we almost didn’t notice it happening. This has led to a net job loss of 8 million manufacturing roles in the US over a decade (2000-2010) (Ball State University, 2015). Advances in software is also beginning to replace more complex tasks, such as writing reports, analysing data, and providing legal advice. These tasks were previously considered to be the province of humans only, and the invasion of algorithms and programs into this space is unnerving for those of us that still make a living undertaking these ‘human’ tasks. In his 2016 book, ‘The Rise of the Robots,’ Martin Ford argues that it is the expansion of computing power into every aspect of human work that has the power to derail white collar, middle class jobs and push humans into mass unemployment. One aspect humans can address is how we can consider design and systems differently. While computational power is not necessarily constrained by hardware design, humans constrain ourselves by thinking inside the box. The car is designed as it is because a horse and carriage was designed to accommodate the needs of a living animal working in concert with a human driver. Humans thought about the car in terms of the innovation that existed before. Designers of the autonomous car are mostly still trapped in this way of thinking, rather than letting themselves consider that a car really doesn’t have to have four wheels, a steering wheel, or front and back seats if no-one is there to drive it. The Future Work Skills of Novel and Adaptive Thinking, Design Mindset, Computational Thinking, and SenseMaking, will assist humans to consider how we can innovate new services and jobs for the future that are not reliant on the systems, tasks, and products that have existed in the past. Using these uniquely human skills, we should be able to break out of the old design thinking that has trapped us into innovating based on what came before. This can lead us to create new jobs and new industries that harness Moore’s Law, rather than making us beholden to it. The same basic wheelchair design for the past one thousand years? In 2030, I don’t want to be asking, ‘Hey, where’s my Hoverchair?’ I want to own one.

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