The Singularity Q&A

Q: Could a developmental Singularity be prohibited due to limitations in the speed at which the economy can absorb innovation?

A: The argument has been made that consumers can only absorb so much progress in a given period of time; that the time delay of the general population in catching wind of cutting edge technology places a cap on the rate at which new technology can be brought to market, which therefore slows development.  People will not buy a Widget 3000, goes the argument, if they don't even have a Widget 2000 and perhaps have never even heard of widgets -- hence, the and Widget 4000 model will therefore not be engineered until at least the 2000 has caught on.  If this argument is true, then we may already be progressing as fast as humanly possible, since innovation is already occurring so quickly that we rely on dedicated futurists to spot trends and highlight the best of what's new.  (The allusion to the regular feature in Popular Science magazine is intentional.) 

There is an important kernel of truth to this argument: markets really are the driving force behind innovation.  But we must look at the basic dynamics of how markets have changed over time -- and anticipate secondary effects of technology -- before we can make an educated prognosis on the flexibility of the future economy.

Consider an inventive hunter-gatherer fifty thousand years ago, with a revolutionary concept for a highly ornate mask.  Such an accessory could give a shaman or tribal leader an extra measure of prestige.  But the mask would also be very time-consuming to make, and would require specially made tools.  Before deciding whether or not to go ahead and design the mask, build the tools, and begin production, the part-time artisan first thinks about who might be interested in purchasing (bartering for) one.  Many tribal and spiritual figureheads might like to own this mask, and these make up a few percent of the population.   In a world of millions, this means hundreds, maybe thousands, of potential buyers.  However, only a fraction of these shoppers would be able to afford such a mask.  Of these, only a few might be close enough to trade with -- and one or more of these might be on a war footing with the artisan's band.  The market for the mask, as a result, is only one or two -- hardly worth the investment of planning and tool-building (capital) needed to get a mask-building operation started.  So the mask doesn't get developed.

As a result of such realities, few highly ornate possessions are found which date back to the time when market sizes were so small.  Only with the development of agriculture, when more people could support themselves on smaller plots of land, could wealth accumulate -- usually in the hands of totalitarian strongmen -- and truly tap the creative powers of the populace.  Invention began to foster invention, and the rest is history.

There are far more people today, with more wealth, more peace, more means of communication and transportation, than ever before.  Consequently, the sizes of potential markets are enormous.  If the CEO of Widgets INC calculates that only one in a million people would have any interest in the Widget 4000, this still comes out to millions of potential buyers in a population of 6 billion.  Thanks to modern media and transportation, a sizeable portion of these buyers are within reach of the product, many of whom are gainfully employed and could theoretically afford the latest Widget model.  Even though most of the world has never even heard of Widgets, the Widget 4000 will get developed;  not only that, the rival Doodad Co. will attempt to play a game of one-upmanship, developing a superior product that would appeal to Widget's customers.  The result is a technological arms race that produces a Widget 5000 in short order.  By the time the Doodad 909 is released in response, the product might be so powerful and affordable that the potential market will grow from hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions -- and things will really get interesting.

I'm not just pulling this scenario out of a bodily orifice;  I am allegorically depicting the kinds of forces that have brought you to the point where you probably own both a computer and a cellular phone.  The personal computing and wireless communication industries each started out as niche responses to a few so-called "early adopters" who needed or wanted these technologies so badly that they were willing to pay high prices for limited functionality.  Demand begat supply, profits begat competition, competition begat innovation, and innovation begat demand: a cycle that turned expensive toys into ubiquitous tools in less than 20 years.  You may apply this model to microwave ovens, contact lenses, and even indoor plumbing; the timing may vary, but the maturation mechanism is the same for nearly every modern invention.

That so few people had any knowledge of, or interest in, these products did not deter their development.  In a global economy, innovation is capable of riding on the backs of the early adopters:  a curious bunch to whom the latest technology is a hobby, a necessity, or some combination of both, and who don't recoil at the thought of spending quality time reading Slashdot.

As progress accelerates, the density of technology news will continue to increase.  But we can be confident that markets will also continue to expand, thanks to rising world-wide wages and modernization in populous nations like China.   We can also expect this new technology to increase the efficiency with which early adopters in all markets will learn of new products.  And, if nothing else, we can always count on the vain and the nerdy to do whatever it takes to ride -- and thereby propel -- the latest waves.

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