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FORD, Martin

Rise of the Robots

Imagine that you get in your car and begin driving at 5 miles per hour. You drive for a minute, accelerate to double your speed to 10 mph, drive for another minute, double your speed again, and so on. The really remarkable thing is not simply the fact of the doubling but the amount of ground you cover after the process has gone on for a while. In the first minute, you would travel about 440 feet. In the third minute at 20 mph, you’d cover 1,760 feet. In the fifth minute, speeding along at 80 mph, you would go well over a mile. To complete the sixth minute, you’d need a faster car—as well as a racetrack. Now think about how fast you would be traveling—and how much progress you would make in that final minute—if you doubled your speed twenty-seven times. That’s roughly the number of times computing power has doubled since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958. The revolution now under way is happening not just because of the acceleration itself but because that acceleration has been going on for so long that the amount of progress we can now expect in any given year is potentially mind-boggling. The answer to the question about your speed in the car, by the way, is 671 million miles per hour. In that final, twenty-eighth minute, you would travel more than 11 million miles. Five minutes or so at that speed would get you to Mars. That, in a nutshell, is where information technology stands today, relative to when the first primitive integrated circuits started plodding along in the late 1950s.