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Waiting for the Singularity
by Thomas Jestin
Geek is chic! Geek is the new sexy! Bill Gates is the richest man in the world! Zuckerberg had a movie made about him barely six years after founding Facebook! The sharing economy is booming! Software is eating the world!
Or perhaps we should say, software is transforming the world, rather than eating it! And there are a lot of reasons to think that the world is changing for the better!
Although nowadays no-one can deny that we’ve entered the age of software, this era has been a long time coming.
Yes, really! Because it was back in 1843 (yes 1843, not 1943) that the first computer algorithm was written! That honor goes to Lady Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (yes, really!). She created the first ever computer program, an incredibly detailed algorithm written to calculate the Numbers of Bernoulli using Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a precursor of the modern computer.
From then on, the computing world began evolving at an incredible rate: we quickly went from electromechanical computing machines, to building computers with relays and then on to using vacuum tubes. It is a happy decimal coincidence that in 1943, exactly 100 years after Lady Lovelace wrote the first algorithm, the British developed the Colossus vacuum tube computer to try and break Nazi military encryption codes. That’s right, coders were – and still are – first and foremost ‘code-breakers’! Colossus was in fact the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer! It was able to read printed orders and could be configured to process Boolean logic operations.
Then came transistors and after that integrated circuits - the fifth big shift in computing- that surround us today.
As a child, Bill Gates was very lucky to be able to have access to a computer, yet nowadays just one of our ubiquitous smartphones is millions of times more powerful than the combined processing power of all of NASA’s computers in 1969.
Nearly 50 years ago, Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, first described the famous law which carries his name: Moore’s Law predicts that, thanks to technological progress, the number of transistors we can fit on a given microprocessor will double every 18 months. In other words, the amount of computing power available for a given amount – say $1000 – doubles every 18 months. When applied to computing history, Moore’s Law accurately describes the evolution of computing over every paradigm shift since the beginning of the 20th century.
This exponential growth in hardware performance has been a boon for developers, whose job is to write programs to put this raw computing power to use! As with all exponential functions, progress was slow at first, but we’re now reaching the steep knee of the curve!
Consider, for example, that the first telephone took 75 years to reach 50 million users, whereas radio took only 38 years, and television just 13. Facebook took 3 and a half years to reach the same amount. And Pokémon Go just 19 days!
Google, founded in 1998, has 7 products with more than a billion monthly users: Search, Maps, Gmail, Android, Chrome, Google Play and the old favorite Youtube. WhatsApp also surpassed a billion users, with its team of just 50 developers.
Uber has been around for just 5 years and wants to make accessing transport as easy and ‘reliable as running water’. The Uber market in San Francisco is today three times larger than the size of the entire taxicab market before the startup arrived in the city. Uber is active in more than 500 cities across the world.
Not everyone is happy; these applications make some jobs in the old economy obsolete. But that's what happens in revolutions. And this revolution isn’t being fought with weapons or with blood, but with consumer choice. These well-marketed bundles of code often supply a better, more comprehensive, faster and cheaper service than their traditional rivals, and that’s why customers are are voting for them with their dollars. Today it is less expensive to get around by Uber in San Francisco than it is to own your own car. And imagine what will happen when the cars can drive themselves. The Google Car has clocked more than 1.5 million self-driving miles to this day and since 2012 it is said to be statistically safer than a human driver. Soon everybody – including the young, the old, the visually impaired – will be able to travel anywhere at anytime, almost for free, while reading, relaxing, sleeping or working, all the while in greater safety than ever before. 38,300 people died on the road in the USA in 2015. 3,380 Americans died in terror attacks between 2001 and 2013. Which one do we talk about more?
It’s thanks to the software era that Airbnb celebrated their hundred millionth customer in July. Airbnb, an accommodation company which owns lines of code but no hotel room, is now more valuable than Hilton and Hyatt combined.
We live in amazing times! It has never been easier for developers to start building their next project. We have access to open source libraries available online for free, which make building the next big application easier and faster than ever before, and thanks to one-click access to scalable cloud computing and hosting, we can launch new applications in record time. Lastly, Growth Hacking (what happens when developers meet marketers) allows you to test your minimum viable product at next to no cost. And with initial traction, investors will show up at your door. You may also ask for help via crowdfunding (or peer-to-peer lending): the team at Pebble Time were able to raise a million dollars in just one hour!
Maybe the hardest part is learning to code! Nowadays kids are starting younger and younger. Mozart will always be remembered as a musical genius who composed his first piece at 6 years old. But the computing world also has its share of child prodigies, like Anvitha Vijay who at 9 years old was the youngest ever iPhone App developer, and who learnt to code at age 7 by watching videos on Youtube. As well as learning reading, writing and arithmetic, it’s more vital than ever that our children learn to code, at least the very basics. Because today, every time someone makes a ‘Smart’-something, it means you need a developer to work on it.
Coders have the ability to reach more people than ever before. Today there are 3.5 billion internet users worldwide out of 7.5 billion people in the world. Experts predict that by 2020 there will be more than 50 billion ‘Smart’ objects in the world, able to collect and analyze data. Speaking of which, over the last three years we have captured more data than in the entire history of humankind before then, and it’s thanks, in large part, to software written by coders. This is ‘Big Data’, made possible by hardware progress and software innovation.
Even when they stop writing code, some of the most accomplished hackers in the world spend their free time and their fortunes giving back through ambitious and innovative programs: Bill Gates wants to end world poverty; Elon Musk aims to herald the beginning of the clean energy revolution and wants to make humans an interplanetary species; Elon Musk (yes, again), Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg want to bring the internet to the 4 billion people who still don’t have access, via satellites, balloons or drones!
We’re living in insane times! And this is just the beginning. Virtual and augmented reality could start the next computing and software revolution, even though the current smartphone revolution is barely 10 years old! HoloLens and other emerging platforms are already open to third-party developers. Let’s not forget the amazing promise of artificial intelligence either, a field where giants like Google already offer open-source machine learning libraries, which help startups create new products such as the chatbots of tomorrow.
And all the while hardware gets better and better, moving closer and closer towards the imminent quantum computing revolution. Some say this would be such a leap compared to the supercomputers of today, that it will outshine the jump made from the Abacus to our supercomputers, allowing billions of times greater performance. Such a leap would allow us to simulate atomic and molecular structures and make new unimagined discoveries in medicine, material sciences, climatology or even astronomy, to name just a few.
The coming years will be exciting, and developers are at the forefront of these changes! This book, with its exclusive comic strips and interviews, has been written to honor and celebrate their world and their culture, which remain relatively unknown to the general public! That makes this a book for everyone! Before artificial intelligence makes developers redundant of course...
Thomas Jestin @thomasjestin
Partner and co-founder of CommitStrip, co-founder of KRDS, founder of the NGO kupita.org and columnist on SingularityHub.com.