Recent news swirling around the tech industry suggests that the bloom is finally coming off the rose. After decades of headlines announcing an unbroken string of successes, the news is turning toward tech’s previously unexplored underbelly, which may signal the end of tech’s wild ride.
Converging factors including slowing and flattening out of the performance curve (aka Moore’s Law), recent automation disruptions that have left many observers reeling, and good old economics are waving a yellow caution flag.
The Good: Moore’s Law
A law of nature, like gravity, is a fact that is true anywhere in the universe and the kind of thing you can take to the bank. Moore’s “Law” was never in that category though many people were able to bank huge profits over the last half-century as increasing computing power inspired a tech revolution like the world has never seen.
Simply put Moore’s Law describes exponential growth in CPU processor power. For decades, on a schedule of about 2 years, processing power would double and cost of a given amount of processing power would be cut in half producing a four-fold improvement. Application developers would routinely build systems anticipating greater throughput to support their burgeoning suites and they have never been disappointed. Until now.
According to reports from industry stalwarts including Intel Corporation, Moore’s Law may be stalling out. An article in MIT Technology Review from March 2016 put it bluntly saying that if not dead, Moore’s Law was at least slowing down, noting that Intel would increase the time between generations of its chips.
Since the 1970s, Intel has released chips that fit twice as many transistors into the same space roughly every two years, aiming to follow an exponential curve named after Gordon Moore, one of the company’s cofounders.
That continual shrinking has helped make computers more powerful, compact, and energy-efficient. It has helped bring us smartphones, powerful Internet services, and breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence and genetics.
And Moore’s Law has become shorthand for the idea that anything involving computing gets more capable over time.
But another article in the same magazine two months later was more to the point declaring that “Moore’s Law Is Dead.”
But the case isn’t simply that chip speeds are reaching limits. What we’re doing with technology is also causing many people to rethink its place in society.
A recent spate of negative press about social media’s role in recent elections has caused consternation throughout Western Civilization prompting lawmakers to invite senior executives to explain their companies’ business models and to account for how the Russians managed to purchase social media ads that may have influenced voters.
Further, a recent opinion piece in The Guardian suggested that social media is inherently addictive, concluding that governments have a role in regulating social media in the same way it regulates addictive substances:
Society regulates products that create addiction. We have laws to prevent discrimination and election manipulation. None of these regulations and laws has yet been applied to Facebook and Google. The time has come.
Perhaps worse for society, the tech boom is not creating the number and kinds of jobs it once did.
The current trend is for technology to automate away jobs that were once considered skilled or semi-skilled. Even some white collar jobs appear to be in jeopardy. E-commerce makes purchasing without a salesperson or even a checker simple and Amazon is the leading exemplar. From factories to coal mines, automation is replacing some of the labor once considered human-oriented. Even tech itself is automating and eliminating jobs as cloud computing replaces individual data centers and application generators produce running code. In a few years, we might even see truck drivers replaced by autonomous vehicles.
Now, add science
To be alive in this moment is to witness a world order crumbling instigated by smarter and better technology.
But it would be a mistake to think that this moment is unique. Throughout the history of modern capitalism, disruptive technological innovations have created new industries and changed life as we know it. But as the disruptions age, they commoditize and automate away some of the jobs they create. Since the Industrial Revolution another disruptive innovation or suite of them has emerged to enliven the economy and renew the cycle.
But economic cycles are messy. They don’t follow a script and they don’t start on time. When the Luddites rioted in the early 19th century protesting the implementation of new textile machinery that automated away their jobs, there were no immediate replacement jobs, which left many workers economically stranded. The social safety net was developed to help in such situations but the net is far from robust enough.
What’s more, it is not simply the fact that swathes of jobs are being automated away. It’s the breadth of impact across multiple industries and across multiple geographies at the same time that gives cause for concern.
I’m an optimist. It’s clear that the tech revolution is in its later stages but it won’t dissolve. Civilization is now built on a foundation of technology, telecommunications, and information. If anything this triad will only become more important for the betterment of society.
The peaking of Moore’s Law is important but it will drive innovators to find new solutions that will produce enhanced processing power and lead to new solutions. For example, just as we now use separate CPUs for graphics, the day is rapidly approaching when popular individual algorithms may have dedicated processors as well.
But from here, technology will continue its march to efficiency so don’t expect enough of an upturn in jobs that will lead the economy. Tech is becoming just another part of the economy like steel-making and textiles or even banking. These are all big sectors that have commoditized significantly and they depend on huge markets because margins are razor thin.
Tech is going that way. IoT is a commoditization and automation of what went before, so is the application of analytics and machine learning. It’s true that all of these technologies do things at a scale that people can’t and they still drive significant employment. But there’s a big difference between being important and driving the economy. That’s why savvy observers are watching for signs of the next disruption.
Image credit - via Kubais - fotolia and VMWare