The Second Half of the Chessboard

The Economist last week tackles the question of the Peter-Thiel style argument regarding the importance of recent innovation.  It’s an overall so-so job but there are some complex, but fascinating metaphors and arguments on how innovation’s benefits might circulate through the economy over time.  Here is one:

And information innovation is still in its infancy. Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer of computer science and a devotee of exponential technological extrapolation, likes to talk of “the second half of the chess board”. There is an old fable in which a gullible king is tricked into paying an obligation in grains of rice, one on the first square of a chessboard, two on the second, four on the third, the payment doubling with every square. Along the first row, the obligation is minuscule. With half the chessboard covered, the king is out only about 100 tonnes of rice. But a square before reaching the end of the seventh row he has laid out 500m tonnes in total—the whole world’s annual rice production. He will have to put more or less the same amount again on the next square. And there will still be a row to go.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT make use of this image in their e-book “Race Against the Machine”. By the measure known as Moore’s law, the ability to get calculations out of a piece of silicon doubles every 18 months. That growth rate will not last for ever; but other aspects of computation, such as the capacity of algorithms to handle data, are also growing exponentially. When such a capacity is low, that doubling does not matter. As soon as it matters at all, though, it can quickly start to matter a lot. On the second half of the chessboard not only has the cumulative effect of innovations become large, but each new iteration of innovation delivers a technological jolt as powerful as all previous rounds combined.

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