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Expect exponential progress

Rapid gains in technology point to a bright future.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology was so advanced in 1965 that it actually had a computer. Housed in its own building, it cost $11 million (in today's dollars) and was shared by all students and faculty. Four decades later, the computer in your cellphone is a million times smaller, a million times less expensive, and a thousand times more powerful. That's a billionfold increase in the amount of computation you can buy per dollar.

Yet as powerful as information technology is today, we will make another billionfold increase in capability (for the same cost) over the next 25 years. That's because information technology builds on itself – we are continually using the latest tools to create the next so they grow in capability at an exponential rate. This doesn't just mean snazzier cellphones. It means that change will rock every aspect of our world. The exponential growth in computing speed will unlock a solution to global warming and solve myriad other worldly conundrums.

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Thanks to its exponential power, only technology possesses the scale to address the major challenges – such as energy and the environment, disease and poverty – confronting society.

Take energy. Today, 70 percent of it comes from fossil fuels, a 19th-century technology. But if we could capture just 1/10,000th of the sunlight that falls on Earth, we could meet 100 percent of the world's energy needs using this renewable and environmentally friendly source. We can't do that now because solar panels rely on old technology, making them expensive, inefficient, heavy, and hard to install. But a new generation of panels based on nanotechnology is starting to overcome these obstacles. The tipping point at which energy from solar panels will actually be less expensive than fossil fuels is only a few years away. The power we are generating from solar is doubling every two years; at that rate, it will be able to meet all energy needs within 20 years.

Nanotechnology itself is an information technology and therefore subject to what I call the "law of accelerating returns," a continual doubling of capability about every year. I'm confident that the day is close at hand when we will be able to obtain energy from sunlight using nanoengineered solar panels and store it for use on cloudy days in nanoengineered fuel cells for less than it costs to use environmentally damaging fossil fuels.

It's important to understand that exponentials seem slow at first. In the mid-1990s, halfway through the Human Genome Project to identify all the genes in human DNA, researchers had succeeded in collecting only 1 percent of the human genome. But the amount of genetic data was doubling every year, and that is actually right on schedule for an exponential progression. The project was slated to take 15 years, and if you double 1 percent seven more times you surpass 100 percent. In fact, the project was finished two years early. This helps explain why people underestimate what is technologically feasible over long periods of time – they think linearly while the actual course of progress is exponential.

What's more, this exponential progression of information technology will affect our prosperity as well. The World Bank has reported, for example, that poverty in Asia has been cut in half over the past decade due to information technologies and that at current rates it will be cut by another 90 percent over the next decade. That phenomenon will spread around the globe.

Clearly, the transformation of our 21st-century world is under way, and information technology, in all its forms, is helping the future look brighter ... exponentially.

Ray Kurzweil, a computer scientist and inventor, is the author of "The Singularity Is Near" and coauthor of "Fantastic Voyage." ©2008 The Washington Post.