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A post in the New York Times this morning asserted that Software Progress Beats Moore’s Law. It’s a short post, but the money quote is from Ed Lazowska at the University of Washington:
“The rate of change in hardware captured by Moore’s Law, experts agree, is an extraordinary achievement. “But the ingenuity that computer scientists have put into algorithms have yielded performance improvements that make even the exponential gains of Moore’s Law look trivial,” said Edward Lazowska, a professor at the University of Washington.
The rapid pace of software progress, Mr. Lazowska added, is harder to measure in algorithms performing nonnumerical tasks. But he points to the progress of recent years in artificial intelligence fields like language understanding, speech recognition and computer vision as evidence that the story of the algorithm’s ascent holds true well beyond more easily quantified benchmark tests.”
If you agree with this, the implications are profound. Watching Watson kick Ken Jennings ass in Jeopardy a few weeks ago definitely felt like a win for software, but someone (I can’t remember who) had the fun line that “it still took a data center to beat Ken Jennings.”
While that doesn’t really matter because Moore’s Law will continue to apply to the data center, but my hypothesis is that there’s a much faster rate of advancement on the software layer. And if this is true it has broad impacts for computing, and computing enabled society, as a whole. It’s easy to forget about the software layer, but as an investor I live in it. As a result of several of our themes, namely HCI and Glue, we see first hand the dramatic pace at which software can improve.
I’ve been through my share of 100x to 1000x performance improvements because of a couple of lines of code or a change in the database structure in my life as a programmer 20+ years ago. At the time the hardware infrastructure was still the ultimate constraint – you could get linear progress by throwing more hardware at the problem. The initial software gains happened quickly but then you were stuck with the hardware improvements. If don’t believe me, go buy a 286 PC and a 386 PC on eBay, load up dBase 3 on each, and reindex some large database files. Now do the same with FoxPro on each. The numbers will startle you.
It feels very different today. The hardware is rapidly becoming an abstraction in a lot of cases. The web services dynamic – where we access things through a browser – built a UI layer in front of the hardware infrastructure. Our friend the cloud is making this an even more dramatic separation as hardware resources become elastic, dynamic, and much easier for the software layer folks to deploy and use. And, as a result, there’s a different type of activity on the software layer.
I don’t have a good answer as to whether it’s core algorithms, distributed processing across commodity hardware (instead of dedicated Connection Machines), new structural approaches (e.g. NoSql), or just the compounding of years of computer science and software engineering, but I think we are at the cusp of a profound shift in overall system performance and this article pokes us nicely in the eye to make sure we are aware of it.
The robots are coming. And they will be really smart. And fast. Let’s hope they want to be our friends.
Future Shock by Alvin Toffler was published 40 years ago. I must have read it around the time I turned 10. As a kid my parents fed me a steady diet of books that were more than I was ready for at the time, but I gobbled them down anyway. I vaguely recall Future Shock being one of them.
A month ago I decided to read it again. Ironically, it’s not available on the Kindle so I had to buy (and lug around) a paperback copy of it. The one I have appears to be on it’s 62nd printing according to the title page (that’s a lot of books.) I read it over the course of a few days – it’s long as has some sections that require slower reading to make sure you get the nuance.
I love to read “old science fiction” – stuff written in the 1950′s – 1980′s about the time frame from 2010 – 2040. It hadn’t occurred to me that “old futurism” would be equally interesting, satisfying, and enlightening. Future Shock did not disappoint me – it was stunningly interesting, even 40 years later.
Like old science fiction, Toffler got some things exactly right and others completely wrong. Two of the broad themes that were right on target were the “super industrial society” (his phrase for the information age) and what I started calling “mass disposability” as a proxy for the notion of the consumeration of everything. I was completely fascinated by both of these (which comprised about a third of the book), especially with his prediction that, as humans, we wouldn’t know how to deal with the changes that were coming and they’d create meaningful societal disruptions.
There’s plenty of hippy dippy early 1970′s in here (separation of birth mothers from parents, communes as next generation societies, and temporary marriages) that appeared for a little while before vanishing. But much of the societal shifts Toffler predicts either materialized in some form or evolved into something more sustainable.
The last section of the book is titled “Strategies for Survival.” When I read it, I tried to imagine being 45 years old in 1970 and projecting out to 2010. For some reason, I got a little freaked out by this as I began imagining how different today’s world is for someone who is 85 today. Then, I lined this notion up next to the world of a 5 year old today (for example, my niece) and tried to imagine what her world would be like in 80 years. I couldn’t.
If you are looking for something chewy to read over the holidays that will make you think, this is for you.
I snuck another book in last night before I went to bed but was too tired to blog about it. After The New Polymath, I felt like I needed something similar but different so I read Where’s My Jetpack by Daniel Wilson (CMU Ph.D. in Robotics).
It was hilarious. Following are the chapter titles: Jetpack, Zeppelin, Moving Sidewalk, Self-Steering Car, Hoverboard, Teleportation, Underwater Hotel, Dolphin Guide, Space Vacation, Hologram, Smell-O-Vision, Robot Pet, Mind-Reading Device, Anti-Sleeping Pill, Invisible Camouflage, Artificial Gills, X-Ray Specs, Universal Translator, Robot Servant, Unisex Jumpsuit, Smart House, Food Pill, Self-Contained, Skyscraper City, Ray Gun, Space Mirror, Space Elevator, Cryogenic Freezing, and Moon Colony.
Wilson talks about the history of each invention, along with their original sci-fi source as well as the actual lineage of the invention in the real world. It was surprising to me how many of these almost got commercialized but then died for – well – usually pretty obvious reasons.
Of these, the three I want the most is a Jetpack, a Hoverboard, and a Teleportation Machine. Actually, I’d like a portable teleportation machine that my jetpack fits in. Smell-O-Vision – not so much.
If you read one book in 2009, read Daemon.
It’s unusual for me to recommend a book so early in the year. Daemon is only my fourth book of 2009. It’s a first novel. And it’s mental floss. But it’s as close to flawless for a book of its genre.
I first heard about Daemon in December from Rick Klau. I got to know Rick at FeedBurner; he’s now at Google running Blogger. Rick told me that I had to read this book. He pointed me to a blog post he had written in 2007 about it.
“I can remember the feeling I had, sitting in the audience as the credits rolled after seeing The Matrix on opening day. I knew I’d seen something that was different, important, and something that I’d want to see again. And again. When I finished Daemon this afternoon, I had that same feeling. Daemon is to novels what The Matrix was to movies. It will be how other novels that rely on technology are judged.”
I immediately one-clicked it on Amazon. It wasn’t available for the Kindle so the hardcover showed up a week or so ago. I devoured it this weekend. Rick’s assessment was correct – this is by far the best techno-thriller I’ve ever read.
The author – Daniel Suarez (also known as Leinad Zeraus) describes himself as “an independent systems consultant to Fortune 1000 companies … An avid gamer and technologist, he lives in California.” He doesn’t mention that he is a magnificent writer and brilliant storyteller.
I won’t ruin any of it for you. It’s got everything you’d expect in a fast paced book that will appeal to anyone that likes Crichton, Brown, Clancy, or my newfound friend David Stone. The tech holds together well and is completely accessible to non-nerds and nerds alike. It’s a page turner with very little wasted plot or character development. And it sets up the sequel (Freedom) superbly.