Like most the ideas I come up with I will make no claims to being the first to come up with this concept. Nor will I claim to understand it fully, or even well enough to write a commentary on it. So why are you reading my commentary about it? I don't know, why do you do anything you do?
Now that we are past that let's get started. The basic idea behind accelerating returns is that as the Human Race advances we advance at a greater and greater rate. Our advancements help us to advance even further faster. Let's think about the first humans, they were no better off than monkeys, no concept of anything, no idea why anything does anything. They did have one advantage though, intelligence. Now at this point I think we need to separate intelligence from knowledge, the difference is intelligence is the ability to be presented with new situations and comprehend and adapt to them. Knowledge on the other hand is simply how much you know, facts and what not. In other words intelligence is your ability to figure things out and learn, and knowledge is how much you have learned.
Alright, back to our monkey humans. These hairy naked smelly cavemen where no physically different than anyone alive today. We have no physical advantage that they didn't, only the sum of all our previous knowledge to give us a massive head start. So starting out with nothing the only way for them to advance was to make a first breakthrough discovery. We can't be sure what the first "invention" that humans invented, but a safe bet is fire. Fire is pretty simple thing to come up with even starting out with nothing. It appears on it's own, so early humans could simply observe it, and figure out its effects, they could even use it without coming up with a way to make it. However in order for it to become a truly effective tool man needed a way to create fire at his whim, not rely on nature for this most valuable resource. The process of figuring out how to make fire probably took 1000's of years, in fact I'd bet it was invented at some point but then forgotten, probably many times. But, finally it was invented and never (at least to this day) forgotten. Man could now use this powerful resource to his advantage, giving him a decisive lead over other animals. If you think of all the things early man could have come up with fire is by far the most useful, protection, light, heat, cooked food, all of which probably were pretty obvious (maybe not cooked food) once it could be made on a whim.
Man now has the awesome power of the flame at his disposable, he starts flying through the inventions and splits the atom within the week right? Well not quite. You see that's the problem with exponential returns, 1 doubled is 2, which is still pretty small, and 2 doubled is still only 4, it takes a while to get the crazy advancements which you will eventually get. The next invention probably took a few thousand more years, and was probably again invented many times and forgotten many times. If I had to bet I'd say the club was probably next (it was probably first, but fire was more dramatic to start with). A club is a pretty simple invention, and what's nice about the club is that it doesn't take much to make small incremental advancements with it. For instance once you have a club, and are clubbing baby seals left and right eventually a club is going to fly out of your hand and hit your buddy in the face. Eureka, your first ranged weapon, the power of the club but as far away as you can throw it. Now those blood thirsty baby seals can't even get within whisker range of your jugular, that'll wipe the smug looks right off their faces. From here you would probably realize that certain things make better flying clubs than clubs, like say rocks, and maybe that the sharper pointer rocks do more damage. Next thing you know your sharping rocks up and tying them to clubs to make spears, our little boy is growing up.
Well now you have this mountain of vicious baby seals but how are you going to get it back? You know you can only carry 200lbs of meat (100 if the rest of your party has died of dysentery), well you need some sort of transportation method. You've probably seen logs rolling around, and I don't think it would take much to come up with the concept of putting a few logs on the ground and putting something heavy on top then pushing it along. I'm not sure if that counts as inventing the wheel or not, but if it were up to me I'd give you credit for it.
Let's step back and look at what advantages man has now. He has protection with fire and clubs, he has all the baby seals he can eat thanks to the club, he has the ability to move large objects thanks to the roller/wheel, light at night, warmth, all great advantages over his animal counter parts.
Man's sitting pretty, but still plenty of room to grow, it still takes 1000's of years for each invention. What is really needed is some basic form of communications, the ability to walk up to someone you've never meet and explain some idea to them. Verbal communication was probably the first form, and I feel that was probably a major turning point, more valuable than any of the previous inventions. The reason being that you can see a lot of time was probably wasted reinventing things that others had already invented, and not thinking about things in group form. Once we had communication we were set for the explosion.
Right about now I know what you are saying, what about the accelerating returns, I came here for the accelerating returns? Well hold your horses they're coming, all in due time my boy. Another way I like to explain accelerating returns is to start at the year 0 and work to today. We are going to start by adding 1000 years, then half that amount each time (some rounding) and we end up oddly enough right at the year 2000 as the amount we are adding falls less than 1. Each time we will see that at least as much progress has been made in the period than in the previous which was twice the length. So we start at the year 0, height of the Roman Republic, a pretty decent extent of their lands, although nothing compared to the height of the Empire. Now lets go 1000 years into the future, to the year 1000, we don't have that much advancement although I'll admit that can be largely blamed on the fall of the Roman Empire, and the beginning of the Dark Ages, but still there isn't much of an excuse, the Roman Empire was around for basically half that time, and the dark ages weren't totally without any progress. Either way I can't think of any invention made during that period, don't get me wrong, I'm sure there were a few important ones, and tons of minor advancements, but none were noteworthy enough that they come to mind. So now we move 500 years into the future, and we have the period from 1000-1500. So what happened here? Well debatable one of the most important inventions of all time for one thing, 1447 printing press. You may also remember that I claimed that communication was one of the greatest inventions of all time as well. This is because the ability to pool our resources is one of the best things we can do, although I'll go more into that later. We also have Columbus in 1492, while I don't know if his drunken stumbling upon "India" (aka Cuba), could be considered an invention, but all the technologies that allowed him to do so certainly were.
So now we move 250 years from 1500-1750. This should be the first year gap that is immediately obvious to the average person. As stated above in 1500 we had known of a land mass outside of Europe/Asia/Africa for 8 years, and by 1750 America was almost born. Now again I have to admit that America isn't really an invention, but there was an obvious amount of new ideas and technology that weren't present in 1500 (Copernicus, Galileo, Newton). Next we move 125 years with the period of 1750-1875 again the advances here pretty much speak for themselves (railroad, rifling, telegraph). Now we have a minor dilemma since we have to move 62.5 years, we could, but it's easier to round, I round up since .5 does round up, and to move us closer to a power of 2. So 63 years gives us 1875-1938, I don't know about you but to me every time I see this I'm amazed at how it really does show the rate of progress accelerating. I mean think of how huge of a change life in 1875 was from life in 1938 (automobiles, automatic rifles, telephone, radio, TV). This period has 2 distinctions, it's the first period in which a person from the beginning of the period would be shocked by the inventions at the end of the period, yet it's also the first period that is within a life time.
It's time for serious progress, in seriously small periods. Again we round 31.5 up to give us a lovely power of 2 (so no more rounding needed), and our period is 1938-1970. So we split the atom, landed a man on the moon, and invented the microchip, not too shabby. From here on out the example kind of gets shaky, although there are certainly many advancements in the years to come, it's debatable if a period of half the length is still giving at least as much returns as the previous period. I think the best example of accelerating returns is to compare the progress of the whole of the human race from 0-1000 to the progress in during 1875-1938, in that time we made at least 10 fold more advancements than during the 1000 year period. Another thing you can do is to extend this example backward from 0, so 2000BC - 0, and even 6000BC - 2000BC, I'd bet it could go back until the start of the human race and be at least in the ballpark.
Why this was happening? What allowed us to advance at an ever growing rate? Well as I said above I feel communication inventions are the most important, the ability to spread our knowledge is valuable beyond measure. Without the ability to communicant vast resources are wasted through reinvention. While you may be saying ok well once we could talk what more do we need, well let me serve up this little antidote. Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Greece Aristotle was inventing random crap. He invented a toy which boiled water and the force of the steam venting out spun the ball it was in around at a very fast speed (not a very fun or safe toy). This toy if you haven't realized yet was a steam engine, and wasn't reinvented and utilized for over 2000 years, until the 1800's. As genius as he was he didn't see much use in it (as I said it was a toy, and not a very fun toy), so he probably never showed it to very many people, and never thought much of it. But you can bet that during that same time there was a man of at least equal intelligence as Aristotle living somewhere else, and had he seen that toy he would have instantly seen the potential for doing work, and the steam engine would have been brought into use 2000 years earlier. Now while this wouldn't have jump started the industrial revolution 2000 years early, it would have certainly been very useful, and would have aided in the acceleration of returns.
Another interesting thought I have come up with that helps me understand the importance of communications is this. Imagine if you took a new born baby, one that never even saw a human, and put it him in care of a monkey. You kept the monkey/human family away from human interaction forever. Would the human ever advance? Would he invent things like fire or clubs? Probably not, as I said above it took thousands of years before those things were invented. They were quite possibly invented by the smartest human to ever live, but since he lived 50,000 years ago we just don't know. In fact since the majority of humans lived in a time that we would describe as cavemen, it is statically likely that the smartest human to ever live did live as a caveman, and probably invented fire, only to have it forgotten after his death. But back to our monkey/human family, let's take it a step farther. Say we make a few thousand test tube babies, and implant them into monkeys, so the monkeys are pregnant with humans, then we place all these monkeys on a newly teraformed world. The planet would be void of any intelligent life, but would have normal Earth animals on it. The humans would all be born then grow up to mate with each other and it would be just like starting over the human race, being able to observe how quickly we could advance without any previous knowledge to help.
I feel there are 3 main types of inventions, the first is communications, the second is scientific, and the last is population, each type helps us advance in it's own way. I've already explained communications and how that helps, scientific should be pretty obvious, any tool which helps us work and invent things would fall into this category. The last one though population is perhaps the hardest to explain, or to realize. Basically the more people we have the greater chance of invention on a whole. Advances in farming would fall here too. If you think about early farming each person was probably barely able to grow enough food for themselves. As new farming techniques, and technologies were invented each farmer could feed more people. Every person that isn't farming is instead able to do something else for society. So anything that allows us to live longer or support a larger population falls into this category, but also anything that simply gives us more free time I feel would fit in with the category as well. It's all about increasing the amount of man hours the human race has on a whole, you can either increase the number of humans, or give each one more time, time they don't have to spend fighting for their lives. Early man probably spent near every waking moment either tracking down food or defending his tribe, there probably wasn't a whole lot of downtime to mess around with rocks and sticks to try to make spears or fire.
Here's another way of explaining accelerating returns, which I recently came up with, and feel it fits quite well. Imagine you are starting out with nothing, completely naked with nothing. Life would be pretty rough, to say the least. You'd pretty much have to beg for money until you saved up enough to buy some clothes, and some hygiene products, but once you got them you could get some part time job and make quite a bit more. After a few years you would probably have all kinds of stuff, car and a place to live, you could probably get some interviews and get a better job making a bit more. At this point you could probably go to school, get a degree and move up to a real job. However there is a limit, you aren't going to keep accelerating, getting better and better jobs, making more and more money off into infinity. Why not, that is the question, as it relates to the Human Race and accelerating Returns. In our job example the reason you stop moving up is you will eventually reach the limit of what people are willing to pay you for your labor. If you are particularly skilled you will probably get higher than someone who is stupid and terrible at everything, but both will stop at some point.
The question now becomes is the Human Race as a whole bound in the same way? Will we eventually reach our max potential and just get gradual "cost of living" raises, or is the example not that similar to accelerating returns? Well I think one thing to think about is the fact that most people once they've reached a comfortable level stop trying to get a better paying job. Sure they are always open to the idea, but they aren't actively searching, they aren't spending every free moment making themselves better off to get a better job. The Human Race by contrast will never stop working for better living. Also in the job market there's a limit to what you are going to get paid, no matter how good you are. Since you are being paid by another real world entity you can only be paid what they can afford to pay you. And I think that is the key difference between the example and accelerating returns, there is no entity handing out advancements to us, we make them ourselves.
So what kind of advancements can we expect? I feel there is a great potential for all 3 categories. First off the scientific group should seem most obvious, there isn't any point in explaining the different scientific discoveries we could make. As for population I feel that is also pretty clear, all we need to do is come up with ways that will allow more people to live. Either more people on Earth, or people on other planets, both of which should be done soon enough. As for communications well this could be the hardest area to really visualize how we could advance anymore, but we could always move into telepathics of some sort, instant understanding of any idea by anyone else. Now let me jump back to scientific here, besides the obvious scientific advancements what if we could come up with ways to just make us smarter? This brings up one of the most interesting ideas with accelerating returns, the Singularity.
The idea of the Singularity is that at some point we will either be able to directly increase human intelligence (genetic engineering), supplement it (cybernetics implants), or replace it (artificial intelligence). To me the last one is most exciting, since an AI would be the easiest to advance even further. The reason the Singularity is so important is that at the point which we create a smarter intelligence than what we have now (us), we would begin to accelerate even faster than we are now. The intelligence would be able to actually improve itself, and that new even smarter intelligence would be able to make even greater improvements to itself. Like I said to me the AI is most exciting as it would grow the fastest. The AI once as intelligent as us would make breakthroughs about itself faster than we could, and they would be implemented and allow it to start improving itself further.
The name of the Singularity comes from the fact that many think that when we make that breakthrough it will start the near vertical upward curve on the exponential growth chart. In other words advancements will start to come at a nearly infinite rate. We as humans could quite possibility get left behind very fast. It would get to the point where we would be struggling to understand the advancements and the AI would already be 10 generations down the road. It could certainly spell the end for our little race.