The Second Half of the Board

In a recent Harvard Business Review webinar, Andrew McAfee of MIT Sloan School of Management’s Centre for Digital Business relates a story told by the engineer and futurist, Ray Kurzweil.

Bear with me a minute.  It’s an old fable.  Chess was invented in India.  It’s inventor shows the game to his ruler, who is so impressed he asks the inventor what he would like as a reward.  The inventor asks for a single grain of rice on the first square of the board, two grains on the second square, four on the third, eight on the fourth, and so on, until all 64 squares have been used.  The emperor, who has no grasp of the power of exponential growth, thinks this is a humble request and grants it.

Of course he’s been had.  By the time we reach the 64th square, the process of doubling up leads to a mound of rice bigger than Everest, more rice than has been produced in the history of the world.

But the interesting bit is the 32nd square.  Up until this halfway point, the sums involved are at least feasible.  At square 32 we have roughly a billion grains of rice, about equivalent to one big harvest.  It is in the second half of the board that the scaling up rapidly becomes surreal.

So what?

Most people have heard of Moores Law, attributable to Intel founder Gordon Moore.  As tweaked by another Intel executive, David House, Moore’s Law implies a doubling of the performance of integrated circuits every 18 months.  It’s an odd law in that it doesn’t stand scrutiny in theory but it works very well in practice.  It has proved very accurate over a period of decades.

As McAfee points out, if we take square one for ‘computing power’ as being 1958, the year that the US government started to measure IT investment as a distinct category, then 32 iterations of Moores Law takes us to 2006.  In 2006 we moved onto the second half of the board.

So if you have a feeling that advances in computing have started to get awfully mind-boggling in recent years, you’re probably right.  Change remains exponential, while many of us in business still think in linear terms.  I’ve not noticed any real difference in how most managers approach and plan IT projects now compared to 20 years ago.  Oh dear.

There are good reasons to think that Moore’s Law will reach a natural limit well before we reach the 64th square.  But that’s not the point.  Now we’re on the second half of the board, every square is taking us to extraordinary new levels of capability.

The Cloud.  Big data.  Social/mobile.  Gene sequencing.  Augmented reality.  We ain’t seen nothing yet.

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