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Old June 6 2012, 04:01 AM   #111
Robert Maxwell
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Re: David Brin's latest novel, and a TED talk

That article is completely laughable. As pointed out, it was based on the results of one test. Hardly a statistically meaningful sample.

Secondly, another comment pointed out that most programming is quite mundane logic, nothing to do with interesting or complex algorithms. This is quite true. While the amount of software out there has exploded, very little of it has brought along any novel implementations.

You know what we've done with most of our computing power? We've decided that developer time is too expensive to waste, but computing power is cheap, so today's software developers use various toolkits, frameworks, libraries, interpreted languages, etc. that use more computing power for the same benefit. The advantage is that developers can get more done in less time.

While computing power increases exponentially, and certain algorithms are made orders of magnitude more efficient, software capabilities in general grow more linearly. Take a simple example: who remembers Microsoft Word 6.0 from 1993? Now, look at the most recent version, almost 20 years later. Yes, it is more capable--it has a lot more features. It certainly has massively more code behind it, too. But would you argue that it is over 8000 times more functional and capable? (Just using a Moore's Law comparison.) Does it help you get your documents done 8000 times faster, or offer 8000 features for every one that Word 6.0 had? I didn't pick Word to be a strawman, either--go get any type of application that has been around 20 or 30 years and track how its capabilities have grown in that time. Is it hundreds or thousands of times better in any quantitative way? Most likely not.

Let me just fill you in on a dirty little secret of software development: there's a law of diminishing returns when it comes to code complexity. Beyond a certain point, making a program bigger makes it harder to maintain, more prone to bugs, etc. This is why programs end up being abandoned or get rewritten from scratch with a new design. We keep making exponentially faster computers, but the improvements on the human side of it have been primarily incremental.

This is what the people talking about "exponential growth" seem to keep missing. Yeah, so computers get vastly more powerful--so what? Humans--you know, the people who program the computers--are not improving at anywhere near that rate.

Computers are not going to just pick up the slack and write better algorithms for us. We have to do that work ourselves, and it has been very slow going. The problem is not that our computers aren't powerful enough, it's that our brains aren't that great at solving these sorts of problems--or we'd have done it already. Guys like Kurzweil are dreaming if they think computing power is the main thing holding us back. Today's computers are massively more powerful than a human brain, but we have no clue how to make them behave like one.
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