More and more evidence is that we are witnessing a technological hyper-acceleration, that the singularity is closer than ever and that, thanks to the exponential evolution of technological evolution in many of its fields (such as Moore’s law), just now we are about to start giant steps (it should be remembered that the first steps in an exponential progression are very slow, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 … but at a certain point, the chances are millions to billions).
This technological change is also contributing to the fact that more and more people are working for it, more and more people connect to the internet, there is more 2.0 collaboration, more access to information and even training. And we must not forget that currently, 90% of all scientists that have existed throughout history are alive.
This statistic has another reading: the great advances that we have seen in the last two hundred years are only the tip of the iceberg of everything that will happen in just one or two decades.
It is evident that exponential growth cannot last forever, and at some point it may stop, but that idea has arisen several times throughout the twentieth century and has not yet been fulfilled: for example, David Goodstein, physicist of Caltech gave a speech in 1994 arguing that we had reached the ” Big Crunch ” and that scientific progress would not continue to accelerate.
Three factors that double:
In an article written by Eric Gastfriend, who is much more optimistic about the progress of science, he brings together three indicators of the growth of science: the number of doctorates granted per year, the number of patents granted, and the number of articles published, as the following graph shows:
The graph shows that the United States grew exponentially until 1971 when it began to stabilize. But in the 80s, with Deng Xiaoping in office in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, China began to take over, so that the total world production of doctorates continues to grow exponentially. In 1961, Derek de Solla Price, the father of Scientometrics (that is, science that studies science), determined that the number of scientists doubles more or less every 15 years. However, the data shows that since 1961, this pace has slowed slightly, with doubling every 18 years.
As can be said by taking a quick look at the following graph, the growth of patents has also remained exponential. The growth rate is similar to that of doctorates, with a doubling more or less every 19 years since 1961.
If we take a look at the publication rate of scientific articles, based on the data provided by Lutz Bornmann and Rüdiger Mutz in a paper entitled Growth rates of modern science: A bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references, it is confirmed also the exponential growth of science: since the second half of the twentieth century, the number of articles published every year has doubled every 9 years.
Do we really grow so much?
All these data obviously do not indisputably indicate that science grows exponentially. For example, it could be argued that science is increasingly complex, which requires a more collaborative effort and, consequently, more scientists or more studies does not necessarily mean faster progress.
However, there are compensatory features to keep in mind: now science is more connected to each other than ever: they are not isolated disciplines of isolated scientists, but advances in computing influence biotechnology advances, for example. Never before have we had so many people whose sole purpose at work is to better understand how the world works, but much less have we ever had them so well connected to each other. All of which surely brings us quite close to that parable about wheat grains and chess escapes and our natural inability to understand geometric progression: