• Oliver Nowak

A Brief History of Transformation

Kicking off my blog series, I wanted to give a brief history of transformation, for in the words of Terry Pratchett:

The First Industrial Revolution (1740-1840)

This began in Britain in the 18th century and is characterised as the beginning of ‘technology’. The movement from handicrafts to machinery drove the process of change from an agrarian to an industrial manufacturing economy.

Agricultural efficiency, born out of the adoption of machines, resulted in a surplus of labour and made it possible to feed a much larger non-agricultural population. Out of the ashes of the agricultural labour force came the factory system. This harnessed the division of labour and specialisation that permitted increased production for a given human input.

A higher output to input ratio led to rapid economic growth. This financed wide-spread developments such as transportation and communication systems that revolutionised a world that had existed for over one and a half millennia. It was as if human-kind had been spending all that time waiting in the starting blocks preparing to explode.

The Second Industrial Revolution (1870 – 1914)

If the first industrial revolution is defined by coal, iron and textiles, the second is defined by steel, petroleum and electricity. This period was all about popularising the technologies invented in the first revolution by reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

Imagine a world without the internal combustion engine – no cars, no planes. The internal combustion engine is the key to the lock that opened up the world. Making an impact so great, you could argue it’s become the mission of a whole generation to find an environmentally friendly alternative that preserves our way of life.

That brings me onto the fuel of the future – electricity. By perfecting the design of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison gave us access to the night. We were no longer bound by sunlight and productivity soared. Invention after invention propelling us forward. Out of iron came steel - much cheaper, much stronger. Out of steel came larger bridges, more cost-effective railroads, ships, larger buildings, … I could go on. So how far can electricity take us?

The Digital Revolution (1947 – Present)

Each year, more chips are made than over its entire history combined, and at the heart of every chip are transistors. Since the first transistor was made in 1947, it is estimated that 2.9 sextillion have been produced. To put that into perspective, that’s equivalent to the Earth travelling around the Sun 20 trillion times. Unsurprisingly, that makes the metal-oxide semiconductor transistor the most produced ‘thing’ in human history.

In 2011, Hilbert and Lopez studied the world’s technological capacity to store, communicate and, compute information. They formulated Moore’s Law (the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years) style inferences from their data:

· Machines’ capacity to compute information – doubles every 14 months.

· Capacity of the world’s general-purpose computers – doubles every 18 months.

· Global telecommunications capacity – doubles ever 2 years and 10 months.

To put their findings into perspective, in 2007 humankind could carry out 6.4 x 10^18 instructions per second on its general-purpose computers – the human brain executes 10^17 nerve impulses per second.

This clearly highlights the speed at which the world is changing. Using AI and machine learning we are now able to translate entire processes into digital form.

With the pace of development only increasing we circle back to Terry Pratchett: where are we going and are we going wrong?


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