Have Advances in Consumer Electronics Reached Diminishing Returns?   (September 4, 2013)

Consumer and commercial electronic devices in 2053 are likely to look and perform almost exactly like they do today.

Correspondent Mark G. recently proposed an interesting analogy between the technological product cycle of commercial aircraft and consumer electronics. Aerospace technology experienced a Golden Age of rapid technological development that leveled off once fundamental technologies had matured. Investment in further advances reached a point of diminishing return: the cost of squeezing out modest gains exceeded the profit potential of the advances.

Here is Mark's commentary.

Silicon daddy: Moore's Law about to be repealed, but don't blame physics is a significant article. The principal expert quoted, Robert Colwell, is one of the true Kelly Johnsons of the golden age of semiconductors. I date this Golden Age period from 1975 to 2015. And like Kelly Johnson (Lockheed's P-38 to SR-71 wunderkind), Colwell was active over an entire 40-year Golden Age. He was already at Bell Labs in 1980 and he's still at DARPA today.

I think this semiconductor - aerospace analogy is very strong. Look at what happened from 1930 to 1970 in aerospace engineering and manufacturing. We went from fabric covered crates flown by barnstorming Great Waldo Peppers to XB-70 Mach 3 bombers (production cancelled) and Boeing 747s. By 1970 a series of real physical limits were reached in an array of basic aerospace technologies, all nearly simultaneously. Come 1971 the US Congress deleted funding for the US supersonic transport (SST). The British-French Concorde and the Soviet Tu-144 went ahead. Both were commercial failures and developmental dead ends.

The result is that 44 years later Boeing is still building 747s (and 737s). Boeing undoubtedly now has numerous retirees whose entire careers were spent in the 737 or 747 programs. This is an outcome very few people would have predicted in 1968 when these two programs were beginning.

It's ironic that Alvin Toffler published Future Shock the same year that phenomenon generally stopped in aerospace. Subsequent margin tweaking in commercial aerospace engineering has focused on three functional areas: safety, manufacturing cost and operational cost. On the other hand, continued attempts to increase military aircraft performance helped lead to the runaway program costs we're still witnessing (for example, the $1 trillion F-35 Lightning program).

This will be replicated in military electronics once the limit of Moore's Law is reached. Further increases in capability will start costing more, not less. This will lead to reduced total production runs and further cost increases from loss of scale.

The above suggests that consumer and commercial electronic devices in 2053 are likely to look and perform almost exactly like they do today. Subsequent improvements will be aimed at reducing costs, not enhancing raw performance.

It doesn't mean the world will stay in stasis. Look at the changes the ever rising population of 747s and 737s helped usher in between 1970 - 2013.

Thank you, Mark, for a provocative analysis of exponential trends. As Robert Cowell noted in the above article, "Let's at least face the fact that Moore's Law is an exponential, and there cannot be an exponential that doesn't end," he said. "You can't have it."

It's not just processor speeds that reflect exponential trends; cost declines in electronics (think digital memory) tend to follow near-exponential rates, too. Once the fundamental technology matures, those price declines flatten out.

As Mark noted at the end of his commentary, the economic and social changes from mature technologies arise from ubiquity rather than additional capabilities. The revolution in commercial aerospace was not technological improvements in speed (such as the SST), it was the price reduction in the cost to passengers and the ubiquity of commercial aircraft and routes.

We can expect the same trajectory of change in consumer electronics: it will be ubiquity that creates change, rather than technological leaps in capabilities.

Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify or understand. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition 1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism and the elimination of accountability
3. Diminishing returns
4. Centralization
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy

Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Not accepting responsibility and being powerless are two sides of the same coin: once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

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