Limits to Human Demand
by phil on Thursday Jan 10, 2013 10:21 PM
One of the caveats about accelerating change is that we may reach physical limits to how fast we can make computers. That at some point, all the processors work on an electron scale, and can't be reduced any further, or that solving the overheating problem of CPUs may become intractable.
But there is another limit that could factor in: human demand. All technology is created to ultimately serve human consumption. Without human demand, there is no further development.
For example, at some point, we won't need anything after HD or Retina displays. The human eye won't appreciate any further refinements. Already we're seeing the disinterest in CPU speed on computers. In the 1990s, even casual computer consumers cared about how many MHz were in their machine. Now, the number of people that know how many GHz or cores their laptop has is a small minority. Instead, innovation is being driven by the miniaturization of CPUs. But at some point, we will have the thinnest possible phone. Already, some people complain that the iPhone 5 is too thin, and therefore too easily slips out of their hands. After thin-ness, what's next?
That hasn't stopped CPU innovation, though, because there has been this massive expanse of cloud computing and web servers. Consumer demand is still affecting CPU innovation, but it's proxy via demands from businesses like Google and Facebook that are servicing consumers.
At one point, it was video game consoles that were pushing the envelope of processing power. But after the Playstation 3, there isn't much more that the gamer needs. Theoretically, the Playstation 4 or Playstation 5 will have as much graphical processing power as is used in rendering a 3D-animated Pixar film, but video gamers are drifting in the other direction, toward casual games on their iPhones, or are content with less graphically intense games on the Wii. So there is a step in the opposite direction, to make less intensive CPUs at a cheaper cost.
There's also a limited number of hours of attention a human has. While as a power consumer may own a laptop, smart phone, and a tablet, their time is divided between all three. Can they add another device? Perhaps they will have backup smart phones, and tablets, and eReaders, but again, that will just reduce the amount of time they spend on each device. Each device's significance will diminished by the introduction of another. Only so much entertainment can be consumed per day. Only so many words can be typed per day.
There is a pattern though, where we sometimes think, "No more innovation will happen." For example, there is the famous (though false) quote from the Commissioner of the US patent office who said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Or there's another famous (though false) quote from Bill Gates, that "640K of memory should be enough for anybody." And just when we were perhaps getting to a point of boredom in 2009, Avatar came out in theaters, and 3D became the next big envelope pusher. We thought, "Alas, the Playstation 4 would need to be at least twice as fast to handle all the 3D games!" But since then, consumers have become lukewarm to 3D. So already, we're seeing a turning back from new technology.