This post is part of my series on the belief in progress. This blog post deals with the evidence for a positive trend in the amount of computational capacity existing in our world. As with previous posts I am not restricting my discussion of computational capacity to entities that have been designed. Various physical and biological processes can be understood as computational and I shall describe the development of these.
The world is improving in its computational capacity:
10 billion years ago: Galaxies had formed but almost all matter (even when compared with today) in the universe was still hydrogen. This meant that the only structures in the universe were gas globes of various sizes. Although simulating the evolution of these globes can be computationally intensive there is little potential for meaningful calculations that could be performed by arrays of galaxies and the stars within them.
1 billion: Rocky planets exist now. The various chemical elements necessary for all known types of computation exist. Planets begin recording information about their past in the form of different rock types, craters and geological features. On Earth life exists. In every individual cell computations of great complexity are occurring. Evolution can be thought of one great big computer program trying out new ideas, rejecting those that fail and keeping and improving on those that succeed.
1 million: Humans are around. Various pieces of cultural knowledge are passed down from generation to generation probably by imitation. Societies can learn about their environment, develop simple physical technologies and avoid dangerous foods.
10,000: Human language has emerged. Certain types of information can now flit around between brains ensuring their long term survival. The human species becomes in effect one big processor calculating amongst other things new ways for human beings to use their environment.
300: The human population is increasing rapidly and the quantity of communication between parts of the human supercomputer are orders of magnitude greater than they have been (the printing press).
80: The telephone and radio have been invented allowing almost instantaneous movement of information around the globe.
40: The computer has been invented. Although the computational capacity of the computer is insignificant compared to the human brain the computer is able to make complete copies of the information contained within it. This difference alone makes the computer a massively useful device.
Now: Computers are still much less efficient than the human brain but it is now conceivable that they will soon pass the brain in computational capacity (per watt). When that happens huge changes will occur in civilization.