Exponential development explained with rice

Illustration by Sine Jensen

Technological advances are achieved at such a high speed that the human brain no longer understand.

We used to believe that the steam engine changed history more than any other invention. For the first time in humanity, we could replace man muscles with machines. The new invention sparked the Industrial Revolution that led to a number of technological advances with a wave of cultural and social upheaval as a result. The world has never seen such great changes in such a short time. Until now.

Right now scientists believe that the Internet and digital technology has moved us into ‘the Second Machine Age’.

Software and digital content can be copied indefinitely without charge. And the Internet, while connecting the world as a backbone of globalization, ensures that new features and new knowledge reaches billions of people in a matter of seconds. Digital networks has triggered an exponential growth of unimaginable dimensions.

It is difficult to comprehend just how big an upheaval of mankind it is this time. But the myth of the inventor of chess has become a popular image on the violent forces, technological developments bring with them.

We must go back to ancient India, where a mathematician has just presented his new idea —the chess game — to the Emperor. That was before Minecraft and Subway Surfers, so the game naturally attract admiration. The Emperor is downright blown backwards and as always, when emperors are blown back over, one can expect that anything can happen. In this case the creative game developer is asked to just name his price for the invention.

Since he is a mathematician and like games, the financing model he asks for becomes a bit of a play:

A single grain of rice on the first field of the chessboard. And then double the number of rice on each of the following fields. Say what? Now we thought that a mathematician with an opportunity for doing business with the greatest man in the country would know how to play it right. But rather than gold and precious stones, he chooses rice on a chessboard.

Even the Emperor believe that it is too humble a payment. But the mathematician insists, and the emperor triggers the payment of the rice so that he can get on with the day’s chores.

It all seems a little crazy. Only one grain, then two, four, eight and 16 and so on at the black and white squares.

It does not seem like a lot to start with. A doubling of little, being only a little more. And even a little further along on the chessboard a doubling of that little still only amounts to a bit more.

But even an emperor can have trouble figuring out the extent of exponential growth.

Slowly the amount of rice is growing. And a doubling of more rice suddenly become surprisingly more.

Field 32 is the last field in the first half of the chessboard and there is now 4,294,967,295 grains of rice. It demands a bit of space but the emperor is still not blinking. After all he is the Emperor.

But there are 64 squares on a chessboard.

The moment they begin to fill rice in the second half of the chessboard, it suddenly starts to accelerate. It gets out of control and the Emperor lose track. On field 56 at the entrance to the last row the pile has grown to more than 72 million billion grains of rice. More precisely 72,057,594,037,927.935!

In the last field, field 64, the pile will be equal to the size of Mount Everest or 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice. More rice than there have ever been produced in history of the world.

It is almost impossible for a human brain to understand how fast it can go. The Emperor feel he has been cheated and he beheads the crafty mathematician. An effective way to avoid having to deal with the consequences of exponential growth.

The myth of the chessboard is a great explanation of the development, our world is currently undergoing. We have stepped over to the second half of the chessboard, and it is almost inconceivable to understand the speed and spread of digital technology, which day by day to change our world. New opportunities, improvements, challenges and upheavals.

Exactly as happened during the Industrial Revolution, which not only gave us new inventions, but changed how and where we lived. Technology will change the whole fabric of society.

Although we have mapped parts of the consequences of the digital revolution, we still have to see which historical marks will be left in the second half of the chessboard. And to see who will be decapitated.

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