Technology, business and society : The ascent of the machine. Two books decrypt what accelerating technologies mean for society:

1.- The Exponential Age by Azeem Azhar.

2.- Human Frontiers By Michael Bhaskar.

HISTORIANS OF SCIENCE distinguish between useful discoveries, such as dental floss, and '' general purpose technologies '' that can be applied to numerous purposes - such as electricity, which powers everything from factories to street lights to televisions.

These transformative inventions and the gadgets they spawned, were developed at a swift, industrial pace in the 19th and 20 centuries. Now, though, a new phase of progress is under way; many technologies are not following linear growth but exponential ones.

This does more than speed up innovation. It proses drastic challenges for businesses, governments and society.

Many Western institutions are unprepared for this shift because they are stuck in an industrial-age mindset, say three new books.

There is good reason for that : people are generally far more familiar with linear growth, in which things change or add up bit by bit, than with the exponential kind, whereby they double or triple [ or more ] at each increment.

For example, if a step is metre long and you take 25 of them, you have travelled 25 metres. But if each step grew exponentially, doubling from one to two to four metres and so on, your seventh pace would cover a football pitch - and your 25th would span 33m metres, or almost the circumference of Earth.

It may initially seem slow and boring, but exponential change suddenly becomes unfathomably dramatic. The world is in the midst of just such a transformation, argues Azeem Azhar.

Computer technology, he notes, long observed Moore's law, according to which the power of a computer chip [ as measured by the number of transistors ] doubles every two years, basically with no rise in cost.

But says Mr. Azhar, today such exponential growth is also characteristic of other technologies that have been supercharged by digitisation or other advances in artificial intelligence [ AI ].

These include solar cells, batteries, genome-editing, augmented reality, 3D manufacturing, online business, even electric cars and urban farming - as well as alas online misinformation, cybercrime and warfare.

A slew of superstar firms are emerging on the back of these technologies. They are dominating their sectors because of network effects, whereby using the same platform is widely beneficial.

For example, Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant, created an online - payments system in 2004. Nine years later that had become the world's largest mobile platform called, Ant Financial.

By having a plethora of data it could improve its services, which made it more popular, which in turn let it collect more data - a cycle known, in a term of popularised by Jim Collins, a management scholar, as a ''data flywheel'' effect.

Ant Financial's data scientists saw that women who bought skinny jeans were also more likely to pay for phone-screen  repairs. They speculated that the handsets were slipping out of the trousers pockets.

So the firm began directing offers of. screen insurance  at skinny-jeans wearing women.

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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