Why can’t humans predict exponential growth?

During my time at Singularity, I had one of my career’s most important epiphanies—humans can’t predict exponential growth.

During my time at Singularity, in a lecture by Pascal Finette, I had one of my career’s most important epiphanies—humans can’t predict exponential growth. They say live in the moment, trust the process, be open-minded. That is as good as it gets, at least regarding the future.  

What is exponential growth?

Pascal used the following example to shine a light on our inability to predict exponentials. Guess the difference in distance between 30 linear steps and 30 exponential steps. 

Thirty linear steps are approximately 30 human steps which translate to about 30 feet. Linear growth is simply growing by the same amount each time. 

For example, seven linear steps:

1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 7

Thirty exponential steps look very different. Today, when I ask people to guess the distance of 30 exponential steps, they default to values between 1,000 and 10,000, rarely venturing out to a million almost as a joke. Exponential growth is no joke. 

For example, seven exponential steps:

1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 32 + 64 = 127

Thirty exponential steps are approximately 1,073,741,823, eight times around the earth. 

What happens when humans predict exponential technology growth?

In the book Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail, he mentions a study made by venture capitalists Vinod Khosla on the predictions of cell phone growth by Gartner, Forrester, McKinsey, and Jupyter. These are top industry analysts predicting market behavior. 

From 2002 to 2008, their predictions were completely off. In 2002, they predicted a 14% growth rate for cell phone growth for the next two years. It grew 100%. In 2004 they predicted a 16% growth rate. It grew 100%. You’d think that by 2006 they would have seen it. No, they did the same thing.

Is this the reason that most exponential companies catch us by surprise? 

How can we think exponentially?

The first step to this problem is admitting we have a problem in the first place. Knowing I can’t predict exponential growth helps me be open-minded and expect the unexpected. At any moment, technology can grow beyond my imagination without rhyme or reason foreseeable by me. 

Instead of predicting if something will grow exponentially or not, assume that it will and try to imagine what happens if it does. 

More will be revealed,

Olivia

If you’d like to hear more about exponentials, follow me on LinkedIn to stay updated whenever we release a new article.

Olivia Ramos is the CEO of Deepblocks, an AI-powered software that automates the process of site selection for developers and investors. 

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