Silent immobility

I have a few AI related posts in the pipeline, but before I publish them (most still need some work), I want to share my recent experience and some thoughts on it.

I just came back from a trip to Europe, a typical summer visit. The trip went fine, children are happy, the whole flight was uneventful. I've spent there a week, back in my hometown visiting friends and family. This time however I decided to pay attention to something different than usual, instead of focusing on stuff that has changed, I decided to seek the stuff that remained the same.

It's been more than 7 years since I moved from Poland to California, nevertheless there are countless things there which seem to not have changed at all e.g particular stores and institutions, my neighbors, bars and coffees etc. Wound up with the constant push for progress, we tend to not see how many things appear to be frozen in time.

Airlines

Now let me get to a concrete example of what I'm talking about: on my way there I obviously took a transcontinental flight, one of the mayor European airlines. A nice and neat Airbus A380 welcomed us at LAX Terminal (which has changed a lot over the last few years). As I was sitting there in the cabin, I was recalling my flight from Europe to Vancouver in 2006, which was 11 years ago. Has my experience there and now (2017) been any different? Frankly, not really:

  • Same seats
  • Same in seat entertainment
  • Same chicken or pasta dilemma
  • Same claustrophobic lavatories
  • Same food carts

Now here is where it gets interesting: back on that flight 11 years ago, there was a test service of inflight Internet available. I remember I immediately pulled out my 2004 powerbook and a credit card, got connected and sure enough a minute later I was happily surfing the Internet  somewhere over Greenland. Back then it seemed absolutely certain and logical, that such service will soon be available on all flights, and huh (!), by 2017 it should be so obvious that it would even be free!

Well here we are in 2017. Long haul flight, similar route. No Internet. Is it available on some airlines and some routes? Sure yeah. But not on every route. Particularly rarely on transcontinental ones. Is it technically possible? Sure, it was a reality 11 years ago, I took a picture, I have not made that up! But for some reason, it has not been deployed. Whether that be a concern for security, economic infeasibility I don't know. Fact is, stuff that seemed to be right around the corner 11 years ago is not here.

Cars

Seemingly much is changing in the car industry, but let's for now focus on what is actually available, not on the stuff that is promised or just around the corner. Concrete example:

We maintain a car in Europe which we use any time we go for vacation. It's a 2002 car, very well maintained, but nevertheless old. Every now and then it needs a fix, but generally runs fine. Now compare that to a similar class new car (but different make) I bought late last year in California, nearly 15 years apart. It would seem there should be a huge difference?

Surprisingly not really! Both are stick shifts, both run with ~100-120Km 4 cylinder gasoline engine with direct fuel injection. If I'd close my eyes I could barely tell the difference. Dashboards look the same, the new car has bluetooth connectivity and TPMS which the old one lacks, but aside from that they are nearly the same. Under the hood? Similarly looking engine, AC compressor and an alternator on the belt. Spark-plugs, exhaust, power steering pump, brake fluid, radiator, fan, acid battery, fuses, OBD plug. All the same.

15 years gap, and essentially no difference, not even in the outside looks. This by the way could not be said about cars from 1987 and 2002. There were a lot more changes over those 15 years than between 2002 and 2016 apparently. In 1987 there would likely be a carburetor, lack of power steering, no OBD interface, mechanical control of ignition, the inside and outside style of the car would be noticeably different. Lots of important differences. Since then however the rate of changes had apparently slowed, in fact nearly stalled.

Note: we have another big car that is somewhat better equipped with a few more fancy features but here I'm comparing cars in roughly similar price ranges.

Computers

In 1996 I got a Pentium 100Mhz PC with 16MB of RAM. By 2002 I gutted it out and completely replaced the internal components some 3-4 times. First around 1997/1998 I upgraded to Winchip 200Mhz (with MMX!), then I had a Celeron 333Mhz, which I very quickly overclocked to 450Mhz. Then I had another one, can't even remember what that was. In 2002 as I remember I upgraded to AMD Athlon, which was already running in 1.5-2GHz range. Along with those upgrades my RAM increased from 16MB in 1996 to some 512MB in 2002. Bottom line: huge upgrades over only 6 years! My 1996 computer would be obsolete in 1999 and even more obsolete in 2002.

Fast forward now: I pull out a 2010 Macbook air from the drawer. Aside from the fact that the battery is dead, the computer runs fine, with some not too ancient version of OSX. Look and feel? Similar to my most recent Macbook pro. Noticeably slower in compute intense tasks, but for majority of daily activities, browsing the web, checking email etc. quite sufficient. In fact I even managed to run a virtual machine on it with linux inside. 7 years, and generally totally usable computer. This would not be true back between 1996 and 2002.

Summary

So it is sometimes worthwhile to wake up from our futuristic dreams, and look back at reality. Surely we'd all want a self driving car, a home butler robot, laundry folding machine and what not, chances are many of these wonders will remain dreams ten or twenty years from now. This whole experience is essentially an account of Lindy effect, which should be a sobering companion to every idealistic futurist making bold predictions about the future. There is obviously progress here and there, electric car is a thing now, SpaceX is landing rockets and what not, but this progress is not even. Some areas which we may think are advancing rapidly are actually slowing down or even completely stuck. Looking at the history of progress, it would not be unimaginable to conjecture, that after turbulent progress in the end of XX century, we might be entering a much slower/laminar phase where the technology may spread horizontally in society, but there might not be nearly as many revolutionary advancements as we are used to seeing.

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