Why Singularity University’s CEO Believes Blockchain Has Gone 'Exponential'

What does it mean that blockchain is now considered an "exponential technology?" We asked the CEO of Singularity University for his take.

Jun 10, 2016 at 6:06 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 12:19 p.m. UTC
CoinDesk Insights

Based in NASA's Research Park, Singularity University has been preparing its students to challenge traditional concepts of technology growth since it was founded by Google’s director of engineering eight years ago.

A storied Silicon Valley think tank, Singularity University has an established history of tracking growth rates, and its analysis of new technologies carries significant weight with market observers and businesses. The organization also has a record of accuracy in its predictions, even those that may seem outlandish at first.

Based on the organization's methodologies, Google's Ray Kurzweil was able to accurately predict both that a computer would beat a world chess champion by 1998 (it happened in 1997), and that by the 2010s, real-time translation would occur, something both Skype Translate and Google Translate can now do.

Through its work, Singularity University also applies definitions to technologies that help communicate their value and potential to the wider public. Of note, is that Singularity University now considers blockchain an exponential technology, placing it in a category along with artificial intelligence, network sensors and robotics.

Far from a bubble, the CEO of Singularity University, Rob Nail, argues that the technology's current growth rate will only accelerate.

In a conversation with CoinDesk, Nail spoke about what it means that after more than a thousand years of double-entry bookkeeping, this rudimentary concept has now evolved into an entirely new way of tracking value.

Nail said:

"The reason things go exponential is because you have an increasing number of people participating and playing with that technology and adding to the future breakthroughs."

In other words, Nail's thesis is that when analog technologies make the jump to digital, they can actually improve their own growth rate.

While traditional growth rates of a technology’s capacity, size or performance are described as increasing at set, linear rates, when this happens, it can trigger an exponential increase.

Working with blockchain

In the case of blockchain, Nail considers it an exponential technology because, since the invention of double-entry bookkeeping in the seventh century, innovation in accounting was limited by the tedious process of reconciling ledgers.

But with the advent of blockchain’s distributed ledger system, the action of reconciling, along with many other processes categorized as "post-trade", has been rendered largely redundant, he argued.

According to Nail, the explosion of innovation in the blockchain industry will result in growth from "hundreds of companies" today to "thousands, tens of thousands of applications" extending to "every possible different type of transaction", even those "we haven’t even thought of yet".

Nail added:

"That’s what’s going to propel the exponential curve."

Predicting the future

Currently, Singularity University counts among its faculty members Ralph Merkle, inventor of the Merkle tree, a basic component of blockchain design that Ethereum inventor Vitalk Buterin described as a "fundamental part of what makes blockchains tick."

One project already in the works is Network Society Research, an independent non-profit organization established in 2014 to identify "bottlenecks" in exponential technology development and help ensure the transition to an increasingly decentralized society results in positive side-effects.

"The mathematical invention of the blockchain could have come sooner or later," said Network Society founder, David Orban in conversation with CoinDesk. "But being able to implement bitcoin or Ethereum or other blockcahins can only happen in a special social context which is ours."

In February of this year Blockchain Capital founder Brock Pierce and Electronic Frontier Foundation board member Brad Templeton spoke about exponential finance at Singularity University's India Summit. Yet the university hasn't delved into the concept of blockchain more formally, at least yet.

Nail concluded:

"We don’t have a course or anything yet. But there’s been conversations about doing something."

Image via Singularity University

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