Thriving in a World of “Knowledge Half-Life”

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In 1982, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century, but by 1945 it was doubling every 25 years. And by 1982, it was doubling every 12-13 months. In retrospect, this may sound a little quaint since experts now estimate that by 2020, human knowledge will double every 12 hours. But the real question is, “How is it making us smarter?”

For answers, we first need to consider the “Knowledge Half-Life” concept introduced 50 years ago by the former president of the International Economic Association, Fritz Machlup. In short, Knowledge Half-Life is the amount of time it takes before half the knowledge or facts in a particular area is made obsolete or superseded by new facts. As complexity scientist and Harvard fellow Samuel Arbesman points out, facts change all the time: The Earth was flat, smoking was once doctor-recommended, and Pluto was a planet. 

Finding the Signal in the Noise

 It’s been said that “facts are stubborn things,” but maybe not as stubborn as we think. New facts are replacing outdated ones at an accelerated rate as the tsunami of data continually yields new discoveries and information. It means that we have to approach knowledge and facts with the understanding and humility that they are subject to change.

The tsunami of data coupled with Knowledge Half-Life presents a unique and daunting needle-in-a-haystack challenge: How do we even begin to identify the new and relevant vs. the obsolete when they are lost inside ever-growing mountains of information? The answer is, we can’t. At least, not without some help. That’s where artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, and automation come in. Helping all of us find the signal in the noise.

Infowhelm

There are a growing number of examples of where robotics and automation are impacting our lives. One we all can relate to is music. Life was simple back when music consumers focused on the Billboard Top 100 and what could be found in record bins at retail. Now, access to over 40 million songs on Apple Music is at our fingertips. That is, if we know where to look and have the time to search. This kind of choice can be paralyzing.

That’s where advanced technologies come in, with algorithms that analyze the massive amounts of data and power recommendation engines to help consumers do what they never could on their own. Spotify takes the data and metatags of millions of songs plus the preferences of their nearly 100 million subscribers to create useful tools to optimize user experience.

This approach begins to make the unmanageable manageable. Another example that we experience daily is GPS navigation, where we are in constant search for a more perfect way to our destination. From Apple Maps to Waze to Google Maps, navigation apps are re-routing us around traffic and accidents that build up or occur down to the second. Once upon a time, we knew the best way to grandmother’s house but now we’re not so sure. It’s no wonder that 41% of Internet users worldwide use Google Maps services, which boasts 1 billion monthly users and accounts for 30% of all Google searches. We are all starting to trust that our navigation apps will find us a shorter, better, faster route because the best route yesterday is just another obsolete fact.

Looking Ahead 

The bottom line is that data and technology are helping us navigate our journeys at almost every interaction in how we live, work, and play. Our experiences are already being informed by data, which is radically changing our experiences and behaviors. And, given that there is no end in sight for the tsunami of data created with each minute that passes, and the need to deal with the “half-life” challenge to ensure accuracy and relevancy, we have no choice but to look for human–robot hybrid solutions to keep pace. 

Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I believe we are now at the brink of that magical transformation.



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