News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

The Storage Singularity


A specific and easy to watch example of exponential change at work is the state of the art in hard drive technology. In just the past couple years, functional hard drives have shrunk down to matchbox size, with .85-inch hard drives coming out later this year. These smaller and smaller drives usually start out in one-gigabyte models, but today there are already four gigabyte capacity 1-inch models.

Larger hard drives continue to grow in capacity as well, reaching 400-plus gigabytes for a 3.5-inch form factor so far this year. The two trends (smaller-sized hard drives and regular-sized hard drives with rapidly increasing capacities) have spread the technology from computers to music players, consumer electronics, and, very soon, into cell phones. Meanwhile, hard drives are fast becoming a commodity as their prices fall nearly as quickly as their capacity increases. By the end of the decade, nearly every electronic device imaginable will come complete with massive storage capacity. There are many devices that one might think does not need a hard drive, but as the price of memory collapses, new uses will proliferate.

Of course, none of this takes into account any of the storage technologies on the horizon that threaten to replace hard drives completely. These new memory systems already promise no moving parts, non-volatile properties, and at least a tenfold leap in capacity along with a tenfold decrease in size. For example, some technologies promise terabytes of memory in a form factor smaller than a credit card.

The point is, if hard drives, with their moving parts, potential crashes during rough handling, and power requirements, can be as wildly successful as we are seeing right now, then we cannot even comprehend what these new storage technologies will bring. Honestly, can you really grasp what you could do with virtually unlimited storage of potentially microscopic size in every device (and perhaps in every individual person), all within the next two or three decades? We can barely fill our hard drives now. The exponential increase in storage capacity is rapidly leaving behind our ability to fill that space.

And thus, the obvious singularity of storage becomes a perfect analogy for the coming Technological Singularity.

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