garbage dump in foreground, beautiful sea and mountains in background

The earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and it is believed that life began to emerge about 800 million years later. Humans evolved from apes around three million years ago, with modern humans emerging only about 200,000 years ago.

The evolution of computers is generally described in generations. The first generation (1940–1956) used vacuum tubes and could take up the space of an entire room. The second generation (1956–1963) replaced vacuum tubes with transistors, making computers smaller and faster. The third generation (1964–1971) introduced the integrated circuit, making computers even smaller and faster. The microprocessor heralded the fourth generation of computers (1972–2010). This allowed for the development of desktops and laptops. The fifth generation (from 2010 to present) has seen the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI).

In 80 years, we moved through five generations of computing. Between 1956 and 2015 there was a one-trillion-fold increase in computing performance, according to Business Insider. The Apollo Guidance Computer that landed humans on the moon had the equivalent power of two Nintendo entertainment systems. The Apple iPhone 4 had the same power as the Cray-2 supercomputer, launched in 1985. In 1956, the IBM 350 storage disk drive was the size of a large wardrobe and stored about 3.75 MB of data. You could rent it for $3,200 per month. In 2020, Google Drive offered 15 GB of storage for free and 100 GB for $1.99 per month.

Cuneiform is the earliest known language and emerged about 3,400 years ago in the area we now call Iraq. Cuneiform was written with a reed stylus on wet clay tablets. These tablets still exist and are perfectly readable, and as British philologist and Assyriologist Irving Leonard Finkel assures us, they will exist long after today’s computer storage has vanished. In achieving speed, power and greater capacity, computer technology has traded longevity, durability and reliability. A typical processor or piece of storage has an extremely short life expectancy of about five years. The resource and waste implications of this are enormous. If a clay tablet had a life expectancy of five years, we would have had to replace each tablet about 680 times since the information was first written down.

Computer technology has had — and will continue to have — a ferocious appetite for energy and material resources. I have written previously about the enormous amounts of e-waste that we are producing each year. As AI matures, this waste is likely to expand with great rapidity. It has taken modern humans 200,000 years and about 10,000 generations to get where we are today. In five generations, spanning 80 years, AI has emerged. Driven by computing power, the pace of everything has speeded up enormously. We are using the earth’s resources at unsustainable levels. We must slow down or else we will crash the earth.