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The Half Life of Knowledge

It is estimated that total human knowledge will start to double every 12 hours. Knowledge is power, but the how can individuals remain competitive?

The following chart by Marc Rosenberg illustrates historical estimates and future predictions about the rate of growth in humankind’s collective knowledge.

Note: Pre-1982 estimates were by futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. The 2020 prediction was made by IBM.

IBM predicted by 2020 total human knowledge would double every 12 hours, as the Internet of Things expanded. While this is difficult to accurately measure, we all recognize that in 2020 we are drinking from a fire-hose of information. 

Knowledge today is growing rapidly as every click, search, purchase becomes a data point that forms the tapestry of our digital identity. Data aggregators have claimed to have over 5000 data points on every US voter, from which countless insights and predictions can be made. Every day, data is being collected across numerous digital platforms. However, this information is concentrated in the hands of the few.

IBM predicted by 2020 total human knowledge would double every 12 hours

For the few with access and computational power, knowledge is power. But those without access must run faster to keep up, as the half-life (the time it takes for half the knowledge in a particular area to become stale) of knowledge shrinks. This divide will grow as the ability to leverage information is powerful and profitable.

Those with power are unlikely to give it up voluntarily. Thus, the useful application of knowledge will consolidate even further into the hands of few. The majority of humans will simply remain overwhelmed by information and the inability to fully capture, interpret and analyze it to their advantage.

This has implications across many fields and industries. For example, how is an individual investor or even a boutique professional portfolio management team meant to out-store massive databases and outperform the computational capabilities of algorithms to fully exploit information?

We will need to be more humble about our abilities by recognizing the sheer volume of unknown unknowns. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of various segments of society and the economy will leave the average person behind.

So how do you as an individual compete? Continuous learning seems like a fruitless task as there is more to learn than is possible to ever grasp. Yet, it is still imperative if one is to outrun other individuals.

However, there are other ways to create value that might not be captured by the algorithms.

While computers are able to monopolize measurable bits of information (clicks, data points, dollars, etc.), humans still retain an advantage when identifying, analyzing and interpreting intangible cues. I’m talking about emotions, gut instinct. That feeling you get when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up is your brain analyzing millions of immeasurable pieces of information to warn you of danger.

Humans possess the ability to synthesize new information not captured by computational models. This is what we must exploit if we are to survive as individuals.

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