Norvigs Law

April 21, 2014

The computing field has developed its fair share of laws, with Moore’s perhaps the best-known. Now, we’d like to bring your attention to a lesser-known example, coined in 1999 by computer scientist and AI expert Peter Norvig., which states that “any technology that surpasses 50 percent penetration will never double again (in any number of months.)” Norvig has a page on his site dedicated to Norvig’s law; there he explains:

“In July 1999, there was a news article stating that PC usage had doubled yet again, reaching penetration of 50 percent of homes. People were hailing this as yet another sign of the inevitable climb of technology, but I saw it as a warning sign that the glass was half empty, and coined [Norvig’s law].

“To be clear, it all depends on what you count. If you’re counting units sold, you can double your count by selling everyone 1 unit, then 2, then 4, etc.…If you’re counting the total number of households that own the product, you can double your count by doubling the population, or by convincing everyone to divorce and become two households. But if you’re counting percentage of people (or households), there’s just no more doubling after you pass 50 percent.”

Norvig closes with a reminder to think of his law next time we hear that another technology has doubled its reach. The scientist has lead research teams at several prominent institutions, and now serves as Google’s Director of Research. We wonder how Norvig’s law shapes Google strategy.

Cynthia Murrell, April 21, 2014

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