Just as an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth and made way for small furry mammals, a new wave of planetary disruptions is about to occur. The new asteroid is called exponential technology. It is going to wipe out industries in a similar manner to the rock which fell on Earth during the Cretaceous Period.
That is the premise of a new book by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler,Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World. It makes bold predictions and teaches entrepreneurs how to thrive in the same way as our mammalian ancestors: by being nimble and resilient.
In their previous book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Diamandis and Kotler discussed how advancing technologies are making it possible to solve problems that have long plagued humanity, such as disease, hunger, and shortages of energy. The authors analyzed the exponential progress of fields such as computing, medicine, 3D printing, robotics, and artificial intelligence and postulated that shortages of material goods and knowledge would soon be a thing of the past; that humanity is heading into an amazing era of abundance.
As most people still are, I used to be pessimistic about the future. I feared overpopulation; worldwide shortages of food, water, and energy; pandemics and disease; and a bankruptcy of our health care and social welfare systems. Then, about three years ago, I joined the faculty of what is effectively an abundance think-tank, Singularity University, which had been founded by Diamandis and legendary futurist Ray Kurzweil. I learned that the future that Diamandis described in Abundance is actually coming true and doing so faster than we would expect.
But I have also come to fear that Singularity Universitys futurists are overlooking some of the risks in exponential technologies, particularly the legal and ethical dilemmas they are creating. As well, automation and industry disruption will have many negative social consequences such as the elimination of the vast majority of jobs. Humans may have their physical needs met and live healthier and longer lives, but what about their social and professional needs? This is what I would criticize Bold for: it looks only on the bright side. But I know that in their hearts Diamandis and my futurist colleagues believe that mankind will rise to the occasion and better itself; that it will avert the catastrophes.
I am counting on their being right.
The key premise of Bold that entrepreneurs can solve global-scale problems is based on a framework called the six Ds of exponentials: digitalization, deception, disruption, demonetization, dematerialization, and democratization. These are a chain reaction of technological progress, the path that technology takes, to create the upheaval and the opportunity.
Digitalization. Everything is being digitized these days, with the pace of information exchange increasing and causing acceleration in the pace of innovation. Bold explains that this type of exchange was slow in the early days of our species when all we had as a means of transmission was storytelling around the campfire. It picked up with the invention of writing and later, of the printing press and the photocopier, then exploded with the digital representation, storage, and exchange of ideas that computers enabled. Anything that could be digitized could spread at the speed of light (or at least the speed of the Internet) and became free to reproduce and share. This spreading has followed a consistent pattern of exponential growth.
Disruption. This is what happens when an innovation creates a new market and disrupts an existing one. Kodak became a victim of its own invention, the digital camera; Uber is wreaking havoc in the taxi industry; AirBnB is challenging hotels; self-driving cars will disrupt the transportation, delivery, insurance, and many other industries; and robotics and 3D printing will cause upheaval in manufacturing.
Deception. This is a period during which exponential growth goes mostly unnoticed and incumbents downplay the threat of advancing technologies. The doubling of numbers on an exponential curve is at first so small that the numbers seem insignificant or linear. Kodak underestimated the threat from the digital camera because the earlier versions of the technology were so limited. Its first digital camera had 0.01 megapixelswhich posed no threat to film. Then this doubled to 0.02, 0.02 to 0.04, 0.04 to 0.08. Then it exceeded a megapixel and doubled several times more, resulting in millionfold improvementsand the end of photographic film and the company (Kodak having filed for bankruptcy in 2012). This is how solar energy is progressing today. By reaching the 1 percent mark in U.S. installations, it is only six doublingsor less than 14 yearsaway from meeting practically all of todays energy needs.
Demonetization. Technology makes things practically free. Digital cameras made film free in a way; it became digital, measured in megapixels. Computers are becoming cheaper and cheaper, with our smartphones having more processing power than multimillion dollar supercomputers once did. Many sophisticated apps are already free. It wasnt that long ago when video-editing software such as you can get for free in the Instagram app cost about $2 million. Knowledge is practically free now. You can find almost any information on the web, and you can read articles such as this one for nothing.
Dematerialization. Technology advances are making entire product lines disappear. Take your smartphone, for example. It does the work of a camera, a watch, a GPS receiver, a VCR, music player, a video-game console, a calculator, a flashlight and you can download apps that turn it into an encyclopedia, a medical assistant, and a book reader.
Democratization. The cellphone used to be an object of luxuryfor the privileged few. Now, practically every family in the developing world owns one. Photographs were also for the well offbecause the paper and color printing were expensive. Smartphones eliminate the need for paper, and their cost has fallen to the same level that cellphones were. Billions more people will come online in this decade and gain access to the same apps, knowledge, and technologies as we have. Medical devices that connect to smartphones already cost a tiny fraction of what their hospital counterparts do; 3D printers will become as affordable as laser printers are; energy prices will fall exponentially in price through access to sunlight. As technology advances, it becomes cheaper and more powerful. Companies such as Google and Facebook become worth billions by reaching billions. That is the key point that Bold makes: the best way to become a billionaire is to solve a billion person problem.
Entrepreneurs can, I am certain, make all of these advances happen and profoundly affect billions. We just need an exponential advance in humanitys social consciousness so that technologies find roles in bettering humankind, not just in creating wealth for their founders and owners in the way that some Silicon Valley technologies do.
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University; Fellow, Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; and distinguished visiting scholar, Halle Institute of Global Learning, Emory University. He is author of ”The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent”–which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year of 2012.
Wadhwa oversees the academic programs at Singularity University, which educates a select group of leaders about the exponentially growing technologies that are soon going to change our world. These advances—in fields such as robotics, A.I., computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials—are making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only for governments and large corporations to do: solve the grand challenges in education, water, food, shelter, health, and security.
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