As I was growing up I'd often quip that my grandmother, who had been born at the start of the 20th Century in a Greek village and lived to nearly the age of 100, saw more change in her lifetime than I'd ever possibly see. Turns out I couldn't have been more wrong because my future math was a few exponents short.
A recent webcast (below) by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil (co-founders of Singularity University) drove that point home and provided insight into how the future will be even more radically disruptive than anything we've already experienced and more so that what we can today predict.
Making Fiction Look Tame
I've followed Peter and Ray for many years now and their ability to capture our imagination and stretch our minds is extraordinary. From Peter's XPRIZE which has encouraged wild and starry eyed dreamers to take on some of the world's biggest challenges to Ray's mind-bending predictions about the trajectory of technology, these two have likely done more to give us a glimpse of just how amazing and disruptive the future will be than even the most outrageous pundits and prognosticators of the future. Reading and listening to their ideas borders on sci-fi, but it's not fiction, it's very, very real and it makes most fiction look tame; that's what makes it so exciting.
The video is about 90 minutes long and covers a pretty wide range of topics, from advances in human longevity to the rise of artificial intelligence to the adoption of an entrepreneurial mindset of abundance. It's worth the view but if you're pressed for time here's a summary of what I felt best resonated with growth-focused businesses and entrepreneurs.
If you've followed either Diamandis or Kurzweil you're familiar with the concepts of abundance and exponential growth. If not then it's worth investing a bit of your time in coming up to speed on both as they are fast becoming central constructs in how we look at the world and the emergence of entirely new opportunities for growth. Check out Diamandis' book Abundance or Kurzweil's book How To Create A Mind.
Both base their views of the future on the notion that advances in technology are not increasing in a linear fashion, but are instead accelerating exponentially.
The Future Is Not Linear
Trying to grasp non-linear change is enormously challenging because it's just not how we are wired. We think in linear terms because that is what we've observed in how the natural world operates. More importantly, linear thinking is how we've made predictions about the future for millennia. From throwing a rock at fast moving prey, to figuring out the crop yield of a field, to shooting a rocket at the moon, linear thinking has allowed us to make accurate predictions about the future. Increasingly, however, the world is being driven by technologies that do not progress in a linear manner.
Most of the discussion between Diamandis and Kurzweil is spent talking about how we need to shift our mindset from an industrial era of scarcity and linear thinking to one of abundance and exponential thinking. The examples they use are ones we're accustomed to hearing about, such as Moore's law doubling the number of transistors for a given price every 18-24 months, or the dramatically decreasing price of sequencing the human genome (which has accelerated even faster than Moore's law). There's no denying that these are clear examples of non-linear progress.
Still, I know that many people who read this (or hear it) discount exponential thinking since the overwhelming majority of things in the world do not grow exponentially and, even if they did, can't indefinitely. The simple counter argument to exponential thinking is that there are not enough resources in the physical world to fuel exponential growth for longer than a relatively short period of time.
Stuck In The Industrial Era
This is where most of us are still stuck in an industrial era mindset. The physical world certainly does deal with scarcity and the problem throughout much of our history as an industrial society is that we have ignored that, which is why we are in the ecological mess we're in. But exponential thinking isn't about ignoring the scarcity of the physical world, instead it's about leveraging exponential increases in the power of technology and AI to better utilize natural resources and address complex problems, such as climate change or feeding and transporting ten billion people.
As we grow from a global population of seven to ten billion we can't simply scale the industrial model we have in place today to support tomorrow. It's not only current approaches to mass production, agriculture, and transportation that won't scale but essential human services as well. According to the world economic forum it would take 300 years to bridge the global supply-demand gap for doctors at the rate we are educating and licensing new doctors today.
The physical limits to growth, if we try to scale the industrial era models we have in place today, would soon overwhelm every industry and nation. In fact, one of the most often cited projections of this is a report originally written in 1972, Limits to Growth. The report projected an accelerated increase in the use of natural resources that would eventually stress the global economy to a breaking point sometime between 2050 and 2100. The result would be a global economic collapse.
The projections of increasing reliance on natural resources in the report were prescient in their accuracy, however they did not take into account the concurrent non-linear increase in the power of technology. For example, rather than triple the number of automobiles on the planet to transport everyone, current projections in a recent report, by my company Delphi Group, on autonomous vehicles projects a reduction in the number of automobiles by 2050 to 5% of what we have today to transport 300% more people. How does that math work? Simply by using the technology of self-driving, self-owned vehicles we can increase the utilization of the typical car from 5% to 95%. That allows us to potentially transport 20 times as many people. That's the math of abundance and it represents a radically disruptive business model for the automobile industry
But we don't need to go into the future to see abundance and exponential technology at work. The US agricultural workforce has dropped from 83 percent in 1800 to two percent today. What that means in real numbers is that roughly the same number of people who were needed to feed 5,000,000 people can now feed 350,000,000 (with enough left over for a 10% trade surplus). The number of global jobs in agriculture has also dropped precipitously on a percentage and absolutely basis. Since 1900, the actual number of people employed global in agriculture has fallen by 80% and population has increased by nearly 500%. All of that is due to the exponential increase in technology for agriculture.
The same is true of how we are creating abundance for each individual. In 1850, 93 percent of the one billion inhabitants of our planet lived in extreme poverty. Today less than 10 percent of seven billion humans live below the line for extreme poverty. Amazingly, that means that there are about 400,000,000 fewer people living in extreme poverty today! During the video Diamandis points out that in 1970 529 deaths were attributable to extreme poverty and famine per 100,000 humans Today it's three out of 100,000!
None of this is to say we don't have a long way to go, but we should be fully cognizant of how far we have come and how exponential growth isn't just a phenomenon of the last 60 years.
Getting To Escape Velicity
Trying to predict any of this progress 100 or even fifty years ago would have been impossible. And it's just as challenging to predict the next 50 to 100 years of progress. However, the telltales are certainly there and in many ways much more available to anyone who cares to pay attention to them.
So, what are some of the areas that will benefit most from abundance and the exponential growth in the power of technology going forward? While it may be easier to list those areas that won't be impacted, here a few covered in the video that are especially interesting to think about.
The first is the perennial topic of human longevity. Kurzweil uses the term Longevity Escape Velocity to describe that point in time which, once reached, will define the ability for science to indefinitely prolong life. According to Kurzweil we're 10-12 years away for reaching that point.
So, what does that mean for our businesses and the economy? Well, first off, the longer you can live a healthy life the longer you will be able to contribute to and receive value. My own projections show that if you plot out increased life-expectancy and increased work-life expectancy the two lines converge around 2100. Basically, retirement, as a social and economic construct goes away. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps within the industrial era expectations that many of us have grown up with. But if you had the option of continuing to create and receive value (wherever and whenever you want) for doing what you truly love, wouldn't you?
Given that the 65+ age group is the fastest growing demographic, there's enormous value in tapping into these individuals rather than writing them off as "retired." I'd challenge you to ask what you're doing about that trend in your organization. Have you set up mechanisms to bridge what will otherwise be multiple generational divides? Are you using reverse mentoring? As an individual, have you thought about your own third act and what you'll do to best leverage your knowledge? Keep in mind that there is nothing sacrosanct about the age of 65. The Social Security act of 1935 set the retirement age at 65. Do you want to guess what the life expectancy at birth was in 1935? That's right, 65! We're way overdue for a change in how we think about retirement
Evolution is In Our Hands
The second topic covered in the video is even more far-fetched. Kurzweil claims that evolution is now in our hands. Drawing on the work in his latest book, he detailed how intelligence has evolved and how it will continue to evolve, but not primarily due to natural evolution. Kurzweil describes how historically the biggest leaps in the formation of human intelligence have been associated with the growth of our neocortex, that part of the brain responsible for higher functions such as spatial reasoning, conscious thought, language, and even music. He attributes the rise of mammals 65 million years ago to the formation of the neocortex and then credits a dramatic increase in its size two million years ago with the formation of modern civilization.
But the next evolutionary leap for our neocortex isn't inside of our skulls but rather outside of them. By creating neocortex like objects in the cloud we will be able to connect them to each other and to our own brains. And it's not far off. According to Kurzweil we will have brain computer interfaces by 2030 that allow us to connect the neocortex in the cloud to our human brains.
This will make understanding intelligent life in the future, from where we stand today, as difficult as it would have been for our Paleolithic ancestors to understand today's technologies.
Singularity University co-founder, Google AI Director and noted futurist Ray Kurzweil joined Peter Diamandis for a 90-minute Ask Me Anything, all aimed at providing you an unfair advantage for your business.
Fascinating stuff, right? But, how are you supposed to use all of this to better run and build your own business? It seems as though these concepts are light years removed from the day to day challenges that you are facing. In a way, you're right. Being an entrepreneur is a daily grind. You're never far removed from some sort of a crisis. Looking fancifully skyward at the stars can be a sure-fire way to take your eye off the helm long enough to hit whatever obstacle is right in front of you.
But that's exactly why these concepts are so critically important to understand. Successful small and medium sized companies are adept at aligning their business models with the greater context of the broad trends that challenge larger businesses. Ultimately this is the single greatest competitive advantage of a smaller nimble business. If your goal is to grow a business--and I mean really grow it-- then you need to understand the social, economic, and cultural context which will fuel the business over the next several decades not just the next few months or years. Larger business are inherently much worse at doing this because they have an industrial era infrastructure, supply chain, distribution model, and uber conservative shareholders forcing them to be much more short-term in their thinking. This is exactly what prevented Kodak and Blockbuster from taking advantage of the exponential technologies that they already had access to, and in Kodak's case invented!
Trying to build a post-industrial era business based on industrial era models is about as likely to succeed as a factory that didn't use mass production would have in the early 1900s. Taking advantage of abundance and exponential growth means a fundamental shift in and the elevation of your aspirations.
All of this leads to what I thought was perhaps the most relevant topic discussed during the video for entrepreneurs. It's what's Diamandis calls your Massively Transformative Purpose or MTP. Simply put your MTP (or your organization's MTP) is what drives you to step out of the past and become exceptional at building the future. It is the aspirational goal that stretches you, your organization, and even your market by capturing people's hearts and minds.
An MTP can be audacious, such as the MTP for XPRIZE (which Diamandis founded) "To Build A Bridge Of Abundance For All." Or it could be what Apple's MTP of transforming the music industry. The key is that the transformational forces in the foreseeable future leverage the concepts of abundance and exponential growth.
If you're thinking, "Well, yeah, that's easy to do when you have as much money as XPRIZE, Google or Apple since you already have a platform for abundance and exponential growth!" then you're missing the point. Aligning yourself and your organization so that you can take advantage of a post-industrial way of thinking is critical in positioning it for the long-term competitive growth.
So, what's your MTP? Does it align with and leverage the concepts of abundance and accelerating exponential growth? Have you helped your team understand these concepts so that they can integrate them into how they support your MTP?
Brain computer interfaces, longevity escape velocity, accelerating exponential growth; one thing is certain, the future will be much stranger than we can imagine; if we do the math right, exponentially stranger.