Why The Future Will Be Much Better Than You Think04 Mar 2012, Posted by in
A quick glance at the headlines lets us know the score: dark days ahead. With growing concerns about population size, economic meltdowns, energy shortages, water and food shortages—this list goes on—alarmists are having a field day. For the first time in a long time parents are predicting a worse life for their children than their own.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. We are now entering a period of radical transformation. Progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, infinite computing, ubiquitous broadband networks, digital manufacturing, nanomaterials, synthetic biology and many other breakthrough technologies will let us make greater gains in the next two decades than we’ve made in the previous 200 years. We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp.
If that sounds like hogwash, there are good neurological reasons for this reaction. Before we turn our attention to where we’re going, let’s first address why it’s so difficult to believe we can ever get there.
Every second our senses are deluged with data, more than we can possibly process. To deal with this overload, the brain is continuously sifting and sorting, trying to tease apart the critical from the casual. Since nothing is more critical to the brain than survival, the first filter most of this incoming information encounters is the amygdala, an almond-shaped portion of the temporal lobe responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate and fear. It’s also our early-warning system, an organ on high alert, constantly scanning our environment for anything that could threaten survival. Anxious under normal conditions, once stimulated, the amygdala becomes hypervigilant. But so potent is this response that once turned on, it’s difficult to shut off, and this is a problem in the modern world.
These days we’re media-saturated. Thousands of news outlets compete for our mind share by vying for the amygdala’s attention. The old newspaper saw “If it bleeds, it leads” works because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear. Our early-warning system evolved in an era of immediacy, when threats were of the “tiger in the bush” variety. Things have changed. Many of today’s dangers are probabilistic—terrorists might attack, the economy could nose-dive—and the amygdala can’t tell the difference. Worse, the system is designed not to shut off until the threat has vanished completely, but probabilistic dangers never vanish completely. Add in impossible-to-avoid news media continuously scaring us in their attempt to capture market share and you have a brain convinced it’s living in a state of siege.
What does the world really look like? Turns out it’s not the nightmare most suspect. Violence is at an alltime low, personal freedom at a historic high. During the past century child mortality decreased by 90%, while average human life span increased by 100%. Food is cheaper and more plentiful than ever (groceries cost 13 times less today than in 1870). Poverty has declined more in the past 50 years than the previous 500. In fact, adjusted for inflation, incomes have tripled in the past 50 years. Even Americans living under the poverty line today have access to a telephone, toilet, television, running water, air-conditioning and a car. Go back 150 years and the richest robber barons could have never dreamed of such wealth.
Nor are these changes restricted to the developed world. In Africa today a Masai warrior on a cellphone has better mobile communications than the President did 25 years ago; if he’s on a smartphone with Google, he has access to more information than the President did just 15 years ago, with a feast of standard features: watch, stereo, camera, videocamera, voice recorder, GPS tracker, video teleconferencing equipment, a vast library of books, films, games, music. Just 20 years ago these same goods and services would have cost over $1 million.
Four powerful forces are starting to emerge, each with enormous world-changing potential, none more important than the accelerating rate of technological progress. Right now all information-based technologies are on exponential growth curves: They’re doubling in power for the same price every 12 to 24 months. This is why an $8 million supercomputer from two decades ago now sits in your pocket and costs less than $200.
This same rate of change is also showing up in networks, sensors, cloud computing, 3-D printing, genetics, AI, robotics and dozens more industries. Biotechnology has been on such a wild, exponential ride that a state-of-the-art lab, complete with automation—what would have cost millions of dollars just ten years ago—can now be had for under $10,000.
Our second force is the do-it-yourself innovator. A DIY revolution has been steadily brewing these past 50 years but lately has begun to boil over. Backyard tinkerers have moved from custom cars and home-brew computers into once esoteric fields like neuroscience, biology, genetics and robotics. Today these small teams of motivated DIYers can accomplish what was once the sole province of large corporations and governments. The aerospace giants felt it was impossible, but Burt Rutan flew into space. Craig Venter tied (some say beat) the mighty U.S. government in the race to sequence the human genome. Right now high school and college students are using the tools of synthetic biology to complete real-world projects that rival the output of major biopharmaceutical companies.
With 440 patents and a National Medal of Technology, Dean Kamen is one of the greatest DIYers in history. Lately he’s turned his attention to the problem of water scarcity, which until recently was considered an impossible boondoggle. “When you talk to experts about water,” he says, “they’ll tell you with 4 billion people making less than two dollars a day, there’s no viable business model, no economic model and no way to finance development costs. But the 25 poorest countries already spend 20% of their GDP on water. Four billion people spending 30 cents a day is a $1.2 billion market every day. It’s $400 billion a year. I can’t think of too many companies in the world that have $400 billion in sales a year.” Kamen is in beta trials with his Slingshot, a water purifier that can turn anything wet (polluted water, seawater, even latrine water) into the purest water on Earth at a rate of 1,000 liters per machine per day for less than 0.02 cents a liter.
Our next force is money—a lot of money—being spent in a very particular way. The high-tech revolution created an entirely new breed of wealthy techno-philanthropists who are using their fortunes to solve global, abundance-related challenges. Bill Gates is focused on eliminating malaria; Naveen Jain is crusading against poverty in India; Pierre and Pam Omidyar are bringing electricity to the developing world. The list goes on and on, a force unrivaled in history.
Lastly, the very poorest of the poor, the so-called “Bottom Billion,” are finally plugging into the global economy and are poised to become the “Rising Billion.” The creation of a global transportation network was the initial step down this path, but it’s the combination of the Internet, microfinance and wireless communication technology that’s truly transformational. Over the next decade, and for the first time ever, 3 billion new voices will join the global conversation. What will these people desire? What will they create? If for no other reason than the law of large numbers and the power of their potential, this puts the Rising Billion in the same category as exponential technology, the DIYers and the techno-philanthropists: a potent force for abundance.
Alone, each of these forces has enormous potential. But acting together, amplified by exponentially growing technologies, these innovations take the once unimaginable and turn it into the now actually possible. And abundance for all becomes: Imagine what’s next.