May 28, 2020

The Exponential Technology Quick & Dirty

Steven Kotler

1. The Abundance Quick Taste

Abundance was my first book with Peter Diamandis and a landmark book on exponential tech. The thesis is optimistic. Very.

In Abundance we make these four main points:

  1. Technologies in computing, energy, medicine and many other areas are improving at an exponential rate and will soon enable breakthroughs that today seem impossible.
  2. These technologies have allowed independent innovators to achieve startling advances in many areas of technology with little money or manpower. This is primarily achieved through incentive prize competitions.
  3. Technology has created a generation of "techno-philanthropists" (such as Bill Gates) who are using their billions to try to solve seemingly unsolvable problems such as hunger and disease.
  4. The lives of the world's poorest people are being improved substantially because of technology.

To whet your appetite for the full-read take a glance at the NY Times review of Abundance below:

Plenty to go around...

The past few years have been trying ones for the world’s optimists. In rapid succession, our global crises have ranged from the environmental to the economic — from tsunamis leveling entire regions of Asia and destroying seemingly impregnable nuclear reactors, to debt and unemployment crushing ostensibly healthy nations. Meanwhile, as the planet warms, ice caps melt, oceans acidify and dry regions desertify. To choose just one metric of doom, about 30 percent of the world’s fish populations have either collapsed or are on their way to collapse; to choose another, global carbon emissions rose by a record 5.9 percent in 2010, a worrisome development considering that the period was characterized by slow economic growth. (What happens when things start booming again?) I could go on, but you get the gist. It seems self-evident that things are getting worse, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe. In Silicon Valley, where the locals tend to be too busy starting companies to wallow in gloom, Peter Diamandis has stood out as one of the more striking optimists. Several years ago, Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation, which rewards entrepreneurs with cash for achieving difficult goals, like putting a reusable spaceship into flight on a limited budget. More recently he helped start Singularity University, an academic program that convenes several weeks a year in the Valley and educates business leaders about the “disruptive” — i.e., phenomenally innovative — technological changes Diamandis is anticipating. To be sure, Diamandis is both very bright (he studied molecular biology and aerospace engineering at M.I.T. before getting an M.D. at Harvard) and well informed. Moreover, he’s not the kind of optimist who will merely see the glass as half full. He’ll give you dozens of reasons, some highly technical, why it’s half full. Then he’ll explain that your cognitive biases are tricking you into seeing the glass of water in a negative light, and cart out the research of acclaimed psychologists like Daniel Kahne­man to prove his point. Finally he may suggest you stop fretting: new technologies will soon fill the glass up anyway. Indeed, they are likely to overfill it.

I don’t mean to fault this disposition. Our future depends on optimists like Diamandis, and his new book, “Abundance,” written with the journalist Steven Kotler, is an enthusiastic take on what’s to come. To Diamandis — though the book is co-­written, it’s narrated in his voice — the state of the world is in fact much better than it appears and will soon get even better. “Humanity,” he says early on, “is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman and child on the planet.”

His thesis rests on a four-legged stool. The first idea is that our technologies in computing, energy, medicine and a host of other areas are improving at such an exponential rate that they will soon enable breakthroughs we now barely think possible. Second, these technologies have empowered do-it-yourself innovators to achieve startling advances — in vehicle engineering, medical care and even synthetic biology — with scant resources and little manpower, so we can stop depending on big corporations or national laboratories. Third, technology has created a generation of techno-philanthropists (think Bill Gates) who are pouring their billions into solving seemingly intractable problems like hunger and disease. And finally, we have what Diamandis calls “the rising billion.” These are the world’s poor, who are now (thanks again to technology) able to lessen their burdens in profound ways. “For the first time ever,” Diamandis says, “the rising billion will have the remarkable power to identify, solve and implement their own abundance solutions.”

Diamandis and Kotler have written a frequently interesting and sometimes uplifting book. There are a number of ideas in “Abundance” that even devoted followers of technological trends may find new and reifying. The authors’ tutorial on the declining costs of solar panels and power storage, for instance, makes a nearly airtight case for clean energy’s imminent economic and environmental effects. And did you know that robotic surgeons — first developed for soldiers during battle, now used to help with knee-replacement surgeries — may be adapted to perform simple and urgent procedures in developing countries where doctors are scarce? Or that “vertical farms” within cities have a real potential to provide vegetables and fruits to local consumers on a mass scale? I didn’t.

Especially encouraging here is how the authors’ vision for the world’s poor — better medical care, clean water, more food, more education, all possible with the various technological tools we now have or soon will have — adds up to a deeply humanistic case. By a future of abundance, they do not mean luxury. They mean a future that will be “providing all with a life of possibility.”

Still, it’s worth making a distinction. “Abundance” is not so much a report on the future as it is an argument for the potentiality of the future. And there is, so to speak, an abundance of problems in such an approach. To his credit, Diamandis acknowledges the magnitude of our global problems; and he hints, in places, at the complexity of overcoming them. Yet many new technological developments are presented here without the ballast of specific scientific, or economic, skepticism. Will we regularly “3-D print” human organs in the near future, just as laser printers now zip out documents? Will a revolutionary new generation of nuclear power plants actually be marketed by 2030?

The authors, keen on extrapolations, often show a casual disregard for what California’s venture capitalists, an equally optimistic bunch, describe respectfully as the “Valley of Death.” This term refers to the difficult, cash-starved terrain a new start-up and its technology must travel through to survive. Usually they fail. In California and elsewhere, it’s never enough to make a breakthrough. The inventor or company must make something that succeeds technologically, economically and culturally on a large scale. Innovation, to put it another way, harmonizes closely with market acceptance and impact. Thus when Diamandis tells us about a water purification technology developed by the inventor Dean Kamen, we’re led to believe it’s an imminent leap forward and are told only later that the technology is still far too expensive for widespread adoption. In this instance, and several others in the book, the take-away is not quite convincing.

More problematic, I think, is the authors’ glorification of small groups over large ones. There’s a curious absence of alarm over climate change in “Abundance,” perhaps because arresting its effects will necessitate not only a huge technological push but also the messy business of changing human behavior, radically altering government policies and brokering international accords. In other words, it doesn’t begin to fit into the authors’ paradigm of a problem that requires a D.I.Y. or techno-­philanthropic fix. (Nor does it appear to be a situation in which our glass-half-empty tendencies are leading us to an overly pessimistic view of the consequences. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that only 38 percent of Ameri­cans consider global warming a “very serious” problem.)

Throughout the book Diamandis never­theless offers small groups of driven entrepreneurs as a kind of Leatherman solution to the world’s problems. It’s true that plenty of insurgents are doing impressive things out there — Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors, which helped jump-start the world’s electric car industry, is a good example. But Diamandis neglects to point out that small and proficient groups also often function within the fertile confines of a larger corporation (Google, Apple, Intel, even General Motors) and thus draw on an enveloping pool of expertise in research, manufacturing and marketing.

At the same time, small groups tend to be good at starting things but aren’t equipped to finish things. Put another way, they can’t stay small if they want to scale up. That Diamandis’s X Prize Foundation awarded millions of dollars in 2007 to several inventors with car models that could achieve more than 100 miles per gallon does not implicitly prove the incompetence of companies like Ford and Toyota. To me, it merely adds to a conversation about the difficulty of moving away from cheap oil and of retooling the immensely complex global car industry, with its manufacturing challenges, liability issues and price-sensitive consumer markets. D.I.Y. folks don’t worry much about such things.

Regardless of the book’s short­comings, I’m fairly certain even the most skeptical readers will come away from “Abundance” feeling less gloomy. What’s more, anyone contemplating the direction of our global society would do well to read and debate its arguments. The future may not turn out to be very bad, or even very good. We may just muddle through, with plenty of highs and lows, kind of as we’re doing now. Still, there’s a significant idea embedded within “Abundance”: We should remain aware, as writers like Jared Diamond have likewise told us, that societies can choose their own future, and thus their own fate. In that spirit Diamandis and Kotler put forth a range of possible goals we may achieve if we have the imagination and the will. A little optimism wouldn’t hurt, either.

2. A Bold Primer & Infographic

Bold was my second book with Peter. It really went big. The following review is from the Washington Post and encapsulates the thesis of Bold nicely. Make sure to take a look at the Singularity University infographic below too. It beautifies our message well.

(Simon & Schuster)

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 University’s 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 megapixels—which 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 improvements—and 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 doublings—or less than 14 years—away from meeting practically all of today’s 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 wasn’t 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 luxury—for the privileged few. Now, practically every family in the developing world owns one. Photographs were also for the well off—because 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 Boldmakes: “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 humanity’s 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.


4: The Six D's of Disruptive Technology (Big Think Style)

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What makes an exponential entrepreneur? That's the topic tackled by Flow Research Collective founder Steven Kotler in today's featured Big Think interview. Kotler is a co-author, along with XPRIZE CEO Peter H. Diamandis, of the book Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, which examines the ambitious tactics and strategies of visionary businessmen such as Larry Page, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos. A lot of what made these men extremely successful in this and recent decades make up the basic tenets of what Kotler calls "exponential entrepreneurship":

"An exponential entrepreneur is an entrepreneur who is leaning on exponentially accelerating technology — so network sensors, AI, robotics, synthetic biology, 3D printing — these technologies that are all on exponential growth curves. They’re also relying on what we call exponential psychological tools. These are ways to think at scale, flow states, things along those lines. Things that let entrepreneurs to scale up their mental game like never before. And finally they’re also using exponential crowd-power tools. These are crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, centerprises, and community building, right, that let entrepreneurs get access to capital, get access to expertise, really scale up their reach farther than ever before. So an exponential entrepreneur is people who are using these three kind of categories to level up."

The three stages of exponential entrepreneurship are therefore an adoption of exponentially growing technology, utilization of advanced psychological strategies (such as flow states, a topic Kotler has addressed before on this site), and harnessing of "crowd-power tools" that allow companies to organize and communicate with their target audiences more effectively than ever before. Savvy entrepreneurs take advantage of these 21st-century tools to launch bold, hugely profitable projects. Kotler explains that the key to achieving exponential entrepreneurship is to understand the growth cycles of exponentially advancing technologies. These are broken up into the Six D's:

Digitalization: "A technology becomes exponential once it becomes digitalized. It becomes represented in ones and zeroes. Once that happens, it becomes an information-based technology and it hops on an exponential growth curve. A classic example being Moore’s laws covering transitions."

Deception: "These technologies get introduced and it takes a while for them to get up to speed, right. And there’s all this hype in the beginning and they fall into this deceptive period and people kind of dismiss them. 3D printing was in that deceptive period for a very, very long time. Robotics, AI, all these things. But all of the technologies that we’re talking about in Bold are now moving out of that deceptive period."

Disruption: The technologies then play a role in subverting established industries. "A classic example is Uber. It’s totally disrupting the taxicab industry. Instagram totally disrupting Kodak. These are classic examples of the disruption."

Demonetization"For example, once you could store digital images on a camera, film was totally demonetized. And suddenly nobody was buying roll film anymore. Pixels did the same job. So the money comes out of the equation."

Dematerialization"Think about all the 1980s or '90s technology that now come free with your cellphone, right? Peter and I did a calculation in Abundancea nd we were looking at this and we found the average cellphone houses over like a million dollars’ worth of technologies from the 1980s. You have your GPS locator, your encyclopedia, your radio and record player, your camera, video recorder, on and on and on, right. You can now, with Instagram, get access to editing software that 10 years ago was a $2 million package. And today it’s free with an Instagram account. So demonetization, dematerialization, the technology itself is disappearing. Nobody’s going out and buying cameras anymore because it comes on your smartphone."

Democratization"These technologies themselves become cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. Cellphones are a classic example. Back in the '80s, these were a luxury technology that only the wealthiest could have and then it kind of slowly moved down the scale until where we are today. I mean 50 percent of the world ... [is] carrying a supercomputer in their pocket. That’s how much these things have been democratized. Access becomes available to anyone."

And that's how you track the life cycle of an exponentially growing technology. Kotler uses smartphones as an example, but there are plenty of other applicable innovations that fit this paradigm. Amazon's digital-distribution business model went through all these stages up until the point when access to hardly any product you could ever want became available with a swipe of the finger.

Think about what technologies today are currently making their way through the above life cycle. Where are points for growth? Which innovations appear to be headed toward a bright future? Identifying them is key to jumping into the realm of exponential entrepreneurship. 

5. Make It Happen: Three Steps to Becoming an Exponential Entrepreneur

Here I explain the basic tenets of what Peter and I call "exponential entrepreneurship.", enjoy:


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