Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that the next 100 years will bring as much technological progress as the previous 20,000. Humanity is currently experiencing an unprecedented rate of change. That change accelerates as science-fiction tropes – flying cars, robot surgeons, even Star Trek’s immersive holodeck – become real. Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler offer a tour of exciting and imminent innovations, and predict their profound effects on industry, culture, science and daily life.
- The rate of technological progress is about to shift into warp speed.
- The phenomenon of “convergence” further speeds this “exponential” scale of change.
- Convergence produces “secondary forces” that stimulate greater innovation.
- New technologies will radically transform every area of life.
- Technology will help humanity deal with the planet’s biggest challenges.
- To tackle its problems, humanity must look much further ahead.
The rate of technological progress is about to shift into warp speed.
Mind-boggling gadgets and concepts, like flying cars, lab-grown steaks, quantum computers and robot surgeons, are moving from the pages of science fiction into reality. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, predicts that in the next century, technology will advance as much as it has in the previous 20,000 years – from the dawn of agriculture to the introduction of the internet.
“Every major industry on our planet is about to be completely reimagined.”
In the past, technology evolved in a slow, linear fashion, and human society didn’t change drastically over the course of a few generations. But the digital technology that arose in the 20th century was different. Its evolution was exponential: It regularly doubled its capacity while lowering its costs. Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, identified this phenomenon in 1965 when he noticed that the number of transistors on integrated circuits was doubling every 18 months. He predicted that this pattern would continue for up to 10 years. Dubbed Moore’s law, the prediction has held true for more than 40 years. The result: Computers double their power every year and a half, while their costs stay the same.
“In simple terms, we use our new computers to design even faster new computers, and this creates a positive feedback loop that further accelerates our acceleration.” ”
Ray Kurzweil later pointed out that once any technology becomes digital, it becomes subject to Moore’s law and grows exponentially. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, nanotechnology, virtual reality, blockchain currencies, biotechnology and 3D printing are all developing at exponential rates.
The phenomenon of “convergence” further speeds up this exponential scale of change.
Technological progress happens at the rate of exponential growth. The convergence of individual technologies – their interacting and combining with each other – contributes to that acceleration. Consider Uber’s push to introducing flying cars, for example. Uber plans to have aerial ridesharing up and running in Dallas and Los Angeles by 2023.
“Paradigm-shifting, game-changing, nothing-is-ever-the-same-again breakthroughs – such as affordable aerial ridesharing – will not be an occasional affair.”
Engineers experiment with new ways of achieving lift, by replacing a helicopter’s noisy overhead rotors with multiple small rotors situated on the underside of the craft. These are not only quieter, but safer, as having several rotors ensures backup in a case of engine failure.Vehicles benefit from advances in engine design: Standard internal combustion engines are too heavy to make the small-rotor design practical, but “distributed electric propulsion” produces light, quiet and powerful motors. The development of new engines became possible through the convergence of breakthrough advances in machine learning, “materials science” and 3D printing. Aerial taxis will also benefit from innovations in battery design.
Convergence produces “secondary forces” that stimulate greater innovation.
The extraordinary pace of progress today brings with it secondary effects – “technological shock waves” – that can bring multiple benefits, including:
- Time savings – Innovations enable people to get tasks done faster, which increases free time. Free time is a fertile soil for innovation. Hundreds of years ago, progress was slow because people were so busy maintaining the necessities of life they didn’t have the time to tinker with new ways of doing things.
- “Access to capital” – It takes money to support the winding process that leads to a successful innovation. Today, innovators have more access to capital than ever, in large part because convergence with digital technology has produced novel fundraising methods. Crowdfunding, for example, enables innovators or entrepreneurs to seek investment from billions of people online.
- “Demonetization” – Money matters, but during rapid progress it can cease to be a factor. One side effect of technological development is that new products and services, which debut at high prices, rapidly become cheap or even free. Data analysis that once required multimillion-dollar supercomputers, for example, is now inexpensive. Demonetization reduces the costs of every resource that supports innovation, from energy and transportation to communication and labor.
- “More genius” – In the past, it was easier to overlook genius: Those who made the biggest contributions in science, business and the arts tended to come from certain classes and cultures, and most were male. As a result, there may have been millions of overlooked geniuses throughout history. But the growth of networks makes traditional barriers crumble. New research in neurology reveals how to cultivate the qualities and skills essential to creativity, which ultimately increases discoveries and advances.
- “Communications abundance” – The internet amplifies the “network effect.” Throughout history, innovation accelerated whenever groups of people shared ideas. Cities have always been hothouses for progress; now, the internet turns Earth into a giant virtual city.
- “New business models” – A fertile area for innovation is in the introduction of novel business models. In addition to crowdfunding, these include flexible staffing and offering your product for free to then capitalize on the data you collect about your customers. These models significantly shorten the time span between an idea and a thriving business.
- Longevity – In the near future, convergence between AI, cloud computing, quantum computing, sensors, data sets, biotechnology and nanotechnology could push the average human life span well above 100 years. Extending people’s healthy years means people will operate at their peak for longer.
New technologies will radically transform every area of life.
Ever-increasing convergence and the resulting acceleration of change will alter every sector of society. The retail world exemplifies the potential of this makeover.
“For entrepreneurs, for innovators, for leaders, for anyone sufficiently nimble and adventurous, the opportunities will be incredible.”
The internet fundamentally reshaped the retail sector, largely through the actions of Amazon. Since 2006, established bricks-and-mortar stores have lost value. Target and Walmart did better than most. In the same period, Amazon saw a 5,103% growth in value.
Amazon’s early activities involved a simple innovation – combining a new, digital communication medium with the older model of the mail-order catalog. But this is only the first chapter of overwhelming change. Change will speed up dramatically as more complex technologies converge in the sector, and billions more people gain online access.
A wide range of technologies will participate in this convergence. AI, for example, may become a minimum requirement for retail success. The rise of AI in shopping began with the introduction of digital assistants: Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Alibaba’s Tmall Genie and Google Assistant. Eventually, AI assistants will learn your preferences and do your shopping without your guidance. Digital assistants could make phone calls to schedule your hair appointments or make dinner reservations. Retailers and service providers could employ AI assistants to answer these calls.
“” [AI] redefines the shopping experience, making it frictionless and – once we allow AI to make purchases for us – ultimately invisible.
When AI converges with advances in other technologies like sensors and networks, it will do even more. Shopping could become virtual. For example, to buy clothes, your virtual reality headset will let you enter a virtual store where – because your body scan is on file – the clothes will fit perfectly. You choose an outfit, your digital assistant pays, your order goes to a 3D-printing facility and the clothes arrive at your door via drone delivery.
Technology will help humanity deal with the planet’s biggest challenges.
Scenarios such as virtual stores and AI assistants could become reality within a decade or two. A century ahead, the possibilities become even more astounding. The world faces monumental environmental threats and unless humanity can meet these challenges, the most exciting advances in industry or culture will be meaningless. In 2018, the World Economic Forum issued a report on the most pressing dangers that humanity faces. The top threats are all environmental, including climate change, species extinction and access to clean water.
“Solving our planet’s ecological woes requires technology, for certain, but it also demands one of the largest cooperative efforts in history.”
Entrepreneurial innovators have the opportunity and technological means to address these immense problems:
- Water – Waterborne diseases kill more than three million people a year. Nearly a billion people around the globe have little or no access to clean water, and the United Nations expects the situation to worsen. Inventor Dean Kamen developed the Slingshot, a water purifier that can run on any burnable fuel, including cow dung. California-based Skysource devised a technology that extracts drinking water from the atmosphere.
- Climate change – Contending with climate change largely involves replacing COemitting fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources. Solar and wind power have been growing exponentially for decades and new developments in materials science could provide a boost. “Quantum dots,” for example, triple a solar cell’s energy output by embedding tiny pieces of semiconductor material in the cell. Drones can monitor solar farms, and robots may perform maintenance and installation on solar and wind farms.
- Biodiversity – Climate change, in combination with other ecological threats, poses a huge danger to biodiversity. The United Nations reports that as many as 200 species go extinct each day. Biodiversity is essential to “ecosystem services,” such as oxygen production, food production and pollination. The British company BioCarbon Engineering attacks the problem by unleashing AI-controlled drones that identify locations for planting trees and then shoot seed pods into the ground. Marine biologist David Vaughan worked out a method for regrowing coral reefs. Under current conditions it’s expected that oceans will lose 90% of their reefs in a few decades. Vaughan’s method can produce 100 years’ worth of coral growth in less than two years. Several companies address overfishing by growing seafood – from bluefin tuna to shrimp – from stem cells.
To tackle its problems, humanity must look much further ahead.
Future threats may emerge from technology that humanity cannot control. Picture nanotechnology running wild, genetically modified organisms taking over ecosystems, or terrorists unleashing violence through cybernetworks or biohacking.
“The threats we face might seem dire, but the solutions we already possess will only continue to increase in power.”
Humanity must bolster its faltering capacity for long-term thinking with three elements:
- “Vision” – Stewart Brand outlined a possible route to a more expansive vision with his Long Now Foundation. The organization created a 10,000-year clock, which it hid in a cave in Nevada. The foundation constructed the clock to make concrete the idea that navigating through future threats requires adopting a long-term perspective.
- “Prevention” – Thinking long term provides the foundation for preventing ecological catastrophes. By combining AI, networks, sensors and satellites, humanity could monitor threats and take steps to avert potential epidemics, asteroid strikes and forest fires.
- “Governance” – Governments need to develop the agility and flexibility that business adopted in recent years. The world’s democracies formed in a time when tyranny and instability were major threats – thus the framers introduced checks and balances to ensure a slow, steady rate of change. In the modern world of exponential growth, governments must devise quicker responses.
About the Authors
Peter H. Diamandis has founded more than 15 high-tech companies. He is the CEO of XPRIZE, which aims to find crowdsourced solutions to humanity’s greatest challenges. Journalist Steven Kotler is the founder and executive director of the Flow Research Collective.