Just as Francis Fukuyama once predicted the End of History, are we now facing a sort of technological end of history? Has truly radical innovation been forever replaced by incremental innovation that makes our lives easier, but not fundamentally different, from the way it was twenty years ago? The breakthroughs in science and technology predicted a generation ago – from genetics to artificial intelligence to space exploration – have not occurred, or have occurred at a much slower pace than even skeptics predicted. While Silicon Valley continues to churn out exponential gains in computational power on a regular schedule, where are all the other exponential technologies in fields like energy, biotechnology and transportation?
In a long thought piece on the Founders Fund website, venture philanthropist Peter Thiel asks the question on the minds of many venture capitalists: What Happened to the Future? We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters. As it turns out, many venture capitalists have stopped funding audacious ideas in favor of “me-too” Internet companies with exit strategies that are easier to explain to limited partners: “In the late 1990s, venture portfolios began to reflect a different sort of future. Some firms still supported transformational technologies, but venture investing shifted away from future transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems (e.g. having Kozmo.com messenger Kit-Kats to the office)."
As a result, venture capitalists “have ceased to be the funder of the future, and instead have become a funder of features, widgets, irrelevances.” These results are becoming readily apparent in everyday life, where we’ve appeared to reach a local maximum. The cost of launching material into orbit ($19,000 per kilo) has not changed since the 1960s. The average travel speed from New York to London has actually decreased in our generation, thanks to the end of the Concorde. Drug approval costs are skyrocketing, meaning that the number of new drugs introduced each year is actually declining, compared to 25 years ago. Computing processing power may be increasing, but employee productivity has not increased proportionally. The cost of electricity – the fundamental unit of energy – has not appreciably declined in two decades, despite scores of new alternative energy approaches.
So how do we move from a local maximum to a global maximum?
In their new book Abundance (coming to a tablet near you on February 21), Peter Diamandis (Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation and Chairman & Co-Founder of Singularity University) and co-author Steven Kotler offer a handful of reasons why the future is better than you think. One key reason is the Rising Billion – the world’s newest one billion, empowered by mobile technology, are about to come online for the first time ever. An average smart phone user in Sub-Saharan Africa now has more computing power than the U.S. President did 25 years ago. Another key reason is the appearance of the DIY Innovator, capable of transforming off-the-shelf technologies into an instrument for radical social change in areas that once were the exclusive domain of NGOs and governments.
As Diamandis points out, the key to a future of Abundance is the ability of technology to generate exponential growth, rather than linear growth. Linear growth is what gives you something like Angry Birds for Facebook. Exponential growth is what gives you a radically new technology platform capable of changing the world. In a world now measured in terms of billions of potential consumers, iterating 30 times (2^30) with an exponential technology takes you to that magic one billion mark. As a proponent of the coming Singularity, Diamandis understands how exponential change in one field - such as computing - can lead to exponential change in fields ranging from energy to biotechnology to artificial intelligence.
So what happened to the future? The future, it turns out, might just be more fascinating and more incredible than we ever imagined. What if algae-derived biofuels could power all of America’s 250 million cars? What if smart phones became the instrument for delivering a world-class education to the one-quarter of the world’s children who are not in school? What if new nanotechnology could clean up America’s nearly 800 Superfund sites? What if huge, skyscraper-like vertical farms could feed 50,000 people at a time? We just need the big, hairy, audacious goals that once captivated our nation to make it work. We just need Big Thinkers to make these audacious goals a reality.
image: Abundance the book