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Will Technological Change Lead to Abundance or Extinction?

At this year’s TED conference, which brought together some of the world’s leading thinkers and innovators, one of the most provocative debates challenged participants to consider the future of the earth. Two stunning TED Talks – “The Earth is Full” from Paul Gilding and “Abundance” from Peter Diamandis – were scheduled back-to-back to lead off the conference. While Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation and Singularity University championed the cause of accelerating technological change, activist and former Greenpeace CEO Paul Gilding made the case that this accelerating rate of technological change is actually leading to reckless consumerism and the destruction of the earth's delicate balance. So who's right?

This debate over the scope and pace of technological change, of course, is one that goes back at least to the 18th century and Robert Thomas Malthus, who famously noted that, "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." Opposing the Malthusians were the likes of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, both of whom believed in the possibility of creating a society with the potential for indefinite future progress. This same debate over two extreme outcomes of technological change -- abundance and extinction -- has been revisited at regular intervals ever since. In short, the debate between Diamandis and Gilding is just the next iteration of this cycle, and thus far, the techno-optimists appear to be winning.

As Diamandis points out in his TED Talk on "Abundance," we’ve reached an important inflection point in the development of the world. The progress of the world over the past 100 years - measured in terms of human life span and the quality of life - means that we are living in extraordinary times. Technological innovation in the form of cloud computing, synthetic biology, robotics, nanotech and artificial intelligence means that we now have the ability to solve the world's most pressing problems over the next three decades: "'I'm not saying we don't have our set of problems — climate crisis, species extinction, water and energy shortage — we surely do. [But] ultimately we knock them down.”

Gilding, for his part, believes the world is at a breaking point and that the goal of "abundance" is just an illusion. At some point, too much technology, too fast, means that the system ultimately breaks down. Gilding is not alone – the likes of Nick Bostrom, the head of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute, argue that mankind may be headed along the dangerous path to extinction. As Bostrom points out, technologies like synthetic biology and nanotechnology, if handled imprudently, may actually pave the road for our ultimate demise.

What we do and how we act at the current technology inflection point will have a major impact on whether we get to abundance or extinction. Do we view the 7 billion people on the earth as a cumulative drag on our global resources – or as a source of inspiration and hope?

In his new book Abundance, Diamandis refers to the newest of these 7 billion as the Rising Billion. Rather than consuming resources in a world of scarcity, they are adopting technology with stunning rapidity, turning everyday items like smart phones into tools of future progress. These Rising Billion in places like Africa suddenly have technology exponentially more powerful than anything used to create the U.S. space program.

So will rapid technological change lead to abundance or extinction, to doomsday or utopia? People who make the “earth is full” argument tend to think of technological change progressing in a linear, rather than exponential, manner. From this perspective, new alternative energies can only make a small dent in the global carbon footprint and new medical technologies can only slightly reverse the path of disease in the world. If technological change occurs at an exponential pace, however, it's possible to create an abundant future that even now is hard to imagine.

 

image: Child pressing a touch pad / Shutterstock

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