In order to grapple with the future, we must first take a big step back and understand the historical pattern of technology disruptions. The story begins by recalling the original meaning of the word “technology.” Before the advent of the Web, technology referred to all the basic and engineering sciences: everything from the wooden wheel to the nuclear bomb was considered a technology. However, in the last two decades, we’ve begun to think of only the Internet and communication services as technology. As powerful as these tools are, this limited approach grossly underestimates technology’s influence over us. Instead, what we are witnessing is the many diverse technological fields (IT, bio-technology, computer science, physics, etc.) coming together and reinforcing each other, creating a meta-shift on a world-historical scale.
To date, mankind has experienced four major technological revolutions, each of which has spawned an age more disruptive in overhauling life as we’ve known it.
The Stone Age: When homo sapiens first roamed the earth 250,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors used simple stone tools to dominate other species while moving as nomadic bands.
The Agrarian Age: 10,000 years ago, inventions like the plow and wheel enabled humans to cultivate crops and raise livestock, making us sedentary farmers. Small agrarian communities eventually gave rise to the first cities approximately 5,000 years ago.
The Industrial Age Renaissance breakthroughs like the printing press and mechanical clock finally reached the masses in the 18th and 19th centuries, at which point the Industrial Revolution leapt to life with technologies like steam power and large-scale manufacturing.
The Information Age: In the late 1970s, the emergence of the personal computer heralded a new era. The World Wide Web and the mobile phone further accelerated the instant creation and communication of data and gave birth to the knowledge worker. In 16 years, the personal computer spread to one-fourth of the US population. It took 13 years for the mobile phone to reach the same percentage of Americans, 7 years for the web and just 3 years for social networking media. The incredible speed and reach of information technologies has transformed America from a manufacturing to a mass service economy that now accounts for over half of the national GDP.
The Hybrid Age: Mankind is now experiencing its fifth and most intense technological revolution, and we are transitioning into the Hybrid Age. Most people believe we are still living in the Information Age, but in fact we have already reached an inflection point, a brewing storm that will once again drastically change individual life and society. The revolution in the nature of technology is fundamentally distinct from previous ones in five ways:
Ubiquitous. Computers have exponentially become more powerful and cheaper at the same time. This trend is expected to continue for at least another decade, after which molecular computer is expected to accelerate the trend for even faster, cheaper and nano-scale computers. (Already today’s smartphones used by teenagers to text friends have as much computing power as the Apollo spacecraft that traveled to the moon in 1969.) Soon extremely small computing machines and sensors will move from our smartphones and laptops into every single object we encounter in our daily lives, including being embedded in our own bodies. Hewlett Packard estimates that by 2015, there will be one trillion devices connected to the Internet constantly recording and sharing information. By 2020, we will literally live in technology.
Intelligent. Technologies will no longer be just dumb repositories of information that require humans to understand and process them. They will be intelligent, able to understand the data they collect and work autonomously and in concert with each other. The ability of IBM computer Watson to trounce two human competitors on the game show Jeopardy in February 2011 was a great breakthrough in artificial intelligence: by answering questions that required contextual understanding, Watson exhibited language comprehension, the highest marker of human intelligence.
Social. Both the shape and form of technologies will become anthropomorphic. Voice and gesture based commands will make interaction with machines more natural, and they will respond and react to us almost like humans. Even though their intelligence will be inferior to ours, we will find ourselves forming emotional ties to them.
Integrated. As scientific fields ranging from neuroscience and biology to mathematics and physics mingle and mate, they produce new technological offspring capable of unimagined prowess. Biomechantronics, for example, is a combination of Biology, Mechanical Engineering and Electronics, and has led to the most sophisticated prosthetics in the world.
Disruptive. Finally, the number of technologies has reached the critical threshold after which thousands of new technologies can be constantly created through different combinations of existing ones. The evolution of technology is going to accelerate in the Hybrid Age, which will bring new products and services to the masses very rapidly. In the process, they will disrupt older business models and labor markets and force us to adapt at a faster rate than is comfortable for us.
For all of the negative side effects of history’s technological revolutions, such as sweat-shop labor and nuclear war, few regret that we have gone down this path. To the contrary, what truly differentiates the Hybrid Age from previous revolutionary periods is that it will become global very quickly. Billions of the world’s poor from Africa to India are already participating in technological experimentation and have themselves become the innovators of paradigm-shifting services. In India, 8 million new mobile connections are activated every week. In Kenya, local engineers developed the mobile phone banking system Safaricom and M-Pesa that made traditional banks in the country immediately redundant. Chris Anderson, founder of TED, calls such disruption “crowd accelerated innovation.” Thus the poor who have access to technology will play an unexpected role in the Hybrid Age, using technology to create opportunities for themselves and unpredictable disruptions for the developed world.
The changing nature of technology, the geopolitics of technology access and the inclusion of the bottom billion will make the Hybrid Age a hotbed of opportunity and prosperity, but also chaos and uncertainty. How can you prepare yourself?
Ayesha’s interview in the New York Times on the Hybrid Age.
Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution in the Hybrid Age and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.
 The Singularity is Near: http://www.singularity.com/charts/page50.html