Peter Diamandis: Implications of Exponential Technologies Digitization

The venture capitalist and co-founder of Singularity University says that we are growing more quickly than ever before, and with that growth comes the ability to do a tremendous amount of good in the world.

Peter Diamandis is excited about the future – in a way that stirs up excitement in anyone listening to him speak. His message is simple, even if the pieces of that message are complex: ”I believe that we’re living in the most extraordinary time ever to be alive.” His enthusiasm became even more palpable as he continued. “It is a time in which there is nothing we cannot do. It is a time that if you truly are passionately desirous of doing something, you can…The only stumbling block is are you willing to work hard?”

Why does Diamandis believe this so passionately? Quite simply, the way that technology has developed has put more power into the hands of each individual than we’ve ever had before – perhaps more than we’ve ever even dreamed of having. It is the power to change the world, the kind of power that used to only exist in the hands of presidents and kings. To hear Diamandis explain it, we are now the presidents and kings. The exponential growth of technology has made it so. And that growth shows no signs of slowing down.

From linear to exponential

Diamandis began with a brief overview of how things used to be. For the first 150,000+ years of human development, our ancestors lived in a world that was local and linear. Our existence was limited to those in our tribe, and things changed very little, if at all in a person’s lifetime. That is the way that our minds are wired to work; step by step gains in a walking-distance world.

The world we’re living in today, however, is exponential and global. Rather than growth happening from century to century or decade to decade, it’s happening year to year. We are not programmed to think this way, Diamandis claims. “It’s not intuitive for us to think exponentially…we are linear thinkers.” To illustrate this point, Diamandis gave the following example:

“If I said to you where are you going to be in 30 linear steps?—you know—1,2,3. In 30 steps, I’m 30 meters away; I’m in the back of the room. And we’re really good at that kind of prediction. But if I said to you where are you going to be in 30 exponential steps?—where exponential is a simple doubling—1,2,4,8,16,32. In 30 doublings you’re not in the back of the room, you’re a billion meters away. You’ve orbited the planet 26 times. And the difference between that linear and this exponential explosion is everything.”

The great thing is, we have the ability to grow at a rate that we can’t even really comprehend. But that’s also the tragedy. We don’t quite understand that the huge problems that we see on the horizon are ones that we can solve by harnessing exponential growth. But because we still look at things in a linear way, the really big problems seem hopelessly big to us. Peter Diamandis is—in the face of that hurdle—optimistic.

Enter 109+ thinking

He’s optimistic that we can fully embrace and harness exponential thinking. In fact, he founded Singularity University on that very premise. There, he and the faculty take the best and brightest graduate students and put them to work on the world’s biggest problems. But don’t be fooled by the use of the word “university” or the goal of solving the world’s problems. SU is a place to make money. For Diamandis, those two things are not only not mutually exclusive; there’s actually a synergy there.

“Want to become a billionaire?” Diamandis asked the now-intrigued audience, “Help a billion people. It’s a beautiful alignment.”

With that foundation, SU students are given a mandate to enact the “109+” model: start a business that can impact a billion people over the next ten years. For a man like Diamandis—who takes the long view—this is just the beginning. But for him, it’s more than just growth and making money.

As he eagerly and enthusiastically paces the stage, there is a hint of something more—a moral imperative. We can, he assures us, have this 109+ impact—we can impact 1 billion people and make a real dent in the world’s big problems. And Diamandis asks—almost pleads us to consider “you can, and if you can, why would you not want to?” It’s a devastatingly simple question, and the only way to doubt his premise that we can have this effect is to deny that we’re living in exponential times. The balance of Diamandis’ presentation attempts to lay waste to any such denials.

The disruptions that are changing the game

Exponential growth started with the idea of one man: Gordon Moore, founding member of Intel, who famously postulated what we now call Moore’s Law, when he noted that:

“The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year. Certainly, over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase. Over the longer term, the rate of increase is a bit more uncertain, although there is no reason to believe it will not remain nearly constant for at least ten years.”

That was the fuse that lit the rocket of our exponential growth and kicked off an ear of mind-boggling possibilities. That ten years that Moore postulated was—as Diamandis was quick to point out—more than conservative. Every time a given medium for processing power seems to be close to saturation, a new one emerges—continuing the exponential rocket-ride.

Quantum computing and the sensor explosion

The next step, which Diamandis is noticeably excited about, is quantum computing. This will be computing like we’ve never seen, with the power to analyze complex systems, more quickly than we’ve ever seen. But even more important than that, Diamandis says, there will be more people online to help create a network of amazing knowledge.

The conservative estimate is that by 2020, there will be close to 5 billion people online—66% of the world population. That’s 5 billion connected minds, bringing their knowledge, expertise, and creativity to the table. The result of that is something that Diamandis calls “perfect knowledge”—knowing “anything, anytime, anywhere.” That yields real power—world changing power. Not only power but purchasing power—tens of trillions of dollars of it, by some estimates.

Computing aside, the ability to feed these machines with information from the world is becoming easier, faster, and cheaper as well. Sensors, Diamandis points out, have experienced a similar exponential growth compared to processors.

  • Digital cameras are now smaller, more precise, and cheaper than ever–they’re practically free
  • Accelerometers are now smaller, more precise, and cheaper
  • GPS sensors are now smaller, more precise, and cheaper than ever

We are in for a future of trillions of sensors, taking in data and processing it a lightning speed. Diamandis claims that this will change our culture, but in his mind, it’s for the better. Privacy may be going by the wayside, but Diamandis is quick to point out that most evildoing happens in the dark. An open world may just be the solution to some of our most terrifying problems.

The combination of sensor proliferation and connectedness will change healthcare by enabling machines to learn how to diagnose diseases faster and more accurately than doctors can. Coming from Diamandis, that means something—the man is a doctor.

More sensors reading more data from our bodies and giving us real time suggestions on food choice, exercise, or sleep will combine with sensors on our vehicles and appliances that can diagnose and fix problems before we’re even aware that there are any. It will happen in this decade and present us with a world of more durable goods and more durable bodies. Combine this with the leaps and bounds we’re making in genome mapping and programming, and Diamandis asserts that we will soon “make 100 the new 60.”

Robotic revolution

Robots of various forms are also driving exponential growth. They have grown in their capabilities and cost effectiveness at an exponential rate but will continue to do so, as will their scope. Robots will perform most manual labor jobs, including service work to consumers.

Robots will also change the way we move from place to place, which will have a marked effect on how we build cities. The robot behind that change is the autonomous car—which is experiencing an exponential boom as we speak. Diamandis asserts—quite boldly—that autonomous cars will be the standard in short order. “My two five-year-olds will never drive. When you have autonomous cars, you don’t own cars anymore; you own ‘car as a service’.”

When that happens—and all of the major car companies are working on it now—we can look forward to leaps and bounds in productivity and efficiency in our urban and suburban populations. Driveways and parking lots may just become artifacts of an antiquated way of life. This will have radical knock-on effects in the footprint of businesses and cities.

A kissing cousin of the robotic revolution is the emergence of 3D printing as a cost-effective option in manufacturing. Diamandis shows two quick slides to the audience—the first of a full-size car indiscernible from classically manufactured vehicles on the road today, the second of a series of houses manufactured by SunWin in China in 24 hours. Both were manufactured through 3D printing. No waiting for bulky materials to travel throughout the supply chain, no extra space needed for storing large parts and sub-assemblies. A car and a house made to order, and more impressively, made while everyone was sleeping.

For Diamandis, this is huge. It represents an age where everyone can become a maker, where we can go from concept to creation in minutes. Combine that with advanced AI, and every would-be inventor has a design team and manufacturing facility at their fingertips—in their basement office.

Augmented reality

Diamandis is quick to point out that though everyone seems to be talking about Virtual Reality now, it’s actually Augmented Reality that will be the future. AR will allow humans to create virtual environments within the natural environment, and change the former on the fly. He mentions Google’s Tango as the leading developer of this ability.

And because AR is getting dangerously close to 8K resolution—which is what the human eye can detect—we are close to an age where virtual is practically indistinguishable from real. When that happens, we will see huge changes in real estate, interior design, urban planning—the sky’s the limit (though only if we don’t choose to venture beyond it).

Private space exploration

With all of the innovation that is becoming possible in our own world, Diamandis explains that those entrepreneurs who are embracing exponential progress are now looking outside of it. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos—who is a longtime friend of Diamandis—confirmed to him that he really only started Amazon as a way to fund his venture to “open up the space frontier.” That venture, Blue Origin, is now in a kind of private space race with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The latter has made it a goal to fly a manned mission to Mars by 2024—with semi-permanent inhabitants.

But Mars is just one of the targets of harnessed exponential thinking about space. Since President Obama signed The Asteroid Act into law in 2015, near-earth objects are now being looked at as valuable sources of energy and commodities. One such object—2011 UW158 has an estimated value of $5.4 Trillion. Diamandis’ eyes light up as he reports that this is just one of many asteroids out there. “The sky” as a limit may become passe before our very eyes.

What about humans?

At the tail end of the Q&A session, a question was asked about what happens to human beings as robots and algorithms take the jobs that humans are now doing of analysis and manufacturing. It was undoubtedly on most people’s’ minds as Diamandis wowed them with his barely believable growth curves. Diamandis’ answer is interesting. He says that what is interesting is that on the scale of human history, employment as a staple of life is a fairly new development. And given that a reported 70% do not like their jobs, it will be interesting to see what we can do with our time that doesn’t involve trading labor for the means of subsistence.

Diamandis is also quick to note that not only humans individually but human systems will have to learn to develop with AI and exponential machine growth. After all, as Diamandis sees it “government is the most linear system on the planet” largely because (as he sees it) its role is to keep things the way that we are. All of this, Diamandis says, is part of the challenge of changing our thinking. We need to begin adopting changes more quickly, rather than waiting until growth is at 10x or more. If we can do that, Diamandis assures us, there is no limit to what we can achieve.


This article is a part of the Executive Summary of Nordic Business Forum 2016. Get your digital copy of the summary from the link below.

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