Why The Future Will Be Much Better Than You Think

This excerpt from  ’Abundance: Why the Future Will Be Much Better Than You Think’ (Free Press, 2012) by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, appeared in the Feb. 13 edition of FORBES magazine.

Tapping into transformational technologies promises a better future for everyone.

Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates speaks during a te...

Billionaire Bill Gates among a ‘new breed of wealthy techno-philanthropists.’

A quick glance at the headlines lets us know the score: dark days ahead. With growing concerns about ­population size, economic meltdowns, energy shortages, water and food shortages—this list goes on—alarmists are having a field day. For the first time in a long time ­parents are predicting a worse life for their children than their own.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. We are now entering a ­period of radical transformation. Progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, infinite computing, ubiquitous broadband networks, digital manufacturing, nanomaterials, synthetic ­biology and many other breakthrough technologies will let us make greater gains in the next two decades than we’ve made in the previous 200 years. We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp.

If that sounds like hogwash, there are good neurological reasons for this reaction. Before we turn our attention to where we’re going, let’s first ­address why it’s so difficult to believe we can ever get there.

Every second our senses are deluged with data, more than we can possibly process. To deal with this overload, the brain is continuously sifting and sorting, trying to tease apart the critical from the casual. Since nothing is more critical to the brain than survival, the first filter most of this incoming information encounters is the amygdala, an almond-shaped portion of the ­temporal lobe responsible for ­primal emotions like rage, hate and fear. It’s also our early-warning ­system, an organ on high alert, constantly scanning our environment for anything that could threaten survival. Anxious under normal conditions, once stimulated, the amygdala becomes hypervigilant. But so potent is this response that once turned on, it’s difficult to shut off, and this is a problem in the modern world.

These days we’re media-saturated. Thousands of news outlets compete for our mind share by vying for the amygdala’s attention. The old newspaper saw “If it bleeds, it leads” works because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear. Our early-warning system evolved in an era of immediacy, when threats were of the “tiger in the bush” variety. Things have changed. Many of today’s dangers are probabilistic—terrorists might attack, the economy could nose-dive—and the amygdala can’t tell the difference. Worse, the system is designed not to shut off until the threat has vanished completely, but probabilistic dangers never vanish completely. Add in impossible-to-avoid news media continuously scaring us in their attempt to capture market share and you have a brain convinced it’s living in a state of siege.

What does the world really look like? Turns out it’s not the nightmare most suspect. Violence is at an alltime low, personal freedom at a historic high. During the past century child mortality decreased by 90%, while average human life span increased by 100%. Food is cheaper and more plentiful than ever (groceries cost 13 times less today than in 1870). Poverty has declined more in the past 50 years than the previous 500. In fact, adjusted for inflation, incomes have tripled in the past 50 years. Even Americans living under the poverty line today have access to a telephone, toilet, television, running water, air-conditioning and a car. Go back 150 years and the richest robber barons could have never dreamed of such wealth.

Nor are these changes restricted to the developed world. In Africa today a Masai warrior on a cellphone has better mobile communications than the President did 25 years ago; if he’s on a smartphone with Google, he has ­access to more information than the President did just 15 years ago, with a feast of standard features: watch, stereo, camera, videocamera, voice recorder, GPS tracker, video teleconferencing equipment, a vast library of books, films, games, music. Just 20 years ago these same goods and services would have cost over $1 million.

Four powerful forces are starting to emerge, each with enormous world-changing potential, none more ­important than the accelerating rate of technological progress. Right now all information-based technologies are on exponential growth curves: They’re doubling in power for the same price every 12 to 24 months. This is why an $8 million supercomputer from two decades ago now sits in your pocket and costs less than $200.

This same rate of change is also showing up in networks, sensors, cloud computing, 3-D printing, genetics, AI, robotics and dozens more industries. Biotechnology has been on such a wild, exponential ride that a state-of-the-art lab, complete with automation—what would have cost millions of dollars just ten years ago—can now be had for under $10,000.

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