In the TED video below, Abundance is Our Future, techno-philanthropist, billionaire Peter Diamandis explains how much technological progress has already improved our lives and offers compelling evidence for an optimistic future. I’ve written a summary of that video at the end of the post, but before that I’d like to discuss some of misconceptions about what abundance means and offer some of my predictions for the future.
What Abundance is Not
The word ‘abundance’ often conjures images of luxury and excess. Abundance in my definition, and that of Peter Diamondis, is not the Wall Street investment banker stereotype of wealth.
It’s not about everyone on the planet having 5000 square foot houses, with luxury sports cars, access to private jets, yachts and $1000 hookers on lunch breaks.
Clearly that idea of wealth is environmentally and morally bankrupt.
Abundance is not about stuffing our faces with processed food while we watch 4 or 5 hours of television a day. It’s not about disposable lifestyles needlessly wasting food, water and other precious resources while we fill up our over-sized houses and storage garages with useless junk.
We only have one planet. If everyone consumed like a European, we would need 3 planets of resources. If everyone consumed like an American, we’d need 5 planets. Clearly, that is not feasible.
I also want to make clear that this is not some type of spiritual or ‘secret’ abundance where if you have the correct thoughts, everything will be magically delivered to you. Try explaining that to the 6 month old African baby that died for lack of a $0.12 malaria vaccine or the young third world girl sold into sexual slavery. It’s grossly insulting to suggest that the world’s poorest deserve what they have because they are dwelling on negative thoughts.
What Abundance Really Means
Abundance is not about giant houses and SUVs. It’s about providing clean water, food and basic human rights like education and freedom from persecution to everyone on the planet. It’s about removing barriers of scarcity so that humans are free to pursue creative, intellectual and social pursuits. Historically, suffering has been a large part of the human condition. As modern economies have proven over the last 60 years, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The abundance I talk about is very simple. It’s all about technological progress. In the first 190,000 years of existence homo sapiens, had virtually no progress. Societies, art and agriculture are only thousands of years old. The automobile, air travel, electricity, telephone, film, radio and television are only about a century old. The personal computer, mobile phones and the Internet are only a few decades old. The pace of technological change is accelerating. We will reach point of singularity where the rate of change becomes so fast it will be completely incomprehensible to the un-augmented human mind.
This is difficult to comprehend. I certainly don’t claim to have any understanding of quantum physics, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, biofuels, thorium reactors and hundreds of other scientific fields that each have the potential to profoundly affect our future. The knowledge in each of these fields is so specialized that it’s impossible for any individual to truly understand the complete ramifications.
Let’s keep it very simple.
If the price/performance of computer processing keeps doubling every 18 months, computers become amazingly powerful and inexpensive, as they have. It’s extremely likely we’re moving to a world where computers will have billions times more processing power than the human brain. Like Ray Kurzweil points out, it’s the application of the current computing power that builds the next generation of technology, which keeps the rate of change accelerating.
If solar energy keeps growing at 40% plus per year, while energy consumption grows at single digit rates, as they have, there will come a time in the not so distant future when clean and cheap energy is ubiquitous. Energy will become abundant and essentially free, just like electricity is now for most of the developed world. This alone changes everything. Suddenly, problems like environmental pollution, water shortages and resource wars go away.
When free online learning platforms like the Khan Academy and MIT Open Courseware offer the best instruction on the internet at no cost, learning is transformed around the world.
Robots will become ubiquitous in all aspects of our lives. Machines will do increasing amounts of boring, dangerous and repetitive work.
Nanobots will enter our bloodstream and fix illnesses and diseases at a cellular level.
Just as the combustible engine automobile replaced horse transportation, we will move to electric cars, trains and other transportation that are much cleaner and much, much more inexpensive.
Food substances like Soylent or perennial food crops have the potential to drastically alter food shortages in the developing world.
Wait until the bottom 3 billion are freed from unimaginable poverty and deprivation and finally get access to the tools to connect with the rest of the world. We are in for an intellectual renaissance never seen before. It’s all likely to happen at a time when computers surpass the human mind in processing power; very likely in the next two decades.
Of course, progress doesn’t eliminate immediate environmental destruction, nuclear and biological terrorist threats, global pandemics, mass animal and plant extinctions and countless other problems we are facing. However, it does point to a way forward.
There will be decades of suffering ahead for the world’s poorest. Consumers in richer nations tend to be quite selfish when it comes to the idea of sharing their good fortune.
We can’t even be certain if all the technological progress will be beneficial to mankind. It’s not infeasible to completely wipe humans off of the face of the planet. Even at a conceptual level, why would infinitely wiser artificial intelligence want to keep destructive and selfish humans on the planet? Humans, as a species, place little value on intellectually inferior animals, why would artificial intelligence be any different?
The biggest problem with accelerating technological change is that it’s becoming largely incomprehensible to humans. My 93 year old grandmother has a hard time understanding how it’s possible to have a Skype conversation on an iPhone, never mind what technologies like quantum computing or nanotechnology will mean to future generations.
There will be mass social upheaval as large sectors of the global work force find themselves without the skills to find employment. As I wrote in my End of Work post, I believe it’s already happening with the high rates of youth unemployment around the globe.
Abundance is not going to mean luxury living for all. However, it will greatly reduce global suffering and minimize the need for most types of non-creative work. If robots can build cars and computers, it’s not hard to imagine them making our food in restaurants or cleaning our offices. It’s only a matter of time.
We simply won’t need people making stuff when we can print products on inexpensive home 3D printers. There are already early versions of 3D printers that can manufacture buildings and others that create biological tissue and organs. This technology is undoubtedly going to get cheaper and more powerful. It always does.
What Should We Do
On the whole, I’m pretty optimistic about what the future holds. My grandmother grew up in a homemade, one-room mud house with 7 sisters. She didn’t have running water, electricity, access to supermarkets, toys, entertainment or anything that is commonplace now. She had no choices in her life. If she didn’t do endless backbreaking chores on the farm, her family wouldn’t eat. That was less than a century ago. Relative to the history of the planet and human existence, 100 years is a minuscule fraction of time.
In contrast, my life is pretty damn good. I can do anything I want, anywhere I want. Over the winter, I’ll be visiting family in Europe, Japan, Thailand and Australia. I’m not rich or privileged. These same opportunities are available to all of us in more advanced nations. The best part is that the definition of advanced nations is rapidly expanding. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty already over the last few decades.
In order to prepare to this age of abundance, I feel it’s absolutely critical to take control of our own economic destinies. Lifetime, stable employment is long gone. The only security is self-employment. We need to create our own opportunities.
There are skills and ideas we need to master if we want to excel. That is the purpose of my ActionMBA.com program. We will need to all become life-long learners and take charge of our own futures.
Now that material wealth is quite easy to come by, I believe we are seeing a shift to more contribution and charitable work. Most people are not there yet, but with all the meetups, non-profits and social enterprises I see springing up around the world, there’s definitely positive change in the air. What’s the point of creating socially useless businesses, when our best and most productive minds can do something meaningful in the world?
Please watch the Peter Diamondis’ TED talk below. I’ve summarized the key points he makes, but the video is definitely worth a watch.
Abundance is our Future Peter Diamandis
Over the last 100 years:
- Average human lifespans have doubled
- Average per-capita income adjusted for inflation has tripled
- Childhood mortality has come down by a factor of ten
- Cost of food is a tenth of what it was
- Cost of electricity is 5% of what it was
- Cost of transportation has dropped 100 fold
- Cost of communications has dropped 1000 fold
Steven Pinker has shown this is the most peaceful time ever for mankind.
Charles Kinney has reported that global literacy has gone from 25% to over 80% in the last 130 years.
In America, for those under the poverty line:
- 99% have electricity, water, toilets and refrigerators
- 95% have a television
- 88% have a mobile phone
- 70% have a car and air conditioning
A century ago these would have been unimaginable luxuries for even the ultra rich and royalty.
The cell phone in your pocket is a million times cheaper and a thousand times faster than a super computer from the 70s.
Any tool which becomes an information technology follows Moore’s Law and experiences a price/performance doubling every 12 to 24 months. Over the last century, this curve has been very smooth. Even through world wars and economic depressions, technology keeps improving at an exponential rate. Which means the rate of technological change is increasing. Technological progress is accelerating. Faster computers are being used to build faster computers.
Technologies riding on Moore’s Law
- Infinite Computing
- Sensors and Networks
- 3D Printing
- Synthetic Biology (Fuels, vaccines and food.)
- Digital Medicine
- Artificial Intelligence
IBM’s Watson computer beat human opponents on the Jeopardy game show.
Peter Diamondis and Ray Kurzweil have started Singularity University to encourage entrepreneurs to start businesses that can potentially affect a billion people within a decade.
Abundance is not about creating a life of luxury. It’s about creating a life of possibility. It’s about taking that which was scarce and making it abundant.
Scarcity is contextual and technology is a resource liberating force. Aluminum was once one of the most valuable metals on the planet, but electrolysis made it ubiquitous.
For the first time, the cost of solar generated electricity is 50% the cost of diesel generated electricity in India.
Once we have abundant energy, we’ll also have abundant water.
Dean Kamen’s Slingshot technology can purify water at less than two cents a litre. Coca Cola is currently testing this technology. If it’s successful it will be deployed around the world.
By the end of 2013 there will be 70% penetration of cell phones in the developing world.
The biggest protection against a population explosion is making the world educated and healthy.
The biggest force for bringing abundance in the world is the rising billion. In 2010, about 2 billion people were online, 23% of the world’s population. By 2020 it’s expected to increase to be 5 billion. Three billion new minds are connecting to the global conversation. We are about to have the biggest economic injection ever. These people represent tens of trillions of dollars to the global economy.
Do you think we are headed to a world of abundance?
These are all very difficult issues to comprehend. When you’re struggling to pay bills and have to wake up to go to work on Monday morning, it can be difficult to believe that we are in a world of abundance.
I think we need to step back sometimes and think about just how much the world has changed in our own lifetimes. Your cell phone can send messages anywhere in the world, offers free video calls, has a GPS, can play movies, holds thousands of songs, can order products and have them delivered to your door, can act as a mini-recording studio, can play games and thousands of other things I have no idea about.
That’s only information technology. There are much bigger changes in store as we continue to master quantum physics, genetic engineering and energy production. It’s exciting and scary at the same time.
Do you think we are entering an age of abundance?
Do you think humans will be able to cope with the changes ahead?