Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
Peter Diamandis Peter Diamis Steven Kotler

Ended: Jan. 13, 2016

our species’ predilection for bad news. “It’s incredible,” he says, “this moaning pessimism, this knee-jerk, things-are-going-downhill reaction from people living amid luxury and security that their ancestors would have died for. The tendency to see the emptiness of every glass is pervasive. It’s almost as if people cling to bad news like a comfort blanket.”
He fingers loss aversion—a tendency for people to regret a loss more than a similar gain—as the bias with the most impact on abundance. Loss aversion is often what keeps people stuck in ruts. It’s an unwillingness to change bad habits for fear that the change will leave them in a worse place than before. But this bias is not acting alone. “I also think there could be an evolutionary psychology component,” he contends. “We might be gloomy because gloomy people managed
Ridley feels that the best definition of prosperity is simply “saved time.” “Forget dollars, cowrie shells, or gold,” he says. “The true measure of something’s worth is the hours it takes to acquire it.”
Yes, there are still billions living in back-breaking destitution, but at the current rate of decline, Ridley estimates that the number of people in the world living in “absolute poverty” will hit zero by 2035.
Compared to fifty years ago, today the Chinese are ten times as rich, have one-third fewer babies, and live twenty-eight years longer.
Beyond economic measures, both political liberty and civil rights have also improved substantially these past few centuries. Slavery, for example, has gone from a common global practice to one outlawed everywhere. A similar change has occurred in the enshrinement of human rights in the world’s constitutions and the spread of electoral processes. Admittedly, in far too many places, these rights and these processes are more window dressing than daily experience, but in less than a century, these memes have risen to such prominence that global surveys find democracy the preferred form of government for more than 80 percent of the world’s population.
That saved time, and prosperity is simply time saved, is proportional to the division of labor. The more human beings diversified as consumers and specialized as producers, and the more they then exchanged, the better off they have been, are and will be.”
“In a world of material goods and material exchange, trade is a zero-sum game,” says inventor Dean Kamen. “I’ve got a hunk of gold and you have a watch. If we trade, then I have a watch and you have a hunk of gold. But if you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange them, then we both have two ideas. It’s nonzero.”
It was a graphic representation of the gap between rich and poor, but even with that tail, there wasn’t much of a gap. In a 2010 updated presentation, Rosling summarized these findings thus: “Despite the disparities today, we have seen two hundred years of enormous progress. That huge historical gap between the West and the rest is now closing. We have become an entirely new, converging world.
After much deliberation, eight exponentially growing fields were chosen as the core of SU’s curriculum: biotechnology and bioinformatics; computational systems; networks and sensors; artificial intelligence; robotics; digital manufacturing; medicine; and nanomaterials and nanotechnology.
(You can literally email Blue Heron a long string of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs—the four letters of the genetic alphabet—and they will return a vial filled with copies of that exact strand of DNA.)
Venter’s actual goal is the creation of a very specific new kind of synthetic life—the kind that can manufacture ultra-low-cost fuels. Rather than drilling into the Earth to extract oil, Venter is working on a novel algae, whose molecular machinery can take carbon dioxide and water and create oil or any other kind of fuel.
As powerful as it will be, the impact the Internet of things will have on our personal lives is dwarfed by its business potential. Soon, companies will be able to perfectly match product demand to raw materials orders, streamlining supply chains and minimizing waste to an extraordinary degree. Efficiency goes through the roof. With critical appliances activated only when needed (lights that flick on as someone approaches a building), the energy-saving potential alone would be world changing. And world saving. A few years ago, Cisco teamed up with NASA to put sensors all over the planet to provide real-time information about climate change.
IBM recently unveiled two new chip technologies that move us in this direction. The first integrates electrical and optical devices on the same piece of silicon. These chips communicate with light. Electrical signals require electrons, which generate heat, which limits the amount of work a chip can perform and requires a lot of power for cooling. Light has neither limitation. If IBM’s estimations are correct, over the next eight years, its new chip design will accelerate supercomputer performance a thousandfold, taking us from our current 2.6 petaflops to an exaflop (that’s 10 to the 18th, or a quintillion operations per second)—or one hundred times faster than the human brain.
Hassan has open-sourced the project. “Proprietary systems slow things down,” he says. “We want the best minds around the world working on this problem. Our goal is not to control or own this technology but to accelerate it; put the pedal to the metal to make this happen as soon as possible.”
A Singularity University spin-off, Made in Space, has demonstrated a 3-D printer that works in zero gravity, so astronauts aboard the International Space Station
And this process will be vastly amplified when coupled to what Carl Bass calls “infinite computing.” “For most of my life,” he explains, “computing has been treated as a scarce resource. We continue to think about it that way, though it’s no longer necessary. My home computer, including electricity, costs less than two-tenths of a penny per CPU core hour. Computing is not only cheap, it’s getting cheaper, and we can easily extrapolate this trend to where we come to think of computing as virtually free. In fact, today it’s the least expensive resource we can throw at a problem.
Of course, a number of experts feel that once nanotechnology reaches this point, we may lose our ability to properly control it. Drexler himself described a “gray goo” scenario, wherein self-replicating nanobots get free and consume everything in their path. This is not a trivial concern.
Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the Water Innovations Alliance, believes a smart grid could save the United States 30 percent to 50 percent of its total water use. IBM believes that the smart grid for water will be worth over $20 billion in the next five years, and the company is determined to get in on the ground floor.
Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay turned media mogul turned technophilanthropist, says: “Today’s technophilanthropists are a different breed. While the industrial revolution focused philanthropy locally, the high-tech revolution inverted the equation. There’s a different mentality now because the world is much more globally connected. In the past, things that happened in Africa or China, you didn’t really know about. Today you know about them instantly. Our problems are much more interrelated as well. Everything from climate change to pandemics have roots in different parts of the world, but they affect everybody. In this way, global has become the new local.”
“If they [the technophilanthropists] can use their donations to create a profitable solution to a social problem,” writes Economist New York bureau chief Matthew Bishop in his book Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World (coauthored with Michael Green), “it will attract more capital, far faster, and thus have a far bigger impact, far sooner, than would a solution based entirely on giving the money away.”
There’s one last distinction between the new-breed philanthropists and the older generations, and it may be the one that has the biggest impact. The majority of the robber barons got generous in their august years, but many of the technophilanthropists were billionaires before the age of thirty-five, and they turned to philanthropy right afterward. “Traditional philanthropists have typically been an older lot,” says Skoll. “They’ve made their fortune, retired, and then toward the end of their life started giving it away. And they were less ambitious in their philanthropy—it’s easier to write a check to build the opera house than it is to go out and tackle malaria, or AIDS, or other global issues. Many of today’s technophilanthropists have the energy and confidence that come from building global businesses at such a young age. They want to tackle audacious goals like nuclear proliferation or pandemics or water. They think they can really make a difference in their lifetimes.”
The Internet’s rich are giving it away, their way,” proclaimed the New York Times in 2000. By 2004, charitable giving in America had increased to $248.5 billion, the highest yearly total ever. Two years later, the number was $295 billion. By 2007, CNBC had taken to calling our era “a new golden age of philanthropy” and Foundation Giving reported a record-setting 77 percent increase in new foundations established in the past decade, an addition of more than 30,000 organizations. Certainly those numbers dipped during the recent recession: 2 percent in 2008, 3.6 percent in 2009. The ten-year low was in 2010, but that was also the year Bill Gates put $10 billion toward vaccines, the largest pledge ever made by a charitable foundation to a single cause.
2010 was also the year that Gates and Warren Buffett, the two richest men in the world, announced the “Giving Pledge,” which asks the nation’s billionaires to give away half their wealth to philanthropic and charitable groups within their lifetimes or at the time of their deaths. George Soros, Ted Turner, and David Rockefeller signed up almost immediately. Skoll too was an early joiner, as was Pierre Omidyar. Oracle cofounder Larry Ellison, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, AOL creator Steve Case, and Facebook cofounders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz have all signed on as well. As of July 2011, the total had risen to sixty-nine signatories, with more joining all the time.
his excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Steven Johnson explores the impact of coffeehouses on the Enlightenment culture of the eighteenth century. “It’s no accident,” he says, “that the age of reason accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages.” There are two main drivers at work here. The first is that before the discovery of coffee, much of the world was intoxicated much of the day. This was mostly a health issue. Water was too polluted to drink, so beer was the beverage of choice. In his New Yorker essay “Java Man,” Malcolm Gladwell explains it this way: “Until the eighteenth century, it must be remembered, many Westerners drank beer almost continuously, even beginning their day with something called ‘beer soup.’ Now they begin each day with a strong cup of coffee. One way to explain the industrial revolution is as the inevitable consequence of a world where people suddenly preferred being jittery to being drunk.”
Instead Sheldon has implemented an “experience points” game-based design. Students begin the semester as a level zero avatar (equivalent to an F), and strive toward a level 12 (an A). This means that anything you do in the class produces forward motion, and students always know exactly where they stand—two conditions that serve to motivate.
(You can ballpark the ratio of fear to curiosity as a driver for human innovation: it’s the ratio of the defense budget to the science budget, which in 2011 was roughly $700 billion compared to $30 billion.)
With no bureaucracy, little to lose, and a passion to prove themselves, small teams consistently outperform larger organizations when it comes to innovation. Incentive prizes are perfectly designed to harness this energy.
Almost every time I give a talk, I like to ask people what they fear most about failure. There are three consistent answers: loss of reputation, loss of money, and loss of time. Reputation is a quality built through consistent performance and serial successes. One big failure can topple decades of effort. Money, a scare resource for most, comes more easily to those with a track record of success. And time is just plain irreplaceable. Blow your reputation on the front page of the newspaper, file for bankruptcy, or waste years chasing a bad idea, and you too are likely to become risk adverse.
Since the creation of abundance-related technologies requires taking risks, figuring out how to convert what Baba Shiv calls type 1 riskphobic individuals into type 2 riskphilic players is vital to this effort. There are a number of approaches now gaining favor. Some companies are focusing on how to make their working environment more tolerant of failure. At the financial software company Intuit, for example, the team responsible for a particularly disastrous marketing campaign received an award from Chairman Scott Cook, who said, “It’s only a failure if we fail to get the learning.” Similarly, Ratan Tata, CEO of the Indian conglomerate the Tata Group, told the Economist “failure is a goldmine” when explaining why his company instituted a prize for the best failed idea that taught the company an important lesson.
Michael Schrage, a research fellow with MIT’s Center for Digital Business and MIT’s Entrepreneurship Center, has developed the 5x5x5 Rapid Innovation Method, a very concrete way of putting Shiv’s notion into practice. “The idea is fairly simple and straightforward,” he says. “A company looking to drive breakthroughs in a particular area sets up five teams of five people and gives each team five days to come up with a portfolio of five ‘business experiments’ that should take no longer than five weeks to run and cost no more than five thousand dollars each to conduct. These teams are fully aware that they are ‘competing’ with their colleagues to come up with the best possible portfolios to present to their bosses, perhaps winning the chance to implement the best performing concept.”
On a certain level, change is being driven by a fundamental property of technology: the fact that it expands into what theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible.” Before the invention of the wheel, the cart, the carriage, the automobile, the wheelbarrow, the roller skate, and a million other offshoots of circularity were not imaginable. They existed in a realm that was off-limits until the wheel was discovered, but once discovered, these pathways became clear. This is the adjacent possible. It’s the long list of first-order possibilities that open up whenever a new discovery is made.
There is no debate that life has gotten considerably better at the bottom over the last four decades. During that stretch, the developing world has seen longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality rates, better access to information, communication, education, potential avenues out of poverty, quality health care, political freedoms, economic freedoms, sexual freedoms, human rights, and saved time. But what that $10,000 figure tells us is that we’ve actually come much further.
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