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The Future Is Better Than You Think

Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

Aluminium was once incredibly rare. A Roman emperor supposedly beheaded a goldsmith who figured out how to extract it from common bauxite, because it would devalue his hoard of gold and silver.Even 200 years ago Napoleon held a banquet where the honored guests had aluminium plates and the rest had to make do with gold and silver ones. But today electrolysis has made aluminium cheap and available to all.

The point is that scarcity is often contextual.Imagine an orange tree laden with fruit. Pick all the ones you can reach, and from your point of view, oranges are now scarce. But if someone invents a new piece of technology, a ladder, suddenly oranges are abundant.

When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they're mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.

Diarrhea kills 1.8 million children each year. More people have access to a cellphone than a toilet. The ancient Romans had better water quality than half the people alive today.

We are control freaks in that we are significantly more optimistic about things that we think we can control. If I ask you what you can do to improve yr maths score, you can think of extra study, less partying, coaching etc. But if I ask you what you cd do to solve world hunger, all you can think of is pics of starving babies in Africa. (And yet small groups have made a dent in world hunger in a variety of ways, but there are no emotional pics of them)

We are simply not equipped to deal with the amount of info or with the pace of change. We are trying to interpret a global landscape with a system built for local landscapes. Even 200 years ago, waterwheels weren't getting more powerful, hammers weren't getting easier to use, iron ore wasn't getting stronger every year.

Over past decade, billion dollar companies such as Kodak, Blockbuster and Tower Records collapsed nearly overnight, while new billion dollar companies appeared out of nowhere. YouTube went from startup to being acquired by Google for $1.6 billion in 18 months.

We are local optimists (we are over confident of things we know a little about) and global pessimists (we are suckers for doom-and-gloom stories). All the predictions of environmental, population or resource catastrophes have never come true. The people who point this out get heavily criticized. But never refuted.

Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist suggested that the best measure of prosperity was time saved. The true measure of the worth of something was how long it took to acquire it.

Today, an hour of (artificial) light takes half a second to earn, if yr on average wage. If you were using a kerosene lamp in the 1880's it wd have taken 15 minutes to pay for an hour of light. A century earlier, a tallow candle took 6 hours work. And a sesame oil lamp in Babylon in 1750BC wd have cost 50 hours labor. And since those with electricity seldom knock over a lantern and set the barn on fire, or suffer respiratory ills from breathing in smoke, we have also gained the hidden hours once lost to poor health and home repair.

Steven Pinker in A History of Violence - We're Getting Nicer Every Day says "Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution--all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light."

We have come a long way, and it's because of culture. Culture is the ability to store, exchange and improve ideas.

Our grandparents could not conceive of a NY salad bar because they cd not imagine a global transport network that cd bring lettuce from California, apples from Poland and cashews from Vietnam together in one meal (and provide a tasty sauvignon blanc from NZ to wash it down with).

For the first time ever, it is possible to bring together the brightest minds to solve the hardest problems, via Internet collaborations and X-prize type incentives. This is crucial because no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.

The Goldcorp Challenge: A Canadian mining company put its geological maps online in 2000 and announced a challenge. "Show us where we can find the next 6 million ounces of gold, and we'll pay $500,000. 125 teams entered the contest; a tear later 3 teams were declared winners - 2 from NZ, 1 from Russia. None had been to Canada, but they were able pinpoint the best places to dig.

he old industrial version of education stressed reading, writing and arithmetic. But today we need creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving.

But above all, education needs to be interesting. Needs to be entertaining. Needs to be addictive.

Need the power of video games. Take something as childish as Pokemon; a game for 5yos, but needs a lot of reading. But the text is written at 12yo level, so to start with, Mum has to play with kid, reading text aloud. This is great bc reading with parents is a good way to learn. But then kid realizes Mum might be good at reading but she's not very good at playing. So the kid starts reading, just so he can kick Mum out of the game and play with his friends.

Video games are like the scientific method - meet a situation that doesn't make sense, observe, form hypotheses while being aware of cause and effect.

Conclusion? We need to make education a lot more like video games and a lot less like school.

Khan Academy as intermediate step. Adding 3 lessons a day. Enough content for someone to go from one-plus-one to quantum mechanics. And schools using it in reverse to normal teaching - kids assigned to watch a video in own time, then come to class to work through problems (also provided by Khan) with teachers acting as caches rather than instructors. Students work at own pace, only advancing when have mastered previous level.

Other major advantage of video games is way measure progress. Instead of a single test at end of the course, can measure progress every minute, and over wide range of parameters.

(Wall St Journal Review)

If every image made and every word written from the earliest stirring of civilization to the year 2003 were converted to digital information, the total would come to five exabytes. An exabyte is one quintillion bytes, or one billion gigabytes—or just think of it as the number one followed by 18 zeros. That's a lot of digital data, but it's nothing compared with what happened from 2003 through 2010: We created five exabytes of digital information every two days. Get ready for what's coming: By next year, we'll be producing five exabytes every 10 minutes. How much information is that? The total for 2010 of 912 exabytes is the equivalent of 18 times the amount of information contained in all the books ever written. The world is not just changing, and the change is not just accelerating; the rate of the acceleration of change is itself accelerating.

The exabyte story and many other examples of accelerating returns are chronicled in "Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think" by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Mr. Diamandis is the chairman and chief executive of the X Prize Foundation and the founder of more than a dozen high-tech companies. With his journalist co-author, he has produced a manifesto for the future that is grounded in practical solutions addressing the world's most pressing concerns: overpopulation, food, water, energy, education, health care and freedom. The authors suggest that "humanity is now entering a period of radical transformation where technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standard of living for every man, woman, and child on the planet."

Accelerating change is happening in many areas. Information: A Masai warrior with a smartphone on Google has access to more information than the president of the United States did just 15 years ago. Technology: Today more people have access to a cellphone than to a toilet. Computing: In 15 years, the average $1,000 laptop is likely to be computing at the rate of the human brain. Education: The Khan Academy's YouTube tutorial videos on more than 2,200 topics, from algebra to zoology, draw two million viewings a month from online students around the world. Medicine: The field of personalized medicine based on genetic information - an industry that didn't exist a decade ago - is now growing at 15% a year and will reach $452 billion by 2015. Aging: The centenarian population is doubling every decade; it was 455,000 in 2009 and will reach four million by 2050.

Given all the talk nowadays about income inequality, the authors' discussion of poverty is especially instructive. The number of people in the world living in absolute poverty has fallen by more than half since the 1950s. At the current rate of decline it will reach zero by around 2035. Groceries today cost 13 times less than 150 years ago in inflation-adjusted dollars. In short, the standard of living has improved: 95% of Americans now living below the poverty line have not only electricity and running water but also Internet access, a refrigerator and a television - luxuries that Andrew Carnegie's millions couldn't have bought at any price a century ago.

The timing of "Abundance" is propitious. Given that we are besieged by Christian end-times soothsayers, Mayan-calendar doomsayers, gloomy environmentalists and the warnings of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which just advanced its Doomsday clock to five minutes to midnight, how can anyone be optimistic? With seven billion people now pressing up against the Earth's carrying capacity, certain problems can seem intractable. Isn't pessimism the appropriate response? Who is right, the optimists or the pessimists?

The problem turns on cognitive biases that slant our interpretation of the data. Optimism is good for overcoming obstacles that are part of daily life, but over-optimism can blind us to adversities that need addressing. Consider a Canadian study that analyzed the results of a program in which inventors paid for objective evaluations of their ideas. Nearly half of the inventors kept working on their projects even after being told that they were hopeless. These over-optimistic souls eventually incurred losses double that of their more realistic peers.

Optimism helps entrepreneurs override normal "loss aversion," the reluctance to take chances because the pain of a loss is felt twice as strongly as the pleasure of a gain - an emotion rooted in our evolutionary ancestors' lives of scarcity and uncertainty. Loss aversion encourages short-term thinking. We discount the future in ways so predictable that economists have formulas to describe it. We focus on immediate events and bad news and are blind to long-term trends and good news. Messrs. Diamandis and Kotler not only acknowledge these cognitive biases; they address the biases head-on as one more obstacle to be overcome on the way to abundance.

Predictions of a rosy future have a way of sounding as unrealistic as end-is-nigh forecasts. But Messrs. Diamandis and Kotler are not just dreamers. They lay out a plausible road map, discussing, among other things, the benefits of do-it-yourself tinkering - like the work by geneticist J. Craig Venter in beating the U.S. government in the race to sequence the human genome - and the growing willingness of techno-philanthropists like Bill Gates to tackle real-world problems.

The biggest hurdles, however, are not scientific or technological but political. There are still too many corrupt dictators and backward-looking governments keeping millions in penury. But as we have seen lately, the misruled have a way of throwing off despotic governments. With ever more people reaching for freedom, countless millions are tacitly embracing the Diamandis motto: "The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself."

NY Times Review

The past few years have been trying ones for the world's optimists. In rapid succession, our global crises have ranged from the environmental to the economic - from tsunamis leveling entire regions of Asia and destroying seemingly impregnable nuclear reactors, to debt and unemployment crushing ostensibly healthy nations. Meanwhile, as the planet warms, ice caps melt, oceans acidify and dry regions desertify. To choose just one metric of doom, about 30 percent of the world's fish populations have either collapsed or are on their way to collapse; to choose another, global carbon emissions rose by a record 5.9 percent in 2010, a worrisome development considering that the period was characterized by slow economic growth. (What happens when things start booming again?) I could go on, but you get the gist. It seems self-evident that things are getting worse, doesn't it?

Well, maybe. In Silicon Valley, where the locals tend to be too busy starting companies to wallow in gloom, Peter Diamandis has stood out as one of the more striking optimists. Several years ago, Diamandis founded the X Prize Foundation, which rewards entrepreneurs with cash for achieving difficult goals, like putting a reusable spaceship into flight on a limited budget. More recently he helped start Singularity University, an academic program that convenes several weeks a year in the Valley and educates business leaders about the 'disruptive' - i.e., phenomenally innovative - technological changes Diamandis is anticipating. To be sure, Diamandis is both very bright (he studied molecular biology and aerospace engineering at M.I.T. before getting an M.D. at Harvard) and well informed. Moreover, he's not the kind of optimist who will merely see the glass as half full. He'll give you dozens of reasons, some highly technical, why it's half full. Then he'll explain that your cognitive biases are tricking you into seeing the glass of water in a negative light, and cart out the research of acclaimed psychologists like Daniel Kahne­man to prove his point. Finally he may suggest you stop fretting: new technologies will soon fill the glass up anyway. Indeed, they are likely to overfill it.

I don't mean to fault this disposition. Our future depends on optimists like Diamandis, and his new book, "Abundance," written with the journalist Steven Kotler, is an enthusiastic take on what's to come. To Diamandis - though the book is co-­written, it's narrated in his voice - the state of the world is in fact much better than it appears and will soon get even better. "Humanity," he says early on, "is now entering a period of radical transformation in which technology has the potential to significantly raise the basic standards of living for every man, woman and child on the planet."

His thesis rests on a four-legged stool. The first idea is that our technologies in computing, energy, medicine and a host of other areas are improving at such an exponential rate that they will soon enable breakthroughs we now barely think possible. Second, these technologies have empowered do-it-yourself innovators to achieve startling advances - in vehicle engineering, medical care and even synthetic biology - with scant resources and little manpower, so we can stop depending on big corporations or national laboratories. Third, technology has created a generation of techno-philanthropists (think Bill Gates) who are pouring their billions into solving seemingly intractable problems like hunger and disease. And finally, we have what Diamandis calls "the rising billion." These are the world's poor, who are now (thanks again to technology) able to lessen their burdens in profound ways. "For the first time ever," Diamandis says, "the rising billion will have the remarkable power to identify, solve and implement their own abundance solutions."

Diamandis and Kotler have written a frequently interesting and sometimes uplifting book. There are a number of ideas in "Abundance" that even devoted followers of technological trends may find new and reifying. The authors’ tutorial on the declining costs of solar panels and power storage, for instance, makes a nearly airtight case for clean energy's imminent economic and environmental effects. And did you know that robotic surgeons - first developed for soldiers during battle, now used to help with knee-replacement surgeries - may be adapted to perform simple and urgent procedures in developing countries where doctors are scarce? Or that 'vertical farms' within cities have a real potential to provide vegetables and fruits to local consumers on a mass scale?

Especially encouraging here is how the authors' vision for the world's poor - better medical care, clean water, more food, more education, all possible with the various technological tools we now have or soon will have - adds up to a deeply humanistic case. By a future of abundance, they do not mean luxury. They mean a future that will be "providing all with a life of possibility."

Still, it's worth making a distinction. "Abundance" is not so much a report on the future as it is an argument for the potentiality of the future. And there is, so to speak, an abundance of problems in such an approach. To his credit, Diamandis acknowledges the magnitude of our global problems; and he hints, in places, at the complexity of overcoming them. Yet many new technological developments are presented here without the ballast of specific scientific, or economic, skepticism. Will we regularly "3-D print" human organs in the near future, just as laser printers now zip out documents? Will a revolutionary new generation of nuclear power plants actually be marketed by 2030?

The authors, keen on extrapolations, often show a casual disregard for what California's venture capitalists, an equally optimistic bunch, describe respectfully as the "Valley of Death." This term refers to the difficult, cash-starved terrain a new start-up and its technology must travel through to survive. Usually they fail. In California and elsewhere, it's never enough to make a breakthrough. The inventor or company must make something that succeeds technologically, economically and culturally on a large scale. Innovation, to put it another way, harmonizes closely with market acceptance and impact. Thus when Diamandis tells us about a water purification technology developed by the inventor Dean Kamen, we're led to believe it's an imminent leap forward and are told only later that the technology is still far too expensive for widespread adoption. In this instance, and several others in the book, the take-away is not quite convincing.

More problematic, I think, is the authors' glorification of small groups over large ones. There's a curious absence of alarm over climate change in "Abundance," perhaps because arresting its effects will necessitate not only a huge technological push but also the messy business of changing human behavior, radically altering government policies and brokering international accords. In other words, it doesn't begin to fit into the authors' paradigm of a problem that requires a D.I.Y. or techno-­philanthropic fix. (Nor does it appear to be a situation in which our glass-half-empty tendencies are leading us to an overly pessimistic view of the consequences. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that only 38 percent of Ameri­cans consider global warming a 'very serious' problem.)

Throughout the book Diamandis nevertheless offers small groups of driven entrepreneurs as a kind of Leatherman solution to the world's problems. It's true that plenty of insurgents are doing impressive things out there - Elon Musk's Tesla Motors, which helped jump-start the world's electric car industry, is a good example. But Diamandis neglects to point out that small and proficient groups also often function within the fertile confines of a larger corporation (Google, Apple, Intel, even General Motors) and thus draw on an enveloping pool of expertise in research, manufacturing and marketing.

At the same time, small groups tend to be good at starting things but aren't equipped to finish things. Put another way, they can't stay small if they want to scale up. That Diamandis's X Prize Foundation awarded millions of dollars in 2007 to several inventors with car models that could achieve more than 100 miles per gallon does not implicitly prove the incompetence of companies like Ford and Toyota. To me, it merely adds to a conversation about the difficulty of moving away from cheap oil and of retooling the immensely complex global car industry, with its manufacturing challenges, liability issues and price-sensitive consumer markets. D.I.Y. folks don't worry much about such things.

Regardless of the book's shortcomings, I'm fairly certain even the most skeptical readers will come away from "Abundance" feeling less gloomy. What's more, anyone contemplating the direction of our global society would do well to read and debate its arguments. The future may not turn out to be very bad, or even very good. We may just muddle through, with plenty of highs and lows, kind of as we're doing now. Still, there's a significant idea embedded within "Abundance": We should remain aware, as writers like Jared Diamond have likewise told us, that societies can choose their own future, and thus their own fate. In that spirit Diamandis and Kotler put forth a range of possible goals we may achieve if we have the imagination and the will. A little optimism wouldn't hurt, either.

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