Why I Believe That This Will Be The Most Innovative Decade In History

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This post is written by Vivek Wadhwa, Vice President of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University.

Vivek Wadhwa - Vice President of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University

Many people believe that we’ve run out of ideas and that the future will be one of bleak shortages of food, energy, and water. Billionaire Peter Thiel, for example, argues that despite spectacular advances in computer-related fields, technological progress has actually stalled because the internal combustion engine still rules our highways, the cancer death rate has barely changed since 1971, and the top speed at which people can travel has ceased to improve.

Thiel is right about engines, speed, and cancer death rates. But he and the pessimists are completely wrong about what lies ahead. I don’t believe that the future holds shortages and stagnation; it is more likely to be one in which we debate how we can distribute the abundance and prosperity that we’ve created.

Why am I so optimistic? Because of the wide assortment of technologies that are advancing at exponential rates and converging. They are enabling small teams to do what was once only possible for governments and large corporations. These exponential technologies will help us solve many of humanity’s grand challenges, including energy, education, water, food, and health.

Let me give you a taste of what lies ahead.

Most people in the world have been affected by the advances in computing and mobile technologies. In a short 15 years, the Internet has changed the way we work, shop, communicate, and think. Knowledge, which used to be available only to the elite classes through books such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, is today abundant and free. All of this happened because computing power is growing exponentially. The technology industry knows this growth as Moore’s Law.

The advances are happening not only in computing but also in fields such as genetics, AI, robotics, and medicine. For example, in 2000, scientists at a private company called Celera announced that it had raced ahead of the U.S. government–led international effort decoding the DNA of a human being. Using the latest sequencing technology as well as the data available from the Human Genome Project, Celera scientists had created a working draft of the genome. It took decades and cost billions to reach this milestone.

The price of genome sequencing is dropping at double the rate of Moore’s Law. Today, it is possible to decode your DNA for a few thousand dollars. With the price falling at this rate, a full genome sequence will cost less than $100 within five years. Genome data will readily be available for millions, perhaps billions, of people. We will be able to discover the correlations between disease and DNA and to prescribe personalized medications—tailored to an individual’s DNA. This will create a revolution in medicine.

We can now “write” DNA. Advances in “synthetic biology” are allowing researchers, and even high-school students, to create new organisms and synthetic life forms. Entrepreneurs have developed software tools to “design” and “compile” DNA. There are startups that offer DNA synthesis and assembly as a service. DNA “printing” is priced by the number of base pairs to be assembled (the chemical “bits” that make up a gene). Today’s cost is about 30 cents per base pair, and prices are falling exponentially. Within a few years, it could cost a hundredth of this amount. Eventually, like laser printers, DNA printers will be inexpensive home devices.

It isn’t just DNA that we can print. In an emerging field called digital manufacturing, 3D printers enable the production of physical mechanical devices, medical implants, jewelry, and even clothing. These printers use something like a toothpaste tube of plastic or other material held vertically in an X-Y plotter that squirts out thin layers of tiny dots of material that build up, layer by layer, to produce a 3D replica of the computer-generated design. The cheapest 3D printers, which print rudimentary objects, currently sell for between $500 and $1000. Soon, we will have printers for this price that can print toys and household goods. Within this decade, we will see 3D printers doing the small-scale production of previously labor-intensive crafts and goods. In the next decade, we can expect local manufacture of the majority of goods; 3D printing of buildings and electronics; and the rise of a creative class empowered by digital making.

Nanotechnology is also rapidly advancing. Engineers and scientists are developing many new types of materials such as carbon nanotubes, ceramic-matrix nanocomposites (and their metal-matrix and polymer-matrix equivalents), and new carbon fibers. These new materials enable designers to create products that are stronger, lighter, more energy efficient, and more durable than anything that exists today.

There are also major advances happening in Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (or MEMS), which make it possible to build inexpensive gyros; accelerometers; and temperature, current/magnetic fields, pressure, chemical, and DNA sensors. Imagine iPhone cases that act like medical assistants and detect disease; smart pills that we swallow and that monitor our internals; and tattooed body sensors that monitor heart, brain, and body activity.

And then there is Artificial Intelligence, which has advanced to the point at which computers can defeat humans on the TV show Jeopardy, perform medical diagnosis, and drive autonomous cars.

I can go on and on and on, but the bottom line is that we are innovating at an unprecedented rate.  In this and the next decade, we will begin to make energy and food abundant, inexpensively purify and sanitize water from any source, cure disease, and educate the world’s masses. The best part: it isn’t governments that will lead this charge; it will be the world’s entrepreneurs.

With every good comes a bad, and our optimism always needs to be grounded. Synthetic biology could lead to new forms of bioterrorism; surveillance technologies—which are becoming ever more sophisticated—already provide governments more information than Big Brother ever dreamed about; no guidelines have yet been developed for ethics in the exponential era. My worry: will humanity evolve fast enough to fulfill its increasing responsibilities?


Discussion — 15 Responses

  • wayne5martin June 27, 2012 on 10:59 am

    You missed one key feature that will dominate the next twenty years.

    We’re living longer and we’re changing careers instead of retiring to the golf course.

    Long ago, the most significant invention for humanity was the bifocal lens. This allowed people over the age of 40 to be productive in ways that leveraged their life experience. They could see in low light. They could study during non-working hours.

    This allowed societies to retain a significant part of their shared wisdom and leverage this with the younger go-getters.

    As we live longer and livelier, how much of an advantage will this be to our current class of young go-getters? If Silicon Valley benefits from having third generation entrepreneurs and VCs, every human pursuit can benefit from having a healthier, older population.

    The aging of the population won’t be a drag on the economy; it will be an efficiency gained.

    • digitalcole wayne5martin June 29, 2012 on 11:07 am

      “The aging of the population won’t be a drag on the economy; it will be an efficiency gained.”

      As long as their brains can keep up. I work with lots of older gens and by in large their brains are too slow to keep up with the technology changes. I’m not faulting them for it, it’s part biology. But, here in the twenty first century I still work with people that have a hard time with email. Some still prefer phone calls.

      If software developers want to cash in on this group they’ll need gui’s that are Nintendo Wii simple.

  • Fons Jena June 27, 2012 on 11:38 am

    I don’t want to ‘pessimize’ the optimistic people among us but it it highly unlikely that humanity will be able to spread the same level of wealth we currently enjoy to EVERYONE in the world. Remember that peak population will be about 10 billion in the not so distance future (in about 30 to 40 years) and that we are already facing shortages in raw materials that are necessary for sustaining this ‘wealth’. We are simply with too many people.

    Yes these innovations we keep talking about, and that are referred to in this article, will make wealth more ‘material efficient’ but that will only postpone the inevitable consequence of unlimited reproduction. Even if recycling and production of goods become more efficient, known resources will not be able to sustain this wealth to everyone for a long period of time.

    Yes I am a big fan of Thomas Maltus but what he tried to say two hundred years ago, that the increase in population will limit the further improvement of society, is still applicable today. The Malthusian catastrophe hasn’t occured yet because of our ability to create and use technology pretty efficiently but believing that these godlike innovations will keep on saving us in the future is a belief that worries me. As a (future) engineer I love these innovations and can’t wait to live in this exiting future we all believe in but we will need so much more than just technology to survive.

    What I’m trying to say is that we must choose between a civilization having a relatively small human population (about 2 billion perhaps?) but enjoying wealth and living in humane circumstances or a civilization of 10 billion individuals where individual freedom is limited because of the presence of too many fellow humans friends and thus the only freedom we will have left is to live in cramped cities. No innovation will able to solve that problem.

    Sorry if I got off-topic but the reason I like this site is that it discusses technological evolutions that have deep ethical consequences and so invite people to think about it. So my conclusion is that all these innovations are cool stuff and have huge potential but they are not necessary for the improvement of society and do not present a long-term solution (even a part of) for humanity’s problems.

    I think optimism is a great gift but sometimes it is better to prepare for the worst.

    • hudi124 Fons Jena June 27, 2012 on 2:37 pm

      These innovations absolutely ARE necessary for the progress of society, in fact at this point they are our only hope of a world of abundance. Now, the problem with your outdated Malthusian viewpoint is that you are putting arbitrary limits on what we can and will do. For one thing, We have 10,000 times more solar energy hitting this planet every day than we use in a year, and once we harness it that will mean cheap abundant energy for all peoples. We also have more water on this planet than we could possibly use (yes yes, 97% of it is salt water, but once we have cheap abundant energy, desalination is not a problem, not to mention Slingshot and other cheap filtration technologies that are coming online now). You talk of limited material resources, but you are of course disregarding the vast resources of space. Right now, a company called Planetary Resources, headed by several multi-billion dollar backers, is planning on mining asteroids and the moon for valuable and vital resources. I think your number of 2 billion max population is arbitrarily low, as we have more than enough resources to sustain the 7 billion people we have now (some just do not have the fortune of living in first world countries), and that is with our current technology. With exponentially growing technology, amazing things are possible.

      • Khannea Suntzu hudi124 June 27, 2012 on 10:23 pm

        I’d be a little cautious making bold dismissive statements. Malthusian thinking didn’t fly for a few years but like things are going this body of ideas (and similar ones, such as those of the club of Rome) might come in to vogue again. So much for outdated. Bear in mind that the voters out there might get scared real soon. Before you know it we might have birth quota and widespread Malthusian thinking. Hey before long we might have a VenusProject or a Technate political movement (not that I’d vote for either…) . Let’s see how big your words are then.

        I hope you are right vis-a-vis solar, abundance, santalarity, etc. Not that we deserve anything like that as a species. I have been a rabid space exploration advocate for years and I truly think nearspace Industrialization would be a goddessend, but it’s going way too slow.

        You need to prioritize however. We are in a world of 7+ billion, sailing for ten. This is a total potential nightmare. “Economic growth” may not be an option. My advocacy is we aim for survival and basic dignity.

      • Fons Jena hudi124 June 28, 2012 on 10:57 am

        I admire your optimism. The thought that technology will solve all our troubles is a reassuring one but at the same time very arrogant of us.

        Yes energy is in fact the only resource that we could call ‘unlimited’ – if we consider to have enough raw materials to fill the desert with thermal solar power stations – and it would indeed be very logic to use it for the purification of water. But what about food? If you wish everyone on this planet the meals we get daily then you will have to build millions of ‘farm skyscrapers’ (lets assume we have all become vegetarian by then!). Or maybe turn the desert green could solve this problem too.

        You count on space mining as a potential solution for material shortages. Well good luck with that.

        So we have all the water, food, energy and enough materials to sustain the needs for 10 billion europeans. Awesome. I don’t even want to think in what a world we should have to live in. You wake up and you look outside and all what you see is concrete (assuming that there is enough of it). You want to take a ‘fresh’ walk but first you have to push your way through the crowd and the noise to get to the ‘virtual environment simulator’ to get your dose of sports and peace (you expected to see pure nature?). Ok you get the picture: I don’t want to live in your world.

        Khannea’s reply is on the spot. For the sake of human dignity lets keep it small but beautiful. What are the benefits of being with so many anyway?

        Only time will tell what future we will have to live in (I hope for you your world) and that makes it even more exciting. Anyway I’m doing my contribution by not having children in this world.

        • hudi124 Fons Jena June 28, 2012 on 4:25 pm

          ‘What are the benefits of being with so many anyway?’ There are no benefits, true enough. But the reality is, unless you are considering mass genocide of some kind, The world population will continue to grow. The world is not as crowded as you think it is at all. I live in Ottawa, when I walk outside, I see large lawns covered, with green, healthy trees. I see a city filled with parks and wildlife, there are no crowds to push through. Yes, this is not the situation everywhere, but new york city is hardly a good example of how every person lives. I do not think space mining will be the sole source of new efficient materials at all. If you have been following nanotechnology (which i assume you have), you know that we are innovating and creating amazing, new materials all the time. The issue is not solely finding now materials, but it is accessing the resources we already have in abundance, and utilizing them to their full potential. We cannot create the world ‘small’, as you suggest, we must plan for a world with 10 billion or more inhabitants. Now eventually, we will have to to offload some of these people onto colonies on Mars and the Moon (efforts are already underway in regards to Mars, see MarsOne), but these colonies will only be made possible through exponentially growing technology. Off-world Colonization in particular is increasingly important in a world where people will be living longer and longer lives, even if the birth rate is 1.5 or lower. Despite the challenges ahead, I am confident that we will create and innovate our way to the solutions, as we have already begun doing just that in regards to solar and mass-farming. (I disagree with your claim that we would have to build ‘millions’ of vertical farms, that is hyperbole, and furthermore, if a handful vertical farms were strategically placed throughout major metropolitan areas, they would easily provide enough food for the entire population, nor we would we have to become vegetarians in a world where engineered meet can be cheaply grown in a laboratory or vertical farm.)

          • Khannea Suntzu hudi124 June 29, 2012 on 12:41 am

            If we had a tyranny today and everyone in the ‘developed’ world (EU/US/Japan) would consent to a standard of living close to that of an average of, say, Belize, then yes, we could live quite comfortably world wide. I.e. that’s the effective standard of living I currently enjoy in the Netherlands. I am a very low end consumer.

            Many would have to immediately discard any expectations of current consumerism, and most people would only be allowed to work a few days a week. We’d have plenty of free time, a low impact and highly automated lifestyle, but progress would be slow or non-existent the coming decades. But if we did that natural biosphere conditions would bounce back to a sustainable state.

            If we continue as we do right now, where even China and India are shooting for a standard of living comparable to a US/EU standard of living, then before 2050 we will see a catastrophic collapse of resources and material means. We can hope to mitigate this, with the increases in technology Peter Diamandis describes, but by any stretch of the imagination (or even any stretch of blind faith) we can not anticipate sustaining the current resource-hogging lifestyles in, say, most of the US.

            Taking Ottawa as an example comes across to me as an extremely self-centered and selfish example – one of the most privileged regions in one of the most privileged countries is not anywhere near an average example. It’s like a Marie Antoinette making bold statements about the standard of living of the world. She also made statements on Cake, I believe.

            Mass production of nano-materials and new compact consumer electronics can not extinguish the fact we are in some cases years away from catastrophic collapse of mineral resources. This isn’t just “some bad news addiction”, it’s science. And I believe we are still debating on a science forum and not some “faith based reasoning” forum. I hope we can discuss facts here, and not esoteric beliefs.

            * http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHc7-275h0Y&feature=player_embedded#!

            * http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WBiTnBwSWc

            * http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61Yp0npCbo0

            A standard of living, with plenty of free time, good wholesome vegetarian/sustainable food, localized democracy based on constraints and resource dependency, along the lines of a Guatamala would or could be a very rich and happy life indeed. But a lot of very entitled and spoiled people would have to step down from these entitlements, and since these people have nuclear weapons we can not anticipate they will.

            So we have to let the markets sort it out. In effect we have to wait out wildlife/biodiversity collapse. We have to wait out climate disruption and freak weather. We will have to wait out oil prices in the several hundred dollar a barrel ranges. We will have to wait out hysterically desperate mass migration from third world countries, and associated crime, terrorism and people smuggling. We will have to wait out a collapse of oceanic biodiversity. We will have to wait out massive resource/outsourcing/automation derived unemployment in the old economies, and some massive unrest as a result.

            Again I applaud Peter Diamandis optimist vision – we need a debate, where there are optimist voices, as well as cautionary voices, and we need to emphasize facts. What Peter advocates are likely to become facts at some stage. But they aren’t just yet, so as sane human beings we must move forward with caution. We don’t so we will almost certainly see a painful correction to all of our lives, in the years between 2015 and 2030.

            Colonization will not be an option before the late 21st century, if ever. We’d burn off our atmosphere even if we had hundreds of skyhooks, trying to export billions of humans from the planet. Do your maths- only a small fraction of humanity will ever emigrate, the rest will be stuck here, and they might remain stuck on a planet that may turn out pretty awful in most places.

            Here’s a nice book on the topic.


          • Fons Jena hudi124 June 30, 2012 on 2:04 am

            I may have exaggerated in my reply, I have that tendency when I get emotional about these topics :).

            Yes you are right about the fact that we have no humane option of stopping population growth for the moment. But I still hope that one day, when all people will have basic wealth, we could decrease our population to a more humane number by having less children.

            Khannea’s reply has (again) strong arguments. I live near Brussels in a peaceful and green village (so I can’t complain) but every year I see more and more people that turn this peace into a nightmare like every city (for how long can I tolerate this?). You live near enormous land covered with unending forests… man I’m jealous. Having access to all these goodies this article talks about won’t help me with this and won’t make me a happier person.

            But as he points out these are discussions for another type of forum, sorry for that!

  • Khannea Suntzu June 27, 2012 on 1:05 pm

    You may be right. The advances in raw lethality of military weapon will leave all previous decades in the DUST.

  • Tony Pelliccio June 27, 2012 on 6:02 pm

    Not only that, look at what they’re doing with growing replacement bladders, veins, arteries, esophagus, kidneys, and even starting with hearts now. It’s going to be a very interesting decade to watch as medicine becomes restorative.