The Acceleration of Acceleration: How The Future Is Arriving Far Faster Than Expected

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This article co-written with Ken Goffman.

One of the things that happens when you write books about the future is you get to watch your predictions fail. This is nothing new, of course, but what’s different this time around is the direction of those failures.

Used to be, folks were way too bullish about technology and way too optimistic with their predictions. Flying cars and Mars missions being two classic—they should be here by now—examples. The Jetsons being another.

But today, the exact opposite is happening.

Take Abundance. In 2011, when Peter Diamandis and I were writing that book, we were somewhat cautious with our vision for robotics, arguing that we were still ten to fifteen years away from a major shift.

And we were wrong.

Just three years later, Google went on a buying spree, purchasing eight different robotics companies in less than six months, Amazon decided it was time to get into the drone delivery (aka flying robots) business, and Rethink Robotics released Baxter (a story explored in my new release Bold), the first user-friendly industrial robot to hit the market.

Rethink Robotics Baxter robot.

Rethink Robotics Baxter robot.

Baxter was the final straw. With a price tag of just $22,000 and a user-friendly interface a child could operate, this robot is already making the type of impact we were certain would show up around 2025.

And we’re not the only ones having this experience.

Earlier this year, Ken Goffman—aka RU Sirius—the founder of that original cyberpunk journal Mondo 2000 and longtime science, technology and culture author—published Transcendence, a fantastic compendium on transformative technology. Goffman has spent nearly 40 years working on the cutting edge of the cutting edge and is arguably one of a handful of people on the planet whose futurist credentials are truly unassailable—yet he too found himself way too conservative with his futurism.

You really have to stop and think about this for a moment. For the first time in history, the world’s leading experts on accelerating technology are consistently finding themselves too conservative in their predictions about the future of that technology.

This is more than a little peculiar. It tells us that the accelerating change we’re seeing in the world is itself accelerating. And this tells us something deep and wild and important about the future that’s coming for us.

So important, in fact, that I asked Ken to write up his experience with this phenomenon. In his always lucid and always funny own words, here’s his take on the dizzying vertigo that is tomorrow showing up today:

In the early ‘90s, the great science fiction author William Gibson famously remarked, “The future is here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” While this was a lovely bit of phraseology, it may have been a bit glib at the time. Nanotechnology was not even a commercial industry yet. The hype around virtual reality went bust. There were no seriously funded brain emulation projects pointing towards the eventuality of artificial general intelligence (now there are several). There were no longevity projects funded by major corporations (now we have the Google-funded Calico). You couldn’t play computer games with your brain. People weren’t winning track meets and mountain climbing on their prosthetic legs. Hell, you couldn’t even talk to your cell phone, if you were among the relatively few who had one.

A thought-controlled, robotic prosthetic leg made by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s (RIC).

A thought-controlled, robotic prosthetic leg made by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s (RIC).

Over the last few years, the tantalizing promises of radical technological changes that can alter humans and their circumstances have really started to come into their own. Truly, the future is now actually here, but still largely undistributed (never mind, evenly distributed).

During the process of writing and editing (with Jay Cornell) a book about these types of advances, I got to experience the head spinning vertiginous nature of technological and scientific acceleration.

The book, Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity, was written primarily in 2013 and released at the start of this year. In the between-time, astonishing, mind blowing things occurred in many of the areas we wrote about. In at least one case, cryonics, we were very skeptical while writing about it. But the future started to get weirder behind our backs.

Here are just a few of the things that hit the news in 2014 and thus far in 2015 that bode well for a strange, interesting and promising near future.

• Cryonics: Doctors at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh will place ten patients with life-threatening gunshot or knife wounds in a sort of suspended animation, theoretically allowing them more time to fix the injuries. They won’t quite be raising the dead through science, but if this work succeeds, cryonics will have to be taken very seriously as an alternative to dying.

• Nanobots in the human body: This year, nanotech scientists working in Israel announced a trial of nanobots to fight cancer. As the website Next Big Future exclaimed, “This is the development of the vision of nanomedicine. This is the realization of the power of DNA nanotechnology. This is programmable DNA nanotechnology.”

Nanotech enthusiasts have long treasured the hope that molecular “robots” — i.e., nanobots — could be designed to enter the body and eat plaque, kill cancerous cells, repair damaged tissue and, in general, act like a team of minuscule crack repairmen (or repairpersons, if you prefer) fixing anything that starts to go wrong before it can create much damage. This year marks a first really big hopeful step towards that potentially healthy and long-lived future.

(Video: Ido Bachelet talks DNA nanobots at a London event late last year.)

• 3D printed organs: Organovo used a 3D printer to make liver tissue. Fully printed replacement organs are only a matter of time. If nanotech can’t keep your organs young, print a new one.

• Reversing aging: Harvard Researchers have discovered a chemical that can actually reverse aging cells in mice. We continue to gather evidence that aging can be slowed, stopped and now reversed in living creatures, including mammals. We work our way up the food chain towards our selves.

• Brain enhancement: Researchers at Duke University found a type of neuron that can tell stem cells to make more new neurons. The scientists involved actually point to intelligence increase as a goal of their project, saying that they hope that they will find ways to “engage certain circuits of the brain to lead to a hardware upgrade.”

More brain enhancement: In the area of optogenetics and neuroscience, researchers successfully manipulated brain activity with pulses of laser light.

• Still more brain enhancement: DARPA announced a four year plan to create a brain implant that can restore memories. As Cornell and I noted in our book, we are on the cusp of technologies that can preserve memories, erase memories and, on a more frightening note, implant memories. DARPA also has a five-year program to create a brain implant that can fight mental disorders. Again, the ambiguity of allowing the army to alter your brain must be noted, but given the suffering caused by mental illness, this would seem, in balance, to be a good thing

We live in a time when the announcement of a transgender man giving birth (it happened) or a system that shows images of your thoughts and dreams on a screen (it happened in 2008) barely rates a blip and a raised eyebrow amidst the deluge of news items related to science, or global troubles, or Kim Kardashian’s rear parts. But what William Gibson said is now true. The future is here. It’s just not (evenly) distributed yet.”

The speed of change can sometimes be overwhelming. At the same time, the time lag between the tantalizing possibilities of things like nanobots in the bloodstream or longevity treatments, and their actual functional availability, can be frustrating. It’s up to each of us to stay as informed and as engaged as we can so that we can individually and collectively shape how these things get done and how they get used.

*For similar content, sign up for Steven’s email newsletter here.

**If you’re interested in Ken Goffman’s Transcendence, check it out here.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.comRethink Robotics; Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler is an author, journalist and Director of Research for the Flow Genome Project, an organization dedicated to decoding the science of ultimate human performance. His books include “Abundance,” “A Small Furry Prayer,” “West of Jesus,. and "The Angle Quickest For Flight." His articles have appeared in over 60 publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Wired, Forbes, GQ, National Geographic, Popular Science, and Discover. He has a deep interest in the intersection of science, technology, and culture, with specific focus on the extreme edges of the discussion—both larger philosophical implications and completely personal applications.

Discussion — 13 Responses

  • normalabi February 7, 2015 on 11:42 am

    An example of this is coming to the entertainment industry which will impact how entertainment is delivered and experienced on a personal level – see revolution10film.com and the indiegogo campaign associated with it indiegogo.com/projects/your-mind-controls-your-experience-of-the-film and on twitter @revolution10_

  • DSM February 7, 2015 on 1:33 pm

    Uh that comes across as so circle-jerky, and that is one thing that has changed too, you can’t put that sort of thing past a lot of kids these days.

  • Quantium February 8, 2015 on 1:58 am

    What an amusing expletive. However is there anything on there that isn’t correct?

  • Matthew February 8, 2015 on 8:24 am

    or as I like to say “the future is here, we just can’t afford it yet” … I would . . . LOVE to see anything about the exponential growth of our domestic and global GDP … ever. it is kind of a big deal. I feel like the first and last time I ever read about that with regard to the singularity was in the singularity is near when Kurzweil talked about the ‘law of accelerating returns.’ we need to talk about this all encompassing, crucial topic MORE. it has EVERYTHING to do with the distribution of these technologies. sooner or later this movement will get VERY political. immortality, cybernetics, robot rights. we might as well start with the 7 billion existing strong AI and make sure they’re OK so as to minimize our threats and maximize our survival. wages need to be corrected (not raised. corrected)–to reflect the last 46 years of inflation, and drastic increases in productivity due to the most highly educated and intelligent workers ever. a good starting point would be $25 an hour. this is where wages were in the US in 1969. no, this correction would not make milk too expensive. inflation doesn’t rise quite that fast, but we already have 46 years of inflation to correct. the milk is already too expensive. furthermore, we need a global minimum wage. what good is it if only 315 million of 7 billion have fair wages? especially when we now mass manufacture legal guns (another thing we should be talking about as this is a direct result of exponential growth). there is one gun per every man woman and child in the US. all 315 million of them. and while we’re pipe dreaming about flying cars and augmented intelligence, this gaping flaw in our system leaves us frighteningly vulnerable. what if ISIS invaded and hijacked our armaments like in IRAQ? what if they utilized a global information network interconnecting 7 billion people at light speed with messages remotely and instructions for doing this? owait they already have.

    lastly, something we should fear more than any humanitarian issue (all of which are being solved as GDP rises exponentially and liberal democracies flourish throughout the world. imagine that, people are suddenly more peaceful and productive when they’re not suffering life debilitating issues), is our environment. how will we utilize these technologies to solve the issues of ocean acidification, aquifer depletion, desertification, 52% of wildlife destroyed in the past 40 years (76% of marine life factored into that average)???

    less talk about what we’re going to enhance for the .01% of the rich who can afford it, and more talk about solving actual problems we all face, please. this stuff used to excite me but every time I read an article about augmenting intelligence of immortality these days it just fails to impress. to the point that it almost makes me sick, in the face of these seriously overlooked problems.

    • Diana Paulson Matthew February 8, 2015 on 4:17 pm

      Thanks. A voice of reason. Let’s solve the problems we have now.

  • Chris F February 8, 2015 on 9:35 am

    The author claims that a major shift in robotics has taken place since 2011. I humbly disagree. Robotics is still in its infancy and progress is frustratingly slow; Baxter is little more than a toy, we’re decades away from a truly autonomous humanoid robot that’s anywhere close to human performance. Roombas haven’t progressed in, what, 10 years or more ? They still bounce around like idiots and are frustratingly unreliable. Anyone seen the video of a towel-folding robot ? Cool, but incredibly slow. We’re not even close to a robot that could, for example, clean a hotel room. Progress will happen, but don’t expect to see any genuine revolutions in the next 20 years.

    On the whole, my life really isn’t all that different from how it was 20 years ago. Sure, I don’t buy a paper newspaper and I waste a lot more time in front of a computer, but what’s really different ? A large part of the world’s population still lives in poverty; we continue to ravage the planet and kill billions of sentient creatures each year for food. Medicine seems to have barely progressed (despite plenty of wildly optimistic claims about nanobots and gene therapy etc). We can’t ever cure baldness or reverse the graying of hair, for goodness sake – that hardly seems like a species that is on the verge of achieving immortality !

    • Alen Smith Chris F February 11, 2015 on 5:44 am

      So many inaccuracies, where should I start? I’ll start with gray hair, that can be cured. In fact this was published in Biology journal FASEB in the last year or two (PC-KUS). A large part of the world’s population lives in poverty but far less than at any point in history before. What’s next? Oh ok medicine has barely progressed. Just yesterday I listened to a report on the radio that a lady had her lung cancer cured (she had already made piece with the fact she was going to die). The scientist who cured her can’t officially claim to have cured her because 5 years need to pass and as of right now only one year has passed there is however no trace of her lung cancer. One of my wife’s customers had an ear printed and surgically attached after some sort of accident led to this guy losing his ear, actually it was ripped right off. Sure we can’t go to flying cars over night but it’s coming. FOR SURE.

      • Chris F Alen Smith February 11, 2015 on 1:43 pm

        Perhaps your should have read the FASEB article, Alen. Here’s a direct link for you – notice that the entire article is actually about vitiligo, it doesn’t say a single word about hair pigmentation: http://www.fasebj.org/content/early/2013/04/29/fj.12-226779.full.pdf+html. And here’s a short rebuttal if you don’t fancy reading the whole thing: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/05May/Pages/No-evidence-of-cure-to-prevent-hair-going-grey.aspx

        You heard on the radio that someone had been cured of cancer, but the doctor won’t take credit. So you immediately jump to the conclusion that the doctor is solely responsible and that this must be a medical marvel – no chance of spontaneous remission ? I’ll wait till five years is up before I draw a conclusion, but it sounds like you already made your mind up.

        Finally, printing of human tissues is all very interesting, but we’re a long way off being able to print anything as complex as, say, a patch of skin. Clinical trials of 3D printed ears are only just beginning here in the UK – your wife’s friend may have received a prosthetic of some kind, but I’m certain it wasn’t 3D printed tissue.

        Re “It’s coming. FOR SURE”. Yes, I agree with you. Just not as fast as you think.

        • Matthew Chris F February 13, 2015 on 7:58 am

          one thing is for sure. we already live in remarkable times like none other. the fact that cures for cancer and 3d printed organs are starting to happen is pretty amazing.

  • George Baily February 9, 2015 on 2:03 am

    Regardless of exactly when we think certain milestones are going to be reached (and distributed), I think there are two extra interesting points raised in this article.

    1. That writers of even optimistic futures/tech books struggle for them to stay relevant long. From my (reader) point of view it is increasingly difficult to find any book that is remotely up-to-date, because of the flood of news each week.

    2. The point about Kardashian butt getting more traction than major tech breakthroughs is a serious point. On the one hand we are getting overwhelmed by tech advances even within the tech watching circles… a definite symptom of acceleration towards singularity. On the other hand the vast majority of people are not aware or don’t care or too far behind to catch up with catching up on tech news. I think that is also a symptom of Singularity… the increasingly unequal distribution of knowledge as in the Gibson quote.

    Imho it is in the nature of tech advances and Singularity that it will be very unequally distributed. There will be people moaning or contradicting that the tech future has not arrived (for them or millions of others) right the way through the first decades of strong AI and ‘ubiquitous’ robotics. In fact, the pervasive internet has already facilitated a lot more efficient and distributed moaning about the future not coming soon enough, geddit?

    • Matthew George Baily February 13, 2015 on 7:56 am

      um, no. I don’t. are you high? something something moaning, something kardashians. what??

      you do, however, touch on a couple relevant points (somehow). the rate of acceleration is so strong now that we take major advances for granted, as Kurzweil talks about in singularity. because we are born post digital-era (80s) where these technologies really started taking off. our entire lives are encompassed by an impending flood of new advances that we can’t afford, so we don’t really care.

      you can convey this information without insulting people for ‘moaning.’ people still starve to death in this world and don’t have time to joke about kardashians. it’s kind of insensitive.

  • ega February 11, 2015 on 10:16 pm

    “Beyond Calculation: The next 50 years of computing” is an interesting book, if you want to know what people thought back then (1997). Here is a quote

    “If the average penetration of the networking technology reaches thirty percent by 2047, this suggests the order of three to four billions devices, possibly more if the “ubiquitous computing” appliances predicted by Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC actually proliferate”

    Internet penetration is well over 40% and Gartner predicts we will have 5 billion connected things by 2015. By 2022 we could have hundreds of billions, and that’s only after 25 years.

  • sleicest March 31, 2015 on 11:50 pm

    In summary, if Moore’s Law will basically continue for the foreseeable future, does it have a cousin keeping pace with it – the growing number of people unable to understand how technology works?

    Are the people who care about technology advances, steadily becoming confined to just two groups only – those who will profit from them (designers and investors) and those who benefit from them by paying across their hard-earned cash (customers)? If so, how do governments socialise the advances of technology, so we all understand and care?