The Future Is Better Than You Think

finished (2020)Peter H. DiamandisSteven Kotler2012


1. Our Grandest Challenge

For centuries, overpopulation has been decried as a catastrophe waiting to happen; what will life be like, when we have to distribute our resources among 10 billion people? The author's counterintuitive answer is that we won't: as our ability to solve problems is increased by technology's liberation of resources, innovation—not only miserly efficiency—is the key to bringing about a truly abundant future.

2. Building the Pyramid

What is "abundance"? What should we aim for? The authors propose a tiered priority list, similar to Maslow's hierarchy: first, clean water, food, and shelter. Then, access to education, communication, and energy. Finally, health and freedom. Each step compounds the solutions to our problems, by reducing the birth rate in developing countries and freeing up more labor for productive tasks (90% of wood in Africa (largely gathered by women/children) is used as fuel: electricity would allow women to work, children to learn, environments to be preserved, and less pollutants to be breathed in... ALL exponentially compounding improvements!)

3. Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Our brains are wired to think locally, linearly, and pessimistically. However, the world is global and exponential: startups can be created and instantly worth billions of dollars in less than two years. How could an evolutionarily evolved brain possibly be able to comprehend such rapid creation of value?! It can't. Moreover, we are fascinated with the negative: any fear triggers the amygdala, which literally shuts off our ability to think critically or positively. Once in that state, biases take over: we're more inclined to believe negative information and info that backs up preexisting beliefs! In a world on the doorstep of abundance, the vast majority of people think society is on the edge of destruction... to act rationally and make the most of opportunity, we must clear our heads, be optimistic, and look for solutions instead of panicking.

4. It's Not as Bad as You Think

If anyone thought that the world was in a bad place today, it is largely for lack of perspective; almost every metric has improved radically over the last 50 years, so much that it's hard to comprehend. Health, wealth, life expectancy, even the comparative wealth inequality between countries is vanishing. Where only industrialized nations had small, wealthy families in 1962, today the quality of life across the entire world is converging very rapidly. The present is only bad if you don't compare it with even the recent past!


5. Ray Kurzweil and the Go-Fast Button

Information technology grows exponentially: instead of getting slightly better and better, the processing power of computers doubles every two years (this is "Moore's Law"). This is true not only of computer processors, but of almost all technology that relies on information—and the trend marches on regardless of economic situation. It often leads to extremely unintuitive results: the moon landing happened 30 years before even the wildest dreamers imagined it would! Understanding the future, then, requires comprehension of exponential growth and the seemingly impossible impacts it can have.

6. The Singularity is Nearer

The fields with most potential for near-term impacts through exponential growth (those we should keep an eye on and/or plunge into) are AI (smart computing), robotics (computers manipulating their environment), 3D printing (quick iteration & smart manufacturing), nanotechnology (self-replicating machines on the atomic scale), and biotechnology (engineering organisms to do what we want). EACH of these is growing exponentially—20 years out, the world will be a radically different place.


7. The Tools of Cooperation

Information is a special thing: it can be given without losing it. Any sharing of information is a positive-sum game; thus, information-based economies are extraordinarily powerful. And that's what the world is quickly becoming: one gigantic web of information, from Kenya to China to the US. This is enabled by the rapid spread of cell phones and the Internet through them, and its effect is evolving into the democratization of the economy on a scale never seen before (publishing on YouTube surpassed Hollywood A DECADE AGO)!

8. Water

Only 0.5% of water on earth is usable for most needs. And it's used—in copious amounts—everywhere! One of the biggest challenges of the modern age is providing abundant water, especially in developing countries (where 20% of GDP is spent on just this issue!). That has two parts: creating more supply (desalination, nano filtration, etc) and reducing the demand (composting / feces-burning toilets a la Gates, "smart" infrastructure with sensors, hydroponics (!)). One of the biggest challenges here is unit costs: to be affordable in the developing world, technologies have to run on cents (or less) per day.

9. Feeding Nine Billion

Food as technology; what are the problems? Ecological impacts from farming meat and transporting all food ~1500 miles are huge; inefficiencies with water usage also loom large. A combination of GMOs (production & nutrition), cultured meat, hydro/aeroponics, aquaponics, ecological farming, and the like has potential to turn food into yet another information problem! We already produce enough food: the issue is making and getting the food to its final location in an efficient, reliable, and sustainable manner.


10. The DIY Innovator

The "Whole Earth Catalog", published in the 1960s, has had a gigantic long-tail impact on our culture: it championed doing things yourself with personal tools, leading directly to the democratization of computing (it inspired the founding of Apple) and, today, innovation in general (the Maker Movement is a descendent of this ethos). Small teams of people working efficiently with their tools and a goal in mind are literally more effective at achieving governmental goals than GOVERNMENTS are, both at moonshot projects and building social equity: SpaceX's propulsion system was developed as a hobby by Tom Mueller, and "effective charity" / "social entrepreneurship" organizations drive most of today's social change.

11. The Technophilanthropists

Technologists in the last few decades have created their fortunes by doing things at vast scale very efficiently, and this has netted many of them gigantic fortunes before the age of 40. When they've made their money, though, they don't stop: instead, they use that same analytical skillset to achieve effective worldwide impact at scale, through the use of incentives and profitable charity (building a profitable solution to a problem will have more impact than giving your money away: it's the "teach a man to fish" theory). Global, efficient charity is and will continue to transform the development of the world economy—because the biggest potential impacts are in the most underserved/undeveloped communities, which means Africa.

12. The Rising Billion

The global poor ($2 per day) are often pitied and patronized—seen as a burden the wealthy West has a duty to help. A much more productive mindset, though, is to realize that together they constitute a multi-trillion dollar market for inexpensive goods (such as material kids that they can put together)! Technological efficiencies such as nanotech, whose extreme efficiency might not be as celebrated in the US, can have a twofold effect by being sold to the global poor: 1) they improve those lives and 2) they now have a way to exist and be developed. A sustainable future will rely on such tech; this provides an incentive for it to be developed!


13. Energy

Energy is used for everything—it's the literal quantity of potential for physical change. The cheaper and more accessible it gets, the better: and with solar and wind energy adoption rates and production capacity growing exponentially, there is plausible potential for a worldwide surplus of energy even within two decades! Not only would this solve a myriad of problems (clean water, 70% of Africa burning wood for fuel, etc), it might even hold the keys for solving ALL the big resource ones... with energy an order or two of magnitude cheaper, we could do just about anything (send rockets everywhere, pump CO2 out of the air with abandon, etc)!

14. Education

The century-long hegemony of the industrial school model will start to be overtaken in the coming decades: personalized learning, enabled and supercharged by the Internet, is gaining steam and reliably better on almost every metric. Education has much to learn from the video game industry; it's stunning how much kids want to learn when it's a game! If students can be taught to ask questions and explore the Internet, their potential is seemingly boundless (12yos in rural India learning biotech, for instance).

15. Health Care

Human life expectancy was ~40 in 1900; now, it's almost twice that! Health care has become an informational technology, and is now undergoing the benefits of exponential development. This is driven by AI-powered diagnostics that can have more and better information than any human doctor, ubiquitous sensors (like my Apple Watch) that can measure near-comprehensive amounts of personal health information, and low-cost diagnostic tools that cut the cost of X-rays and assays by multiple orders of magnitude.

16. Freedom

Decentralized communication tools such as the now-ubiquitous social media platforms are a force for individual empowerment like never seen before. However, individual communication technology—and algorithms that run on it—are just a tool: as much as they may be suited to empower, they can also be used to repress. Future diplomacy will involve corporations and governments as partners: for it is information technology and the Internet which hold the keys to humanity's effective action.


17. Driving Innovation and Breakthroughs

One of the most powerful ways to drive innovation is to offer a fixed prize to those who meet a certain set of criteria. This is what inspired Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic, for instance. Such prizes often have a very powerful multiplier factor: people spend a cumulative amount orders of magnitude higher than the prize pool achieving the posted goal! Not only is this a larger amount of money, but it's often spent more effectively: such prizes are likely to be pursued by scrappy, inspired entrepreneurs who as a general rule are very efficient with their money.

18. Risk and Failure

There are two ways of looking at failure: being afraid of mistakes, or being afraid of missing out on the opportunity to succeed. The latter is the superior mindset; more common in young people, it's what fuels Silicon Valley. To be able to actually succeed on a massive scale, you have to take according risks: and, therefore, be more than a little crazy. Doing big things also depends on who you are; your "credibility" is much different if you're a teenager vs if you're Elon Musk taking on a new project. For high-profile things, seek "supercredibility", surrounding yourself with an aura of inevitable success.

19. Which Way Next?

As more technologies are discovered, the set of marginal technologies—those that we know NEED discovering—grows accordingly. We also dematerialize, allowing more nimble progress and efficient life: think how many thousands of dollars of standard products are now made irrelevant by smart phones!

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