Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler
Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
Prepared by Michael Marien
 
August 2012
 

abundance_cover
Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.  Peter H. Diamandis (Co-Founder and Chair, Singularity University) and Steven Kotler (science writer, Chimayo NM).  NY: Free Press, Feb 2012, 386p, $26.99 (www.AbundanceTheBook.com)

 

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BACKGROUND

Singularity University (www.SingularityU.org) began with a founding conference in Sept 2008, and is now located in Mountain View, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley.  It has a 10-week Graduate Studies Programs and four-day or seven-day executive programs, and claims to already have over 1000 graduates.  “Each year, the graduate students are challenged to develop a company, product, or organization that will positively affect the lives of a billion people within ten years… While none of these startups has yet to reach its mark…great progress is being made.  Because of the exponential growth rate of technology, this progress will continue at a rate unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.” (p.73)

“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.  Each of these has the potential to affect billions of people, solve grand challenges, and reinvent industries.” (pp57-58)

Diamandis is Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation (dedicated to bringing about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity), as well as co-founder of the International Space University.  The other co-founder is prodigious inventor Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking, 2005, 652p), The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (Penguin, 2000), and The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT, 1992).  The back-cover blurb by Kurzweil announces that “This brilliant must-read book provides the key to the coming era of abundance replacing eons of scarcity.  Abundance is a powerful antidote to today’s malaise and pessimism.”  (Blurbs are also provided by Sir Richard Branson, Matt Ridley, Jeff Skoll, and, surprisingly,  Arianna Huffington, who views the book as “a reminder of the infinite possibilities for doing good.”) 

Kurzweil described The Singularity in his 2005 book as “a future period during which…technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”  Two seasoned futurist critics described his book as “Toffler’s Future Shock raised by ten orders of magnitude” (Ted Gordon) and as “a secular religious tract” (Joseph F. Coates).  Another futurist, Robert U. Ayres, warned of technological forecasts by technologists, most ranging “from bad to very bad to even downright silly” (Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 73:2, Feb 2006).

 

THE BASIC PREMISE

“Humanity 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.  Within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them.  Or desire them.  Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.” (p25).  It is now possible to imagine “a world of 9 billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and nonpolluting, ubiquitous energy.  Building this better world is humanity’s grandest challenge.” (p11)  Everything outlined here “should be achievable within 25 years, with noticeable change possible within the next decade.”

 

THE ARGUMENT DISTILLED

New Cooperative Capabilities.  Information-spreading technology has traditionally been expensive, but because of cost reductions the rules are changing rapidly.  Global deployment of ICTs has democratized the tools of cooperation.  The Internet brings together buyers and sellers, builds communities of interest, creates a global classroom, and sends messages to vast networks.

Water and SanitationDescribes a distiller (the “Slingshot”) that can purify 250 gallons of water a day with the energy that runs a hair dryer (total cost: less than a penny per liter), applying nanotechnology to desalination, IBM’s smart grids for water to increase productivity, computer-assisted irrigation to lower water use by 35-40% while increasing yields by 25%, and technotoilets that process all organic wastes and require no infrastructure.

Feeding Nine BillionUse of genetically modified organisms is rapidly increasing, and many GE fears have been quieted; herbicide use is down, while yields are up.  Vertical farming in cities, as promoted by Columbia U’s Dickson Despommier, offers huge promise and demands no new technologies: it requires 80% less land, 90% less water, and 100% fewer pesticides, with near-zero transportation costs.  Protein can be supplied by still more aquaculture and by in-vitro meat (growing cultured beef in bioreactors makes us less vulnerable to diseases and contamination, enabling the 30% of land currently used for livestock to be reforested).  If we can radically increase productivity while protecting biodiversity, we can feed the hungry “in a truly abundant fashion.”

Energy.  Arguably, the most important linchpin for abundance is energy.  Comments on the solar potential of North Africa (enough to supply 40 times the present world electricity demand), making solar panels cheap enough to hit subsidy-free grid parity in four years, a new generation of biofuels based on algae (which can produce 30 times more energy per acre than conventional biofuels; Exxon has partnered with Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics to explore the possibilities), pursuing the holy grail of grid-level storage that will give solar and wind a major boost, small-scale modular Generation IV nuclear reactors that are safe and easily maintained (Nathan Myhrvold’s TerraPower seeks a demonstration unit by 2020), and an intelligent network of power lines and sensors to replace today’s “dumb grid” (Cisco has made a huge commitment to build a smart grid, with the ultimate goal of integrated distributed generation and storage).

Education.  Comments on the education potential of computers, the One Laptop Per Child initiative (which has delivered $180 laptops to 3 million children worldwide), self-organized learning environments (for places where good teachers cannot be found), obsolescence of the industrialized model of education, changing the way that progress is measured, and the importance of educating girls.

Health Care.  A “world of health care abundance” involves reducing preventable medical errors, ending curable ailments such as malaria, correct diagnoses, zero-cost diagnostics, technology to enhance surgery (e.g. special-purpose robots), robo nurses costing $1,000 to assist an aging population, growing replacement organs in the human body, stem cells to repair and replace failed organs, rapid DNA sequencing, RNA interference to turn off specific genes such as the fat insulin receptor, the Lab-on-a-Chip that can quickly run dozens if not hundreds of diagnostics from a sample of bodily fluid, participatory medicine (whereby the mobile phone becomes a mission control center where our body’s real-time data is captured and analyzed), and empowering the entire world with the basic resources (food, water, energy, and education).

 

OTHER TOPICS

- The Do-It-Yourself revolution that has been brewing for the past 50 years (“small groups of motivated DIY-ers can accomplish what was once the sole province of large corporations and governments,” e.g. Craig Venter’s sequencing of the human genome);

- The new breed of wealthy techno-philanthropists such as Bill Gates;

- The bottom billion poised to become “the rising billion” (due to the Internet, wireless ICTs, and microfinance);

The Limits to Growth reconsidered (if you can’t shed people, you have to dramatically stretch resources);

-  A certain level of freedom as prerequisite to sustainable development (as argued by Amartya Sen in Development as Freedom);

- Cognitive biases that constrain abundance thinking (the difficulty of interpreting a “global and exponential” world, loss aversion and “moaning pessimism” as chronicled by Matt Ridley in his 2010 book, The Rational Optimist);

- The Internet of things (a future of trillions of devices connected through a huge network of sensors, each with its own IP addresses and accessed through the Internet);

- Artificial intelligence and robotics;

- Digital manufacturing with 3-D printers available to everyone;

- Dematerialization of goods and services and demonetized transactions (both lead to short-term job loss, but “the long-term payoff is undeniable”);

- The power of incentive competitions such as the X PRIZE.

 

THE 81 REFERENCE CHARTS

The “Reference Section Raw Data” (pp243-292) provides 81 often-interesting charts on such topics as the abundance pyramid (#1), growth of world population and the history of technology (#2), annual world water use 1900-2000 (#6), growth of global area in biotech crops 1996-2010 (#11), energy loss in food: field to fork (#19), growth of aquaculture vs. wild catch, 1950-2008 (#23), plummeting cost of solar PV per watt 1980-2009 (#39), rising global carbon emissions from energy production 1855-2009 (#46), freedom in the world 1980-2010 from Freedom House (#50), the 2010 Democracy Index from The Economist (#51), world urbanization projections 1950-2050 (#53), the UN’s estimated and projected world population variants 1950-2100 (#56), global population and Internet users 2000-2020 (#64), total international Internet bandwidth 2000-2010 (#69), and the Gartner Hype Curve on five key phases of a technology’s life cycle (#81; www.gartner.com).

 

APPENDIX: DANGERS OF THE EXPONENTIALS

Provides an 11-page “macroscopic overview” of the “grave dangers” that can be posed by exponential technologies (“discussion of these threats and potential mitigating factors put forward here is woefully inadequate, given the importance of the subject”).  Imagining these dangers isn’t hard, and every year at Singularity U, workshops “try to list and prioritize near-term and medium term doomsday scenarios.”  Three near-term concerns consistently rise to the top:
 
Bioterroism.  As DIY biotechnology becomes easier to use and cheaper to access, biological attacks and hacks are inevitable.  Genetic engineering of viruses is far less complex and expensive than sequencing human DNA.  Even the threat of a bioattack can be severely damaging.  Yet there is little proof that more regulation will help, because banning anything simply creates a black market.  A robust pathogen-monitoring system can help in biodefense, but may take a few years or even decades to realize.
 
Cyber Crime.  Attacks against banks could destroy all records and hacking into hospitals could cost hundreds of lives by changing blood types.  As the integration of biology and IT proceeds (e.g. pacemakers, diabetic pumps, cochlear implants), all will become the targets of cyber attacks.  Equally alarming are threats against physical infrastructures hooked up to the Internet (e.g, bridges, tunnels, air traffic control, energy pipelines).  Robots connected to the internet will also be vulnerable.  We may need some type of global liability law that covers software security, and an international net-based police force.
 
Robotics, AI, and Unemployment.  Robots will soon make up the majority of the blue-collar workforce, and humans will have a hard time competing (robots work 24/7, and don’t get sick, make mistakes, or go on strikes).  One expert says that “exponential technologies may eventually permit people to not need jobs to have a high standard of living.”

But “putting the brakes on technology just won’t work,” especially if we are serious about future survival.  There will always be a few holdouts (e.g. the Amish), but “the vast majority of us are here for the ride.  And, as should be clear by now, it’s going to be quite a ride.”  (final words, p.304).

 

COMMENT

This provocative book serves, at least in part, as a counterbalance to the last four GFB Book of the Month selections, all of which are deficient on new and emerging technologies.

The 2052 report to the Club of Rome by Jorgen Randers, thestatement of the UN High-Level Panel on Sustainable Development , and the Worldwatch Institute annual State of the World report on sustainable prosperity  largely pay attention to “soft” innovations for governance and appropriate economics, in contrast to the Singularity focus on “hard” innovations alone.

Michael T. Klare’s overview of the race for what’s left of the world’s critical resources focuses on “the end of ‘easy’ everything” that will drive up costs for oil and gas, minerals, rare earths, and agricultural land.  Some of the new technologies described in Abundance may offset these rising costs (e.g., new ways of growing food and saving water) and even bring less scarcity, but, as suggested by Klare, some diminishing resources (notably vital rare earth elements) may be irreplaceable, thus creating bottlenecks to any progress, let alone the hyper-progress of abundance.

The techno-ecstatic focus of Singularity thinking about hard technologies serves to obscure the need for “soft” social technology that is of equal if not greater importance, and it drives out gloomy reservations about downsides.  True, the Appendix on “Dangers of the Exponentials” does consider the threats of Bioterrorism and Cyber Crime, but the treatment of AI and robotics leading to unemployment--and underemployment, which is not mentioned--does not even approach the level of superficiality.  And sticky questions are ignored about how the new abundance will be distributed in a world of massive and increasing inequality, where many governments are running huge deficits and hamstrung by ideological gridlock and obsolete ideas.

As inspirational futurism suggesting possibilities of a better world for all, there are certainly many good budding ideas here that may bloom.  As a forecast of what is likely, the sub-title “The Future Is Better Than You Think” (perhaps forced by the publisher) is over the top.  The future may be better than we think if some of these game-changing technologies come to widespread fruition.  But it is unlikely that all or even most of them will be realized, at least in the next 25 years.  Not impossible, but not probable, either.  Indeed, one of the sub-sections of Chapter 1 is titled “The Possibility of Abundance” (p9), which is plausible and restrained.  For more restrained and detailed tech forecasts by an expert panel, see William Halal’s www.TechCast.org.

In any event, this book presents the techie side of the great “Pessimist-Optimist, Malthusian–Cornucopian” debate that has been with us for decades and will surely continue.  Hopefully, the debate can be widened and deepened, with resulting benefits to all of us.

 
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