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The Future really is Better than you think
on 13 May 2013
Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler is a well-researched and hugely optimistic book. Its central thesis is that new technologies are going to solve many of the world's resource problems over the coming ten to twenty years, bringing about a world of future abundance. The book's structure follows what the authors term 'The Abundance Pyramid': water, food, shelter, energy, education, health care and freedom (a hierarchy of human needs based loosely on Maslow). Each of these needs are explored in depth and the authors share insights from leading edge research and the likely benefits that they might bring.
Take, for example, energy, "arguably the most important lynchpin for abundance" (p.156): where is all the energy going to come from? The authors explore three options: solar and photovoltaics, synthetic biofuels and "fourth generation" nuclear power. Of these, they argue, solar has the most potential: "The German Aerospace Centre estimates that the solar power in the deserts of North Africa is enough to supply forty times the present world electricity demand" (p.157). The chapter unpacks each of these three energy sources as well as outlining other significant technical developments, which will enhance these, such as Liquid Metal Battery technologies which promise to enable us store clean energy; and development of "an intelligent network of power lines, switches and sensors able to monitor and control energy down to the. Level of a single lightbulb" (p.169).
Alongside discussion of the developments in these key areas, the authors outline four key drivers of technological progress:
The DIY Innovator - collaboration through e Internet means that small groups are far more powerful than ever before. On the Wikipedia principle, it is possible for enthusiasts and experts to work together to solve problems more efficiently than is possible in large corporations.
The Technophilanthropists - Billionaire philanthropists, such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and eBay's founder Pierre Omidyar, are pouring resources into solving many of the world's problems on a scale that previously was possible only at a Governmental level. Unlike e Mega-rich philanthropists of the past (Rockefeller, Vanderbilt Carnegie et al) the current breed are young and see the world (as opposed to NYC/USA as their stage).
The Rising Billion - "the bottom billion" (= four billion people) are becoming connected and are set to be net economic contributors and consumers in the next two decades.
The Power of Incentive Competitions - competitions with large prizes put up by philanthropists have a long history of promoting innovation and technological break-throughs. (Here Peter Diamandis is plugging the X-PRIZE of which he is the founder and CEO, but the argument is nevertheless an interesting one.
The World of Abundance:
The world of Abundance is one where all are fed and watered and there is enough power that we can start to clean up the planet by removing carbon from the atmosphere or to think about investigating Space seriously. People will continue to get healthier as medicine becomes "predictive, personalised, preventive and participatory" (= P4 medicine; p.201-3); X-ray machines will be the size of a suitcase (p.194), spare organs will be 3-D printed or cultivated to order from stem cells (p.200-1) and most, if not all Blue-collar work will be taken over by robots, including care of the elderly (how do you feel about the prospect of "robo-nurse"?). Robots will also perform routine, repetitive operations (e.g. Cataract p.197).
In the context of such abundantly interesting read, the chapter on Education was a little disappointing, but that's perhaps only because it was the area with which I am most familiar. The authors retrace the New Delhi hole-in-the-wall research, Negroponte's One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, before regurgitating Sir Ken Robinson's critique of the present educational system (see Sir Ken's TED talk "Schools kill Creativity").
Learning like Video Games
However, there is an eloquent argument that "we need to make learning a lot more like video games and a lot less like school" (p.183). Indeed there may be much to learn from the ways in which Game Designers motivate gamers and reward success. Game designers never give negative or bad grades because gamers don't like it. Lee Sheldon, a professor at the University of Indiana, has "implemented an 'experience points' game based design. Students begin a semester as a level zero avatar (equivalent to an F) and strive toward a level 12 (an A). This means that everything you do in class produces forward motion, and students always know exactly where they stand - two conditions that serve to motivate." This makes enormous sense. We are all familiar with Dweck's research that demonstrate that many pupils prefer to do the same puzzle again and again rather than attempting a harder puzzle for fear of failing. Yet, many of those very same pupils will devote hours of their free time gaining experience to get to the next level in a computer game.
The Inverted School
The Khan Academy is held up as a model for classroom teaching of the future (yes, you read it correctly): Los Altos School District in California "are taking an approach that inverts the 200-year old schoolhouse model":
"Instead of teachers using classroom time to deliver lectures, students are assigned to watch Khan Academy videos as homework, so that class time can be spent solving problems . . . This lets teachers personalise education trading their sage-on-stage role for that of a coach. Students now work at their own pace and only advance to the next topic they have thoroughly learned the last." (p.186-7)
Abundance is a fascinating and challenging read for anyone who is interested in learning about what the future might hold. The book is fully indexed and referenced and has some informative indices outlining the data - mainly in graphic form - which supports the thesis. Above all it is a much-needed and most welcome counterblast to the doomsday scenarios perpetuated in the media. Lets hope we can build a future where our grandchildren will in a world of abundance.
The principal author, Peter Diamandis, is the Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE foundation and co-founder and executive chairman of Singularity University, which appears to be a very interesting think-tank that brings together forward-thinkers and futurists and whose mission is mission is "to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges" (worth a look).