Tag Archives: nanotechnology
Malthus had a fever dream in the 1790s. While the world was marveling in the first manifestations of modern science and technology and the industrial revolution that was just beginning, he was concerned. He saw the exponential growth in the human population as a terrible problem for the species—an existential threat. He was afraid the human population would overshoot the availability of resources, and then things would really hit the fan.
“Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation.”
So Malthus wrote in his famous text, an essay on the principles of population.
But Malthus was wrong. Not just in his proposed solution, which was to stop giving aid and food to the poor so that they wouldn’t explode in population. His prediction was also wrong: there was no great, overwhelming famine that caused the population to stay at the levels of the 1790s. Instead, the world population—with a few dips—has continued to grow exponentially ever since. And it’s still growing.
There have concurrently been developments in agriculture and medicine and, in the 20th century, the Green Revolution, in which Norman Borlaug ensured that countries adopted high-yield varieties of crops—the first precursors to modern ideas of genetically engineering food to produce better crops and more growth. The world was able to produce an astonishing amount of food—enough, in the modern era, for ten billion people. It is only a grave injustice in the way that food is distributed that means 12 percent of the world goes hungry, and we still have starvation. But, aside from that, we were saved by the majesty of another kind of exponential growth; the population grew, but the ability to produce food grew faster.
In so much of the world around us today, there’s the same old story. Take exploitation of fossil fuels: here, there is another exponential race. The exponential growth of our ability to mine coal, extract natural gas, refine oil from ever more complex hydrocarbons: this is pitted against our growing appetite. The stock market is built on exponential growth; you cannot provide compound interest unless the economy grows by a certain percentage a year.
“This relentless and ruthless expectation—that technology will continue to improve in ways we can’t foresee—is not just baked into share prices, but into the very survival of our species.”
When the economy fails to grow exponentially, it’s considered a crisis: a financial catastrophe. This expectation penetrates down to individual investors. In the cryptocurrency markets—hardly immune from bubbles, the bull-and-bear cycle of economics—the traders’ saying is “Buy the hype, sell the news.” Before an announcement is made, the expectation of growth, of a boost—the psychological shift—is almost invariably worth more than whatever the major announcement turns out to be. The idea of growth is baked into the share price, to the extent that even good news can often cause the price to dip when it’s delivered.
In the same way, this relentless and ruthless expectation—that technology will continue to improve in ways we can’t foresee—is not just baked into share prices, but into the very survival of our species. A third of Earth’s soil has been acutely degraded due to agriculture; we are looming on the brink of a topsoil crisis. In less relentless times, we may have tried to solve the problem by letting the fields lie fallow for a few years. But that’s no longer an option: if we do so, people will starve. Instead, we look to a second Green Revolution—genetically modified crops, or hydroponics—to save us.
Climate change is considered by many to be an existential threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already put their faith in the exponential growth of technology. Many of the scenarios where they can successfully imagine the human race dealing with the climate crisis involve the development and widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage technology. Our hope for the future already has built-in expectations of exponential growth in our technology in this field. Alongside this, to reduce carbon emissions to zero on the timescales we need to, we will surely require new technologies in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electrification of the transport system.
Without exponential growth in technology continuing, then, we are doomed. Humanity finds itself on a treadmill that’s rapidly accelerating, with the risk of plunging into the abyss if we can’t keep up the pace. Yet this very acceleration could also pose an existential threat. As our global system becomes more interconnected and complex, chaos theory takes over: the economics of a town in Macedonia can influence a US presidential election; critical infrastructure can be brought down by cybercriminals.
New threats, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, or a generalized artificial intelligence, could put incredible power—power over the entire species—into the hands of a small number of people. We are faced with a paradox: the continued existence of our system depends on the exponential growth of our capacities outpacing the exponential growth of our needs and desires. Yet this very growth will create threats that are unimaginably larger than any humans have faced before in history.
“It is necessary that we understand the consequences and prospects for exponential growth: that we understand the nature of the race that we’re in.”
Neo-Luddites may find satisfaction in rejecting the ill-effects of technology, but they will still live in a society where technology is the lifeblood that keeps the whole system pumping. Now, more than ever, it is necessary that we understand the consequences and prospects for exponential growth: that we understand the nature of the race that we’re in.
If we decide that limitless exponential growth on a finite planet is unsustainable, we need to plan for the transition to a new way of living before our ability to accelerate runs out. If we require new technologies or fields of study to enable this growth to continue, we must focus our efforts on these before anything else. If we want to survive the 21st century without major catastrophe, we don’t have a choice but to understand it. Almost by default, we’re all accelerationists now.
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It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who first said, “The only thing that is constant is change.”
He was onto something. But even he would likely be left speechless at the scale and pace of change the world has experienced in the past 100 years—not to mention the past 10.
Since 1917, the global population has gone from 1.9 billion people to 7.5 billion. Life expectancy has more than doubled in many developing countries and risen significantly in developed countries. In 1917 only eight percent of homes had phones—in the form of landline telephones—while today more than seven in 10 Americans own a smartphone—aka, a supercomputer that fits in their pockets.
And things aren’t going to slow down anytime soon. In a talk at Singularity University’s Global Summit this week in San Francisco, SU cofounder and chairman Peter Diamandis told the audience, “Tomorrow’s speed of change will make today look like we’re crawling.” He then shared his point of view about some of the most important factors driving this accelerating change.
Peter Diamandis at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco.
In 1965, Gordon Moore (cofounder of Intel) predicted computer chips would double in power and halve in cost every 18 to 24 months. What became known as Moore’s Law turned out to be accurate, and today affordable computer chips contain a billion or more transistors spaced just nanometers apart.
That means computers can do exponentially more calculations per second than they could thirty, twenty, or ten years ago—and at a dramatically lower cost. This in turn means we can generate a lot more information, and use computers for all kinds of applications they wouldn’t have been able to handle in the past (like diagnosing rare forms of cancer, for example).
Increased computing power is the basis for a myriad of technological advances, which themselves are converging in ways we couldn’t have imagined a couple decades ago. As new technologies advance, the interactions between various subsets of those technologies create new opportunities that accelerate the pace of change much more than any single technology can on its own.
A breakthrough in biotechnology, for example, might spring from a crucial development in artificial intelligence. An advance in solar energy could come about by applying concepts from nanotechnology.
Technology is becoming more accessible even to the most non-techy among us. The internet was once the domain of scientists and coders, but these days anyone can make their own web page, and browsers make those pages easily searchable. Now, interfaces are opening up areas like robotics or 3D printing.
As Diamandis put it, “You don’t need to know how to code to 3D print an attachment for your phone. We’re going from mind to materialization, from intentionality to implication.”
Artificial intelligence is what Diamandis calls “the ultimate interface moment,” enabling everyone who can speak their mind to connect and leverage exponential technologies.
Today there are about three billion people around the world connected to the internet—that’s up from 1.8 billion in 2010. But projections show that by 2025 there will be eight billion people connected. This is thanks to a race between tech billionaires to wrap the Earth in internet; Elon Musk’s SpaceX has plans to launch a network of 4,425 satellites to get the job done, while Google’s Project Loon is using giant polyethylene balloons for the task.
These projects will enable five billion new minds to come online, and those minds will have access to exponential technologies via interface moments.
Diamandis predicts that after we establish a 5G network with speeds of 10–100 Gbps, a proliferation of sensors will follow, to the point that there’ll be around 100,000 sensors per city block. These sensors will be equipped with the most advanced AI, and the combination of these two will yield an incredible amount of knowledge.
“By 2030 we’re heading towards 100 trillion sensors,” Diamandis said. “We’re heading towards a world in which we’re going to be able to know anything we want, anywhere we want, anytime we want.” He added that tens of thousands of drones will hover over every major city.
“If you think there’s an arms race going on for AI, there’s also one for HI—human intelligence,” Diamandis said. He explained that if a genius was born in a remote village 100 years ago, he or she would likely not have been able to gain access to the resources needed to put his or her gifts to widely productive use. But that’s about to change.
Private companies as well as military programs are working on brain-machine interfaces, with the ultimate aim of uploading the human mind. The focus in the future will be on increasing intelligence of individuals as well as companies and even countries.
A final crucial factor driving mass acceleration is the increase in wealth concentration. “We’re living in a time when there’s more wealth in the hands of private individuals, and they’re willing to take bigger risks than ever before,” Diamandis said. Billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates are putting millions of dollars towards philanthropic causes that will benefit not only themselves, but humanity at large.
What It All Means
One of the biggest implications of the rate at which the world is changing, Diamandis said, is that the cost of everything is trending towards zero. We are heading towards abundance, and the evidence lies in the reduction of extreme poverty we’ve already seen and will continue to see at an even more rapid rate.
Listening to Diamandis’ optimism, it’s hard not to find it contagious.
“The world is becoming better at an extraordinary rate,” he said, pointing out the rises in literacy, democracy, vaccinations, and life expectancy, and the concurrent decreases in child mortality, birth rate, and poverty.
“We’re alive during a pivotal time in human history,” he concluded. “There is nothing we don’t have access to.”
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