A quick glance at the headlines lets us know the score: Dark days ahead. With growing concerns about population size, economic meltdowns, energy shortages, water shortages, food shortages -- this list goes on -- alarmists are having a field day. So pervasive has our sense of doom and gloom become that anyone telling a different story can rarely be heard. But there is a very different story worth telling.
Currently, thanks to the exponential growth rate of technology and three other emerging forces (more on these forces in a moment), we are teetering on the edge of a much better tomorrow. Progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, infinite computing, ubiquitous broadband networks, digital manufacturing, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and many other revolutionary fields will enable us to make greater gains in the next two decades than we've made in the previous 200 years. We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.
Of course, now that I've made such a statement, there's another issue to consider: the fact that to many, it just sounds like hogwash. Turns out there are good neurological reasons for this reaction, and before we turn our attention to where we're going, let's first address why it's so difficult to believe we can ever get there.
Every second our senses are deluged with data, more than we can possibly process. To deal with this overload, the brain is continuously sifting and sorting, trying to tease apart the critical from the casual. Since nothing is more critical to the brain than survival, the first filter most of this incoming information encounters is the amygdala.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped portion of the temporal lobe responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate, and fear. It's also our early-warning system, an organ on high alert, constantly scanning our environment for anything that could threaten survival. Anxious under normal conditions, once stimulated, the amygdala becomes hypervigilant. But so potent is this response that once turned on, it's difficult to shut off, and this is a problem in the modern world.
These days, we're media-saturated. We have thousands of news outlets competing for our mind share. And how do they compete? By vying for the amygdala's attention. The old newspaper saw "If it bleeds, it leads" works because the first stop that all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.
Exacerbating this, our early-warning system evolved in an era of immediacy, when threats were of the tiger-in-the-bush variety. Things have changed. Many of today's dangers are probabilistic -- terrorists might attack, the economy could nosedive -- and the amygdala can't tell the difference. Worse, the system is designed not to shut off until the threat has vanished completely, but probabilistic dangers never vanish completely. Add in an impossible-to-avoid media continuously scaring us in an attempt to capture market share and you have a brain convinced that it's living in a state of siege with no end in sight.
In light of all of this, you've got to wonder: What does the world really look like? It turns out it's not the nightmare most suspect. Violence is at an all-time low, personal freedom at a historic high. During the past century, child mortality decreased by 90 percent, and maternal mortality by 99 percent, while the average human lifespan increased by 100 percent. Food is cheaper and more plentiful than ever before. (Groceries, for example, cost 13 times less today than in 1870.) Poverty has declined more the in the past 50 years than in the previous 500. In fact, adjusted for inflation, incomes have tripled in the past 50 years. On top of that, many of those living under the poverty line today have access to a telephone, toilet, television, running water, air conditioning and even a car. Go back 150 years, and the richest people in Europe could have never dreamed of such wealth.
Nor are these changes restricted to the developed world. In Africa today, a Masai warrior on a mobile phone has better mobile communications than the U.S. president did 25 years ago; if they're on a smartphone with Google, then they have access to more information than the president did just 15 years ago. And if it's a smartphone, consider the feast of features that now come standard: watch, stereo, camera, video camera, voice recorder, GPS tracker, video teleconferencing equipment, and a vast library of books, films, games, and music. Just 20 years ago, these same goods and services would have cost over $1 million.
Most importantly, four powerful forces are now starting to emerge, each with enormous world-changing potential, none more important than the accelerating rate of technological progress. Right now, all information-based technologies are on exponential growth curves -- meaning they're doubling in power for the same price every 12 to 24 months. This is why an $8-million supercomputer from two decades ago now sits in your pocket and costs less than $200.
Yet this same rate of change is also showing up in networks, sensors, cloud computing, 3D printing, genetics, AI, robotics, and dozens of other industries. Biotechnology has been on such a wild exponential ride that a state-of-the-art biotech lab, complete with automation -- what would have cost millions of dollars just 10 years ago -- can now be had for under $10,000.
The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Innovator
Our second force is the do-it-yourself (DIY) innovator. A DIY revolution has been steadily brewing these past 50 years, but lately it's begun to boil over. In today's world, backyard tinkerers have moved from custom cars and homebrew computers into once-esoteric fields like neuroscience, biology, genetics and robotics. What's more, today, these small teams of motivated DIYers can accomplish what was once the sole province of large corporations and governments. The aerospace giants felt it was impossible, but Burt Rutan flew into space. Craig Venter tied (some say beat) the mighty U.S. government in the race to sequence the human genome. And these are just the household names. Right now, high school and college students are using the tools of synthetic biology to complete real-world projects that rival the output of major biopharmaceutical companies.
What's more, as some of the greatest business opportunities lie in solving the world's grand challenges, DIYers are now turning their attention in that direction. Take Dean Kamen. With 440 patents and a National Medal of Technology, Kamen is one of the greatest DIYers in history. Lately, he's turned his attention to the problem of water scarcity, which, until recently, was considered an impossible boondoggle.
"When you talk to experts about water," he says, "they'll tell you with 4 billion people making less than two dollars a day, there's no viable business model, no economic model, and no way to finance development costs. But the 25 poorest countries already spend 20 percent of their GDP on water. Four billion people spending 30 cents a day is a $1.2-billion market every day. It's $400 billion a year. I can't think of too many companies in the world that have $400 billion in sales a year."
Kamen, meanwhile, is sure to tap into this market, as he's now in beta trials with his "Slingshot," a water purifier that can turn anything wet (polluted water, sea water, even latrine water) into the purest water on Earth at a rate of 1,000 liters per machine per day for as little as .02 cents a liter and requiring less energy than it takes to run a hair dryer.
Our next force is money -- a lot of money -- being spent in a very particular way. The high-tech revolution created an entirely new breed of wealthy technophilanthropists who are using their fortunes to solve global abundance-related challenges. Bill Gates is focused on eliminating malaria; Naveen Jain is crusading against poverty in India; and Pierre and Pam Omidyar are focused on bringing electricity to the developing world. And this list goes on and on. Taken together, our third driver is a technophilanthropic force unrivaled in history.
And unlike the philanthropists of yesteryear, today's new breed is taking a much more active approach. The old model was "I write the check and now I'm done"; the new model makes the check merely the first step. Today's technophilanthropists do a whole lot more than just bring fiscal capital to the table: They bring human capital as well. "They bring networks, connection and the ability to get high-level meetings," says Paul Shoemaker, Executive Director of Social Ventures Partners Seattle. "When Gates decided to fight for vaccines, he built a team and led them into meeting with world leaders and the World Health Organization. Most organizations can't get into those rooms, but Gates could, and it made a huge difference."
The Rising Billion
Lastly, there are the very poorest of the poor, the so-called "bottom billion," who are finally plugging into the global economy and are poised to become the "Rising Billion." The creation of a global transportation network was the initial step down this path, but it's the combination of the Internet, microfinance and wireless communication technology that's truly transformational. Over the next decade, and for the first time in history, 3 billion new voices will join the global conversation.
What will these people desire? What will they create? If for no reason other than the law of large numbers and the power of their potential, this puts the Rising Billion in the same category as exponential technology, the DIYers and the technophilanthropists as a potent force for abundance.
In fact, simply as a market force, the Rising Billion represent tens of trillions of dollars flooding into the global economy on an annual basis, but that's merely the start. Exponentially growing technology is starting to enhance the lives of the world's poor in radically new ways.
Take the Kahn Academy. In 2006, a Boston-based hedge fund analyst named Salman Khan began to make online tutorial videos for his nieces. These videos covered basic high school subjects. He posted them on YouTube (because he couldn't think of a reason not to), and they quickly became a hit -- a huge hit. There are now over 2,500 videos total, covering everything from American history to quadratic equations to introductory neuroscience, being downloaded by over 2 million people a month. Even better, the Khan Academy is now translating these videos into the 10 most common languages (Google is driving the effort), with plans to then crowdsource the results into hundreds of languages. With advances like the Khan Academy, as long as someone has access to a smartphone, they also have access to a world-class education -- which means the Rising Billion will also be better-educated than ever before.
They'll also be healthier. Consider the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, which bestows $10 million on the top three teams able to design a handheld device able to diagnose disease better than a board-certified doctor. The Tricorder will certainly help slash healthcare costs in places like the U.S. and Europe, but in parts of the world where doctors are in short supply, the Tricorder will radically reshape the quality of medical diagnostics available.
This means the Rising Billion will continue to rise, becoming healthier and better-educated than ever before, and thus beginning to contribute like never before. Clearly, all three of these forces have enormous potential. On their own, they each have radically transformative power, but acting together, amplified by exponentially growing technologies, the once-unimaginable becomes the now-actually-possible. And "abundance for all" becomes "imagine what's next."