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Many people believe that we’ve run out of ideas and that the future will be one of bleak shortages of food, energy, and water. Billionaire Peter Thiel, for example, argues that, despite spectacular advances in computer-related fields, technological progress has actually stalled because the internal combustion engine still rules our highways, the cancer death rate has barely changed since 1971, and the top speed at which people can travel has ceased to improve.
Thiel is right about engines, speed, and cancer death rates. But he and the pessimists are completely wrong about what lies ahead. I don’t believe that the future holds shortages and stagnation; it is more likely to be one in which we debate how we can distribute the abundance and prosperity that we’ve created.
Why am I so optimistic? Because of the wide assortment of technologies that are advancing at exponential rates and converging. They are enabling small teams to do what was once only possible for governments and large corporations. These exponential technologies will help us solve many of humanity’s grand challenges, including energy, education, water, food, and health.
Let me give you a taste of what lies ahead.
Most people in the world have been affected by the advances in computing and mobile technologies. In a short 15 years, the Internet has changed the way we work, shop, communicate, and think. Knowledge that used to be available only to the elite classes through books such as the Encyclopedia Britannica is today abundant and free. All of this happened because computing power is growing exponentially. The technology industry knows this growth as Moore’s Law.
The advances are happening not only in computing but also in fields such as genetics, AI, robotics, and medicine. For example, in 2000, scientists at a private company called Celera announced that it had raced ahead of the U.S. government–led international effort decoding the DNA of a human being. Using the latest sequencing technology as well as the data available from the Human Genome Project, Celera scientists had created a working draft of the genome. It took decades and cost billions to reach this milestone.
The price of genome sequencing is dropping at double the rate of Moore’s Law. Today, it is possible to decode your DNA for a few thousand dollars. With the price falling at this rate, a full genome sequence will cost less than $100 within five years. Genome data will readily be available for millions, perhaps billions, of people. We will be able to discover the correlations between disease and DNA and to prescribe personalized medications tailored to an individual’s DNA. This will create a revolution in medicine.
We can now “write” DNA. Advances in “synthetic biology” are allowing researchers, and even high-school students, to create new organisms and synthetic life forms. Entrepreneurs have developed software tools to “design” and “compile” DNA. There are startups that offer DNA synthesis and assembly as a service. DNA “printing” is priced by the number of base pairs to be assembled (the chemical “bits” that make up a gene). Today’s cost is about 30 cents per base pair, and prices are falling exponentially. Within a few years, it could cost a hundredth of this amount. Eventually, like laser printers, DNA printers will be inexpensive home devices.
It isn’t just DNA that we can print. In an emerging field called digital manufacturing, 3D printers enable the production of physical mechanical devices, medical implants, jewelry, and even clothing. These printers use something like a toothpaste tube of plastic or other material held vertically in an X-Y plotter that squirts out thin layers of tiny dots of material that build up, layer by layer, to produce a 3D replica of the computer-generated design. The cheapest 3D printers, which print rudimentary objects, currently sell for between $500 and $1,000. Soon, we will have printers for this price that can print toys and household goods. Within this decade, we will see 3D printers doing the small-scale production of previously labor-intensive crafts and goods. In the next decade, we can expect local manufacture of the majority of goods; 3D printing of buildings and electronics; and the rise of a creative class empowered by digital making.
Nanotechnology is also rapidly advancing. Engineers and scientists are developing many new types of materials such as carbon nanotubes, ceramic-matrix nanocomposites (and their metal-matrix and polymer-matrix equivalents), and new carbon fibers. These new materials enable designers to create products that are stronger, lighter, more energy efficient, and more durable than anything that exists today.
And major advances are happening in Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (or MEMS), which make it possible to build inexpensive gyros; accelerometers; and temperature, current/magnetic fields, pressure, chemical, and DNA sensors. Imagine iPhone cases that act like medical assistants and detect disease; smart pills that we swallow and that monitor our internals; and tattooed body sensors that monitor heart, brain, and body activity.
And then there is Artificial Intelligence, which has advanced to the point at which computers can defeat humans on the TV show Jeopardy, perform medical diagnosis, and drive autonomous cars.
I can go on and on and on, but the bottom line is that we are innovating at an unprecedented rate. In this and the next decade, we will begin to make energy and food abundant, inexpensively purify and sanitize water from any source, cure disease, and educate the world’s masses. The best part: It isn’t governments that will lead this charge; it will be the world’s entrepreneurs.
With every good comes a bad, and our optimism always needs to be grounded. Synthetic biology could lead to new forms of bioterrorism; surveillance technologies — which are becoming ever more sophisticated — already provide governments more information than George Orwell’s Big Brother ever dreamed about; no guidelines have yet been developed for ethics in the exponential era. My worry: Will humanity evolve fast enough to fulfill its increasing responsibilities?
Vivek Wadhwa is vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University. The university, founded in 2008 and based at the NASA Research Center in Mountain View, California, aims to assemble, educate, and inspire a new generation of thinkers, scientists, and business executives looking to better the world through disruptive technologies.