The Laws of Exponential Capabilities

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Thomas Frey's picture

When people like Google CEO, Larry Page, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and X-Prize Foundation CEO, Peter Diamandis, talk about us entering into a period of abundance, there has been a natural tendency to assume we’ll be entering into a life of leisure. People won’t have to work as hard and we will all have more time for travel, vacations, and play.

Yes, we are entering into a world where driverless vehicles will eliminate millions of driving positions; robotic systems will work relentlessly day and night eliminating millions of manufacturing, welding, painting, and assembly positions; and things that seemed impossible to automate in the past will have computers and machines replacing people’s jobs.

With these types of automation and AI (artificial intelligence) replacing human involvement, the discussion has focused on solutions like shared jobs, micro employment, and guaranteed income.

While those may be options, there’s also great danger in preparing for “slacker lifestyles” where people feel less significant, less certain about their future, and less connected to the value they have to offer. As a society we risk becoming soft and lazy.

There is great value in the human struggle, and when we fail to be challenged, our best-laid plans tend to fall apart at the seams.

Today, the amount of time it takes to build ships and skyscrapers, create massive data storage centers for all our growing volumes of information, or produce global wireless networks for all our devices has dropped significantly. But along with each of these drops is a parallel increase in our capabilities and our expectations.

For these reasons, I’d like to reframe the discussion by proposing the following “Laws of Exponential Capabilities”:

LAW #1: With automation, every exponential decrease in effort creates an equal and opposite exponential increase in capabilities.

LAW #2: As today’s significant accomplishments become more common, mega-accomplishments will take their place.

LAW #3: As we raise the bar for our achievements, we also reset the norm for our expectations.

Here’s why this is so critically important.

Automation increases our capabilities

LAW #1 – With automation, every exponential decrease in effort creates an equal and opposite exponential increase in capabilities.

When it takes less effort to do something, we naturally do more things. This has been proven out time and again throughout the centuries.

To illustrate this point, here are three industries that have radically changed humanity over the past centuries – Transportation, Photography, and Media.

1.) Transportation: Thinking in terms of our travel capabilities, if we use the average transportation speeds in Richard Florida’s “Great Reset,” we can extrapolate an exponential growth in the number of miles the average person will travel over their lifetime.

  • 1850 – Average speed 4 mph – Traveling 4 miles per day X 50 year life expectancy = 73,000 miles.
  • 1900 – Average speed 8 mph – Traveling 8 miles per day X 60 year life expectancy = 175,200 miles.
  • 1950 – Average speed 24 mph – Traveling 24 miles per day X 70 year life expectancy = 613,200 miles.
  • 2000 – Average speed 75 mph – Traveling 75 miles per day X 80 year life expectancy = 2,190,000 miles.
  • 2050 – Average speed 225-250 mph (projected) – Traveling 225 miles per day X 90 year life expectancy = 7,391,250 miles.

We have transitioned from slow and difficult forms of transportation to fast and painless. Going from 73,000 to 7.3 million miles in a lifetime is a 100X increase in human mobility.

2.) Photography: The famous photograph titled, “View from the Window at Le Gras” by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, was one of the first photos ever taken and the oldest surviving one.

Photography started as a slow and arduous process in the 1800s requiring exacting precision and lots of time. With the introduction of cheaper and better cameras, film, and processing the number of photos taken began working its way up the exponential growth curve.

But it wasn’t until recently, with the birth of digital cameras in our phones and free storage, that the number of photos per day really took off.

Currently there are roughly 350 million photos a day loaded onto Facebook. If we assume the pictures loaded onto Facebook only represent a small fraction of the total, say 10%, that would mean we are taking 3.5 billion photos every day, or 1.3 trillion per year. As amazing as that sounds, that’s probably a very low number.

3.) Media: Before the time of Gutenberg’s printing press, our information sources were limited to person-to-person conversations and a tiny number of hand written scrolls and manuscripts. People who lived during the middle ages spent very little time consuming information simply because it wasn’t accessible.

By 1600, India’s Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great, had accumulated a personal library of over 24,000 books. By comparison, in 1815, Thomas Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States, totaling 6,487 volumes.

Both of these numbers are in stark contrast to the millions of title available today on Amazon. But when it comes to media, we consume far more than just books.

On a global level, a 2012 study showed that people on average spend 10 hours 39 minutes per day consuming information. This was broken into 260 minutes on the Internet, 150 minutes watching television, 77 minutes mobile Internet, 71 minutes listening to the radio, 43 minutes playing games, and 38 minutes reading print media.

In countries like the U.S., Korea, and Japan, the numbers are considerably higher – over 12 hours per day – and China is now working overtime to reign in a growing problem with people becoming addicted to the Internet. As a result, a number of anti-addiction treatment centers have cropped up to deal with the problem.

Building a global vacuum tube transportation network will be a future mega project

LAW #2 – As today’s significant accomplishments become more common, mega-accomplishments will take their place.

It is no longer reasonable to assume the same mega-project that have challenged us in the past will be the same size and scale of the mega projects that will be needed to challenge us in the future.

Living in a world where our ever-expanding use of automation and AI is reducing the human contribution in nearly every achievement, we are also witnessing a dilution in the value of past benchmarks.

For this reason, a new generation of mega accomplishments are beginning to surface.

One example of a next generation mega project is the Elon Musk – Daryl Oster proposed transportation system where specially designed capsules are placed into sealed vacuum tubes and shot, much like rockets, to their destination. While high-speed trains are breaking the 300 mph speed barrier, tube transportation has the potential of reaching speeds of 4,000 mph, turning it into a form of “space travel on earth.”

Even though tube travel like this will beat every other form of transportation in terms of speed, power consumption, pollution, and safety, the big missing element is its infrastructure, a tube network envisioned to combine well over 100,000 miles of connected links.

While many look at this and see the lack of infrastructure as a huge obstacle, it is just the opposite, one of the biggest opportunities ever.

Constructing the tube network has the potential of becoming the largest infrastructure project the earth has ever seen, with a projected 50-year build-out employing hundreds of millions people along the way.

The 15-year difference in animation quality between
Pixar’s Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 3 (Click for hi-res image)

LAW #3 – As we raise the bar for our achievements, we also reset the norm for our expectations.

When Pixar released the first Toy Story in 1995, it was the first feature film to be produced entirely with computer animation. Naturally it looked a little rough around the edges compared to the new stuff, but it represented a massive breakthrough in the way animated films were produced.

Fifteen years later, in 2010, when Toy Story 3 was released, the Pixar team raised the bar considerably on the quality and detail of the animation. It didn’t take them less time to produce, but instead they dedicated tremendous effort to raising the quality standard. (The photo above is a great illustration of the difference.)

This raising of standards in quality, value, and usability can be seen all around us:

  • Printing – From large machine presses to photo-quality images at our desktop within seconds.
  • Music – From makeshift recordings inside seedy studios to producing symphony quality recordings without every leaving our computer.
  • Magazines and Newspapers – We can now subscribe to any magazine or newspaper on the planet and have it instantly sent to our computer.
  • Highways – From dirt roads, to gravel roads, to asphalt roads, to concrete Interstates.
  • Telecom – From wired phones with cranks on the side, to wireless everything.
  • Water Systems – From aqueducts, to wells, to running water everywhere.
  • Food Supplies – From crude little storefronts and farmers markets to the super-grocery stores we have today.
  • Emergency Services – From makeshift fire brigades and primitive doctors to highly sophisticated fire departments, rescue teams, hospitals, and medical services.

Crazy-Big Projects of the Future

Whether it’s building the Great Pyramids in Egypt, erecting the Great Wall of China, or sending someone to the moon, crazy-big projects have a way of defining our humanity and raising the bar for future generations.

As our capabilities improve, we simply need to set our sights higher and aim for the stars…. literally!

If you’re still struggling with what the mega-projects of the future might be, here are a few to consider:

  1. Recreating Infrastructure – Virtually every one of our current infrastructures is in need of total overhaul to meet the needs of future generations. This includes rethinking highways, mass transit, telecom, postal systems, water supplies, food supplies, and more.
  2. Space Industries – Whether it’s space tourism, mining asteroids, space-based power stations, or colonizing other planets, space industries represent an endless challenge for humanity.
  3. Controlling the Weather – We continually find ourselves the victims of forces of nature and have an obligation to mitigate the damage of hurricanes, tornadoes, massive hailstorms, and more.
  4. Reaching the Center of the Earth – We currently know very little about the center of the earth, yet we continually fall victim to earthquakes, volcanoes, and other internal forces we don’t yet understand. Once again, we have an obligation to know more.
  5. Controlling Gravity – The single greatest force of nature is gravity, yet we know very little about it. We not only need to understand gravity, but also need to learn how to control it.
  6. Viewing the Past – How can we create a technology capable of replaying an unrecorded event that happened decades earlier in actual-size, in holographic form?
  7. Traveling at the Speed of Light – The all time human speed record was set in 1969 and we have a long ways to go if we ever intend to travel to other planets.
  8. Inexhaustible Power Supplies – Too much of the world’s economy is dependent upon a rather fragile global power system. The opportunities here are endless.

Final Thoughts

At this point, the “Laws of Exponential Capabilities” are a working theory that I’m hoping to refine over time.

Naturally there are a few downsides to our expanded capabilities. Addictions can become exponentially more addictive. Dangerous people can become exponentially more dangerous. And global conflicts have the potential of becoming exponentially more disastrous.

With all of our increased capabilities, perhaps the one we are lacking the most is our ability to anticipate problems.

That said I‘d love to hear your thoughts. What’s missing, what needs to be reworked, and where is this most and least applicable?

We will all be spending the rest of our lives in the future, so we all have a vested interest in understanding it better.

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