The Abundance Builders
By Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler
Progress occurs when inventive people solve problems and create opportunities. Here are just a few of the breakthroughs that offer the brightest prospects for a future that leaves austerity and deprivation behind.
In 1990, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health jointly launched the Human Genome Project, a 15-year program whose goal was to sequence the 3 billion base pairs that make up the human genome. Some thought the project impossible. Others felt it would take a half century to complete. Everyone agreed it would be expensive. A budget of $10 billion was set aside, but many felt it wasn’t enough. They might still be feeling this way, too, except that, in 2000, J. Craig Venter decided to get into the race.
It wasn’t even much of a race. Building on work that had come before, Venter and his company, Celera, delivered a fully sequenced human genome in less than one year for just under $100 million.
As an encore, in May 2010, Venter announced his next success: the creation of a synthetic life-form. He described it as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” In less than 10 years, Venter both unlocked the human genome and created the world’s first synthetic life-form—genius with repeat success.
Venter’s actual goal is the creation of a very specific kind of synthetic life: the kind that can manufacture ultra-low-cost fuels. Rather than drilling into the earth to extract oil, Venter is working on novel algae, whose molecular machinery can take carbon dioxide and water and create oil or any other kind of fuel. Interested in pure octane? Aviation gasoline? Diesel? No problem. Give your designer the proper DNA instructions and let biology do the rest.
To further this dream, Venter has also spent the past five years sailing his research yacht, Sorcerer II, around the globe, scooping up algae along the way. The algae is then run through a DNA sequencing machine. Using this technique, Venter has built a library of more than 40 million different genes, which he can now call upon for designing his future biofuels.
Venter wants to use similar methods to design human vaccines within 24 hours rather than the two to three months currently required. He’s thinking about engineering food crops with a 50-fold production improvement over today’s agriculture. Low-cost fuels, high-performing vaccines, and ultra-yield agriculture are just three of the reasons that the exponential growth of biotechnology is critical to creating a world of abundance. Let’s turn to the next category on our list.
Networks and Sensors: The Connectors
During his graduate student years, Vint Cerf, chief Internet evangelist for Google, worked in the networking group that connected the first two nodes of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (Arpanet). Next, he became a program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), funding various groups to develop Internet protocol technology. During the late 1980s, when the Internet began its transition to a commercial opportunity, Cerf moved to the long-distance telephone company MCI, where he engineered the first commercial email service. He then joined ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the key U.S. governance organization for the Web, and served as chairman for more than a decade. For all these reasons, Cerf is considered one of the “fathers of the Internet.”
These days, Cerf is excited about the future of his creation—that is, the future of networks and sensors. A network is any interconnection of signals and information, of which the Internet is the most significant example. A sensor is a device that detects information—temperature, vibration, radiation, and such—that, when hooked up to a network, can also transmit this information. Taken together, the future of networks and sensors is sometimes called the “Internet of things,” often imagined as a self-configuring, wireless network of sensors interconnecting, well, all things.
Now imagine its future: trillions of devices—thermometers, cars, light switches, whatever—all connected through a gargantuan network of sensors, each with its own IP addresses, each accessible through the Internet. Suddenly, Google can help you find your car keys. Stolen property becomes a thing of the past. When your house is running out of toilet paper or cleaning products or espresso beans, it can automatically reorder supplies. If prosperity is really saved time, then the Internet of things is a big pot of gold.
As powerful as it will be, the impact that the Internet of things will have on our personal lives is dwarfed by its business potential. Soon, companies will be able to perfectly match product demand to raw materials orders, streamlining supply chains and minimizing waste to an extraordinary degree. Efficiency goes through the roof. With critical appliances activated only when needed (lights that flick on as someone approaches a building), the energy-saving potential alone would be world changing. And world saving. A few years ago, Cisco teamed up with NASA to put sensors all over the planet to provide real-time information about climate change.
“The Internet of things,” says Cerf, “holds the promise for reinventing almost every industry. How we manufacture, how we control our environment, and how we distribute, use, and recycle resources. When the world around us becomes plugged in and effectively self-aware, it will drive efficiencies like never before. It’s a big step toward a world of abundance.”
Digital Manufacturing and Infinite Computing: The Makers
The 3-D printing that Carl Bass is pursuing at his company Autodesk (which makes software for 3-D printers) is the first step toward Star Trek’s replicators. Today’s machines aren’t powered by dilithium crystals, but they can precisely manufacture extremely intricate three-dimensional objects far cheaper and faster than ever before. This technology is the newest form of digital manufacturing (or digital fabrication), a field that has been around for decades. Traditional digital manufacturers utilize computer-controlled routers, lasers, and other cutting tools to precisely shape a new piece of metal, wood, or plastic by a subtractive process—slicing and dicing until the desired form is all that’s left. Today’s 3-D printers do the opposite. They utilize a form of additive manufacturing, where a three-dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material.
While early machines were simple and slow, today’s versions are quick, nimble, and able to print an exceptionally wide range of materials—plastic, glass, steel, even titanium. Industrial designers use 3-D printers to make everything from lampshades and eyeglasses to custom-fitted prosthetic limbs. Hobbyists are producing functioning robots and flying autonomous aircraft. Biotechnology firms are experimenting with the 3-D printing of organs, while inventor and University of Southern California engineering professor Behrokh Khoshnevis has developed a large-scale 3-D printer that extrudes concrete for building ultra-low-cost, multi-room housing in the developing world. The technology is also poised to leave our world. Made In Space, a Singularity University spinout, has demonstrated a 3-D printer that works in zero gravity, so astronauts aboard the space station can print spare parts whenever the need arises.
“What gets me most excited,” says Bass, “is the idea that every person will soon have access to one of these 3-D printers, just like we have inkjet printers today. And once that happens, it will change everything. See something on Amazon you like? Instead of placing an order and waiting 24 hours for your FedEx package, just hit print and get it in minutes.”
A 3-D printer would allow anyone anywhere to create physical items from digital blueprints. Right now, the emphasis is on novel geometric shapes, but soon we’ll be altering the physical properties of the material themselves.
“Forget the traditional limitations posed by conventional manufacturing, in which each part is made of a single material,” explains Cornell University robotics engineer Hod Lipson in an article for New Scientist. “We are making materials within materials, and embedding and weaving multiple materials into complex patterns. We can print hard and soft materials in patterns that create bizarre and new structural behaviors.”
This technology holds the potential of dropping manufacturing costs and making the design-to-prototype process much faster (a phenomenon called rapid prototyping). The process will be vastly amplified when coupled to what Carl Bass calls “infinite computing.”
He explains: “For most of my life, computing has been treated as a scarce resource. We continue to think about it that way, though it’s no longer necessary. My home computer, including electricity, costs less than two-tenths of a penny per CPU per hour. Computing is not only cheap, but it’s getting cheaper; we can easily extrapolate this trend to where we come to think of computing as virtually free. In fact, today, it’s the least expensive resource we can throw at a problem. Another dramatic improvement is the scalability now accessible through the cloud. Regardless of the size of the problem, I can deploy hundreds, even thousands, of computers to help solve it. While not quite as cheap as computing at home, renting a CPU core hour at Amazon costs less than a nickel.”
Perhaps most impressive is the ability of infinite computing to find optimal solutions to complex and abstract questions that were previously unanswerable or too expensive to even consider. Questions such as how to design a nuclear plant able to withstand a Richter 10 earthquake or how to monitor global disease patterns and detect pandemics in their critical early stages, while still not easy, are answerable.
Ultimately, though, the most exciting development will be when infinite computing is coupled with 3-D printing. This revolutionary combination thoroughly democratizes design and manufacturing. Suddenly, an invention developed in China can be perfected in India, then printed and utilized in Brazil on the same day—giving the developing world a poverty-fighting mechanism unlike anything it has ever seen.
Medicine: The Healers
In 2008, the World Health Organization announced that a lack of trained physicians in Africa will threaten the continent’s future by 2015. In 2010, the U.S. Association of American Medical Colleges reported that America’s aging baby-boomer population will create a massive shortage of 62,900 doctors by 2015, which will rise to 91,500 by 2020. The scarcity of nurses could be even worse. And these are just a few of the reasons why our dream of health-care abundance cannot come from traditional wellness professionals.
How do we fill this gap? For starters, we are counting on Lab-on-a-Chip (LOC) technologies. Harvard professor George M. Whitesides, a leader in this emerging field, explains why: “We now have drugs to treat many diseases, from AIDS and malaria to tuberculosis. What we desperately need is accurate, low-cost, easy-to-use, point-of-care diagnostics designed specifically for the 60% of the developing world that lives beyond the reach of urban hospitals and medical infrastructures. This is what Lab-on-a-Chip technology can deliver.”
Because LOC technology will likely be part of a wireless device, the data it collects for diagnostic purposes can be uploaded to a cloud and analyzed for deeper patterns. “For the first time,” says Anita Goel, a professor at MIT whose company Nanobiosym is working hard to commercialize LOC technology, “we’ll have the ability to provide real-time, worldwide disease information that can be uploaded to the cloud and used for detecting and combating the early phase of pandemics.”
Combining AI, cloud computing, and LOC technology will offer the greatest benefit. Now your cell-phone-sized device can not only analyze blood or sputum, but it can also have a conversation with you about your symptoms, offering a far more robust diagnosis than was ever before possible and potentially making up for our coming shortage of doctors and nurses. Since patients will be able to use this technology in their own homes, it will also free up time and space in overcrowded emergency rooms. Epidemiologists will have access to incredibly rich data sets, allowing them to make incredibly robust predictions. But the real benefit is that the medicine will be transformed from reactive and generic to predictive and personalized.
Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology: The Transformers
Most historians date nanotechnology—the manipulation of matter at the atomic scale—to physicist Richard Feynman’s 1959 speech “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” But it was K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 book, Engines of Creation, that really put the idea on the map. The basic notion is simple: Build things one atom at a time.
What sort of things? Well, for starters, assemblers—little nanomachines that build other nanomachines (or self-replicate). Since these replicators are also programmable, after one has built a billion copies of itself, you can direct those billion to build whatever you want. Even better, because building takes place on an atomic scale, these nanobots (as they are called) can start with whatever materials are on hand—soil, water, air, etc.—pull them apart atom by atom, and use those atoms to construct, well, just about anything you desire.
At first glance this seems a bit like science fiction, but almost everything we’re asking nanobots to do has already been mastered by the simplest life-forms. Duplicate itself a billion times? No problem; the bacteria in your gut will do that in just 10 hours. Extract carbon and oxygen out of the air and turn it into a sugar? The scum on top of any pond has been at it for a billion years. And if Ray Kurzweil’s exponential charts are even close to accurate, then it won’t be long now before our technology surpasses this biology.
Of course, a number of experts feel that, once nanotechnology reaches this point, we may lose our ability to properly control it. Drexler himself described a “gray goo” scenario, wherein self-replicating nanobots get free and consume everything in their path. This is not a trivial concern. Nanotechnology is one of a number of exponentially growing fields (also biotechnology, AI, and robotics) with the potential to pose grave dangers. It would be a significant oversight to pass these dangers by unmentioned.
While concerns about nanobots and gray goo are decades away, nanoscience is already giving us incredible returns. Nano-composites are now considerably stronger than steel and can be created for a fraction of the cost. Single-walled carbon nanotubes exhibit very high electron mobility and are being used to boost power conversion efficiency in solar cells. And Buckminsterfullerenes (C60), or buckyballs, are soccer-ball-shaped molecules containing 60 carbon atoms, with potential uses ranging from superconductor materials to drug-delivery systems.
All told, as a recent National Science Foundation report on the subject pointed out, “nanotechnology has the potential to enhance human performance, to bring sustainable development for materials, water, energy, and food, to protect against unknown bacteria and viruses, and even to diminish the reasons for breaking the peace [by creating universal abundance].”
Building Abundance for All
Two decades ago, most well-off citizens owned a camera, a video camera, a CD player, a stereo, a video-game console, a cell phone, a watch, an alarm clock, a set of encyclopedias, a world atlas, a Thomas Guide, and a whole bunch of other assets that would easily add up to more than $10,000. All of these come standard on today’s smartphones, or are available for purchase at the app store for less than a cup of coffee. In this, our exponentially enabled world, that’s how quickly $10,000 worth of expenses can vanish. More importantly, these things vanish without too much outside intervention. No one set out to zero the costs of two dozen products. They set out to make better cell phones, and the path of the adjacent possible did the rest.
But this time around we can squeeze a bit of randomness out of the equation. We don’t have to wait for history to help our cause; we can help it ourselves. We have our hard targets for abundance, we know which technologies need further development, and—if we can improve our appetite for risk and utilize the leverage of incentive prizes—we know how to go from A to B much faster than ever before.
Unlike earlier eras, we don’t have to wait for corporations to get interested in solutions, or governments to get around to our problems. We can take matters into our own hands. Today’s technophilanthropist crowd seems determined to provide the necessary seed capital (and often much more than that) and today’s DIY innovators have proven themselves more than capable of getting the job done. Meanwhile, the one-quarter of humanity that has forever been on the sidelines—the rising billion—has finally gotten into the game.
Most importantly, the game itself is no longer zero-sum. For the first time ever, we don’t need to figure out how to divide our pie into more slices, because we now know how to bake more pies. Everyone can win.
Because of the exponential growth rate of technology, this progress will continue at a rate unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. What all this means is that—if the hole we’re in isn’t even a hole, the gap between poor and rich is not much of a gap, and the current rate of technological progress is moving more than fast enough to meet the challenges we now face—then the three most common criticisms against abundance should trouble us no more.
About the Authors
Peter H. Diamandis (left) is chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, co-founder and chairman of Singularity University, and co-founder of the International Space University. Web site www.diamandis.com or www.xprize.org.
Steven Kotler is a best-selling author and journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, Discover, Popular Science, National Geographic, and other publications.
This article was excerpted from their new book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, with permission of the publisher, Free Press.
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