Fasten your seat belt

Awhile back I mentioned that I had started two books during
the Christmas holiday period that were thought provoking. One was about
branding; the other was Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near.
It’s a lengthy book, and, for me at least, a book that has necessitated an
unusual amount of thought. Essentially, Kurzweil maintains that technology is
now—and always has been—evolving at an exponential rate. The thing about
exponential change is that for a long, long time it can seem like nothing is
happening and then—zoom!—it feels like a rocket ride. Alvin Toffler, in his
famous 1970s book The Third Wave, was the first mention I saw of the
idea that the rate of change itself was changing, speeding up. By now there
seems to be wide acceptance of the notion that times are changing at a
quickening pace. But Kurzweil’s position is that the rate of change is about to
go ballistic.

The longer-term effects of this change are so fantastic that
it’s hard to take Kurzweil seriously: artificial intelligence billions of times
greater than our own; total genetic remodeling of the human body; unlimited
life extension and more—oh, so much more. By mid-twentieth century the world
will be so transformed by the synergistic, exponential advancement of
electronics, nanotechnology, and genetics that we’d scarcely recognize it in
comparison with today. He’s talking about radical evolution and radical
socio-economic change in the next few decades.

Kurzweil’s books (this is his fifth) keep getting longer
because the more he amplifies and documents his ideas the more he gets
challenged. The Singularity Is Near has whole sections devoted to
answering his critics. But he’s hard to dismiss. He’s a successful,
well-recognized inventor and entrepreneur. He has a vast, up-to-date knowledge
of wide areas of technology. He has spent years gathering data about the
adoption of hundreds of elements of technology, and he supports his arguments
with data. While few people rush to embrace all his claims, he’s certainly not
someone to be dismissed as a mere crackpot.

So I keep thinking about the implications of Kurzweil’s
fundamental premise: We are right now on the verge of change that’ll knock your
socks off. I’ve remarked before that when I look all that is happening these
days regarding electronics and networked society, it makes my head spin. Almost
daily there is new hardware and internet services that suggest that—at least in
electronics—things fit Kurzweils model. When I read about lab developments in
physics, nanotech, and molecular biology I get the feeling that the foundation
for much more amazing things is being laid.

While I’m not willing to embrace Kurzweil’s more
extraordinary claims (what he calls criticism “by failure of credulity”), I
seriously keep thinking: What if he’s right? What if he’s even partly right?
Taking even the more conservative option, friends, I’m here to tell you, you
better get your head into figuring out how to adapt and stay relevant in a
world you’re probably not contemplating. Anticipating the future and taking
adaptive steps needs to be a daily practice. Even without AI and genetic
overhauls, it seems to me the “ubiquitous computing” and communication surge is
revolutionary from both a personal and a sociological perspective.

So when I see that Randy Moss is working on a future
scenario
I think, “How do you do a serious scenario for the exponential change
Kurzweil suggests, much less make plans for execution? It’s beyond me to figure
out a viable framework for that. In Kurzweil-time, the next five years alone will
see a lot more change than most people expect. And ten years, well
forgetaboutit.

I think struggling with the judgment of whether to buy-in to
the notion of exponential change is important if you’re serious about providing
leadership for the future. I’d suggest you read The Singularity Is Near
if you want the whole treatment. However, just the other day a shorter
introduction to Ray Kurzweil came to my attention. Here’s a link to a 30-minute
video of a speech he made at MIT recently in which he lays out his ideas pretty
succinctly.

Oh, by the way, in the presentation Kurzweil remarks that,
“I think we’ll have cancer pretty well handled in 15 years.” He isn’t shy about
setting benchmarks in the not-too-distant future by which we can judge his
prognostic ability.

No comments

  1. As difficult as it will be for individuals to adapt to such rapid change, think how it will be for command and control organizations.

  2. Yep. That’s why thinking about it is important. The corporate structure was a good idea in the 20th century when companies and organizations were built to reliably deliver a relatively standard product or service over a long period of time. They were built for stability, not for change. But if accelerating change happens that whole paradigm will be a crippling disadvantage. I think we’re already seeing the beginnings of faster-moving, more fluid organizations like Google enjoying an advantage.

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