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Posted: August 04, 2014

The futurist: The laws of exponential capabilities

Are we at risk of becoming soft and lazy?

Thomas Frey

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.

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 “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 percent, 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.

Next: Laws Two and Three.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

Tom, thank you for continuing to stimulate and expand my thinking. Invaluable! By TC North on 2014 08 04
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