Progress is about the convergence of technologies
By Jason Ganz, Singularity Hub.
15 years ago, Ray Kurzweil published one of the most significant essays in the history of futurism: “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” This piece showcased the immense power of exponential technology versus linear technology and became a pivotal concept for anyone trying to anticipate what the future held.
The essay predicted advances in business and technology with eerie precision, including how exponential growth would ripple through any technology that became an information technology, such as computing, biotechnology, or energy.
The past 15 years have shown that while some of Kurzweil’s specific predictions may or may not pan out exactly as predicted, the underlying idea of the law of accelerating returns grows more relevant with each passing week.
But as we start to look at the next fifteen years, I believe there is another concept just as significant as the law of accelerating returns that we need to understand.
The Law of Accelerating Convergence
The strangest, most interesting and magical-seeming creations of the future will occur at the intersection of multiple exponential trend lines. You might call this the law of accelerating convergence and can summarize it as follows:
As technology continues to exponentially accelerate, the interactions between various subsets of exponential technology will create opportunities to slingshot past the already breakneck speed of accelerating change in ways that are even stranger and more difficult to predict than the path of any individual exponential technology.
If we look at any singular outgrowth of exponential tech and focus solely on it, we’re missing the vast possibility space of the ways technology is about to reshape the world.
This is a tough concept to get our heads around.
Even trying to work through the ramifications and implications of a single exponential technology requires diligent thought and the willingness to take intellectual risks. Trying to comprehend how they’re all going to affect each other is six shades of impossible.
After all, what’s more important: artificial intelligence or biotechnology? What is going to have a bigger impact on the world: nanotechnology or solar energy? These questions don’t have easy answers. There’s an insidious assumption hidden within, which is that different technologies operate independently of each other. But in practice, they don’t. The importance of biotech might hinge on a crucial development in artificial intelligence. A new solar breakthrough could come about by applying concepts from nanotechnology.
The only way to know the future of virtual reality is to study the future of artificial intelligence. The only way to know the future of 3D printing is to study the future of biotech. The only way to know the future of energy systems is to study advanced materials design.
At Singularity University Global Summit, I had the chance to talk to and learn from innovators who realize that being able to capitalize on convergence is key to their continued success. They tend to start out being interested in one exponential technology before realizing that by augmenting their original strategy with elements of other exponential technologies they are able to make something transcendent.
What does this look like? Here are a few examples I came across at the conference:
- Virtual Reality + AI = Stories that feel like real life: Virtual reality filmmaker and storyteller Chris Milk told me about his belief that artificial intelligence will be a critical component underlying the virtual reality stories of the future, allowing us to create complex, sweeping, and exponentially branching narratives.
- Mobile + Neuroscience = Optimal productivity and performance on demand: By combining cutting-edge research on optimal human performance with the ubiquity of mobile devices, Focus@Will helps users enter peak productivity flow states much more frequently. And now you can even quantify just how in the zone you get with Muse, a headband that can show you your brainwave patterns and let you know the moment you get distracted.
- 3D printing + Artificial Intelligence + Space Travel = Crazy Awesome: Made In Space is a company that creates 3D printers for use in, you guessed it, space. Their 3D printer is already on the International Space Station. More than that though, they aim to create products that couldn’t be designed by human engineers, built by human hands, or even crafted on Earth. In the future, they envision making designs using AI genetic algorithms and 3D printers to build objects that couldn’t be created in a gravity well.
You read blogs like this one. You talk to people, not just in your field, but in other fields.
There are even organizations that can help get you there.
But at the end of the day, we aren’t going to be able to predict all the effects of convergence. Not even as well as we’ve been able to write out some of the potential impacts of accelerating returns. The possibility space is too wide and the complexity too great.
Quite simply, if you’re a leader or entrepreneur ignoring the convergence points of exponential technology today, it’s like ignoring the rise of the Internet 15 years ago. The next wave of awesome and magical new inventions will be born when two or more technologies collide.