If it is true that the only constant thing in life is change, then the twenty-first century is proving to be a predictably constant time in which to live and make a living. Our industrial revolutions have always been about dramatic changes in the scope and scale of the technology platform supporting societies: water, steam, electricity, electronics, and information technology—all have transformed our standard of living even as they have irrevocably altered the business landscape. And if we look at the timeline of human civilization, we can see that those revolutions are all grouped in the more recent past, with the time between sea changes becoming shorter as we get closer to the present.
And why not? There are mathematical laws about exponential growth that govern our understanding of everything from how an avalanche will cascade down a mountain to how a virus will spread through an unvaccinated population. Change won’t just keep coming; it will keep happening more quickly. Some are even referring to the new industrial revolution as the Exponential Age because of the exponentially accelerating technologies that have the potential to disrupt industries that seem isolated and protected from the trends affecting the more obvious “technology” sectors.
An interesting look at the future: Singularity University is a Silicon Valley think tank founded in 2008 at the NASA Research Park in California and is supported by NASA and Google. Udo Gollub, a German writer and entrepreneur, documented his thoughts after a Singularity University Summit. Some of his thoughts are included below to provoke thought and discussion within your organization.
Software will disrupt most traditional industries in the next 5-10 years. Every organization, both big and small, in every conceivable line of business face a very daunting task of deciding how much time and effort should be spent on their current marketplace and product line. My previous articles were focused on looking at new opportunities. You need to ask yourself if the business space in which you want to operate will exist in some form in the future. If you think that it will, what can you do to future-proof it from a fate like Kodak’s?
In 1888, George Eastman founded Kodak. In 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide. Within just a few years, their business model disappeared and they went bankrupt. What happened to Kodak will happen in a lot of industries in the next 10 years – and most people don’t see it coming. Did you think in 1998 that 3 years later you would never take pictures on paper film again? Yet digital cameras were invented in 1975. The first ones only had 10,000 pixels, but the technology followed Moore’s Law. So as with all exponential technologies, it was a disappointment for a long time, before the technology advanced enough to gain mainstream acceptance in only a few short years.
Moore’s law is directly related to computing. It is an observation made by Gordon Moore that the number of transistors in a densely integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. More loosely, Moore’s law here refers to the exponential growth of technology.
What happened to Kodak will happen in a lot of industries: product and service leaders will be blindsided by revolutions that have been hiding in plain sight for some time, but are only now reaching critical mass. Let’s look at some examples and thoughts offered by Gollub.
>>Uber is just a software tool, they don’t own any cars, and are now the biggest taxi company in the world.
>>Airbnb is now the biggest hotel company in the world, although they don’t own any properties.
>>Bitcoin will become main stream this year and might possibly become the default reserve currency in the future.
>>In 2018 the first self-driving cars will appear for the public. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted.
1.) You don’t want to own a car anymore. You will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination. You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s license and will never own a car.
2.) It will change the cities, because we will need 90-95% less cars for that. We can transform former parking space into parks.
3.) Most car companies might become bankrupt. Traditional car companies try the evolutionary approach and just build a better car, while tech companies (Tesla, Apple, Google) will do the revolutionary approach and build a computer on wheels.
4.) 1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. Insurance companies will have massive trouble because without accidents, the insurance will become 100x cheaper. Their car insurance business model will disappear.
5.) Real estate will change. Because if you can work while you commute, people will move further away to live in a more beautiful neighborhood.
>>The price of the cheapest 3D printer came down from $ 18,000 to $ 400 within 10 years. In the same time, it became 100 times faster.
>>Electricity will become incredibly cheap and clean: Last year, more solar energy was installed worldwide than fossil. Solar production has been on an exponential curve for 30 years, but you can only now see the impact.
1.) This represents a smooth doubling every two years of the amount of solar energy we’re creating, particularly as we’re now applying nanotechnology, a form of information technology, to solar panels.
2.) The price for solar will drop so much that all coal companies may be obsolete by 2025.
>>A generation ago students at MIT all shared one computer that took up a whole building.
1.) The computer in your cellphone today is a million times cheaper, a million times smaller, and a thousand times more powerful.
2.) That’s a billion-fold increase in capability per dollar that we’ve experienced. And we’re going to do it again in the next 25 years.
Computers will become exponentially better in understanding the world. Let’s take a moment to compare linear steps with exponential steps. When we take 10 linear steps (1, 2, 3, etc.), we get to 10. If we take 10 exponential steps (2, 4, 8, etc.), we get to 1024. The difference between the two rates of growth becomes staggering in a relatively short period of time.
The exponential growth of computing predates Gordon Moore and applies to any technology with measurable information properties. People have asked about what happens after Moore’s Law comes to an end. The answer, as always: we will then go to the next paradigm.
In the 1950s, technology was shrinking vacuum tubes, making them smaller and smaller. They finally hit a wall; they couldn’t shrink the vacuum tube anymore and keep the vacuum. And that was the end of the shrinking of vacuum tubes, but it was not the end of the exponential growth of computing. We went to the fourth paradigm, transistors, and finally integrated circuits. When that comes to an end we’ll go to the sixth paradigm: three-dimensional, self-organizing, molecular circuits.
Our current generation of business leadership must be able to navigate these industry evolutions faster and more effectively than any time in the past if their organizations are to survive and thrive.
Next month, we will examine the impact of Artificial Intelligence on technology innovation.