Le Québécois Libre, June 15, 2012, No 301
At any given time, I like to be reading one fiction and one non-fiction book. Rarely, though, do my choices dovetail as serendipitously as they did just recently when I was reading Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (2012) by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler alongside The Diamond Age (1995) by Neal Stephenson. The former is a look at the world-changing technologies coming down the pipe in a variety of fields that promise a brighter future for all of humanity. The latter is a story set in such a future, where diamonds are cheaper than glass.
If Stephenson’s world of inexpensive diamonds sounds farfetched to you, consider the entirely factual tale that Diamandis and Kotler use to kick off their book. Once upon a time, you see, aluminum was the world’s most precious metal. As late as the 1800s, aluminum utensils were reserved for the most honoured guests at royal banquets, the other guests having to make do with mere gold utensils. But in fact, aluminum is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, behind oxygen and silicon. It makes up 8.3 percent of the mass of the planet. But it is never found in nature as a pure metal, and early procedures for separating it out of the claylike material called bauxite were prohibitively expensive. Modern procedures have made it so ubiquitous and cheap that we wrap our food in it and then discard it without so much as a second thought.
The moral of the story is that scarcity is often contextual. Technology, as the authors explain, is a “resource-liberating mechanism.” And the technologies being developed right now have the power to liberate enough resources to feed, clothe, educate, and free the world.
The Future Looks Bright
Peter Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, best known for the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE that launched the private spaceflight industry. He conceived of the project back in 1993 after reading Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St-Louis (1954) and learning about the $25,000 prize funded by Raymond Orteig that spurred Lindbergh to make the first ever non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927. Diamandis also holds degrees in molecular biology and aerospace engineering from MIT and a medical degree from Harvard.
Diamandis and his co-author, best-selling writer and journalist Steven Kotler, do not attempt to paper over the plight of the world’s poor, who still lack adequate clean water, food, energy, health care, and education. Still, there has been significant progress “at the bottom” in the past four decades. “During that stretch, the developing world has seen longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality rates, better access to information, communication, education, potential avenues out of poverty, quality health care, political freedoms, economic freedoms, sexual freedoms, human rights, and saved time.”
It is technology that has improved the lot of many of the world’s poor, and in Abundance, we get a quick tour of dozens of the latest exponential technologies that are poised to make serious dents in humanity’s remaining scarcity problems. There is the Lifesaver water purification system, the jerry can version of which can produce 25,000 litres of safe drinking water, enough for a family of four for three years, for only half a cent a day. There is aeroponic vertical farming—essentially a skyscraper filled with suspended plants on every floor being fed through a nutrient-rich mist—which requires 80 percent less land, 90 percent less water, and 100 percent fewer pesticides than current farming practices. There are advances that promise to make solar power more affordable and easier to store, which is going to be huge given that “[t]here is more energy in the sunlight that strikes the Earth’s surface in an hour than all the fossil energy consumed in one year.”
Stephenson’s The Diamond Age actually gets a mention in the chapter on education thanks to its depiction of what experts in artificial intelligence (AI) refer to as a “lifelong learning companion,” which has a central role to play in the novel. The Khan Academy has already shaken things up with its 2,000+ free online educational videos and two million visitors a month as of the summer of 2011. But things will be shaken up again soon enough by these AI tutors that “track learning over the course of one’s lifetime, both insuring a mastery-level education and making exquisitely personalized recommendations about what exactly a student should learn next.” With mobile telephony already sweeping the developing world and with smartphones getting cheaper and more powerful with each passing year, it won’t be long before there’s an AI tutor in every pocket.
Abundance, Freedom, and the Ultimate Resource
To sum up, in the world of the future, although there will be more humans on the planet, each one of us will be far wealthier on average than we are today. We will have more water, more food, more energy, more education, more health care, and make less of an impact on the natural environment to boot. And the healthy, educated, well-fed inhabitants of the world of tomorrow will be freer as well, no longer kept down by force of arms and blight of ignorance. We’ve already had a glimpse of what mobile phones and information technology can accomplish in last year’s Arab Spring, regardless of whether or not Egypt has made the most of the opportunity.
Not that we should be complacent, though. There are no guarantees, and any number of factors could derail us from the path we’re on. But there are powerful forces pushing us in a positive direction. The X PRIZE Foundation is doing its best to spur innovation with various prizes modelled after its initial success. Technophilanthropists like Bill Gates are also doing their part. And then there are the poor themselves, the bottom billions who are becoming the rising billions. As Diamandis and Kotler write, echoing the late Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource:
[T]he greatest tool we have for tackling our grand challenges is the human mind. The information and communications revolution now underway is rapidly spreading across the planet. Over the next eight years, three billion new individuals will be coming online, joining the global conversation, and contributing to the global economy. Their ideas—ideas we’ve never before had access to—will result in new discoveries, products, and inventions that will benefit us all.I still have a hundred pages or so to go in The Diamond Age, so I don’t know how that story turns out. But in the real world, all signs point to technology-fuelled increases in abundance and freedom in the poorest regions of the planet over the next couple of decades. Abundance encourages us to do everything we can to help those technologies develop and spread, to the benefit of the entire human race.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.