The future’s exponential causality
In the same way that humans have a hard time understanding exponential functions in mathematics, we also find it difficult to anticipate what I term “exponential causality.” Journalists and academics tend to focus on things that can be directly inferred. To catch up with everything else that will eventually matter, some may turn to science fiction.
Last fall, Michael Raynor advised us to read more science fiction, and around that time, I received A History of the Future in 100 Objects as a gift. Authored by Adrian Hon—a neuroscientist by training and the CEO of a gaming company by occupation—the book looks back from the year 2082 (which is within the likely lifespan of some living Millennials) and stitches together its narrative using 100 objects that represent the journey humanity took since the present day. This voyage into the future is challenging, amusing, and surprising, but it is rarely dystopian. Hon is an optimist who sees many future delights for us humans. (The book’s website provides the stories for about 30 of the objects.)
Hon’s history may generally be full of good news for humans, but it struck me as pretty challenging for business and government. He imagines the consequences of a world where humans—enabled with smart phones, sensors, 3D printing, and ubiquitous connectivity—figure out how to provide for themselves many of the services and products that are today the purview of business and government. As capitalism is reinvented, companies are disrupted left and right. Individuals with compelling ideas for a new t-shirt, mobile app, food product, movie, appliance—you name it—use crowdfunding to raise capital and then quickly displace whatever business previously served that consumer vertical. (Hon speaks from some experience here as he used Kickstarter to raise funding for his own book.)
Governments are also challenged, but they often just become less relevant. Some traditional government functions, such as overseeing international trade, become quite difficult to carry out when the world economy is comprised of trillions of microeconomic transactions. Many nations rethink their political systems by crowdsourcing new constitutions. And in one of the most intriguing ideas, countries with declining populations create charter cities to attract immigrants from around the world who essentially organize their own governing structures.
All is not bleak for status quo entities, however. Big changes often create new opportunities. Hon’s History of the Future posits trends and dynamics that will lead to the emergence of new businesses and new government practices. Some of the future trends I find most interesting and most likely to give birth to new opportunities include:
- The rise of Africa: Although Hon doesn’t specifically call out Africa as a story, many of his narratives point to the importance of sub-Saharan Africa to the 21st century economy and to innovation. Low-cost manufacturing moves there, and most new consumers are also Africans joining the global middle class. Hon’s projection rests on sound fundamentals, as African nations are likely to account for much of the growth in world population this century. Demographics, in my experience, is one of the most powerful predictors of future trends. And Africa’s constraints already are prompting many innovations, such as in mobile technology, which are expanding to other parts of the world.
- The cloud, cyber, and artificial intelligence: Hon’s background in neuroscience allows him to project the emergence of sophisticated AI (finally!) that can monitor and predict many human activities. But these complex AI systems are also vulnerable to all manner of hacks and cyber attacks. Because the world’s information and its software live in a universal cloud, successful cyber intrusions have complex effects that are difficult to track down and eliminate. Protecting the world economy and indeed the global knowledge base from these types of malevolent attacks may be a growth area for decades to come. In fact, just as I was writing these words, Reuters reported that US companies are elevating the position of Chief Information Security Officer in response to recent destructive cyber incidents.
- Riding the brain wave: By my count, advances in neuroscience are key to about 20 percent of the objects that make up Hon’s future. This is to be expected, given Hon’s academic background. He predicts that we will learn how to control our brain activity in real time using “neural laces” that will be developed first to treat brain diseases such as autism but that will eventually be adopted by the general population. Given the popularity today of digital methods to monitor or control one’s physiology, I have no doubt that he’s right about this prediction, if the science pans out. With better understanding of how their brains actually work and their individual cognitive styles, humans begin to team up as freelance “amplified teams” that assemble just the right mix of cognitive talent to deal with an organization’s particular problem. Companies that can translate current advances in neuroscience into practical applications for the workplace stand a good chance of leading this cognitive revolution. For their parts, governments will need to understand how to protect diversity and freedom of opportunity in a cognitively-enhanced world.
Those are just some of the trends that resonated with me when I read A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I think Hon does a particularly good job of imagining how individual trends combine to produce second and third order effects. The future is not linear; it is complex, and from the perspective of us humans, it appears random. In the same way that humans have a hard time understanding exponential functions in mathematics, we also find it difficult to anticipate what I term “exponential causality.” Many events have multiple consequences. Journalists and academics tend to focus only on those that can be directly inferred. To catch up with everything else that will eventually matter, some may turn to science fiction.