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The Most Innovative Age in Human History

March 15, 2013


“Many people believe that the future of mankind is bleak because the planet can’t sustain its growing population,” writes Vivek Wadhwa, a Fellow at the Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. “They fear we are running out of resources and that ageing populations and healthcare costs will bankrupt countries.” [“Our Future Will Be Brighter Than You Think, but More Disruptive,” 5 March 2013] Wadhwa obviously believes the pessimists are wrong. He continues:

“George Mason professor Tyler Cowen says that America has consumed all the low-hanging fruits of land, labor, and technology and that we are at a technological plateau — ‘the trees are barer than we would like to think’. He talks of a ‘great stagnation’. Military planners in many countries are preparing for wars over diminishing natural resources. In my view, these pessimists are dead wrong. That is because this is the most innovative period in human history.”

That is a pretty bold statement, but Wadhwa is not alone in that assessment. Software engineer Jane Wang compares this period of innovation to the historical Cambrian era. [“Welcome to the Cambrian Explosion of Innovation,” Huffington Post Blog, 4 March 2013] That era is sometimes called the “Cambrian explosion” because it “marks an important point in the history of life on Earth; it is the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record.” [“The Cambrian Period,” University of California Museum of Paleontology] Wang also agrees with Wadhwa that this is a period of disruption. She writes:

“Welcome to the Cambrian explosion of innovation that is happening before our very own eyes. The pace of … technological innovation has been accelerating. The Web — current humanity’s store of information — is growing at an exponential rate. More research papers are getting been published. Industries are being disrupted. Most important, the winner of this exciting change and uncertainty is the individual. The access to various forms of technology — Web, cloud computing, bio-hacking, 3D printing, hardware hacking, etc. — has been drastically lowered. The laws of economics will hold that the lower barrier costs, the greater numbers of participants. What does [that] mean for the future of innovation? It means a 15-year-old boy, Jack Andraka, with limited training in science, could discover a both powerfully accurate and incredibly simple diagnostic methodology for lung, pancreatic, and ovarian cancer. The bigger picture? Jack Andraka couldn’t have stumbled on this methodology without the context and the environment of our time. He is an harbinger of an incredible explosion of innovation from lone inventors — individuals in unlikely places with unexpected backgrounds, inventing using low-cost equipment, instead from well-funded university labs, research institutions, and R&D departments from Fortune 500 companies.”

Wadhwa notes that the exponential explosion in innovative technologies is taking place “in a range of fields.” Like Wang, Wadhwa notes that it is now possible for individual entrepreneurs to do things that “only governments and big labs could do before.” Wang concludes:

“Outsiders untethered by a past, such as students and hobbyists, purely experiment for the sake of experimentation and on high-risk/high-return projects. Once these lone inventors meet some level success, crowdsourced funding options are becoming robust and mainstream. Perhaps, in the long term, these higher-risk, smaller-seeded experimentation present a better model for innovation. Futurists call our time the moment approaching singularity. We had seen something in parallel to our time during the Industrial Revolution. This rapidly changing social dynamics will potentially disenfranchise people who do not necessarily have specialized skills, but present incredible opportunities for those who are playing with technology, experimenting and seeking answers. Think about this and rejoice.”

Rarely do you find this kind of exuberance being expressed in today’s economic climate. Wadhwa’s and Wang’s enthusiasm is both palpable and infectious. Wadhwa states, “My belief is that we will go from worrying about scarcity to debating how we share and distribute the bounty that we create. Imagine a world with unlimited food, water, and energy — in which we prevent disease rather than cure it and in which our lifespans increase along with our wisdom and knowledge. This is what is possible, not in future centuries, but in the next two decades.” He goes on to offer some tangible examples that fuel his optimism. He writes:

“In his New York Times bestseller, Abundance, XPrize and Singularity University founder Peter Diamandis tells the story of how aluminum went from a rare metal to something we wrap our food in. When the king of Siam hosted Napoleon III in the 1840s, writes Diamandis, the people working for Napoleon were served with silver utensils; those working for the king received gold; the king himself got aluminum—the rarest metal at the time. Aluminum was so valuable because it was extremely difficult to extract from bauxite—though it is one of the most abundant elements on Earth. And then electrolysis technology was invented—which used electricity to liberate aluminum from bauxite. It made aluminum inexpensive. It isn’t just aluminum that has become abundant. So have electrical power, refrigeration, television, telephones, cars, and air conditioning. Two hundred years ago, kings and queens didn’t have these luxuries; today, even many people who are classified as poor in the U.S. do. This prosperity has not reached most of the developing world — yet. But the proliferation of mobile phones shows what is possible. Within 10 years, their numbers have gone from zero to nearly 1 billion in both India and China. Even the poorest villagers own them. Mobile phones changed the lives of millions of families who were cut off from each when they went to cities to work and they transformed society.”

Wadhwa notes that headway is being made on numerous fronts including “solving the global water crisis.” That crisis involves both the availability of potable water and water for industrial and agricultural use. “There are predictions that countries such as India, China, and parts of the Middle East will run out of water and that wars will break out over supplies,” Wadhwa writes. “This seems paradoxical: 71% of the earth’s surface is water, and sanitizing and converting seawater is as simple as boiling it and condensing the vapor. The problem is the cost of energy — it is prohibitively expensive to do this in quantity.” According to Wadhwa, two solutions to the looming water crisis “are already working and ready to scale.” He explains:

“The first is a product by Dean Kamen called Slingshot. … Slingshot is a vapor-compression water-purification machine that can produce about 30 liters of 100% pure distilled water per hour using the same power as a hair dryer consumes. It can transform dirty water from any source: rivers, oceans, and even raw sewage. Slingshot has been under development for more than a decade and was recently tested by Coca-Cola in five towns in Ghana for six months. The devices worked flawlessly. Kamen told me that he expects that Slingshot will cost less than $2000 when mass produced and will not require any maintenance or servicing for seven years. One device will produce enough clean water to support a village of 300 people. … Another amazing product, by Alfredo Zolezzi of the Chile Advanced Innovation Center, is a Plasma Water Sanitation System that can sanitize 35 liters of water in five minutes at a cost per liter of less than 1/8 of a (U.S.) cent. This works by injecting water into a reaction chamber, where it achieves plasma state through a high-intensity electrical field. The microbiological content of the water is eliminated by electroporation, oxidation, ionization, UV and IR radiation and shockwaves. This technology won’t remove impurities like salt, arsenic, and heavy metals from water, but will kill bacteria. The system has been in operation for more than two years in a slum in Santiago, Chile. The inhabitants told me that not one person had gotten sick since they started using it — in stark contrast to how it used to be. Zolezzi’s device has been successfully tested by various labs in Chile and is being tested in collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to determine its conformance to EPA guidelines. Zolezzi expects that mass-produced units which cost $500 will be able to sanitize up to 2500 liters per day, and smaller units, which cost $200 will be able to process 1000 liters or more.

Many, if not most, solutions to today’s most vexing challenges require energy. Environmentalists want to reduce sharply the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, but alternative sources of energy remain too pricey. Wadhwa notes, however, that prices for alternative energy sources are falling. He writes:

“Every month, we read about advancements in energy technologies. Despite all the negative press about solar, the price of solar panels (per watt) was 97.2 percent lower in 2012 than in 1975 — and the downward trend is continuing. At these rates, within a decade, solar energy will cost much less than what we pay to our utility companies —which produce electricity from fossil fuels. Solar will achieve what is called ‘grid parity’ in Europe and other parts of the world even sooner than in the U.S. Last month, the most exciting news was from UCLA, where a small team of researchers developed a micro-scale graphene-based supercapacitor that can charge and discharge a hundred to a thousand times faster than current batteries. This could make it possible to fully charge your laptop in seconds and your electric car in a couple of minutes.”

Obviously, the combination of cheap power generation and fast-charging batteries could dramatically alter the future economic landscape. With potential solutions to the water and energy challenges well on their way, Wadhwa next turns his attention to what is taking place in the field of agriculture. He writes:

“When we have unlimited clean water and unlimited renewable energy, we can produce unlimited amounts of food. Singapore is already growing food in vertical farms. A Silicon Valley company called Hampton Creek Foods is producing an egg substitute made from plants. Another startup, Modern Meadow, is using tissue-engineering technique to produce in-vitro leather and meat—without requiring the raising, slaughtering, and transporting animals. With methods such as these, we will need less—not more—land to feed the world’s population.”

With of the hubbub over the introduction of horsemeat into the food supply chain over the past couple of months, I’m not so sure that in-vitro meat is going to receive a warm welcome from consumers. After all, look at what happened to “lean finely textured beef” after someone decided to label it “pink slime.” For more on that story, read Bryan Gruley’s and Elizabeth Campbell’s account of how social media contributed to the dramatic downturn of Beef Products Inc. [“The Sliming of Pink Slime’s Creator,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 12 April 2012] Regardless, Wadhwa’s broader point is well made. Smart people are using today’s technologies to create solutions to tomorrow’s potential crises. He concludes:

“Discovery, application, and invention are also occurring in medicine, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, and many other fields that will change our lives and transform entire industries. I have described some of these in this TedX talk and in these articles. So we have a lot to look forward to. But many risks and challenges lie ahead. With every good comes a bad. The same technologies that enable entrepreneurs to solve big problems also allow the bad guys to wreak havoc on a global scale. In this decade we will see new billion dollar businesses and trillion dollar industries emerge. At the same time, we will see current industry leaders — and entire industries — wiped out by technology advances. Witness Kodak’s becoming a victim of the digital photography industry, which it had helped create, and RIM’s and Yahoo’s battles for survival — and how manufacturing was lost to China and is now returning to the U.S. These technology advances will create disruption and opportunity. The winners will be the visionaries who grasp the changes and lead the charge.”

Only history will be able to judge whether our era does prove to be Cambrian-like when it comes to innovation. As a natural optimist, I’m going to place my bet with Wadhwa and Wang and predict it will.

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