Saturday, April 21, 2012

Book review - "Abundance" by Peter Diamandis

Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize Foundation and the co-founder of Singularity University, is one of the foremost futurists today. He is well known for both popularizing emerging technologies and driving their development. His new book, Abundance, chronicles the ways in which technology is rapidly transforming life for people all around the world, and will soon usher in a “post-scarcity economy.”

Diamandis starts out by identifying the sources of humanity's biggest needs today – water, food, energy, education, information, communication, transportation, health care, and freedom/democracy – before going on to explain how technology can solve or is already solving these problems. Many of these same topics have already been covered in this blog.

Technologies like Dean Kamen's Slingshot will soon transform the way water is distributed and solve humanity's single greatest problem. Bioengineered crops, in vitro meat production, and vertical farming will soon enable us to grow food in places where it was not previously possible, under conditions that are much safer, more environmentally friendly, and less volatile. New online education technologies will soon enable far more people to have access to high-quality K-12 education, at a greatly reduced price, and Moore's Law is reducing the price of computing to the point where nearly anyone in the world can afford it (case in point: the proliferation of cell phones throughout even the poorest parts of Africa and India.) Solar energy will become cost-competitive with fossil fuels by the 2020s, thus offering a virtually unlimited source of environmentally-friendly energy.

But the part of the book that I found the most intriguing wasn't simply the range of technological solutions to humanity's greatest challenges; although Diamandis writes about these emerging technologies with an insider's knowledge, they have all been discussed elsewhere for years. The most intriguing part was Diamandis' idea of billions of new minds “coming online.” Sadly, people grinding out an existence in poverty are usually not able to contribute their ideas and talents to the world, and we are all worse off for it. But as we solve the problems of poverty and move toward a post-scarcity economy, billions of people will be freed from the task of eking out a subsistence lifestyle and will be able to contribute more to humanity's wellbeing themselves.

In my opinion, this reserve of squandered brainpower is the biggest overlooked resource of exponential growth that humanity has. Even the futurist most known for the concept of exponential growth, Ray Kurzweil, rarely talks about this untapped human potential. I find Diamandis' idea of exponential growth due to human intelligence far more plausible than Kurzweil's idea of exponential growth due to artificial least for the next few decades.

For most of human history, progress crawled along at an incredibly slow pace, because nearly everyone was dirt poor, focused on staying alive rather than making the world a better place. Progress accelerated dramatically in the 19th and 20th century, as more and more people gained access to the basic necessities of life and were able to build careers in areas in which they were talented and interested. But even today, at most a small fraction of humanity is currently driving the vast majority of the technological, social, political, and economic change around the world. This small fraction is disproportionately comprised of those who have already benefited from abundance. Far too many people still do not have access to the basics of life, which are a prerequisite to leaving a lasting mark on humanity.

As more and more people gain access to these things and we enter a post-scarcity economy, the world will begin to “wake up.” What happens when 8 billion people, rather than 1-2 billion, have everything they need to pursue their dreams? What will they do? How much more rapidly will our world progress when we have so many more people working for the betterment of the world? What kind of ideas, dreams, and talents already exist in the world today, lying dormant and waiting to be unlocked by the technological drivers of abundance?

Book rating: 5/5 stars

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