As students, busy lives with deadlines and nights out mean it can be hard to stop and take a look up at the outside world. Even when we do, we are presented with media in which the only tone is negative – what new tragedy has struck today? But if you really take a step back, it can be seen that life around the world is leaps and bounds better than it was just a century ago.
This is the topic of the first article in a series on Futurism – a look at how technology is going to change our lives in unimaginable ways in the very near future. The articles reach some quite morbid conclusions in places, so there are some fun (read: dreadful) illustrations to help lift the mood
Exponential Growth or The Law of Accelerating Returns
Life these days is filled with huge juxtapositions – the wealth gap between rich and poor; gender inequalities and the like – but I want to begin by pointing out quite an astounding one: The twentieth century saw both incredible advances and horrific losses. The 1918 Influenza outbreak, for instance, killed 50 million people. World War II killed another 60 million. There were countless natural disasters that killed ever more people as the populations of developing countries flooded into ever-denser cities. However, the century also saw infant mortality decrease by ninety percent, maternal mortality fall by ninety-nine percent and human lifespan increase by over one hundred percent.
The issue with such dramatic declines in mortality is, of course, that the population has skyrocketed. The British scholar Thomas Robert Malthus realised first that while food production increases linearly, population grows exponentially. Despite this, technology is creating ways for us to feed the world far more effectively than before, and at a smaller cost to ecologies. Likewise, we are seeing more and more access to water, education and healthcare due to the work of technophilanthropists. The future is getting much brighter, and it’s doing so much more quickly than you probably imagined. Stick around for a reasonably comprehensive look at why the future is better than you think.
- Exponential growth is a theme that will keep rearing its ugly head, so we’ll take a break to get our bearings on it. A nicer way to refer to it is as the Law of Accelerating Returns. Taking the example of technological progress, a more advanced society has the ability to progress faster than a less advanced society because they’re more advanced.
The problem with exponential growth is that it’s very hard for us to get our heads around it. We’re used to seeing things that increase linearly – in straight lines. So we tend to see what happens in the third box – linear snapshots that miss the bigger picture. Then, to make matters worse in the case of technological progress, the real curve tends to look like the one in box four – S-curves with rapid advances followed by flatter periods where the technology matures.
So what can be done about a population explosion? There are two obvious avenues to explore, and the first is population control. The main issue with this approach, other than the ever-present danger of Nazism, is that we are in desperate need of a young generation of workers to support an ageing population. That leaves us with the second method – making more food. But didn’t that scholar tell us that food production increased linearly? Well, there are few factors that have made the situation different this time around.
In efforts to predict the futures of various technologies during the 1950s, scientists took to plotting the progress of a technology to see if any trends emerged. An early attempt to do so was made by the US Air Force in 1953. They tracked the progress of aerospace technology, beginning with the Wright brothers and moving forwards. As you might guess, they found an exponential curve, which lead them to a shocking conclusion: a trip to the Moon would soon be possible. It is worth noting that at this point, not even the most optimistic of visionaries would have predicted such a Moon landing in the same century, let alone within sixteen years. And yet – as we know now – the breakthroughs occurred exactly to schedule.
Around a decade after the US Air Force study was published, Gordon Moore observed what would soon become the most famous trend line in tech history – Moore’s Law. He published a paper noting that the number of integrated circuit components on a computer chip had doubled every year since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958. He predicted the trend would continue “for at least ten years” – and it has had little sign of slowing down ever since. The powerful prediction Moore made was that, essentially, computing power doubles every 18 months for the same price. This is another exponential curve, and we’ve all heard those comparisons between 1980s computers (say, and Osborne Executive Portable) to 2007 iPhones, where the iPhone has 150,000 times the performance per dollar. As we shall see, these exponential curves crop up everywhere and are responsible for a huge amount of optimism about humanity’s progress.
Enter Ray Kurzweil, a famous inventor-turned-futurist. In the 1980s he began to notice the quickening of change and began to plot his own exponential growth curves to see just how pervasive Moore’s Law really was. He found that dozens of technologies, from the expansion of telephone lines in the US to the amount of internet traffic per year, were increasing exponentially. And not only that, but they did so independent of the current state of affairs in the world. Computer processing speed continued to improve on an exact exponential curve through wars, depressions and all sorts of political turmoil. If the trend continues, an average $1000 laptop should be computing at the same speed (not intelligence, mind) as the human brain in the next decade or so, and fast forward another twenty-three years from that and the average $1000 laptop is performing 100 million billion billion (1026) calculations per second – equivalent to all the brains in the world.
So why is this relevant? Computing power is our first big enabler of human endeavour. Faster computers can help us to design better technologies – remember that a more advanced society has the ability to progress faster than a less advanced society because they’re more advanced. And it turns out, as more and more industries become tied to electronics and computing power, their progress becomes exponential too.
This rapid progress in technology has been the driving force behind the innovations that will feed a booming population. Usage of GE (genetically engineered) crops saw an eighty-seven-fold increase between 1996 and 2010, making GE seeds the fastest-adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture. After more than a trillion GE meals have been served, health concerns have been completely quashed. Meanwhile, GE crops have been beneficial to the environment: The seeds don’t require ploughing, so soil structure remains intact, halting erosion; herbicide usage is down; petrochemical requirements for growing food have dropped and, most importantly, yield is booming. The adoption of Bt cotton in India saw the country transformed from a cotton importer to an exporter, from seventeen million bales to twenty-seven million bales. It increased yields by fifty percent, decreased pesticide usage by fifty percent and more than tripled the country’s income from cotton. Likewise, technologies such as vertical farming (which can be improved greatly through use of modern technology such as AI, LEDs and robotics), hydroponics and cultured meat are all booming businesses which have the potential to scale up and meet the demands of a world with nine billion inhabitants.
Believe me, I hate that name even more than you do.
Money coming from high-tech revolutions in the last few decades, for instance in the dot-com bubble, generated a new breed of billionaires known as technophilanthropists, who are using their fortunes to solve global challenges. The most obvious example is the wealthiest man in the world, Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame. Together with his wife, he started the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest transparently operated private foundation in the world. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is making progress in reinventing education. Dozens of people like this are putting huge amounts of money towards people in developing countries and enabling what is the third major factor I will discuss in this article: The rising billion.
The Millennium Development Goals were created to give objective and achievable goals to aid workers, and they have returned nothing but unprecedented success. There is far too much to go through for me to give a good representation, but here are a few headline figures: Extreme poverty in developing countries has decreased by thirty-three percent since 1990, and globally it has decreased by over a half from 1.9 billion to 836 million. Primary school net enrolment rate in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by twenty-eight percent, to eighty percent. The same twenty-five years has seen child mortality decline by more than half. Similarly, in 2003 just 800,000 people worldwide were receiving antiretroviral treatment for HIV. By 2014 that number had jumped to an incredible 13.6 million. Meanwhile, new HIV infections fell by around forty percent between 2000 and 2013. Last year, Nigeria went an entire year without a single case of Polio. As such, Pakistan was the only country in the world with new cases of Polio. Meanwhile, Rubella has been eliminated from the Americas.
So many of these incredible improvements could not have been made possible without the efforts of organisations such as the Gates Foundation. But perhaps the most powerful tool for helping people to lift themselves out of poverty has been cheap and ubiquitous access to mobile phones. Africa has leapfrogged generations of technology and skipped directly to wireless connectivity. Mobile banking services have popped up throughout the world, allowing millions of people the ability to borrow, save, invest and contribute money to their country’s mainstream economy. Kenya is a good example of this huge revolution, where seventy-five percent of adults have bank accounts, up from forty-two percent in 2011. Because going digital eliminates the expensive infrastructure of a traditional bank, the low transaction costs mean companies can make money offering services to the poor. For instance, a company called M-KOPA lets 250,000 customers in three countries in Africa pay for solar electricity in small daily instalments through their phones.
Farmers can also use their phones to finally break down the barriers between smallholders and agriculture markets, discovering what crops the markets will buy, in what specification and how to use farm-management practices that can triple their yields. They can then contact their local co-operative to team up with a neighbour in order to meet buyers’ volume requirements. If there was word that their product would do particularly well that year, they could use their phone to take out a loan in order to buy more fertiliser or better storage. Phones also allow members of the market to know each other, managing the risks for businesses when trading with unknown partners.
All of these developments can allow the poorest people access to healthcare, education, electricity and capital – resources which would have been almost completely unobtainable twenty years ago. These will be some of the factors behind the huge growth of developing countries in the coming decades, which will see huge numbers of people lifted out of poverty.
All in all, this should all have left you feeling pretty good about the world. Some things I didn’t touch on were the dramatic decreases in violence around the world, the possibility of resource abundance and where the future will take us – but that is for the rest of the series!