At some point between 2013 and 2015, I argue that we entered the Exponential Age. It is a new period of human affairs catalysed by accelerating technologies in four broad domains: computing, energy, biology and manufacturing.
I call technologies that improve at least 10% per annum on a compounding basis for decades exponential technologies. And the four domains feature several of them. As these technologies mature from proto-science to well-understood breakthroughs, their compounding improvements become more and more noticeable. At some point, they become very, very powerful (or very, very cheap) depending on how you look at things.
Consider the first transistors. In 1958 Fairchild Semiconductor sold IBM 100 transistors for $150 each. Sixty years later, a transistor, embedded in a chip, cost a few billionths of a dollar, deflation of a factor of 100 billion or a trillion. And these cheaper transistors were smaller, faster and more energy-efficient than their ancestors. That is the rhythm of the Exponential Age.
An exponential curve is a smooth function. There is no kink in that curve. But depending on the scale at which you look, you’ll experience a clear kink, a moment before and a moment after.
The Exponential Age measures that period when we feel, we can argue, we’re past that kink, the point at which the improvements are palpable, visceral. Their rapid improvements--the flipside of which is a dramatic decrease in costs--has huge effects on our economy. Like water turning to steam, we experience a fundamental phase.
For the Exponential Age, that point, that phase transition, came in the second decade of the twenty-first century. We mainly understand the harbinger technology, computing and its wonderful semiconductors, under the stewardship of Moore’s Law. The Exponential Age brings technologies from new domains, far from silicon, which show similar characteristics of accelerating, compounding improvement and growing ubiquity.
In 2010, 300 million smartphones were sold; by 2015, annual sales reached 1.5 billion. Today more than half of humanity has a modern smartphone, a supercomputer in their pocket.
Between 2014 and 2015, the global average cost for solar photovoltaic energy dropped below that of coal. The path to renewables competing with fossil fuels – on a purely unsubsidized economic basis – was clear.
In 2015, the cost to sequence a human genome started to approach $1000, having been closer to $5000 the year before (and a whopping $100m in 2001). Genome sequencing was becoming sufficiently cheap, a path to ubiquity was clear.
These broadly applicable technologies are a mere handful in the four key domains that are undergoing these exponential increases, double-digit compounding improvements year after year.
And their impact is being felt in the markets too. In business, 2011 was the first time for decades that the world’s largest company was not an oil company: Apple pipped ExxonMobil for a few weeks. Short of a drastic change in fortunes, Exxon was the world’s most valuable firm for the last time in 2013. By the beginning of 2016, six firms based on exponentially developing digital technologies – Apple, Tencent, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook – were among the top ten largest on earth. Business was rewritten.
Ruptures & feedback loops
The Exponential Age is not simply about technology. These technologies accelerate and create a gap between their potential and the ways our societies and economies run. The exponential gap causes ripples & ruptures in our ways of life.
Nor do our technologies exist independent of their economic, political or historical context either. They feed into society and society feeds into them, shaping their direction.
In my new book, Exponential (in the UK and globally) and The Exponential Age (in the US and Canada), I explain the technologies of the Exponential Age, how and why they improve and why we struggle to contend with their pace of development. I explore the impacts on society and business more broadly. And finally, argue for certain principles we need in order to shape the technologies for our benefit.
It is an interdisciplinary argument drawing on physics, computer science, economics, political science, theory of trade, international relations, ethics and my own experience. Perhaps it’s a technology book, perhaps it’s a political economy. Perhaps both.
Dozens of readers of the wondermissive helped me form my thesis through comments and feedback on Twitter and elsewhere. Many thousands of readers of Exponential View have already ordered a copy.
Thank you, I’m very grateful.
It is why you receive a key dedication in the book. (Alongside my kids, hope that is okay 😜.)
Please do tweet about the book as you receive it, using the hashtag #exponential, write a review on Amazon when you have time, and of course, you can see what I have to say about it here.
Thanks for all your support,
P.P.S. Now that the book is out — yes, there will be a little more normal service. Thanks for grabbing a copy!
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