Tip of the Spear: Part 1

Future Disruption Technology Questions Spear Innovation Inequality

“The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”  William Gibson, 1992

Two questions: What do Donald Trump and Ray Kurzweil have in common; and who the heck is Ray Kurzweil?

Donald Trump?  Well, we have had to create a separate Internet just to handle the digital spew written about him.  I’ll get to him in a moment.

From his biography: Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS selected Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries. He is considered one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers, and futurists, with a 30-year track record of accurate predictions.

Ray has written many things but it is his two books that have defined an age:  Age of Spiritual Machines has been translated into nine languages and was the #1 best-selling book on Amazon in science. The Singularity Is Near, was a New York Times bestseller, and has been the #1 book on Amazon in both science and philosophy.  It predicts a future date in time, “the Singularity,” when machine intelligence crosses human intelligence.  An amazing and frightening read.

How can these two impossibly different humans have anything remotely in common?

It was a strange occurrence in my daily reading when I read an Economist magazine treatise on the state of Artificial Intelligence followed immediately followed by their artful bashing of Mr. Trump that got me thinking, “Is there a connection here?”

As I thought about it, I finally put into focus something that has been concerning me for a while: the growing distance between the promise of the future and those driving it forward and those that have very little chance of benefiting from this future – what I call the future disenfranchised.

So what to do? 

This 3-part blog post looks at the Tip of the Spear phenomenon with an eye to providing some concrete thoughts to move ahead.

This first post asks us to “appreciate” the growing distance from the “tip” to the “tail” by providing some background, links and context.  The second post will look at the questions we need to “ask” and of whom.  The third will look at some people making a difference as they “act” to help make the arrow fly straighter (to continue the analogy).

 Part 1:  “Appreciate”:  The problem is a lot bigger than you think.

If any of my  colleagues and readers/followers haven’t read where things are at in the state of technology, do so.  Some of you may say, “Got it, read all about it…”   I can assure {most} of you that you haven’t.

From digital disruption in almost every imaginable business arena to fundamental change in the everyday fabric of our personal and social lives – change is coming fast.  I believe it. I have lived it. I make my living understanding the implications, causes, and strategies for these technologies.  And I have never experienced such clarity assessing the impact of these relentless waves of change. The tide cannot be turned back.

Do me a favour: Read the latest posts from the Singularity Hub blog (after Ray’s vision) about the top eight technologies, their current state and the impacts in the next five years. I can assure you that after reading you will appreciate that we are on the “elbow” of the exponential curve – it’s just getting started.   Or just as good, a16z’s Chris Dixon’s “What’s Next in Computing”Or if you want a more humorous but equally accurate and engaging post, read “WaitButWhy?”  from Tim Urban – a reality check on Artificial Intelligence.

Do it.  Then come back and continue this read.  Or read the following excerpts.

As the Singularity Hub notes, an expert might be reasonably good at predicting the growth of a single exponential technology (e.g., 3D printing), but try to predict the future when AI, robotics, VR, drones, and computation are all doubling, morphing and recombining. You have a very exciting (read: unpredictable) future…

To paraphrase Kurzweil: The Law of Accelerating Returns: Looking at biological evolution on Earth, the first step was the emergence of DNA, which provided a digital method to record the results of evolutionary experiments. Then, the evolution of cells, tissues, organs and a multitude of species that ultimately combined rational thought with an opposable appendage (we’re all thumbs and then some) caused a fundamental paradigm shift from biology to technology. The first technological steps — sharp edges, fire, the wheel — took tens of thousands of years. For people living in this era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years.

By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required only a century or two. In the 19th century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first 20 years of the 20th century, we saw more advancement than in all of the 19th century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years’ time. The World Wide Web did not exist in anything like its present form just a decade ago, and didn’t exist at all two decades before that. As these exponential developments continue, we will begin to unlock unfathomably productive capabilities and begin to understand how to solve the world’s most challenging problems. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive.

After you have read enough, you cannot help feel exhilarated on the one hand and a deep feeling of unease that there are going to be a lot of folks who will be deeply messed up by these changes. Many of whom don’t yet have a clue and a very select few, the tip of the spear, who have had the luxury including time, intelligence, education, capital, etc to anticipate, plan for, and obtain the keys to this new digital kingdom.

Now where does Donald Trump fit?

He is the butt of the spear isn’t he? Or perhaps he represents the rabble outside the binary walls of the digital kingdom. Trump is simply an amplifier for a growing class of human beings that are increasingly at odds with the world around them.  He is the manifestation (or more likely the exploiter) of disenfranchised and angry humans who sense (and rightly so) they are being left behind and are “mad as hell” and “not going to take it any more”.

I also believe he represents a hint as to what a dystopian future might look like. I am concerned because history has shown many times when the “ruling” class gets too far ahead of the masses, heads roll – literally in many cases.  As noted, we have witnessed incredible technological change in the past 10, 20 and 50 years but I can assure you that the “reptilian brain” that drives our basest needs and desires has changed very, very little in the same time period and some would argue that in the scale of evolutionary time frame, there isn’t a chance it could.

Even more troubling is that the very systems of governance, market forces, laws and other fundamental frameworks are simply not capable of moving at the speed of change. Not even close. Think of the standoff between Apple and the FBI, the dilemma Netflix poses to the CRTC or FTC or the havoc Uber has wreaked on the taxi industry.  The free-market alone will not “solve” this calculus of change.

On the other side of the equation are the makers, inventors and those profiting from this digital disruption. My hard glare at them is simple:  Ask the fundamental questions:  Just because I can, does it mean I should and if I should, then how?

Fun times.

So what to do? 

 Part 2:  “Ask” …  coming soon

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