Home » Archive » Arcing abundance and the future of limits

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

Put a fire hose in your mouth, turn up the tap — full blast. Or, go to Singularity University. Same thing.

The first day of Singularity’s executive program almost feels normal. Sit in classes, listen to lectures, hustle back and forth between meals. My little brain was buzzing along, content in its regular patterns.

By about 10 AM the second morning, I knew I had a fire hose in my mouth. The pressure of new information, new paradigms, and a rapidly shifting set of future potentials was too much. Either I had to let go or I find some other release.

I released reality. Let every new idea tear through and decided to pick up the pieces later.

What is Singularity University?

Singularity University is led by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. Ray is famous for his book on singularity, exponential growth curves, and vitamins. Peter runs X-Prize, takes people to zero-gravity, and strives to escape Earth’s orbit.

The university introduces exponential growth technologies. It takes leaders through transformational technologies that change the future. The list includes: synthetic biology, customized medicine, bioinformatics, nanotechnology, alternative energy, artificial intelligence, robotics, and cloud computing networks.

Sort of creeps up on you

The power of Singularity creeps up on you. Its impact peaks after the program is done.

While in the program, everything is amazing. But because it’s all incredible — it sort of starts to feel normal. Like jumping out of a plane: The first few minutes are insane. After a while though, you’re just falling (really, really fast). After its done though, things start to settle in.

The first big burst is the people. They are amazing. Kurzweil, Diamandis, Dan Barry (three-time NASA astronaut and robotics expert), and Ralph Merkle (inventor of hash trees, cryptographic cracks, and nanotechnology expert) are just a few of the boggling roster. Jonathan Zittrain visited us and we visited Luke Nosek at Halcyon.

Luke’s company is an example of the second mind-popping element: There are actually companies doing all this crazy stuff. Halcyon Molecular is literally, honestly creating the world’s fastest human-genome sequencing technology in their garage — I saw it. We raced a Tesla roadster (here’s me in the passenger seat), talked with robots, and watched a guy print 3D prosthetic legs (including tattoos) in one shot.

The last big shift came while old paradigms reluctantly evaporated. Some really big problems look like they aren’t problems at all. What does genetically-tailored medicine do to world-wide disease? If energy scarcity disappears, beaten down by carbon-neutral alternatives, what changes? When salt-water oceans become fresh-water substitutes: what of water wars? As abundance rises, what changes?

Singularity struggling

I left Singularity buzzing with the potential but bothered by something I struggled (still struggle) to define. It’s related to the last question above: As abundance rises, what falls?

Throughout the program I kept thinking of those iconic disaster scenes. The hero races along some bridge, safety beckoning from the far side. Behind the hero, the bridge is crumbling and blood-thirsty threats hunt for his life. There’s no time to turn around. No time to fight. No time to save anything. Just race, head-long, for the other side.

As we race for the giant up of exponential technologies, is it at the cost of a giant down behind us? As the exponential curve arcs up does it also arc down? Does this really start at zero, like all curves mysteriously seem to do — or did it start from a massive and incomprehensible negative well beyond our knowing?

Haven’t we seen this before? Wasn’t whale oil a “limitless” resource? Crude oil reserves used to be oceans, right? What of bison and cod? Good grief — we still use “oceans” to mean “limitless”, so recent is our recognition that they are alarmingly finite.

Are apparently limitless alternatives really even evidence of abundance? Abundance only seems to get important when you’re running really short on something else. Abundance needs absence to get headlines.

So abundance carries the real threat of its inverse: scarcity. Today’s abundance is just a new version of an old paradigm — limitless reserves, made more efficient by technology, to be squandered violently by oblivious generations?

How much of the devastation wrought by Alberta’s oil sands is the consequence of exponential growth technologies? Of all the species we’ve destroyed, how many are gone because we believed they were limitless? Ask almost any of the once powerful empires — how good is abundance?

Just a question

I am a huge fan of Singularity University. An abundant fan. Nothing of the above should suggest skipping that opportunity.

I just want to ask a question that no one there wanted to answer: What does the Singularity invite us to ignore?

Related links

TECHCRUNCH: Singularity University Executive Program — Ray Kurzweil’s Opening Address
BUSINESS WEEK: Singularity University Gives Execs a View of the Future
CNET: Singularity University seasons executives for the future
WIRED: Singularity University

Commentary

I got up early to read “The Shift Index,” but then, for no reason, decided to take a “break” by going to Taylor Davidson’s Twitter stream (@tdvaidson) and saw his tweet about this post.

I make it a point to never mix my Big Shift and my Singularity because the same thing always happens: boom! – my head explodes. Although, I must say, it explodes with possibility, that we just might make it through the next thirty years with something quite remarkable on the other side.

And, if not, it’s going to be extremely interesting and [something] trying. Big thanks for giving such a compelling account of your experience at SU, loved it.

Thanks Brooks (and thanks to Taylor). What’s the Big Shift?

Oh, the Big Shift is what John Hagel and his colleagues call the radical changes facing the business community as a result of digital technology and globalization.

I blogged about it the other day:

http://brooksjordan.name/blog/2009/12/03/yeah-the-big-shift-is-on/

I link to their substantial report in the post, but the panel at Supernova 2009 is a lot of fun to watch and makes the point.