We know that is true just with the tremendous number of opportunities we have. We are in the middle of creating 51 new Market Places where there have been none before. Aivars Lode
Now for some good news
Mar 3rd 2012 | from the print edition
The world has been so dogged by bad news of late that it is almost possible to forget about tiny miracles like the LOC. But two timely new books remind us that boffins continue to make the world a better place even as politicians strive to do the opposite. Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler make a breezy case for optimism in “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think”. Eric Topol provides a more considered look at why medicine is about to be “Schumpeterised” (his word) by digital technology. These books are a godsend for those who suffer from Armageddon fatigue. They also remind us that technology keeps improving despite economic gloom.
Messrs Diamandis and Kotler argue that the world is on the cusp of a succession of abundance-producing breakthroughs. The technological revolution has gone furthest in the world of smart machines. The smartphone contains a collection of tools—from voice recorders to video cameras to GPS devices—that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars a decade ago. But it is rolling on in lots of other areas too. Carmakers are working on driverless vehicles (see article). Robotics firms are working on friendly bots. Manufacturers are experimenting with 3D printers that can produce everything from musical instruments to blood vessels. Firms of every type are building an “internet of things” that will tell us when our machines are in danger of breaking down or our pipes are leaking water.
They argue that four big forces are speeding these innovations from the drawing board to the supermarket. The first is the rise of a generation of philanthropists who believe that technology can rid the world of ancient evils. Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, is one of them. He sponsors “self-improvement” through schemes for social entrepreneurship and microfinance.
The second is the discovery of the “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” (as C.K. Prahalad, a management guru, called it). Firms have realised that poor people collectively constitute a huge market. The key is to make things cheaper. DataWind, a British company, has produced a $35 tablet computer in partnership with the Indian government. Technology allows poor people to join the global market. For example, KAZI 560, a Kenyan job-placement service, connects job-seekers with potential employers via mobile phones.
The third is the proliferation of do-it-yourself innovators. DIY-ers helped to power the automobile and aviation revolutions. Now they are at work on every technological frontier: Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired (and a former Economist hack) and a group of fellow enthusiasts have produced a civilian drone for $300—about 1% of the cost of a military equivalent—that might be used to ferry supplies to places that lack good roads.
The fourth is the clever use of prizes. A combination of cash and glory goads the brainy to compete, and can focus a vast amount of brain power on a specific problem. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offers a $1m prize for progress in producing meat from cells. Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born telecoms tycoon, offers a $5m prize for African leaders who leave office with clean hands. Qualcomm, an American wireless firm, is offering $10m for a mobile app that can diagnose patients better than a group of doctors. Here Mr Diamandis knows whereof he speaks: he is the chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which rewards breakthrough innovations, and the co-founder of Singularity University, which tries to bring innovations to the boil.
Watch and learn
The advances that these authors celebrate are already beginning to affect two areas that have proved almost immune to productivity-improving technology—education and health care. Messrs Diamandis and Kotler rightly celebrate the Kahn Academy. Salman Kahn has put 2,200 video tutorials on YouTube, covering everything from molecular biology to American history, which receive more than 2m visitors a month.
Eric Topol, one of America’s leading heart surgeons, argues that digital technology is giving people much more power over their health care. People can keep a constant watch on their vital organs thanks to sensors that can be worn on the wrist or injected into the blood stream. A flashing light on your smartphone will tell you when you need to see your doctor, just as a light on your dashboard tells you when your car needs a service. People can also get highly personalised treatment, thanks to rapidly advancing knowledge of their genomes. And they can find ready-made support systems thanks to the proliferation of health-related websites (more than 20% of American adults have posted on an online forum related to health care).
This sort of yes-we-can optimism poses obvious problems. Surely the power of technology can be used for evil as well as good? DIY bio-terrorists can unleash viruses. Cyber-attackers can bring down the computer systems that keep the world going round. And surely abundance sometimes brings trouble? The internet is a source of time-wasting distraction and mind-fogging misinformation as well as instructional videos. The prospect of spending one’s old age rigged up to sensors that document one’s ebbing life force is not edifying. But our authors are certainly right about one thing. Knowledge is cumulative. And that is a good reason for supposing that things will get better.