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Jan 28, 2020

Yes, tech is changing everything. A new book might encourage you to embrace that change.

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One takeaway: We'll need tech to take on climate change.

We’re in a moment right now where we’re sort of mad at technology — our phones are sucking up all our time and data; our social media platforms are spreading misinformation and divisive arguments; there are privacy and ethical dilemmas around every corner. But there are those who still believe that innovation in tech will change our lives for the better. 

Peter Diamandis is the founder of the X Prize Foundation and Singularity University. He’s also a co-author of the new book “The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives.” I recently spoke with Diamandis, who told me there were good things on the horizon. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Cover of Diamandis’s new book. (Courtesy Peter Diamandis)

Peter Diamandis: People are fearful about the future because they don’t understand what’s coming. And the rate of change is accelerating. If you’re a mom or a dad thinking about what career your kids should have, where they should go to school, should they even go to college? Will that still to be a thing? If you don’t have a clear understanding of the road ahead, it causes fear. A lot of what [this book] is about [is] giving people a view of what’s coming over the next 10 years. With that understanding, the realization [will be] that the world is getting better on so many levels. It’s a book about hope, it’s a book about what you might consider doing next and the tools we have to change the world.

Molly Wood: Do you think the skepticism is inevitable and part of the process of innovation, or do you ever think that this fear could become a real blocker?

Diamandis: Some of this fear is warranted. We had Sundar [Pichai], the CEO of Alphabet, come out saying, “We should start regulating AI.” The challenges over regulation leads to people leaving the country and going someplace else. There needs to be some level of voluntary coordination between the researchers, and leaders who set their goals. The government plays a very critical role in that. When you look at the data, a lot of people’s gut tells them the world is getting worse. As we evolved, looking for danger saved our lives. We evolved part of our brain called the amygdala that scans everything you see and everything you hear for negative news, and we pay 10 times more attention to negative news than positive news. The world of positive news is extraordinary out there. It’s just hard to get to it.

Wood: Let’s talk about convergence. You talk about some key technologies coming together to really create the conditions for this great leap forward. What are the drivers of those, but more importantly, what are the hindrances?

Diamandis: It used to be that if you were an entrepreneur, a leader, a tech geek, whatever it might be, having access to one technology was good enough. It’s no longer the case. It’s really where two, three, four or five exponential technologies are coming together and changing business models. When there’s plenty of money flowing in the economy — which is right now at record levels — people’s crazy ideas get funded. The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea. Then regulation has to balance it. 

Wood: I want to ask you about climate, which is addressed in the book. There is an X Prize for water conservation? Do you think there’s also a place for technology to start looking for solutions [and] adaptation? Beyond mitigation, beyond planting three trillion trees, is there technology that will help us survive inevitable climate change?

Diamandis: Climate change is coming. We’ve done a doozy on the climate. We have to understand that every technology brings its challenges. The X Prize is gearing up for a series of climate related X Prizes. Besides a trillion trees X Prize, we’re looking at our largest prize ever, north of $100 million purse, for technology that can extract CO2 from the atmosphere at scale. We also have technologies that are pulling CO2 out of smokestacks of natural gas, power plants, coal-powered plants and turning them into products that are more valuable, no cost of extracting them. But how do we reverse the process? How do we change it? There’s an interesting, equivalent story from 100 years ago. Back in the late 1890s, in the early 1900s, when people are moving from the rural areas into urban downtown Chicago and New York and Detroit and so forth, they brought with them their horse to get around. The populations of horses in these cities were skyrocketing, and so was the amount of horse manure. [There were] articles written about the devastation from disease [due to] horse manure. The technology that saved us from that was the automobile, which came in and you saw this precipitous drop in horses. But it’s also the technology that gave us a new problem. I, for one, see the ability of solar, primarily solar and wind [and] other renewables, to transform our energy economy. We’re below two cents per kilowatt hour. The potential to be below a penny per kilowatt hour this decade is 100%. I think there’s no question we’ll get there. What’s beautiful is that the poorest countries in the world are the sunniest countries in the world.

Wood: This feels like a good place to ask if there are things you think we shouldn’t do, technologically? I know that is not your bailiwick, but do you ever think “this is where we should stop”? 

Diamandis: I do think about that. I have two eight-year-old boys that are growing up in this extraordinary world. They’re growing up with the ability to ask any question in the cloud and imagine VR worlds and play in those VR worlds. When asked the question — what shouldn’t we do? — it’s such a valid question. The challenge is, I don’t think there’s any rate limiter on this game. I don’t think there’s any circuit breakers. I think [that] if we tell someone “Don’t do this, don’t go into this realm of work, it’s illegal here in the U.S.,” there is nothing to keep those individuals from taking their technology, their knowledge, and going someplace else. It used to be that only a few countries could support the processing capabilities and the manufacturing capabilities to move us towards this technological explosion, but that’s totally de-materialized, de-monetized and democratized around the world. It’s far more important that as a society, we understand what’s coming — which is the purpose of this book — and learn how to think about it, and deal with it and [ask] how do we really become agile? How do we learn how to mitigate the downside and maximize the upside?

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

The New York Times has a story about a company called Clearview AI, a facial recognition startup that scraped millions of images of lots of us, from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, all over the web where photos were publicly available. It put our pictures in a giant database and it sells access to law enforcement across the country. Since the publication of that story, and the ones that followed, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts sent a letter to Clearview AI asking it to clarify its security policies and explain how it handles images of children and whether Clearview lets people delete their images from its databases, among other things. 

There’s been plenty of other blowback: a class-action lawsuit in Illinois that also includes IBM, and a cease-and-desist letter from Twitter. New Jersey banned its police department from using Clearview, and MIT Technology Review reported yesterday that 40 organizations have signed a public letter calling for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology in the U.S. altogether.

The team

Molly Wood Host
Jody Becker Interim Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer