Racing Toward the Singularity: Earth’s Final 35 Years with Human Beings
It would seem that we now find ourselves and our world in the very center of one of those quickening maelstroms of time that lead to some sort of inconceivable singularity – a point where the pulse quickens so fast that the only way out is to awaken to some other consciousness of reality. It all started around 1760, and will end somewhere around 2050. What we are talking about is the accelerating progression of eras anchored by their characteristic industrial revolutions.
The First Industrial Revolution occurred in roughly two stages. The first stage, from around 1760 to 1840, was predicated on the use of water power. The second stage, from around 1840 to 1870, on the use of steam power. This revolution was anchored by such technological advances as textile manufacturing, iron making and metallurgy, steam power, machine tools, new chemicals, cement, glass-making, gas lighting, paper machines, industrialized mining, rapid mass transportation, international canals, roads and railways, factory systems, organized labor, and rapid advances in agricultural methods. All of which resulted in an increased rate of output and consumption of goods, along with an improved standard of living for a large mid-tier of society and the accumulation of wealth by a select few.
The era that was anchored by this revolution thus lasted for approximately 110 years, from 1760 to around 1870.
The Second Industrial Revolution – the Technological Revolution – lasted from around 1870 to 1914 (the start of World War I) and was a time of rapid industrialization built on the use of electricity. It was anchored by such technologies as electrification, more advanced metallurgy and chemicals (petroleum, rubber, fertilizer), expanded rail transport, machine tools, interchangeable parts, internal combustion engines, turbines, bicycles, automobiles, airplanes, screw propeller-driven ships, telephone, and telegraph, as well as the birth of modern business management. It once again raised the overall standard of living and expanded the breadth of the middle class.
The era that was anchored by this revolution thus lasted for approximately 90 years, from 1870 to around 1960.
The Third Industrial Revolution – the Digital Revolution – lasted from around 1960 to around 2010, and was marked by the shift from mechanical and analog technologies to digital technologies. It was the beginning of the Information Age. This revolution was anchored by such technologies as the transistor and digital logic circuits, the mainframe, mini, personal, laptop, and tablet computers, digital data storage and manipulation, the digital cellular telephone, digital music formats such as DVD and MP3, digital photography, 3D animated movies, high-definition television, and the Internet.
Unlike the previous eras, in which there were slowdowns in technological advancement (for example, the period between 1914 and 1960, which, aside perhaps from the atomic bomb, largely saw only incremental changes), this era has seen little slowdown. Lasting from around 1960 to around 2010, it had a run of approximately 50 years.
And now we find ourselves in the Fourth Industrial Revolution – Industry 4.0 – as has been pointed out by Professor Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum. This revolution is different from all the others however. Whereas all of the others were always about things, and how those things can help people get stuff done better that people needed to get done, this revolution represents the beginning of the Cyber Age… not just about things, but about “things and people – together”… what has come to be known as cyber-physical systems. It is characterized by such technologies as cloud computing, cyber security, big data and analytics, artificial intelligence / cognitive computing / deep learning, virtual reality / augmented reality, cryptocurrency, autonomous vehicles, genetic engineering, neurotechnological brain enhancements, powered exoskeletons, wearables, implantables, new forms of energy (wind, solar, biomass), and connectivity – smart factories, smart buildings, smart homes, smart automobiles, even smart human bodies, all topped off by digital-enabled cloud-native business models with a particular emphasis on customer experience. This is a revolution that will begin the transformation of us as human beings into something that is beyond being “merely human”. It is also the beginning of an era that – just as the First Industrial Revolution replaced animals with machines – will largely replace humans with machines, reducing the need for humans and/or freeing humans to focus on higher level existential concerns in the world.
Now consider the preceding patterns… the era anchored by the First Industrial Revolution lasted for approximately 110 years. The era anchored by the Second Industrial Revolution lasted for approximately 90 years. The era anchored by the Third Industrial Revolution lasted for approximately 50 years. If this pattern continues, we can expect each successive era to become shorter and shorter and shorter. It would not be surprising, at the current pace of acceleration, for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to last only 20 years, from say 2010 to 2030, and for the Fifth Industrial Revolution that comes after that – whatever it will look like – to last for only 10 years… say 2030 to 2040. Likewise, the Sixth Industrial Revolution would last only 5 years – from 2040 to 2045, the Seventh only 2 or 3 years, and the Eighth only a year, such that by the year 2050, we will have reached a point of singularity, where everything is changing at such a revolutionary pace that the nature of change as we now know it must somehow change. It cannot go on as we now understand it. That is the singularity of revolutions – a Moore’s Law of sorts of all technological change.
And if human augmentation is happening now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, one can only imagine what humans will be like by the Eighth Industrial Revolution. Will we still call ourselves human beings?
What does all this mean for today’s innovators? In strategic innovation practice, we talk about our Horizon 1, Horizon 2, and Horizon 3 timeframes… the short term, medium term, and long terms that we have to plan for and act on. What it means is that each of these horizons is shortening. This is good for those disposed to the new; bad for those disposed to stasis. It means that we can know the future with greater certainty because it is coming at us faster. But it does not necessarily mean that we can act on that knowledge any faster, short of radically changing how we do the things we do. Already, over half of the companies that were on the Fortune 500 in the year 2000 have disappeared on account of digital transformation. An increasing number of traditional businesses will continue to disappear – disrupted by new upstarts that come to market with digital-native ways of doing things.
So what are businesses to do if they are to thrive and survive both in the immediate future and beyond 2050? They are going to have to do the very things that IBM and GE are doing – radically redefine the basis of their business, from information services to cognitive computing services for IBM; from industrial hardware to industrial insights and digitized services built on top of hardware for GE. Businesses cannot fight this change – there is an “invisible hand” driving it. Instead, they must embrace it. For many, their internal R&D departments will never be able to keep up with this accelerating pace of change. Instead, they must look to inorganic means of growth and survival, primarily Corporate Venturing, where they can tap into new business ventures being built digital and cyber native from the ground up. Patching into these new business models and their new ways of looking at the world is the only way that businesses and brands are going to survive this maelstrom and see their way into and beyond the singularity.
But beyond the singularity… who knows? One can view this optimistically or pessimistically, according to their choosing. I choose to view it mostly optimistically. I believe that by that time, it is reasonable to expect that global poverty will be fully eliminated (as the trend has been going) and most diseases will be averted on account of smart bodies capable of preventing infection and/or accessing treatments more proactively. Average lifespans around the world should thus increase commensurately. But what new challenges will we then face? Only that time will tell us.