Leading Ahead of the Curve

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Ray Kurzweil, the seasoned inventor and futurist, says a lot of things that sound crazy—until they end up coming true. He foresaw many key technological breakthroughs like the ubiquity of the internet, a computer beating a world champion at chess, face-recognition software, and self-driving cars. Currently, he’s working as Google’s Director of Engineering, tasked with getting computers to understand human language. His predictions for the next 20 years include artificial intelligence that is smarter than humans and nanobots that travel inside our bloodstreams to identify and destroy cancer cells.

The reason that Kurzweil can make such bold statements about the (relatively) near future is that he believes the rate of technological change is accelerating. Up until recently, technology advanced in a linear fashion, but he posits that from here on out advances will continue to be exponential. Moore’s Law, which states that computing power doubles roughly every two years, has been extremely consistent (predictable). It is the underlying reason why Kurzweil believes that technological evolution and advancement will happen in shorter and shorter intervals.

Ray Kurzweil

If you’re still not convinced that we are in for some major changes in the next 5 to 10 years, consider the following examples of how the future is already arriving:

  • Fusion: For nearly 50 years, physicists have been trying to use energy to fuse atoms together (fusion), instead of splitting them apart (fission). A fusion reactor would generate virtually unlimited amounts of energy very cheaply and with no negative impact on the environment.  Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works Department claims that they’re working on a fusion reactor that is 5 years out from being a commercially viable product.
  • 3D Printers: The 3D printing industry is developing rapidly. Not only is it now possible to print complex metal and plastic objects on demand with amazing precision, but we can also expect to see the first printed human organ this year.
  • Artificial Intelligence: Deep Blue, IBM’s chess playing supercomputer, beat the chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997. 14 years later, IBM built Watson, which soundly defeated two long-standing Jeopardy! champions at their own game on live television.
  • Genomic Sequencing:  If scientists can understand which genetic mutations cause diseases, they can, in theory, correct those genes and eliminate the diseases. Since the first human genome was sequenced in 2003, the cost of doing this process has dropped precipitously—from one billion dollars 10 years ago, to one thousand dollars today.
  • Advanced materials – Graphene is the thinnest, strongest, lightest, and most conductive material on earth. Two scientists in Manchester discovered the first crystals of graphene in 2004, for which they received the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. Graphene’s unique set of properties have applications for nearly every industry.

It is up to you to judge whether technological advancements like those listed above represent opportunities or threats. We can’t stop the world from changing, but we can change our own perspective, so that instead of being paralyzed by the fear of change we can seek out opportunities. Only leaders with the right perspective and sufficient imagination and vision will be able to get ahead of this rapidly changing curve.

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