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Singularity University and the future of exponential change

Michael Fichardt recently spent 10 weeks at Singularity University. Located in Silicon Valley, the institution is part university, part think-tank, and part business-incubator, which aims to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” In a series of five articles, Fichardt details his experiences at Singularity University, ranging from the ideas and technologies he saw to the lessons he learned there. In this, the second article in the series, he outlines the future of exponential change as envisioned by Singularity University.

Do you have that feeling that life seems so much quicker? That things seem to change a lot faster and with more frequency than ever before? If we take a close look at our lives we will see that relationships seem to last shorter periods of time. That while in the past our parents had jobs for life, we have jobs for a few years, interspersed with freelance or consulting assignments. These days trends, fashion and music seem to change with increased frequency.

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Indeed things are speeding up, the world and our lives are quicker and affected with what seems like incessant change. Companies and industries that have been around for decades are being disrupted by new and young start-ups that are fundamentally changing the ways we consume products and services.

Richard Foster from Yale University estimates that a Fortune 500 company in 1920 had an average lifespan of 67 years, whilst today that lifespan has been reduced to 15 years. Companies like YouTube went from start-up to US$1.4 billion Google acquisition within 18 months. Uber only started operations in March 2009 and is already valued at US$50 billion. Seven year old AirBnB has just raised funding that values it at US$20 billion, second only to the Hilton Group of Hotels at US$23-billion and it does not own one single hotel room. The speed with which things now change has led to researchers, at the US’s Babson Olin School of Business, predicting that 40% of today’s Fortune 500 companies will be gone in the next 10 years.

These times of increasing change and disruption are due to the exponential changes that are occurring across converging technologies.

Self-made #GSP15 exponential growth curve

In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the cofounders of Intel, observed that number of integrated transistors on computer circuit boards were doubling and halving in cost every 18-24 months. This phenomenon become known as Moore’s Law and continues to this day.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist and co-founder of Singularity University (SU), has studied these exponential changes intensely. In his book the Singularity is Near, Kurzweil develops a theory he calls the law of accelerating returns, an inherent acceleration of evolution. He believes that human progress is exponential. It expands by doubling on the progress it made during a previous time frame, whilst our linear minds have evolved to observe progress as if it expands by repeatedly adding a constant.

An example of the difference between exponential and linear growth is as follows: if we are standing together and I take 30 linear steps away from you I will be 30 meters away from you when I stop. But if I take 30 exponential steps away from you I will have gone around the earth 26 times by the time I stop. It is this doubling that is providing the power of exponential change!

As Peter Diamandis, entrepreneur and co-founder of SU, says exponentials are deceptive, doubling of small numbers often produces results that are so small that any form of progress is hardly noticeable and at best looks linear. But once doubling moves into whole numbers (1, 2, 4, 8 etc), there are only 20 doublings until a millionth improvement.

To further explain the exponential nature of the law of accelerating returns the example of today’s young girl in an African village is often provided. This young girl, with access to Wi-Fi and a smart phone, has more information at her fingertips than the President of the United States had just 20 years ago.

Graph of exponential change


According to Kurzweil the exponential growth of technology is beginning to reach the “knee of the curve”, the stage at which an exponential trend becomes noticeable. It is shortly after this stage that the trend can explode. It is Kurzweil’s view that by the middle of the 21st century the exponential curve will be so steep that it will appear almost vertical. This will usher in fundamental changes to the way we define ourselves, the way we live and interact. These changes are likely to be so significant that our present levels of intelligence are not able to imagine this new paradigm.

Next week I will highlight some of the exponential technologies that are changing our world.

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