In order to solve the most pressing social issues, we must take great leaps in the way we think.
Most of us live our day-to-day lives with linear expectations. We wake up and go through the same basic routine everyday. We drive the same distance to get to and from work. We go to sleep at night, and then we start all over again the next day. Life is linear, and for the most part, we can predict how certain aspects of our day will play out because our expectations are formed from our experiences.
Our brains are intuitively hardwired to think linearly, that is, in terms in which we can relate, and that's totally fine for the small stuff. But if we really want to solve humanity's biggest challenges, leading thought leaders like Singularity University cofounders Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis say we're going to have to train ourselves to stop thinking linearly and start thinking exponentially.
What is Exponential Thinking?
At its core, exponential thinking is a discipline that recognizes 1) technology's exponential growth rate and 2) that in order to leverage technology's potential to make a positive impact on the lives of the 7 billion people on this earth, we must start visualizing the future not just five, ten or even 20 years from now, but several generations from now and beyond.
This mindset has long been championed by noted inventor Kurzweil and X Prize Foundation chairman and CEO Diamandis. To help people visualize it, they often explain it like this: If someone told you to take 30 linear steps, you already know you'll end up 30 paces or meters away from where you started. You could probably even point to where that would be before you took one step forward. But what if someone told you to take 30 exponential steps? That's a billion meters away, or 26 times around the planet. That's hard to picture, isn't it?
But that's also the point—instead of seeing 30 exponential steps as impossible, think of it as possible. "Human development over 150,000 years has been local and linear. Your brain is programmed to be linear," Diamandis explained during a 2013 presentation at Singularity University. "But in these next few decades the rate of change is growing so fast that almost everything we can conceive can happen. Every industry is potentially disruptible in the near future. And if you're not excited or scared, you're asleep at the wheel."
Moore's Law and Exponential Thinking in Action
Humans think in terms they can relate to and we base our expectations on our experience. We live in linear time and space and yet technology is fundamentally different. It grows exponentially and technology waits for no one.
In 1965, Gordon Moore made a prediction that would set the pace for mankind's modern digital revolution. From careful observation of an emerging trend, Moore, co-founder of the multinational technology company Intel, estimated that computing would dramatically increase in power, and decrease in relative cost, at an exponential pace. This increase in power first predicted by Moore within his seminal piece "Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits," means that a single device -- the smartphone for example -- has become as powerful as an entire collection of devices and gadgets just a generation ago. Moore's Law only holds true because of the actions of human beings.
Take the Internet, as a case in point. Back in the early '80s—well before the advent of Google or Facebook or YouTube—Kurzweil predicted the emergence of a World Wide Web in the late 1990s that would connect hundreds of millions of people around the globe. "People said, 'That's ridiculous. Look, it takes the entire defense budget to tie 2,000 scientists together. There's no way you're going to do that,'" Kurzweil recalled in a 2012 chat with Techonomy. As we now know, the critics were wrong, of course. "If a linear perspective was correct, they'd be right. But a linear perspective is not correct when it comes to information technology, and information technology is not only influencing, but encompassing, one area after another," Kurzweil says.
Established companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon seem to understand the importance of adaptation and disruption in order to stay level with rapidly changing times—and are thriving because of it. In only 40 years, Apple has gone from selling its first personal computer -- essentially an assembled circuit board without the most basic of features such as a keyboard and monitor -- to producing the iPhone, a state-of-the-art phone/music player/computer that is millions of times more powerful and a fraction of the size and price of the Apple I. Meanwhile, Google's dipped its toes into all kinds of tech (YouTube, self-drive cars, business tools, etc.) since officially launching its search engine back in 1997.
All of these tech stalwarts and others, along with several startups like popular programming tool GitHub, app-driven car service Uber, and invention platform Quirky, scored a spot on the list of 100 most exponential firms, ranked in April 2015 for their ability to successfully scale in the same way technology scales. Just imagine if every business had the foresight to harness advancing technologies for the good of humanity—the world's biggest problems could be solved in no time. After all, says Kurzweil, the trend curve will only continue its exponential rise, and "if you understand the potential of these exponential technologies to transform everything from energy to education, you have a different perspective on how we can solve the grand challenges of humanity."
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