An exponential technology is two things
First, it’s exponential. In each period it doubles in capability or performance. Or perhaps on the flip side, it halves in cost in each period. Computers are an example of an exponential technology we’re all familiar with – doubling every 18 months or so (Moore’s Law). There are many other exponential technologies, like 3D printing, drones, robotics, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, etc. They’ve all been around for a long while, with lots of doubling periods behind us. Drones, for example, have been around for decades.
That brings up the second attribute of an “exponential technology”. It is a technology that is now at the point where its price-performance makes it possible to be incorporated into solving today’s business problems in ways that were not previously possible.
For example, it used to be the case that only the military could afford to spend millions on each individual drone. Now we’ve got consumer-level drones with amazing capabilities for a few hundred dollars. Drones can now be leveraged to significantly disrupt many sectors. Put simply, exponential technologies are the ones that are on short doubling periods and have also entered the area of their exponential curve where they enable the amazing.
Why should we care about exponential technologies?
Simply put, organisations that leverage exponential technologies can completely disrupt major business sectors. Let’s carry on with the drone example. The UK has changed its regulations to enable Amazon to test last-mile delivery using drones. The US is following suit.
In the US, 40% of consumers are within 20 miles of an Amazon distribution centre. Amazon could use some combination of autonomous trucks and delivery drones to deliver your stuff to you, exactly where you are, any time of day, for probably 1/10th the cost of current logistics systems. That would disrupt the last-mile logistics companies, to the same extent that Uber is disrupting taxi companies. It would likely further disrupt retail. Why would you spend 45 minutes in Auckland traffic to go get that item you need, when it could be droned to you while you spend your precious time doing something else. Retail might go the way of banks – less and less need for storefronts.
This, in turn, has a huge impact on cities – who occupies the main street, what businesses exist, where they operate, and what about the flow of people? These disruptive impacts would most likely occur in New Zealand as well. Amazon is a good example, you wouldn’t consider them the “developers” of robotics or drone technologies, but they are being very clever and aggressive in how they leverage exponential technologies as building blocks in their business.
What other exponential technologies are there?
The list of exponential technologies is incredibly long. We’ll cover just a couple more examples: 3D printing can now be done with 750+ materials. This includes many plastics and resins, metals like titanium, biologics like cells, agricultural waste, etc. You can now 3D print cars, houses and skin.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is another. AI now regularly trounces the world’s best players of the Chinese game of go, which is 100 times more complex than chess. AI now wins in aerial combat against military combat flight instructors. AI now helps lawyers design their legal cases. AI now helps doctors prescribe medicine to their patients.
Renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil describes a point in time where computer intelligence will surpass that of its human counterparts (‘Singularity’). Given the number of Exponential Technology verticals, it’s unlikely that there will be this ‘single point’. Within the next twenty years, exponential technology will threaten to disrupt anything from 47–81% of jobs, including those previously considered safe from automation. It’s up to us to embrace the technology and change with it to be a part of the disruptive force. The alternative? Ignore it, and become disrupted ourselves.