Book Review – Exponential – Azeem Azhar

Azeem Azhar is speaking at BoS Online Fall, 27-29 September!

If you saw his talk at BoS Europe in 2016 on whether we should be worried about AI and Machine Learning, you will be as excited as I am and know he is a phenomenal thinker and speaker. I’ve been super-privileged to have just read an advance copy of Exponential, Azeem’s new book, published September 7.

It is a must read for anyone in tech.

So good in fact, we’re going to send a hard copy to the next 20 people who sign up for the conference, so you can read it before you meet.

Here’s a summary of the book to whet your appetite…

The book’s premise?

Technology is developing at an exponential rate. Humans evolved for a linear world. The result? The exponential gap. How can we adapt?

It’s brilliantly written, where do we start?

With some history for context

A history of the evolution of technology at the turn of the 20th Century – the great transition when the world changed beyond recognition. Cars, electricity, telephones and more were the manifestations of a phase transition.

Exponential argues we’re living through another phase transition – from the industrial to the Exponential Age.

Computers were the first exponential technology – improving at more than 10 per cent per annum for multiple decades straight.

And the dawn of a new era

Azeem demonstrates exponential technologies are increasingly common, massively disruptive, and show no signs of slowing down. Renewable energy price collapses and the cost of modelling the human genome at a dollar apiece are just two examples he shares as he describes how four industries – computing, energy, biology and manufacturing are being transformed by exponential technology.

The transformation of these sectors alone mean we have entered a new era of global civilization.

New era, new problem

The Exponential Age is problematic. Exponential change is fast. Humans evolved to deal with slower, incremental changes – the annual harvest, the human lifespan, the changing of the seasons. When change starts accelerating, we struggle to comprehend it. He explains the psychology showing humans are ill-equipped to deal with rapid change and why human institutions – whether our businesses or our political norms – tend to move slowly too.

The exponential gap is why exponential technology is so dangerous: it has the potential to leave our economy, our politics and our lives behind.

How does this relate to software businesses?

Until a decade or so ago, the rules about how businesses work were fairly simple. Bigger businesses made more money but if they got too big, would creak becoming too complex and less efficient. They might become complacent. There were ‘decreasing returns to scale’ – the bigger a company became, the less return it got on dollars invested. Azeem argues exponential technologies have inverted this logic so the bigger companies get, the more efficient they become. Digital technology can scale indefinitely for almost no cost and without becoming more cumbersome. The corrosive effect increasing returns to scale might have on our economy could herald a new age of monopoly capitalism.

What does it mean for people and work?

Giant monopolies aren’t just bad for small businesses, they’re bad for workers. We get work in the age of big tech wrong. For all the talk of mass automation, we’re not headed for a ‘jobless future’. Despite what headlines say, automation will probably lead to more jobs, not less.

That doesn’t mean the future of work will be easy. Automation is a distraction from the real issues facing workers in the exponential age: from pernicious systems of algorithmic management, to a relative decline in workers’ wages.

Laws governing our workplaces were forged in the industrial age and are being undone by the remarkable pace of technological change.

What does it mean for society and states?

Globalisation supposedly turned the planet into one big, inter-connected market – the local gave way to the global. Maybe once. Not any more. Azeem shows how exponential technologies are making the economy increasingly regionalised. New innovation makes some global trade unnecessary or less important – renewable energy for example means states need to ship less and less oil across the world. De-globalisation brings problems as rich countries stop depending on poor countries for manufacturing, that could bring untold economic instability in developing countries.

The exponential gap drives ever-greater inequality between the rich world and the poor.

As countries become more insular, global politics becomes more unstable. Nations have less in common – and are more likely to go to war. This conflict will be more savage than ever as exponential technologies turned everywere into a potential battlefield. Cheap military drones mean a few hundred dollars can mount real-world attacks.

Growing online connectivity means anything from lightbulbs to fridges can become a crack in our national security – from misinformation campaigns to autonomous weapons.

What does it mean for me?

Azeem argues we’re living through an unprecedented commodification of human existence.

Historically, there were limits to the market economy – you could sell food and gadgets; but you couldn’t sell people’s private lives or a nation’s laws. The boundaries are increasingly blurred. A handful of platforms dominate our public sphere, private companies make the laws that govern our lives. The emergence of the data economy means that the most intimate details of our lives are bought and sold for profit. The result, an erosion of the lines between public and private sector.

To survive and thrive, we need to understand the new rules, consider how we fit within them and adapt. Fast.

All a bit gloomy to be honest.

There’s much to be cheerful and hopeful about. That’s where the book gets really interesting.

If you’ve got this far, I’m not going to spoil the punchlines, buy a copy and read if for yourself.

Or come to BoS Online Fall, 27-29 September and I’ll send the next 20 people to register a hard copy myself.

The light

Exponential technology could bring a new age of prosperity.

  • Computers could solve humanity’s most intractable problems.
  • Renewable energy could stave off the environmental crisis.
  • Bioengineering could make us all healthier and happier.

We will only build this future if we manage to close the exponential gap. Azeem outlines specific policies and ideas we need to make life in the Exponential Age liveable. He also describes the broad principles that could help us get there.

  • First, we need to rediscover the power of the commons – developing new forms of collective decision-making and international cooperation, all to stop society tending towards conflict.
  • Second, we need to build our resilience – creating businesses and political institutions that can cope with rapid change.
  • Third, we need to become more flexible – so when change does come, we can adapt to it.

Exponential ends with a message of hope. While the exponential gap is eroding our societies, with the right solutions we can build a world of abundance and equity.

As software folk, we’re responsible for designing and building the technology of the future. That will have significant impacts on the health, happiness, wellbeing and of the world’s population.

Come and meet Azeem Azhar

Azeem will be at BoS Online Fall, 27-29 September with a talk and extended discussion based on the book, Exponential.

He will discuss the book’s core ideas – how the exponential gap came about and caused of some of our most pressing problems. He will also share why he thinks the exponential gap is not inevitable – and how those that can harness its power will do much better than those who don’t.

Azeem is the founder of a number of successful tech companies. After exiting his latest venture in 2016 he spoke about AI & Machine Learning at BoS Europe. (Well worth a rewatch). Then he gave his bio as,

‘Currently discovering literature, neuroscience and thinking about exponential change.’

Shortly after, he founded Exponential View, a platform for in-depth tech analysis with free and paid newsletters with over 200,000 readers across the world. He also created the The Exponential View Podcast in partnership with Harvard Business Review which has 2,000,000 listeners.

Notable subscribers include

“Exponential View is a must read”

Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek

“I look forward to being challenged and inspired by the Exponential View every week”.

DeepMind founder Mustafa Suleyman

He’s a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council, sits on the board of the Ada Lovelace Foundation and contributes to the Financial Times, Prospect and MIT Technology Review.

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