Kevin Kelly on the Inevitable Trends Driving the Next 30 Years

Much of what will happen in the next thirty years is inevitable, driven by technological trends that are already in motion. Kevin Kelly provides an optimistic road map for the future, showing how the coming changes in our lives—from virtual reality in the home to an on-demand economy to artificial intelligence embedded in everything we manufacture—can be understood as the result of a few long-term, accelerating forces.

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  • This is a part of my book notes project where I publish detailed book notes on every book I read. Read more about how and why I do it.

  • The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (Amazon page)

Introduction

At the center of every significant change in our lives today is a technology of some sort.

Processes are now more important than products. Our greatest invention in the past 200 years was the scientific process itself.

Get the ongoing process right and it will keep generating ongoing benefits. In our new era, processes trump products.

Kelly has waded through the myriad technological forces erupting into the present and sorted their change into 12 verbs. Each of these 12 continuous actions is an ongoing trend that shows all evidence of continuing for at least three more decades. He calls these metatrends “inevitable” because they are rooted in the nature of technology, rather than in the nature of society.

1.  Becoming

Technological life in the future will be a series of endless upgrades. And the rate of graduation is accelerating.

In this era of “becoming,” everyone becomes a newbie. Worse, we will be newbies forever.

Here’s why: First, most of the important technologies that will dominate life 30 years from now have not yet been invented. Second, because the new technology requires endless upgrades, you will remain in the newbie state. Third, because the cycle of obsolescence is accelerating, you won’t have time to master anything before it is displaced, so you will remain in the newbie mode forever.

A world without discomfort is utopia. But it is also stagnant. A world perfectly fair in some dimensions would be horribly unfair in others. A utopia has no problems to solve, but therefore no opportunities either.

Protopia is a state of becoming, rather than a destination. It is a process. In the protopian mode, things are better today than they were yesterday, although only a little better.

Protopia generates almost as many new problems as new benefits. The problems of today were caused by yesterday’s technological successes, and the technological solutions to today’s problems will cause the problems of tomorrow.

The internet enabled the formerly dismissed passive consumers to become active creators. The revolution launched by the web was only marginally about hypertext and human knowledge. At its heart was a new kind of participation that has since developed into an emerging culture based on sharing.

Here is the thing the graybeards in 2050 will tell you: Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an innovator in 2016? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh. “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

2.  Cognifying

The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services — cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything. You’ll simply plug into the grid and get AI as if it was electricity.

Why is now the right time for AI? Three recent breakthroughs:

  1.  Cheap Parallel Computation — GPUs

  2.  Big Data

  3.  Better Algorithms

The top-ranked human chess player today, Magnus Carlsen, trained with AIs and has been deemed the most computerlike of all human chess players. If AI can help humans become better chess players, it stands to reason that it can help us become better pilots, better doctors, better judges, better teachers.

In the next 10 years, 99 percent of the artificial intelligence that you will interact with, directly or indirectly, will be nerdly narrow, supersmart specialists.

Precisely how a mind can be different or superior to our minds is very difficult to imagine. One way that would help us to imagine what greater yet different intelligences would be like is to begin to create a taxonomy of the variety of minds. This matrix of minds would include animal minds, and machine minds, and possible minds, particularly transhuman minds.

All cognition is specialized. The types of artificial minds we are making now and will make in the coming century will be designed to perform specialized tasks.

Today, many scientific discoveries require hundreds of human minds to solve, but in the near future there may be classes of problems so deep that they require hundreds of different species of minds to solve.

Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines. But the displaced workers did not sit idle. Instead, automation created hundreds of millions of jobs in entirely new fields.

Before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation — including the job you hold. In other words, robots are inevitable and job replacement is just a matter of time. This upheaval is being led by a second wave of automation, one that is centered on artificial cognition, cheap sensors, machine learning, and distributed smarts.

To demand that artificial intelligence be humanlike is the same flawed logic as demanding that artificial flying be birdlike. Robots, too, will think different.

“Right now we think of manufacturing as happening in China. But as manufacturing costs sink because of robots, the costs of transportation become a far greater factor than the cost of production. Nearby will be cheap. So we’ll get this network of locally franchised factories, where most things will be made within five miles of where they are needed.”

Our human assignment will be to keep making jobs for robots — and that is a task that will never be finished. So we will always have at least that one “job.”

3.  Flowing

The internet is the world’s largest copy machine. If something can be copied — a song, a movie, a book — and it touches the internet, it will be copied.

Now we are transitioning into the third age of computation. Pages and browsers are far less important. Today the prime units are flows and streams. We are bathed in streams of notifications and updates. Our apps improve in a flow of upgrades.

Now in the third age, we’ve moved from daily mode to real time. If we message someone, we expect them to reply instantly.

The corollary — and this is important — is that in order to operate in real time, everything has to flow. (Netflix vs DVDs).

When copies are superabundant, they become worthless. Instead, stuff that can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable (brand, immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, discoverability).

The Four Stages of Flowing that apply to all media:

  1.  Fixed. Rare. Products requiring much expertise to create.

  2.  Free. Ubiquitous. Promiscuous copying.

  3.  Flowing. Sharing. Unbundling of product into parts, each element flowing to find new uses and remixed into new bundles. Product is now a stream of services from the cloud.

  4.  Opening. Becoming. Streams of powerful services and ready pieces, enable amateurs with little expertise to create new products and categories.

4.  Screening

Neurological studies show that learning to read changes the brain’s circuitry. Instead of skipping around distractedly gathering bits, when you read you are transported, focused, immersed.

Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new universal library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, and woven deeper into the culture than ever before.

When we can link deeply into documents at the resolution of a sentence, and have those links go two ways, we’ll have networked “books.”

Ideally, such a complete library should, contain the entire works of humankind, from the beginning of recorded history, in all languages.

Over the next three decades, scholars and fans, aided by computational algorithms, will knit together the books of the world into a single networked literature.

We’ll come to understand that no work, no idea stands alone, but that all good, true, and beautiful things are ecosystems of intertwined parts and related entities, past and present.

If you can truly incorporate all texts — past and present in all languages — on a particular subject, then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do and don’t know.

Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking. A new idea or unfamiliar fact uncovered while screening will provoke our reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it.

Screens provoke action instead of persuasion. Propaganda is less effective in a world of screens, because while misinformation travels as fast as electrons, corrections do too.

5.  Accessing

In the coming 30 years the tendency toward the dematerialized, the decentralized, the simultaneous, the platform enabled, and the cloud will continue unabated. As long as the costs of communications and computation drop due to advances in technology, these trends are inevitable.

Dematerialization

The total amount of material we use per GDP dollar is going down, which means we use less material for greater value.

Digital technology accelerates dematerialization by hastening the migration from products to services.

In Silicon Valley they say it like this: “Software eats everything.”

As cars become more digital, they will tend to be swapped and shared and used in the same social way we swap digital media. The more we embed intelligence and smarts into the objects in our households and offices, the more we’ll treat these articles as social property.

Real-Time On Demand

One reason so much money is flowing into the service frontier is that there are so many more ways to be a service than to be a product.

Take transportation as an example. The general approach for entrepreneurs is to unbundle the benefits of transportation into separate constituent goods and then recombine them in new ways. How do you get from point A to point B? 1) You can buy a car, drive yourself; 2) Hire a company to drive you (Taxi); 3) Rent a car, drive yourself (Hertz); 4) Hire a peer (Uber); 5) Rent a car from a peer (RelayRides); 6) Hire a company to drive you with shared passengers along fixed route (bus).

As more items are invented and manufactured — while the total number of hours in a day to enjoy them remains fixed — we spend less and less time per item. The long-term trend in our modern lives is that most goods and services will be short-term use.

On average communication technology is biased toward moving everything to on demand. And on demand is biased toward access over ownership.

Decentralization

The most important innovation in Bitcoin is its “blockchain,” the mathematical technology that powers it. The blockchain is a radical invention that can decentralize many other systems beyond money.

Startups and venture capitalists are dreaming up ways to use blockchain technology as a general purpose trust mechanism beyond money. For transactions that require a high degree of trust between strangers, such as real estate escrows and mortgage contracts, this validation was previously provided by a professional broker.

The more our society decentralizes, the more important accessing becomes.

Platform Synergy

A platform is a foundation created by a firm that lets other firms build products and services upon it. It is neither market nor firm.

At almost every level of a platform, sharing is the default — even if it is just the rules of competition.

As more is shared, less will act like property. It is not a coincidence that less privacy (constant sharing of intimate lives) and more piracy (disregard of intellectual property) are both breeding on platforms.

Dematerialization and decentralization and massive communication all lead to more platforms. Platforms are factories for services; services favor access over ownership.

Clouds

A cloud is a colony of millions of computers that are braided together seamlessly to act as a single large computer. The bulk of what you do on the web and phone today is done on cloud computing. Though invisible, clouds run our digital lives.

The web is hyperlinked documents; the cloud is hyperlinked data. Ultimately the chief reason to put things onto the cloud is to share their data deeply.

Slowly but surely Amazon’s cloud and Google’s cloud and Facebook’s cloud and all the other enterprise clouds are intertwining into one massive cloud that acts as a single cloud — The Cloud — to the average user or company.

At the same time we are moving to an intercloud we will also move toward one that is fully decentralized and peer to peer.

6.  Sharing

The largely unarticulated but intuitively understood goal of sharing technology is this: to maximize both the autonomy of the individual and the power of people working together.

Even though a purely decentralized power won’t take us all the way, it is almost always the best way to start. It’s fast, cheap, and out of control.

The bottom alone is not enough for what we really want. We need a bit of top-down as well (not much).

By far the most potent future role for crowdsharing is in fan base equity. Rather than invest into a product, supporters invest into a company.

The largest, fastest growing, most profitable companies in 2050 will be companies that will have figured out how to harness aspects of sharing that are invisible and unappreciated today. Anything that can be shared — thoughts, emotions, money, health, time — will be shared in the right conditions, with the right benefits. Anything that can be shared can be shared better, faster, easier, longer, and in a million more ways than we currently realize.

Sharing something that has not been shared before, or in a new way, is the surest way to increase its value.

7.  Filtering

Close friends can make an echo chamber, amplifying the same choices.

The ideal filter would include a stream that suggested stuff that I don’t like but would like to like.

Every filter throws something good away.

More filtering is inevitable because we can’t stop making new things.

The inadequacies of a filter cannot be remedied by eliminating filters. The inadequacies of a filter can be remedied only by applying countervailing filters upon it.

“In a world of abundance, the only scarcity is human attention.”

Since it is the last scarcity, wherever attention flows, money will follow.

A major accelerant in this explosion of superabundance — the superabundance that demands constant increases in filtering — is the compounding cheapness of stuff. In general, on average, over time technology tends toward the free.

The only things that are increasing in cost while everything else heads to zero are human experiences — which cannot be copied.

8.  Remixing

Paul Romer, an economist at New York University, says real sustainable economic growth does not stem from new resources but from existing resources that are rearranged to make them more valuable. Growth comes from remixing.

If text literacy meant being able to parse and manipulate texts, then the new media fluency means being able to parse and manipulate moving images with the same ease.

In a few years we’ll be able to routinely search video via AI. As we do, we’ll begin to explore the Gutenberg possibilities within moving images.

Rewindability and findability are just two Gutenberg-like transformations that moving images are undergoing. These two and many other factors of remixing apply to all newly digitized media, such as virtual reality, music, radio, presentations, and so on.

In 30 years the most important cultural works and the most powerful mediums will be those that have been remixed the most.

9.  Interacting

Two benefits propel VR’s current rapid progress: presence (realism) and interaction.

VR is getting more “realistic” faster than movies are. Within a decade, when you look into a state-of-the-art VR display, your eye will be fooled into thinking you are looking through a real window into a real world.

But while “presence” will sell it, VR’s enduring benefits spring from its interactivity.

The best demos of synthetic worlds are ones that trigger a deep presence not with the most pixels per inch, but with the most engagement of other people.

We are equipping our devices with senses — eyes, ears, motion — so that we can interact with them. They will not only know we are there, they will know who is there and whether that person is in a good mood.

The dumbest objects we can imagine today can be vastly improved by outfitting them with sensors and making them interactive.

In the coming decades we’ll keep expanding what we interact with 1) More senses; 2) More intimacy; 3) More immersive.

The first technological platform to disrupt a society within the lifespan of a human individual was personal computers. Mobile phones were the second platform, and they revolutionized everything in only a few decades. The next disrupting platform — now arriving — is VR.

10.  Tracking

Metadata is the new wealth because the value of bits increases when they are linked to other bits.

The design of the internet of everything, and the nature of the cloud that it floats in, is to track data. The 34 billion internet-enabled devices we expect to add to the cloud in the next five years are built to stream data. And the cloud is built to keep the data. Anything touching this cloud that is able to be tracked will be tracked.

The internet is the world’s largest, fastest copy machine, and anything it touches will be copied. At first this fact is deeply troubling to creators, because their stuff will be copied indiscriminately, often for free, when it was once rare and precious. Some people fought, and still fight, very hard against the bias to copy (movie studios and music labels) and some people chose and choose to work with the bias. Those who embrace the internet’s tendency to copy and seek value that can’t be easily copied (through personalization, embodiment, authentication, etc.) tend to prosper, while those who deny, prohibit, and try to thwart the network’s eagerness to copy are left behind to catch up later.

This bias to copy is technological rather than merely social or cultural.

Tracking follows a similar inevitable dynamic.

Ubiquitous surveillance is inevitable. Since we cannot stop the system from tracking, we can only make the relationships more symmetrical. It’s a way of civilizing coveillance.

There is a one-to-one correspondence between personalization and transparency. Absolute personalization (vanity) requires absolute transparency (no privacy).

11.  Questioning

Wikipedia works because it turns out that, with the right tools, it is easier to restore damaged text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damaged text (vandalism), and so the good enough article prospers and continues to slowly improve.

Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we’ll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens that focuses the extraordinary into a beam.

The good news may be that it cultivates in us an expanded sense of what is possible for humans, and for human life, and so extremism expands us. The bad news may be that this insatiable appetite for super-superlatives leads to dissatisfaction with anything ordinary.

This waking dream we call the internet blurs the difference between my serious thoughts and my playful thoughts, or to put it more simply: I no longer can tell when I am working and when I am playing online. For some people the disintegration between these two realms marks all that is wrong with the internet: It is the high-priced waster of time.

I believe the conflation of play and work, of thinking hard and thinking playfully, is one of the greatest things this new invention has done. Isn’t the whole idea that in a highly evolved advanced society work is over?

We need to be fluid and agile, flowing from idea to idea, because that fluidity reflects the turbulent informational environment surrounding us.

If knowledge is growing exponentially because of scientific tools, then we should be quickly running out of puzzles. But instead we keep discovering greater unknowns. Thus, even though our knowledge is expanding exponentially, our questions are expanding exponentially faster.

There is an asymmetry in the work needed to generate a good question versus the work needed to absorb an answer. Answers become cheap and questions become valuable — the inverse of the situation now.

12.  Beginning

The Beginning is a century-long process.

At its core 7 billion humans, soon to be 9 billion, are quickly cloaking themselves with an always-on layer of connectivity that comes close to directly linking their brains to each other — the holos.

We are in the Beginning of that process, right at the cusp of that discontinuity (phase shift in qualitative characteristics). In this new regime, old cultural forces, such as centralized authority and uniformity, diminish while new cultural forces, such as the ones I describe in this book — sharing, accessing, tracking — come to dominate our institutions and personal lives. As the new phase congeals, these forces will continue to intensify.

A soft singularity is more likely. In this future scenario AIs don’t get so smart that they enslave us; rather AI and robots and filtering and tracking and all the technologies I outline in this book converge — humans plus machines — and together we move to a complex interdependence. At this level many phenomenon occur at scales greater than our current lives, and greater than we can perceive — which is the mark of a singularity.