Imagine a bespectacled Tyrannosaurus rex (in a tweed waist coat) on stage delivering the Richard Dimbleby lecture. His presentation is on energy transmitted as gravitational radiation. Maybe you find the idea amusing. I do. But it’s highly unlikely. Why?

Well for one, the T.rex went extinct 65 million years ago. Einstein didn’t publish his ideas about gravitational waves until 1916. And those ideas weren’t confirmed until gravitational waves were first detected in February 2016. They were always there, mind you. People just couldn’t see them, much less prove them.

Also, our domesticated T.rex in tweed would need to have evolved the ability to use language, understand theoretical physics and operate a PowerPoint presentation – he would have had to change himself into another creature entirely. It’s a big ask.

Don’t get me wrong. A T.rex would have impressive stage presence. But his ability to communicate important ideas about the future in a simple way would probably be limited.

As you begin Nick O’Connor’s book, The Exponentialist: Seeking your fortune on the new technological frontier, I have good news for you. The future is coming. You can understand it. You can prepare for it. And you can profit from it.

But as you stand on the precipice of the most exciting and unimaginable era of change in all of human history, don’t feel bad if you feel a bit like a dinosaur. I know I do. It’s all happening so fast. And some of it is incomprehensible. Just remember, the future has always felt like this to those living in the present.

Most the progress human beings have made in the last 20,000 years of our history has been made in the last 500 years. Think about it. Archaeologists and historians aren’t entirely in agreement about the development of human beings as a species. But we know more or less that around 130,000 years ago our brains became like what they are now.

That was a good start. Then, around 50,000 years ago, a “great leap forward” – another name for a possible genetic mutation – may have led to the evolution of language. This enabled better communication – the naming of things – and more complexity in our communication and thought.

Pre-historic humans in the Stone Age added tools to their language. The New Stone Age, or Neolithic period of history, saw changes in the Earth’s climate. As giant sheets of ice retreated to the poles, the entire planet became more temperate. Agriculture began to flourish. As it did, nomadic tribal wandering gave way to larger settlements and what we’d now call cities.

With cities came trade and the division of labour and changes in our relationship with each other and with technology.  In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, written language as a way of keeping track of commerce began to emerge. That was another “great leap forward”.

You’d be tempted to think that since then, everything has been getting better all the time. That’s the core of our belief in progress: the technology will drive us to constant improvements in the quality of our life. As an article of faith it’s even simpler: modern man believes that tomorrow will better than today and that technology will make it so.

Yet our faith in the future is a relatively modern phenomenon. It’s driven by the technology we see and use every day. The more we see, the more we believe. It’s grown stronger as the visible signs of technological progress surround us. And not only surround us, but become more constant companions in our everyday life. How many times have you checked your phone/email/Facebook since you began reading this?

That’s another important point. Progress has been constant for the last 500 years. Moveable type emerged in the 1500s. Ideas could be communicated faster than ever. The mobility of knowledge changed the world and continues to do so with the internet.

During the 16th century, we began to see the world differently. Literally. The telescope and the microscope allowed us to see the universe in a whole different way. At the microscopic level, we began to see in ourselves a whole new universe we never knew existed.

It took them over three years, and it cost Ferdinand Magellan his life, but 18 members of his crew on the Victoria circumnavigated the Earth by ship. It was now possible to move people, goods, and ideas, around the world. With more mobility came more connections, more trade, more commerce… a positive feedback loop where the pace of technological change sped up.

The Scientific Revolution raised the pace of change yet again. The more we learned, the more we wanted to learn. The better our scientific tools got, the more we could learn. The Industrial Revolution saw the concepts of the Scientific Revolution begin to change the physical world in even faster ways. The steam engine, electricity, telephones, automobiles… one after another the innovations came in rapid fire succession and lead to even more disruptive innovation and change.

All of that is prelude to the stories Nick has written about in his book. To be honest, looking backward on technological progress might be more comfortable for you than looking forward. Why?

Nick shows you that there may be more technological progress in the next 20 years of human history than in the last 20,000 years.

Driven by breakthroughs in energy, intelligence, medicine, robotics, not only will you understand your world as never before, you will be able to change it, design it, and improve it in ways you never thought imaginable. And we will be joined in this endeavour by machines of our own making that can not only make themselves, but think for themselves.

This last bit – that human beings could become so powerful that they can create a new kind of life – raises profound spiritual and ethical issues. The evolution of technology will not stop as we grapple with those issues. We’d better hurry! In the meantime, strap yourself in.

Technological progress has been constant for the last 500 years. It’s about to get exponential. As Eoin Treacy has claimed, this exponential change, promises nothing less than the liberation of human potential. The T.rex couldn’t adapt to his world. You can.

Dan Denning
October 2016