Change Agent

People tend to ask me two questions about my book, The Exponentialist.

The first is, “Will you sign it?” I always find this odd. But I do it anyway. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll become prime minister, or President of Mars, and those scribbles will be worth something. I doubt it. I think the ideas in the book are more important.

Which brings me to the second question, which is usually some form of “If you could only back one of the technologies you wrote about, which would it be?”

That’s an inevitable consequence, I suppose, of picking four different world-changing technologies and writing about them all. It invites the obvious request to stop sitting on the fence and choose.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Exponentialist, the basic mission of the book is to explain four powerful ideas – four technologies we all need to understand, and may want to invest in. Those ideas are AI, robotics, solar energy and gene editing.

But if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to pick one, which would it be?

Increasingly I find that question easy to answer.

Gene editing.

Specifically, using the gene editing technique known as CRISPR. I think it’s a breakthrough that will define the world for a century. Today I want to prove why that’s the case.

Epochal innovations

Not all technology is created equal. I don’t mean that in financial terms. I mean some technology is provably more important and long lasting in its impact on the world.

Certain technologies define the age they were invented in. Economist Simon Kuznets called these “epochal innovations”, defined as “major breakthroughs in the advance of human knowledge, and dominant sources of sustained growth over long periods of time.”

These technologies tend to be multi-purpose. They are a platform upon which other innovations can be built. That means they can be marginalised by history by future developments.

I think of these breakthroughs like suns at the centre of the solar system. They reorganise the economy around them. They define everything.

OK, enough metaphorical thinking. Let me give you an example to explain what I mean.

In 1774 James Watt perfected, and then released, a steam engine called the “Watt engine”. It wasn’t entirely new: it was a refinement of technology that had existed in one form or another for nearly a century. Early steam engines were called Fire-Engines, or “Miner’s Friends”, built as they were primarily to help shift earth in the mines. In Neal Stephenson’s incredible The System of the World trilogy, early steam engines are called “devices for moving earth with fire”, which I always liked as a kind of Ronseal description.

But Watt refined what existed and made it into something much more effective – and adaptable. It’s that second word I want you to think about. Consider not just what the steam engine could do, but how it could be adapted, developed or built upon.

It was an adaptable, multi-purpose device. And it lead to the steam-powered mill and railway, which simultaneously changed how quickly we could produce new goods and how fast we could get from A to B. It changed our relationship with time and space. It meant the economy could produce more and move faster.

In other words, it was a civilisational power-up.

But none of those subsequent achievements would have been possible without that original breakthrough. Like I said: it was the sun around which those other ideas orbited.

Look back through history and you see just how important – and rare – these technologies are.

The internal combustion engine is another – though perhaps you could argue even that walks in the footsteps of Watt’s earlier engine. Think about the ways in which motorcars, aeroplanes, motor-powered steel ships and heavy machinery changed the world. And that’s before you even consider the corresponding quest for oil, and subsequent geopolitical earthquakes, that came along with it.

The discovery – or perhaps harnessing is a better word – of electricity has many of the same qualities. It lead to myriad other breakthroughs through its sheer adaptability, from illuminated cities to the telegram, which allowed information and ideas to travel from one part of the world to another almost instantly.

Final example: the silicon computer chip. It’s a more obvious example, given we’re living with the consequences today. Actually, “living with the consequences” is the wrong way to think about it. The consequences are being revealed to us on a near daily basis.

Let’s use recent market history to prove that thesis. Just this year, Amazon and Apple have become the world’s first trillion-dollar companies. Could either of them have done so without the silicon computer chip? Without the systems of personal computers and smartphones, connected by the internet into a virtual ecosystem that’s more valuable than the “real” systems of commerce it replaced. Nope. Not a chance.

That’s powerful change. And I haven’t even mentioned Donald Trump and Twitter in discussing the revolutionary impact of the silicon chip, and the way in which society and the economy has organised itself around that particular technology.

Epochal innovations is one way of describing these breakthroughs. Another would be to call them agents of change.

That description takes on a different quality when you’re not looking back at history, but anticipating the future. Call a technology epoch defining is effectively a backward-looking viewpoint, because you already know what happened. It’s very different when we’re talking about the future.

It’s logical to expect another change agent to emerge in the future, isn’t it? History enables us to look back, spot patterns and say that breakthroughs like this do emerge from time to time. When they do they change everything. The world pre-steam engine was radically different to the world a generation later. Same for widespread electrification. And the internal combustion engine. And of course the silicon computer chip.

Unless we’ve reached a cut-off point in which no more ideas of this scale and potential emerge, we have to try and anticipate what the next one will be. A closer look at history tells us these breakthroughs don’t emerge overnight. But they do reach a critical mass at which point deployment suddenly accelerates.

Which is all my way of building up to my claim to you that I believe the next change agent has already been discovered (or developed, if you like). CRISPR is another multi-purpose, adaptable technology. In fact, its uses are becoming more varied by the day.

Why is that? How does CRISPR work? How might it change the world? And is it possible to invest in it directly? Those are questions I want to answer for you.

Of course, I’ve already answered them in detail in my book The Exponentialist.

Or, you can check back in tomorrow for part two.

Until tomorrow,

Nick O’Connor
Publisher, Southbank Investment Research

Category: Technology

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