I’ve been interested in the study of change for many years, especially as it impacts the quality of leadership in societies. It was a central differentiator in my early description of positive leadership (change is exploration and future visioning) versus negative leadership (change is fear and reinforcing the status-quo).(1)
Recently though I have been focused in on the pace of change, and on the bridging of generations to assure that aging leaders are continuously re-infused with “modern thinking” provided by younger generations. Over the years, I’ve used this technique shamelessly by tapping into the knowledge and insights of our four children, their spouses and friends.
This past week, I was re-reading a book that my son Mitchell, an artist and film director, had given to me in 1995. It catalogued a one hundred year history of modern art titled “The Shock Of The New” by Robert Hughes.(2) In its first chapter, the author moves through a laundry list of disruptive discoveries that coalesced at the dawn of the 20th century. Hughes comments, “The speed at which culture reinvented itself through technology in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth seems almost preternatural.”
As I read the passage aloud to my wife Trish, over morning coffee, she remarked, “That’s exactly what is happening now.” Last evening, we were having dinner with our nephew, John Ross. He is a recent college graduate who is doing a six month internship with ConnCAN, a policy and advocacy non-profit committed to improving educational outcomes in the state’s public schools. Since the job involves most days spent at the State House in Hartford, and since we live nearby, we invited John to stay with us.
So, over chicken cacciatore, I read aloud again the Hughes passage and Trish drew the comparison to our current technologically driven societal upheaval. And John mentioned that he had recently read a book by MIT graduate Ray Kurzweil titled “The Singularity Is Near” which suggested that technologic advances in the future (in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics) would not occur in a linear fashion but would be self-reinforcing and hyperaccelerated, with machines rapidly over-taking humans in applied intelligence.(3)
So I took out my cell phone (which I never do at the table) and I entered Kurzweil and Singularity into the search box. Up popped a 7:10 minute YouTube interview.(4) The three of us huddled around and listened. He said on April 28, 2009:
“By 2020 we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to simulate the human brain but we won’t be finished yet with reverse engineering the human brain and understanding its methods. One of my main themes…is that information technology grows exponentially – the power of computers, the understanding of the human brain, the spatial resolution of brain scanning, the number of bits that move around the internet. Many different measures of information technology double every year, 11 months, 13 months, depending on what you measure. So these technologies will be a million times more powerful in 20 years. In fact, the speed of exponential growth is itself speeding up. So in 25 years these technologies will be a billion times more powerful then they are today…The computer in your cell phone today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful – that’s a billion fold increase in price performance computing since I was an undergraduate. By 2029 we will have completed the reverse engineering of the human brain.”(4)
With that last sentence I pushed the pause button. President Obama had just announced in his State of the Union address “The Brain Activity Mapping Project”, a 3 billion dollar federally funded national project designed to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.(5) President Obama proposes to map the brain within a decade, that’s 2023 – beating the Kurzweil projection by six years. Could national focus on a technology goal (Kennedy’s moonshot for example) hyper-accelerate what was already a self-reinforcing trend line?
According to Kurzweil’s timetable, “By 2045 we will have expanded the intelligence of our human machine civilization a billion fold. That will be ‘singularity’. We borrowed the term from Physics to talk about an event horizon that is hard to see beyond.”(4)
“Singularity” can be scary. For some, it predicts near term emergence of superintelligent machines with capabilities beyond the comprehension of an unaided human mind, an “intelligence explosion” capable of designing continual improvements and expansion of cognitive abilities far beyond our predictive capacity.(6,7,8)
Kurzweil says, “My vision is not utopian. The power of these technologies will grow exponentially. I believe that is inexorable. That has gone on for the last 110 years since the 1890 census. What we do with these technologies is not preordained. That future history has not been written…I am optimistic that we will get more promise than peril. But they both exist. Technology has been a double edged sword since fire and stone tools.”(4)
This morning I was thumbing through the New York Times and on A15 saw the headliner, “At $3 Million, New Award Gives Medical Researchers a Dose of Celebrity”.(9) It seems entrepreneur Yuri Milner has joined ranks with Google’s Sergey Bain, 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to create the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences – 11 awards this year of 3 million each. (Another accelerator?)
While today’s realities are deeply unsettling to many of us, John Ross and his contemporaries seem unfazed by the future. Rather they seem energized and ready to ride the wave.