The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning

I was in a conversation last week with a friend who asked “do you think this is the beginning of the end?” We were discussing something totally wacky that had just happened that clearly could be viewed as an indicator that we have crested the peak of this economic cycle. Then, earlier today, I was on the phone with one of my favorite lawyers and he made a joke about a deal I’m doing as harkening back to the late 1990s. He asked if I thought it was an indication of the top of the cycle. We had a good chuckle (probably PTSD gallows humor from 15 years ago) and I suggested that they slow down the hiring of the associates at their law firm so they wouldn’t have to lay off so many in the inevitable downtown.

Somewhere in between these two conversations I told someone that I thought this was actually the “end of the beginning.” And, tonight at a wonderful dinner, I made the statement to the friend that we were having dinner with that I thought the next 30 years were going to be incredible.

I think we are at the end of the beginning of a dramatic shift in how our species deals with existence. Depending on who you believe, we are either 30 years from the singularity (Kurzweil) or only 15 years away (Vinge). The new science fiction coming out is doing a remarkable job of helping us set a context for the different aspects of what we’ll need to deal with. Some of it will be just as off as Philip K. Dick can be while some will be just as accurate as Philip K. Dick can be. If you are a fan of Philip K. Dick, like I am, you know exactly what I mean. And if you aren’t, I suggest you start with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Humans have serious issues with exponential curves as we want to make everything a line. But a lot of the stuff around us is happening exponentially and we don’t realize it. As a result, we’ve dramatically underestimated the impact of technology on – well – everything. And, since so much of it is exponential, it compounds at an incomprehensible pace. When we look outside at concrete, steel, and glass going up slowly, it lulls us into a sense of normalcy.

The machines want us to feel this way.

Think about it for a brief moment. Suspend disbelief. Wind the clock forward 100 years. Do you think, as a species, we will still be struggling with the things that vex us today? Will we still be arguing about the same stuff? Will physical instantiation of things have the same meaning? We will still be eating Cocoa Puffs?

We are at the end of the beginning. It’s going to get wild. Buckle up.

  • Alex Bilmes

    Beautifully said

  • williamhertling

    It’s so hard for people to imagine. For several years running I’ve either attended or been a panelist on an annual discussion by science fiction writers about what ordinary life will be like in 100 years. The vast majority of panelists describe life not much different than today, talking about what new technology we’ll use to floss our teeth and what we’ll be eating for breakfast before we head off to work in our semi-autonomous cars.

    I’m consistently incredulous at the lack of understanding of how rapidly things are accelerating. It would be shocking for us to even have biological bodies in a hundred years. We’re certainly not going to have jobs as we understand them.

    The naysayers will claim that all exponential curves are just the upward slope of an S-curve. And that’s true, but where the slope changes direction, that is everything: if the slope of progress flattens before we have intelligent AI, then they will, in effect be right. Things will stall out. But if technological progress doesn’t slow until ten years after intelligent AI, then it doesn’t matter what happens after that. We’ll have a race vastly more intelligent than us and able to self-improve at digital speeds, rather than mere biological evolutionary speeds. And we will either become extinct or we’ll merge with them.

    What will a startup look like in 2035 or 2050? What will the economy look like? What will happen in place of jobs?

    • what will the reaction be of those who this technology is completely out of their grasp or understanding… isn’t that a roadbump which might delay us and intelligent AI?

    • What’s the name of the sci-fi writers panel? Do they make it available online?

    • What’s the name of the sci fy writers panel? Do they make it available online?

    • Rick

      You guys aren’t taking into consideration that we have examples of past cultures that became very advanced then suddenly disappeared.
      Look at those past cultures. They left behind documents of stone that has been around for thousands of years! Our junk stops working in a few hours when the battery drains.
      If someone wants to tell me we will still enjoy having our bodies to rub against others for enjoyment and that there will be no one starving a hundred years from now I’m all ears. If someone wants to tell me we’ll have yet another gadget to send recordings of our farts to people. But it is received faster. Then I’ll need that someone to go away while I talk with some people who get it.

      • RBC

        thanks for the laugh on an otherwise quiet Tuesday!

        • Rick

          I know. Isn’t it amazing that most people don’t realize that good advances make people’s lives fundamentally better. When people talk about advances that cause people frustration and more wasted time I just scratch my head.
          Also look at many of the artifacts we find. People ponder and argue for years about not knowing how such a primitive culture could have made them. A primitive culture didn’t make them. An advanced culture did. But they chose a medium that would last much longer than the tools used.
          A truly advanced world *eliminates* problems! A marketing world labels every new item as fantastic.

  • Yeah… I sense this as well. The half life for a new-normal is remarkable short now. At least in the west.

    Have to remember that half the world, 3 billion people still live on $2.50 a day, in poverty. Almost half of those in extreme poverty with $1.25 a day. Gains for this segment have been less than spectacular in the last decade. All while the future is speeding up for those of us in the west, particularly west of San Jose.

    It makes me think of what entering a black hole might be like… stretching you out into a spaghetti like strand, with one end advancing rapidly towards the event horizon, and the other end (relatively) lagging behind.

    Ofcourse we are not entering a black whole, but the universe seems to favor balance, and so the ‘correction’ between the futures and the future-nots maybe be an ugly time. Just keep an eye out for any ‘Elysium’ type projects from.. um.. Alphabet.

  • Sometimes it just feels like the rubber band is stretching so far that at some point it’ll either snap or snap back.. (maybe snap forward). I agree with what @jessbachman:disqus said below, so much of the world is simply not ‘keeping up’.

    I wouldn’t bet against Cocoa Puffs. And i’d be glad IF AS A SPECIES we’ll struggle with anything in a united and concerned fashion, i’m hesitantly worried that as we stretch forward some problems will seem too far behind to fix..

    • I’m a big fan of future cocoa puffs also.

      Good point on struggling with things in a united fashion. It’s not our nature. It’ll be an endless, chaotic, divisive struggle.

  • Disassociate the business cycle and economic cycle with the innovation/tech cycle. I am like you. Wish I was 20 again because the developments we are going to see in the next 30 years will be totally mind blowing. However, I do think that tech needs to disrupt the way we govern. Take power from centralized bureaucrats and give it over to entrepreneurs/people. Will go faster then-and the overall economy will be better for it.

    • Gridlock and slowness in government is a feature, not a bug.

      • There is a big difference between Congressional gridlock and the bureaucratic regulatory state. I think this sums it up really well:

        • Ha.. you are using ‘sums’ very liberally here. Without reading that 7k word essay, I will agree there is a difference.

      • Rick

        Are you saying that government turns out horseshit and if you slow it down then you’ll get less horseshit that needs cleaned up?

        • I’m saying that there are many points through out history with a fast acting government… that you wouldn’t want to be a part of.

  • Rich Kwiat

    Nice post Brad. I generally can’t shut up about the singularity 🙂 I’m big on Kurzweil but not yet familiar with Vinge. Will have to check it out.

    • Vinge is one of the best sci-fi writers ever. He’s worth devouring.

  • We are in the middle of the shift. And this is beyond technology, or even business/economics. Consider all global systems, say Technology, Arts, Science, Religion, Geo Politics, Nature. In regular periods, any one these may be shifting, but none are shifting together in unison and none have a significant impact on another. (i.e. their amplitude and modulation are asynchronous). In a lens period (my term) the changes begin to cycle and take on a form of sympathetic resonance, change (frequency) becomes connected across all systems, which speeds up the overall system rate of change. In human terms this causes seismic shifts across all global systems. The last time we witnessed this was the beginning of the 19th century and it set up the systems we still live with today. An interesting read on this is Paul Johnson’s Birth of The Modern.

    • Oooh – I like the Paul Johnson reference- well done.

  • Doug Gibbs

    Or, try to flip the conversation, is this the S curve leveling out.
    We don’t have interstellar travel or super sonic around the world flights. Transportation became “good enough” and the rate of innovation slowed after years of growth, trains, cars, planes to rockets.
    4K displays are sharper than human retinas. Every semiconductor node gets more expensive and harder to keep cool, so Moore’s law is slowing. Your phone gets signal all the way to Vail, and their are more smart phone users in China than Europeans (all).
    Once technology saturates, the rate of change will slow down. Assuming things are linear is wrong, but so is assuming things will grow exponentially forever.

    The key is guessing the next big thing that is just starting. Maybe biohacking, or something even cooler. Personally I would like to mine asteroids.

    • Matt Kruza

      Agree with the s curve leveling out

      • Except that how S-curves work. They level – and then things jump to a new curve that was unexpected.

        • Matt Kruza

          Not necessarily though right? I mean, s curves level for sure, and often there is a next level, but sometimes the next curve doesn’t happen. I mean there are an impossible number of examples, but the best examples are physics based. A car can only go so far on a gallon of gas. You will never see 500mpg pure gasoline cars that carry humans (in fact the limit is probably around 75 mpg for anything that resembles a car – four wheels, at least two doors etc.). The point being i feel like saying there will be another s-curve is like the person who saw the model t and then subsequent cars in the 1930’s and 40’s predicting you would have cars going 500 mph and 1000 mpg. We know that that s curve leveld out. With really small stuff (microprocessors, biology, dna, energy, space travel etc) it is much harder to get our brains around that stuff to see when we will level out (and sure i guess you can say that we still have 5 more s-curves to go, but i am not sure i guess is my overall very broad point.) hope i have articulated it decently well

    • I think it’s joyful that there is a broad perception that some things (like transportation) are good enough.

      I think transportation totally sucks. Plane travel is a debacle. Cars are clearly struggling to find their way especially in large cities.

      So much of the opportunity for change here is driven by software. And the rest is driven by step functions / dislocation in technologies and approaches we haven’t thought of / figured out yet.

      There was a guy named Einstein that changed hundreds of years of thinking.

      There will happen again, just like it has happened before.

      • Doug Gibbs

        Plane travel is a debacle. If you and I invent a better, faster, bigger airplane, it will still be a debacle. The problems with going through an airport have nothing to do with airplanes. Well, a little, planes need airports, so it is a point of control.
        I agree that software is the driver of progress. Big data and analytics has a chance to improve medicine, crops, and quality of life, and not just for the first world.

  • mark gelband

    As the father of Ada, the Countess of Lovelace, George Gordon (Lord) Byron literally spawned the mother of writing on computer science. The Countess of Lovelace, of course, penned Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, but Byron, “Byronmania”, and the Byronic hero portend more about “modern” social interaction, the nexus of tech and social structures, and man’s naive (arrogant) folly that “our time” is always the precipice of something even more special than yesterday.

    What makes it so other than our proclamation of such?

    Imagine the first people (monkeys) stumbling upon a field of bromeliads flowering with pineapples. Would they gorge on the sweetness until they threw up?

    “A mind at peace with all below,
    a heart whose love is innocence!”

    • Rick

      “What makes it so other than our proclamation of such?”

  • While the physical items we consume or hold onto may change, human nature will not.

    • Rick

      Right! We have all these *advances* but people are either working more for less or not able to get work at all. We are becoming more and more *entertained* and less and less intelligent.
      I just was talking with a young person the other day who stated that the young people today are stupid. They can’t think. They don’t know anything. They have to look it up on google. They can’t form their own opinion. They have to get it from their smart phone.
      Now obviously that isn’t correct for all young people. But when you have one of the crowd looking around and saying “Hey we’re a bunch of knuckleheads” you must stop and take note.

      • I was just having this discussion with my 18-year old daughter thats going off to CU Boulder in a week as a freshman. While all you say is true and I agree with it, a lot of it is just youth be youthful so I don’t worry about it too much.

        The thing I talked to her about was the biggest problem in society I see right now, the societal assault on marriage. The boomers and the progeny they raised and taught their selfish ways have basically destroyed marriage, be it the huge numbers of single mothers, or the 50-75% divorce rates, depending which subset of the population you you look at, or the widening of the definition thats occuring. The problem is that this generation is destroying marriage for the next generation. We’re not impressing upon them the notion of lifelong commitment and what it takes to actually carry that out when it get even the slightest bit tuff.

        As I was raised, marriage was a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman with the primary purpose bearing and raising children in a morals based environment. Every part of that statement is under assault in today’s society. The boomers began it with their turn everything upside down thing. Drugs, an aversion to religion as a moral framework, and a variety of other basically self-centered views of the world began in earnest in the 60’s. We are, imo, reaping the benefits of that I don’t care about anybody but myself attitude that now pervades both boomers and what I really lament, their offspring.

        We may have iphones but we’ve broken just about everything else.

  • Matt Kruza

    Ray kurzweill is a bona fide crack pot (yes i get semi-tech famous and has some form of emeritus position at google i think) but the singularity is bull shit and basically on par with the jetsons version of the future. ie cool for all the cool kids to talk about, but not grounded in science at all. Brad, reminds me a lot about the first time I commented on this blog (maybe 18 months ago?) when either you or the article you linked about seriously talked about teleportation. I went on to go on a hysterical rant (great first impression i know) because it is literally scientifically impossible for teleportation (unless you believe in instantaneous infinite cloning) but there are “scientists / futurists” who talk about it. The singularity is only possible if you believe in exponential curves for everything, vs realizing the world is an s-curve (energy limits, physical time – space continuum limits, limits to computer processing speed, to how fast biologically creatures can evolve etc.). The future will have a sad ring to it if you believe in the singularity. Much respect on your business ventures but the sci-fi stuff i respectfully think is WAY out there. I hope my comment isn’t too aggressive, and its cool if you don’t want to respond, but since I do think you are a very smart businessman in general any explanation or link to books / articles that make you believe in the singularity and kurzweill? Just as i have read the bible to be firm in my non-believe in it, i am open to reading the best texts supposedly supporting a singularity. Thanks! (end rant!)

    • Rick

      You are correct. I see more and more people leaving virtual behind and going back to real world things. Many people think they are very smart but don’t realize how little they know. They talk about all kinds of advances as fantastic when they are not smart enough to see how useless those, so called, advances are.
      What you have are people who create things just for the sake of creating something. They don’t take the time to figure out if what they are going to create is really of benefit to people.
      Working in IT for 20 years I’ve seen many instances of companies moving to software that destroys the company’s processes and procedures. Processes and procedures that the company perfected over decades and gave them their market advantage. All lost because some fool wanted to move to a new technology just to say they moved to a new technology.
      I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s about leadership. We have so few true leaders to help us along our journey.

      • mark gelband


    • It’s not worth the argument given your absolute position that these things are impossible.

      Totally cool to have a different opinion. Lots of people believe in God. I don’t.

      • Matt Kruza

        Teleportation i agree is not worth the argument. It is impossible (or as close to as firm as i would say anything). On the singularity i would say probably impossible as defined as kurzweill, but am curious of your belief or other books on the topic because it definitely is possible (although not certain) that robots could be more sentient and intelligent than us. So sorry that i framed as so hard line. Should have separated out teleportation and kurzweil”s zaniness from the idea of future technology s-curves and the similar. Would genuinely apprecaite resources / links on that which interest you (and perhaps you will point to specific kurzweill stuff i should look at.. and i may need to do that. I have read articles of his and the general approach so i am not totally oblivious, but do acknowledge i haven’t read the source. just have been so turned off from what i have heard / how he presents that i have discredited, perhaps i have errored).

  • Benjamin

    ‘Wind the clock…’ (not ‘close’) ?

    • Yup – fixed – thanks.

  • Jeff Jones

    thanks for this post Brad and the book rec. what other science fiction books do you recommend for someone unfamiliar with the genre?

    • Start with anything by William Hertling, Daniel Suarez, Neal Stephenson (Classic: Snowcrash), or William Gibson (classic: Neuromancer)

  • I’m confident the things we argue about and struggle with will be a mix. Even if it’s exponential change, you could compare 500 years ago to now.. and so much stays the same. So some will be the same as ever (relationships, politics, entertainment, cocoa puffs) and some will be unimaginable, or unimaginable twists on those ever present topics (Cocoa Reality? Self eating Cocoa Puffs? Internet of Cocoa Puffs? Impossible to say from where we’re standing.).

    • Politics is an interesting constant through all of humanity. It’s fun to read sci-fi and realize that the politics will be the same 5000 years from now.

      • Bencke

        It’s also fun to contemplate that politics were essentially the same thousands of years ago (e.g., History of the Peloponnesian War).

  • Chris J Snook

    By 2023 (under 8 years) a $1000 handheld computer/phone will have the processing power and speed equivalent to a human brain and by 2053 the same $1000 device will have the processing speed of the brain capacity of the entire human race. Mind boggling opportunity, shift and change ahead. The age of the humanitarian and life long learner is approaching a warp speed. I agree Brad. Hold on and thank you for being a guy I look to as a ‘sense-maker’ and beacon of light in my life and career as I try to do my part as well to lead well. 🙂

  • jseats

    I’m an optimist about the future (how can you not be), and the forecasting of AGI being within reach is personally very exciting to me. Since I’m predisposed to think this stuff is all going to work out well, I forced myself to find some contrary opinions to read and came across this book –

    If you haven’t read it Brad, I’d recommend it. Lays out well some sobering possibilities about how this could all unfold. Overall I still walk away an optimist but with a greater appreciation of some of the risks ahead for us.

    • I’m an optimist also. I think it’s a lot more fun.

      I just grabbed a copy of the book – thanks for the recommendation.

  • Jordan Wolfson

    Thanks for the post. Yes, I do believe you’re right and it’s going to get wild. “Buckle up” sounds pretty appropriate. Beyond that…it’s so difficult to get a clear sense of where we’re going to go, where we’re going to choose to go, what the sum of humanity’s mixed intentions will lead to. We’re on the edge of something, to be sure. I pray that we feel into it with our hearts as well as our minds. Thank for the book recommendation — I’ve been thinking of reading something by Philip K. Dick for some time. Here’s one, by Charles Eisenstein, “The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible”.

  • ctsmithiii

    Having just finished writing an article that was informed by interviewing 12 Big Data executives, I believe we’re at the beginning. In 15 to 20 years, people will not be doing what a machine can do, they’ll be free to use their minds to do creative things. Big Data will be the central technology to human existence affecting all aspects of life (e.g., weather, transportation, healthcare, nutrition, energy, etc.).
    Cluster computing will provide real-time data and analytics for everything – industrial and personal. The number of decisions we make as individuals will be reduced because so many of the decisions will already be made based on past actions and preferences thereby simplifying life.

  • Sam

    “Tomorrowland” by Steve Kotler (the book / unrelated to the movie) is a fantastic collection of articles on the accelerating progression of technology along multiple dimensions — and how that is today or will be soon impacting our lives. The underlying premise of virtually all of the articles is that exponential curves are delivering technological change at an extremely rapid pace. A well-written, well-researched book that is at the same time remarkably easy to read and meaningfully thought-provoking.

    One area I think about that I haven’t seen addressed in many places (perhaps I’m not looking in the right places) is the role of government. Representative democracy and a common law legal framework… These are institutions that aren’t really designed to adapt to the speed of technological change the same way a market economy can adapt. We’ve been getting by up until now, but eventually something will have to give.

    • In much the same way the “lean startup” methodology transformed how people create startups in the capitalist environment I feel some equivalent needs to be created in working with Government. It may not focus on the product/market fit as the lean methodology does. Maybe it focuses on product/system fit within Gov? and rapidly iterating towards successful integration?

      Either way I feel like no one has had the balls or foresight to create such a framework. A framework where the end game is to unlock or upgrade capability within Gov systems whilst successfully carving out a chunk of tax payers cash to survive.

      It’s all super hazy in my mind, but the forever optimistic entrepreneur inside me says its totally possible / perhaps inevitable.

      The same principal could also be applied to changing gov ideologies and principals of governance. However this will probably come secondary to successful startup technological integration.

      Either way I’m excited at the rate human potential is being unlocked… especially in the startup scene. It’s only a matter of time before the principals heralded here propagate to other facets of our lives and systems.

  • Joseph Prencipe

    I was just considering the industry growth story yesterday, here’s a small excerpt. “Tech ventures will appear at a higher rate partly due to the stable environment created by OECD countries in particular US, UK, Japan and Germany. The key elements of the ‘stable environment’ include
    – increased well-educated talent;
    – lowered risk for leaders, innovators, and early co-founders (eg due to social acceptability of getting hired after a failed startup)
    – increased availability of capital;
    – new generation of platforms and measurement devices (eg new 3d electron microscopes identify energy distribution system in muscle cells)

  • Danielle Morrill

    Great book recommendation. And don’t settle for the movie, you have to read the book.