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I like the direct, practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems presented here. While I had heard of many of these things, I was surprised to see how far along the technology had moved. TED presenters are everywhere and fleshing out the personalities a bit was refreshing and enlightening. If you like Sci-Fi this feels like nirvanna. If you like practicality, there are so many deep insights and realized solutions. I love this book.
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According to some viewpoints, life on Earth is getting worse, with more and more people competing for fewer and fewer resources. However, Peter Diamandis and Stephen Kotler are here to make the case for optimism, arguing that innovations in technology, communication, information access, energy production, medicine, agriculture, methods of learning, and entrepreneurship are likely to have vast, transformative effects on human society in the near future. Key to understanding this is the authors’ belief that technological progress tends to follow an exponential curve, rather than a linear one, with inventions that seem to be of limited use at first quickly evolving to become crucial, productivity-enhancing features of everyday life. We’ve already seen this happen with airplanes, cars, computers, and the Internet, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t happen with solar and nuclear energy, better batteries, smart agriculture, gene therapy, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence. If you’re familiar with techno-optimists like Ray Kurzweil, then you know the cloth that Abundance is cut from.
The authors also focus some attention on the so-called “bottom billion”. As they point out, even small improvements that reach the very poor have a marked effect on their quality of life. Simple access to clean water, basic medicine, cell phone communication, a little electricity, and other small conveniences liberates people from their harshest struggles, enabling them to reach for better lives, including more education. This also reduces the rampant population growth and environmental strain associated with poverty, as people find that they no longer need to be subsistence farmers or have as many children as possible to ensure a comfortable future for themselves.
As a guy who works in technology, I think the book’s optimism in that department is well justified. Never underestimate what can happen when millions of very smart individuals, who can share knowledge easily, attack interconnected problems. The middle chapters contain a short who's-who catalog of inventors, thinkers, and entrepreneurs whose work is pushing the envelope in different areas. In fact, I took the artificial intelligence course taught by one of the researchers mentioned in the AI section, and offered for free online by Stanford University. How’s that for abundance? As Diamandis points out, even the President of the United States didn’t have so much expertise at his fingertips twenty-five years ago. Now a kid in India with a cheap laptop does.
On the social front, there seems to be a little more wishful thinking. The authors are hopeful that improved resource efficiency and slowing population growth will bring humanity’s rapacious levels of consumption and environmental impact down to sustainable levels, and I’m sure they’re right to some degree, but will they be right *enough*? Also, while I admire what certain billionaire philanthropists are doing with their money to solve real problems, the authors seem to discount the other side of concentrated wealth and power, the one that hasn’t always cared about humanity’s best interests. And I still have my concerns about the fate of people who no longer have skills that are useful in a technology-based economy -- what will they get paid to do?
But, even if Abundance doesn’t fully address all those questions, it’s still a hopeful, positive book, directing attention towards all the ways that human beings are applying their ingenuity for real good.
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