In their book Abundance, bestselling authors and futurists Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler tackled grand global challenges, such as poverty, hunger, and energy. Then, in Bold, they chronicled the use of exponential technologies that allowed the emergence of powerful new entrepreneurs. Now the bestselling authors are back with The Future Is Faster Than You Think, a blueprint for how our world will change in response to the next ten years of rapid technological disruption.
Technology is accelerating far more quickly than anyone could have imagined. During the next decade, we will experience more upheaval and create more wealth than we have in the past hundred years. In this gripping and insightful roadmap to our near future, Diamandis and Kotler investigate how wave after wave of exponentially accelerating technologies will impact both our daily lives and society as a whole. What happens as AI, robotics, virtual reality, digital biology, and sensors crash into 3D printing, blockchain, and global gigabit networks? How will these convergences transform today’s legacy industries? What will happen to the way we raise our kids, govern our nations, and care for our planet?
Diamandis, a space-entrepreneur-turned-innovation-pioneer, and Kotler, bestselling author and peak performance expert, probe the science of technological convergence and how it will reinvent every part of our lives—transportation, retail, advertising, education, health, entertainment, food, and finance—taking humanity into uncharted territories and reimagining the world as we know it.
As indispensable as it is gripping, The Future Is Faster Than You Think provides a prescient look at our impending future.
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About the Author
Steven Kotler is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and the founder and executive director of the Flow Research Collective. His books include Stealing Fire, Bold, The Rise of Superman, Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer, Tomorrowland, West of Jesus, and Last Tango in Cyberspace. His work has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, has been translated into more than forty languages, and has appeared in over a hundred publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Wired, Forbes, and Time.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Convergence
CHAPTER ONE Convergence
The Skirball Cultural Center sits just off the 405 Freeway, on the northern edge of Los Angeles. Built atop the thin spine of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Center offers spectacular views in nearly every direction, except for the freeway below—which is bumper-to-bumper for miles on end.
Of course it is.
In 2018, for the sixth straight year, Los Angeles earned the dubious honor of being the most gridlocked metropolis in the world, where the average driver spends two-and-a-half working weeks a year trapped in traffic. Yet help may be on its way. In May 2018, the Skirball Center was ground zero for Uber Elevate, the ridesharing company’s radical plan for solving this traffic: their second annual flying car conference.
Inside the Skirball, giant screens displayed a night sky dotted with stars that slowly faded into a blue sky dotted with clouds. Beneath the clouds, it was standing room only. The event had attracted a motley crew of the power elite: CEOs, entrepreneurs, architects, designers, technologists, venture capitalists, government officials, and real estate magnates. Nearly a thousand in total, dressed in everything from Wall Street slick to eternally casual Friday, all gathered to witness the birth of a new industry.
To kick off the conference, Jeff Holden, Uber’s (now former) chief product officer, took the stage. With curly brown hair and a gray Uber Air polo shirt, Holden had a boyish demeanor that belied his actual role in the affair. This event, in fact, the entire concept of getting Uber off the ground, was Holden’s vision.
It was quite a vision.
“We’ve come to accept extreme congestion as part of our lives,” said Holden.1 “In the U.S., we have the honor of being home to ten of the world’s twenty-five most congested cities, costing us approximately $300 billion in lost income and productivity. Uber’s mission is to solve urban mobility.… Our goal is to introduce an entirely new form of transportation to the world, namely urban aviation, or what I prefer to call ‘aerial ridesharing.’?”
Aerial ridesharing might sound like sci-fi cliché, but Holden had a solid track record of disruptive innovation. In the late 1990s, he followed Jeff Bezos from New York to Seattle to become one of the earliest employees at Amazon. There, he was put in charge of implementing the then zany idea of free two-day shipping for a flat annual membership fee. It was an innovation that many thought would bankrupt the company. Instead, Amazon Prime was born, and today, 100 million Prime members later, that zany idea accounts for a significant portion of the company’s bottom line.
Next, Holden went to another startup, Groupon—which is hard to remember as a disruptive enterprise today, but was then part of the first wave of “power to the people” internet companies. From there, he went to Uber, where, despite the turmoil the company experienced, Holden strung together a series of unlikely wins: UberPool, Uber Eats, and, most recently, Uber’s self-driving car program. So when he proposed an even zanier product line—that Uber take to the skies—it wasn’t all that surprising that the company’s leadership took him seriously.
And for good reason. The theme of the second annual Uber Elevate wasn’t actually flying cars. The cars have already arrived. Instead, the theme of the second Uber Elevate was the path to scale. And the more critical point: That path is a lot shorter than many suspect.
By mid-2019, over $1 billion had been invested in at least twenty-five different flying car companies. A dozen vehicles are currently being test-flown, while another dozen are at stages ranging from PowerPoint to prototype. They come in all shapes and sizes, from motorcycles stacked atop oversized fans, to quadcopter drones scaled up to human size, to miniature space-pod airplanes. Larry Page, cofounder and CEO of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, was among the first to recognize their potential, personally funding three companies, Zee Aero, Opener and Kitty Hawk. Established players like Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, and Bell Helicopter (now just called Bell, a reference to the future disappearance of the helicopter itself) are also in the game. Thus, for the first time in history, we’re past the point of talking about the possibility of flying cars.
The cars are here.
“Uber’s goal,” explained Holden from the stage, “is to demonstrate flying car capability in 2020 and have aerial ridesharing fully operational in Dallas and LA by 2023.” But then Holden went even further: “Ultimately, we want to make it economically irrational to own and use a car.”
How irrational? Let’s look at the numbers.
Today, the marginal cost of car ownership—that is, not the purchase price, but everything else that goes with a car (gas, repairs, insurance, parking, etc.)—is 59 cents per passenger mile. For comparison, a helicopter, which has many more problems than just cost, covers a mile for about $8.93. For its 2020 launch, according to Holden, Uber Air wants to reduce that per mile price to $5.73, then rapidly drive it down to $1.84. But Uber’s long-term target is the game-changer—44 cents per mile—or cheaper than the cost of driving.
And you get a lot per mile. Uber’s main interest is in “electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles”—or eVTOLs for short. eVTOLs are being developed by a plethora of companies, but Uber has very particular needs. For an eVTOL to qualify for their aerial ridesharing program, it must be able to carry one pilot and four passengers at a speed of over 150 mph for three continuous hours of operation. While Uber envisions twenty-five miles as its shortest flight (think Malibu to downtown Los Angeles), these requirements allow you to leap from northern San Diego to southern San Francisco in a single bound. Uber already has five partners who have committed to delivering eVTOLs that meet these specs, with another five or ten still to come.
But the vehicles alone won’t make car ownership irrational. Uber has also partnered with NASA and the FAA to develop an air traffic management system to coordinate their flying fleet. They’ve also teamed up with architects, designers, and real estate developers to design a string of “mega-skyports” needed for passengers to load and unload and for vehicles to take off and land. Just like with the flying cars, Uber doesn’t want to own these skyports, they want to lease them. Once again, they have very specific needs. To qualify as Uber-ready, a mega-skyport must be able to recharge vehicles in seven to fifteen minutes, handle one thousand takeoffs and landings per hour (four thousand passengers), and occupy no more than three acres of land—which is small enough to sit atop old parking garages or on the roofs of skyscrapers.
Put all this together, and by 2027 or so, you’ll be able to order up an aerial rideshare as easily as you do an Uber today. And by 2030, urban aviation could be a major mode of getting from A to B.
But all of this raises a fundamental question: Why now? Why, in the late spring of 2018, are flying cars suddenly ready for prime time? What is it about this particular moment in history that has turned one of our oldest science fiction fantasies into our latest reality?
After all, we’ve been dreaming of Blade Runner hover cars and Back to the Future DeLorean DMC-12s for millennia. Vehicles capable of flight date back to the “flying chariots” in the Ramayana, an eleventh-century Hindu text. Even the more modern incarnations—that is, ones built around the internal combustion engine—have been around for a while. The 1917 Curtiss Autoplane, the 1937 Arrowbile, the 1946 Airphibian, the list goes on. There are over a hundred different patents on file in the US for “roadable aircraft.” A handful have flown. Most have not. None have delivered on the promise of The Jetsons.
In fact, our ire at this lack of delivery has become a meme unto itself. At the turn of the last century, in a now famous IBM commercial, comedian Avery Brooks asked: “It’s the year 2000, but where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars. I don’t see any flying cars. Why? Why? Why?” In 2011, in his “What Happened to the Future?” manifesto, investor Peter Thiel echoed this concern, writing: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
Yet, as should be clear by now, the wait is over. The Flying Cars Are Here. And the infrastructure’s coming fast. While we were sipping our lattes and checking our Instagram, science fiction became science fact. And this brings us back to our initial question: Why now?
The answer, in a word: Convergence.
If you want to understand convergence, it helps to start at the beginning. In our earlier books, Abundance and BOLD, we introduced the notion of exponentially accelerating technology; that is, any technology that doubles in power while dropping in price on a regular basis. Moore’s Law is the classic example. In 1965, Intel founder Gordon Moore noticed that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit had been doubling every eighteen months. This meant every year-and-a-half computers got twice as powerful, yet their cost stayed the same.
Moore thought this was pretty astounding. He predicted this trend might last a few more years, maybe five, possibly ten. Well, it’s been twenty, forty, going on sixty years. Moore’s Law is the reason the smartphone in your pocket is a thousand times smaller, a thousand times cheaper, and a million times more powerful than a supercomputer from the 1970s.
And it’s not slowing down.
Despite reports that we are approaching the heat death of Moore’s Law—which we’ll address in the next chapter—in 2023 the average thousand-dollar laptop will have the same computing power as a human brain (roughly 1016 cycles per second). Twenty-five years after that, that same average laptop will have the power of all the human brains currently on Earth.
More critically, it’s not just integrated circuits that are progressing at this rate. In the 1990s, Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google and Peter’s cofounding partner in Singularity University, discovered that once a technology becomes digital—that is, once it can be programmed in the ones and zeroes of computer code—it hops on the back of Moore’s Law and begins accelerating exponentially.
In simple terms, we use our new computers to design even faster new computers, and this creates a positive feedback loop that further accelerates our acceleration—what Kurzweil calls the “Law of Accelerating Returns.” The technologies now accelerating at this rate include some of the most potent innovations we have yet dreamed up: quantum computers, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, material science, networks, sensors, 3-D printing, augmented reality, virtual reality, blockchain, and more.
But all of this progress, however radical it may seem, is actually old news. The new news is that formerly independent waves of exponentially accelerating technology are beginning to converge with other independent waves of exponentially accelerating technology. For example, the speed of drug development is accelerating, not only because biotechnology is progressing at an exponential rate, but because artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and a couple other exponentials are converging on the field. In other words, these waves are starting to overlap, stacking atop one another, producing tsunami-sized behemoths that threaten to wash away most everything in their path.
When a new innovation creates a new market and washes away an existing one, we use the term “disruptive innovation” to describe it. When silicon chips replaced vacuum tubes at the beginning of the digital age, this was a disruptive innovation. Yet, as exponential technologies converge, their potential for disruption increases in scale. Solitary exponentials disrupt products, services, and markets—like when Netflix ate Blockbuster for lunch—while convergent exponentials wash away products, services, and markets, as well as the structures that support them.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The rest of this book is devoted to these forces and their rapid and revolutionary impact. Before we dive deeper into that tale, let’s first examine convergence through a more manageable lens, returning to our initial question about flying cars: Why now?
To answer that, let’s examine the three basic requirements any Uber eVTOL will have to meet: safety, noise, and price. Helicopters, which are the closest model anyone has for a flying car, have been around for nearly eighty years—Igor Sikorsky built the world’s first one in 1939—yet they can’t come close to satisfying these requirements. Besides being loud and expensive, they have that bad habit of falling out of the sky. So why are Bell, Uber, Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer—just to name a few—bringing aerial taxis to market today?
Once again: Convergence.
Helicopters are loud and dangerous because they use a single gargantuan rotor to generate lift. Unfortunately, the tip-speed of that single rotor produces exactly the right thud-thud-thud frequency to annoy pretty much anyone with ears. And they’re dangerous because, if that rotor fails, well, gravity plays for keeps.
Now imagine, instead of one main rotor overhead, a bunch of smaller rotors—like a row of small fans beneath a plane’s wing—whose combination generates enough lift to fly, but pumps out a lot less noise. Better yet, imagine if this multi-rotor system could fail gracefully, landing safely even if a couple rotors stopped working at once. Add to this design a single wing that enables speeds of 150 mph or more. All great ideas, except, thanks to their terrible power-to-weight ratios, gasoline-powered engines make none of this possible.
Enter distributed electric propulsion, or DEP for short.
Over the past decade, a surge in demand for commercial and military drones has pushed roboticists (and drones are just flying robots) to envision a new kind of electromagnetic motor: extremely light, stealthily quiet, and capable of carrying heavy loads. To design that motor, engineers relied on a trilogy of converging techs: first, machine learning advances that allowed them to run enormously complicated flight simulations, then materials science breakthroughs that let them create parts both light enough for flying and durable enough for safety, and last, new manufacturing techniques—3-D printing—that can create these motors and rotors at any scale. And talk about functionality: These electric engines are 95 percent efficient compared to gasoline’s 28 percent.
But flying a DEP system is another story. Adjusting a dozen motors in microsecond intervals is beyond a human pilot’s skill. DEP systems are “fly-by-wire”—that is, computer controlled. And what produces that level of control? Another swarm of converging technologies.
First, an AI revolution gave us the computational processing horsepower to take in an ungodly amount of data, make sense of it in microseconds, and manipulate a multitude of electric motors and aircraft control surfaces accordingly, in real time. Second, to sweep in all that data, you need to replace the pilot’s eyes and ears with sensors capable of processing gigabits of information at once. That means GPS, LIDAR, radar, an advanced visual imaging suite, and a plethora of microscopic accelerometers—many of which are the dividends of a decade of smartphone wars.
Finally, you’ll need batteries. They’ll have to last long enough to overcome range anxiety—or the fear of running out of juice while running errands—and generate enough oomph, or what engineers call “power density,” to lift the vehicle, a pilot, and four passengers off the ground. To achieve this lift, the minimum requirement is 350 kilowatt hours per kilogram. This was out of reach, until recently. Thanks to the explosive growth of both solar power and electric cars, there’s now a bigger need for better energy storage systems, resulting in a next generation of lithium-ion batteries with increased range, and, as an added bonus, enough power to lift flying cars.
In the aerial ridesharing equation, we’ve solved safety and noise, but price still requires a few more innovations. There’s also the not small issue of manufacturing enough eVTOLs for Uber’s program. To be able to meet Uber’s outsized demand at an affordable price would require suppliers to produce aircraft faster than during WWII, when a still unbroken record of eighteen thousand B24 fighters were pumped out over two years—or, at its peak, one plane every sixty-three minutes.
For this to happen—which is what it would take to make flying cars a mainstream reality, not an elitist luxury—we need another trio of convergences. To start, computer-aided design and simulation need to become deft enough to draft the airfoils, wings, and fuselages required for commercial flight. At the same time, material science has to produce carbon fiber composites and complex metal alloys that are light enough for flight yet durable enough for safety. Finally, 3-D printers have to become fast enough to turn these new materials into usable parts so that all previous aircraft manufacturing records are shattered. In other words, exactly where we are today.
Sure, you can play this game with any new technology. Socks couldn’t be invented until a materials revolution turned plant fibers into soft fabrics and a tool-making revolution turned animal bones into sewing needles. This is progress, of course, but linear in nature. It took thousands of years to get from these first steps in sock-dom to the next major innovation: the domestication of animals (which gave us sheep’s wool). And thousands more years for electricity to bring sock-making to scale.
But the blurry acceleration we’re witnessing today—that is, the answer to “Why now?”—is the result of a dozen different technologies converging. It’s progress at a rate that we’ve not seen before. And this is a problem for us.
The human brain evolved in an environment that was local and linear. Local, meaning most everything that we interacted with was less than a day’s walk away. Linear, meaning the rate of change was exceptionally slow. Your great-great-great-grandfather’s life was roughly the same as his great-great-grandson’s life. But now we live in a world that is global and exponential. Global, meaning if it happens on the other side of the planet, we hear about it seconds later (and our computers hear about it only milliseconds later). Exponential, meanwhile, refers to today’s blitzkrieg speed of development. Forget about the difference between generations, currently mere months can bring a revolution. Yet our brain—which hasn’t really had a hardware update in two hundred thousand years—wasn’t designed for this scale or speed.
And if we struggle to track the growth of singular innovations, we’re downright helpless in the face of converging ones. Put it this way, in “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” Ray Kurzweil did the math and found that we’re going to experience twenty thousand years of technological change over the next one hundred years. Essentially, we’re going from the birth of agriculture to the birth of the internet twice in the next century. This means paradigm-shifting, game-changing, nothing-is-ever-the-same-again breakthroughs—such as affordable aerial ridesharing—will not be an occasional affair. They’ll be happening all the time.
It means, of course, that flying cars are just the beginning.
More Transportation Options
A little over a century ago, another transportation transformation was under way. The triple threat convergence of the internal combustion engine, the moving assembly line and the emerging petroleum industry was together driving—pardon the pun—the horse-and-buggy business out of business.
The first bespoke cars hit the roads around the tail end of the nineteenth century, but Ford’s 1908 introduction of the mass-produced Model T marked the real tipping point. Just four years later, New York traffic surveys counted more cars than horses on the road. And while the speed of this shift was breathtaking, in retrospect it wasn’t unexpected. Whenever a new technology offers a tenfold increase in value—cheaper, faster and better—there’s little that can slow it down.
In the decades that followed Ford’s invention, with a Cambrian explosion of accouterments, the car reshaped our world: stoplights and stop signs, interstate highways and multilevel interchanges, parking lots and parking garages, gas stations on every corner, the drive-thru, car washes, suburbs, smog and gridlock. But even as we witness the birth of aerial ridesharing—which seems likely to replace multiple parts in this system—a different revolution threatens it entirely: autonomous cars.
While the first driverless car was a radio-controlled “American wonder” that navigated the streets of New York City back in the 1920s, this was little more than an oversized toy. Its more modern incarnation emerged from the military’s desire for a risk-free way to resupply troops. Roboticists began trying to meet this need in the 1980s; car companies started paying attention in the nineties. Many date the pivotal breakthrough to 2004, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Association (DARPA) created a driverless car competition—the DARPA Grand Challenge—to turbocharge development.
The competition did its job. A decade later, most major car companies and more than a few major tech companies had autonomous car programs up and running. By the middle of 2019, dozens of vehicles had logged millions of miles on California roads. Traditional automotive players like BMW, Mercedes and Toyota were competing for this emerging market with tech giants like Apple, Google (via Waymo), Uber, and Tesla, trying out different designs, gathering data, and honing neural networks.
Out of these, Waymo seems well positioned for early market dominance. Formerly Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo began its work in 2009 by hiring Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who won the DARPA Grand Challenge. Thrun helped develop the AI system that would become the brains behind Waymo’s self-driving fleet. About ten years later, in March 2018, Waymo purchased that fleet, buying twenty thousand sporty, self-driving Jaguars for its forthcoming ride-hailing service. With this many cars, Waymo intends to deliver a million trips per day in 2020 (this might be ambitious but Uber currently delivers 15 million rides a day). To understand the importance of this figure or anything close to it, consider that the more miles an autonomous car drives, the more data it gathers—and data is the gasoline of the driverless world.
Since 2009, Waymo’s vehicles have logged over 10 million miles. By 2020, with twenty thousand Jaguars doing hundreds of thousands of daily trips, they’ll be adding an extra million miles or so every day. All of those miles matter. As autonomous vehicles drive, they gather information: positions of traffic signs, road conditions, and the like. More information equals smarter algorithms equals safer cars—and this combination is the very edge needed for market domination.
To compete with Waymo, General Motors is making up for lost time with big dollars. In 2018, it poured $1.1 billion into GM Cruise, its self-driving division. A few months later, it took an additional $2.25 billion investment from the Japanese conglomerate Softbank, just months after Softbank had taken a 15 percent position in Uber. With all of this capital flying around, with all these heavy hitters involved, how fast will this transformation occur?
“Faster than anyone expects,” says Jeff Holden (who also founded Uber’s AI lab and autonomous car group). “Already, over 10 percent of millennials have opted for ridesharing over car ownership, but this is just the beginning. Autonomous cars will be four to five times cheaper—they make owning a car not only unnecessary, but also expensive. My guess, within ten years, you’ll probably need a special permit to drive a human-operated car.”
For consumers, the benefits of this transformation are many. Most Americans will tolerate a commute of thirty minutes or less, but with a robo-chauffeur behind the wheel and a car that can become anything—a bedroom, a meeting room, a movie theater—you might not mind living farther afield, where lower-cost real estate lets you buy more house for less money. Giving up that car allows you to turn your garage into a spare bedroom, your driveway into a rose garden, and you won’t need to buy gas again—ever. The cars are electric, and they recharge themselves at night. No more hunting for parking spots, or fretting over parking tickets. No speeding tickets either. Or drunk driving. NOTE: City revenues could plunge.
All of these trends are disruptive in nature. But they pale in comparison to two larger forces for change: first, demonetization, or the removal of cash from the equation. Ridesharing autonomous cars price out at 80 percent cheaper than individual car ownership, and they come equipped with a robo-chauffeur. Second: saved time. The average U.S. roundtrip commute is 50.8 minutes of hair-pulling, mind-numbing drudgery that can be repurposed for sleep, reading, tweeting, sex… whatever your pleasure.
For big car manufacturers, these developments spell the beginning of the end, especially for those selling car-as-possession rather than car-as-service. In 2019, there were a hundred plus automotive brands in existence. Over the next ten years, we can expect auto industry consolidation as exponential technology takes direct aim at Detroit, Germany, and Japan.
Car usage rates will be the first driver of this consolidation. Today, the average car owner drives their vehicle less than 5 percent of the time, and a family of two adults typically has two cars. Thus, a single autonomous car can serve a half-dozen families a day. However you work those numbers, this dramatic increase in cooperative efficiency will significantly reduce the need for new car production.
Functionality is the second driver. In a ridesharer’s marketplace, the companies that collect the most data and assemble the biggest fleets are the ones that will offer the lowest wait times and cheapest rides. Cheap and quick are the two biggest factors impacting consumer choice in this kind of market. What brand of car ridersharers are sharing matters a lot less. Most of the time, if the vehicle is clean and neat, consumers won’t even notice what brand the car is—similar to how most of us feel about Uber or Lyft today. So, if a half-a-dozen different vehicles are all it takes to please the customer, then a wave of car company extinction is going to follow our wave of car company consolidation.
Big auto won’t be the only industry impacted. America has almost half-a-million parking spaces. In a recent survey, MIT professor of urban planning Eran Ben-Joseph reported that, in many major US cities, “parking lots cover more than a third of the land area,” while the nation as a whole has set aside an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined for our vehicles. But if car-as-service replaces car-as-thing-you-have-to-park, then we’re going to be looking at a huge commercial real estate boom as all those lots get repurposed. Then again, a lot of them could become skyports. Whatever the case, transportation ten years from today is going to look radically different—and this prediction doesn’t include everything that happened after Elon Musk lost his temper.
On an empty swatch of desert outside of Las Vegas, perched atop a high-tech stretch of track, a sleek silver pod begins to quiver. Less than a second later, it’s not just moving, it’s a hundred-mile-per-hour blur. Ten seconds after, it’s zipping down the Virgin Hyperloop One Development Track at 240 mph. If these tracks continued—as they someday will—this high-speed train would take you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in the time it takes to watch a sitcom.
Hyperloop is the brainchild of Elon Musk, just one in a series of transportation innovations from a man determined to leave his mark on the industry. In BOLD, we explored his first two forays: SpaceX, his rocket company, and Tesla, his electric car company. SpaceX helped revitalize aerospace commercial launches, turning a fantasy into a billion-dollar industry. Tesla’s rapid rise to prominence, meanwhile, shook the major automotive companies out of their electric car apathy. As a result, all have begun phasing out gas guzzlers in favor of fully rechargeable fleets.
And both of these companies began to flourish before Musk got irritated.
In 2013, in an attempt to shorten the long commute between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the California state legislature proposed a $68 billion budget allocation on what appeared to be the slowest and most expensive bullet train in history. Musk was outraged. The cost was too high, the train too sluggish. Teaming up with a group of engineers from Tesla and SpaceX, he published a fifty-eight-page concept paper for “The Hyperloop,” a high-speed transportation network that used magnetic levitation to propel passenger pods down vacuum tubes at speeds up to 760 mph. If successful, it would zip you across California in thirty-five minutes—or faster than commercial jets.
Musk’s idea wasn’t entirely new. Sci-fi dreamers have long envisioned high-speed travel through low-pressure tubes. In 1909, rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard proposed a vacuum train concept similar to the Hyperloop. In 1972, the RAND Corporation extended this into a supersonic underground railway. But just like flying cars, turning sci-fi into sci-fact required a series of convergences.
The first of these convergences wasn’t technological. Rather, it was about the people involved. In January 2013, Musk and venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar were on a humanitarian mission to Cuba when they fell into a discussion about the Hyperloop. Pishevar saw possibilities, Musk saw overwhelm. He was irate enough to publish a white paper, but way too busy to start another company. So Pishevar, with Musk’s blessing, decided to do so himself. With Peter (one of your authors), former White House Deputy chief of staff for Obama Jim Messina, and tech entrepreneurs Joe Lonsdale and David Sacks as founding board members, Pishevar created Hyperloop One. A couple of years after that, the Virgin Group invested in the idea, Richard Branson was elected chairman, and Virgin Hyperloop One was born.
The other required convergences were technological in nature. “The Hyperloop exists,” says Josh Giegel, the cofounder and chief technology officer for Hyperloop One, “because of the rapid acceleration of power electronics, computational modeling, material sciences, and 3-D printing. Computational power has increased so much that we can now run hyperloop simulations on the cloud, testing the whole system for safety and reliability. And manufacturing breakthroughs ranging from the 3-D printing of electromagnetic systems to the 3-D printing of large concrete structures have changed the game in terms of price and speed.”
These convergences are why, in various stages of development, there are now ten major Hyperloop One projects spread across the globe. Chicago to DC in thirty-five minutes. Pune to Mumbai in twenty-five minutes. According to Giegel: “Hyperloop is targeting certification in 2023. By 2025, the company plans to have multiple projects under construction and running initial passenger testing.”
So think about this timetable: Autonomous car rollouts by 2020. Hyperloop certification and aerial ridesharing by 2023. By 2025—going on vacation might have a totally different meaning. Going to work most definitely will. And Musk was just getting started.
The Boring Company
Elon Musk’s main residence in Los Angeles is located in Bel Air, a seventeen-mile trek from SpaceX’s Hawthorne-based offices. On the best of days, his commute takes thirty-five minutes—but December 17, 2016 (coincidentally the anniversary of the first Wright brothers flight), was not the best of days. The 405 was at a dead stop, and the pile-up pushed Musk over the edge. It also gave him time to tweet:
@elonmusk—17 Dec 2016: “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…”
@elonmusk—17 Dec 2016: “It shall be called ‘The Boring Company’?”
@elonmusk—17 Dec 2016: “Boring, it’s what we do”
@elonmusk—17 Dec 2016: “I am actually going to do this”
And he did.
Eight months later, on July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, Musk tweeted again: “Just received verbal govt approval for The Boring Company to build an underground NY-Phil-Balt-DC Hyperloop. NY-DC in 29 mins.” In the spring of 2018, with $113 million of Musk’s own money, the Boring Company began boring. They started construction on both ends of the line in DC and New York, while also starting on a 10.3-mile Maryland stretch that will eventually connect the two. And while the tunnel is being designed as “Hyperloop compatible”—meaning it is able to house a Hyperloop—the current plan calls for an interim high-speed train step, where the first trains through will travel around 150 mph (much less than Musk’s proposed 700+ mph speeds).
They’ve also gotten a contract for building a three-stop subway beneath Las Vegas’s sprawling convention center—which they hope to have open for the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show. While not a Hyperloop—the distance is just way too short to bother—it does mark the Boring Company’s first paying customer.
Finally, while the company has started drilling with conventional machines, Musk has borrowed a page from Tesla’s playbook and is now designing electric boring machines that are three times as powerful as the traditional version.
It’s also worth noting that all of the innovations discussed in this chapter will work in concert. In the minutes before a Hyperloop pod arrives at a Boring Company–drilled station, the AI behind Uber’s aerial ridesharing service and the AI behind Waymo’s driverless ridesharing fleet will dispatch a swarm of vehicles to that station in order to take passengers on the next leg of their trip. And if that’s not fast enough for you, sometime soon there might just be another option available.
Rockets: LA to Sydney in Thirty Minutes
As if autonomous cars, flying cars, and high-speed trains weren’t enough, in September of 2017, speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Musk promised that for the price of an economy airline ticket, his rockets will fly you “anywhere on Earth in under an hour.”
Musk delivered this promise at the end of an hour-long keynote to five thousand aerospace executives and government officials. The presentation was primarily an update about SpaceX’s megarocket, Starship, which was designed to take humans to Mars. The fact that Musk now wanted to use his interplanetary starship for terrestrial passenger delivery was the transportation industry equivalent of Steve Jobs’s famous line that (almost) ended his demos: “Wait, wait… There’s one more thing.”
The Starship travels at 17,500 mph. It’s an order of magnitude faster than the Concorde. Think about what this actually means: New York to Shanghai in thirty-nine minutes. London to Dubai in twenty-nine minutes. Hong Kong to Singapore in twenty-two minutes. What’s not to like?
So how real is the Starship?
“We could probably demonstrate this [technology] in three years,” Musk explained, “but it’s going to take a while to get the safety right. It’s a high bar. Aviation is incredibly safe. You’re safer on an airplane than you are at home.”
That demonstration is proceeding as planned. In September 2017, Musk announced his intentions to retire his current rocket fleet, both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, and replace them with the Starships in the 2020s. Less than a year later, LA mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted that SpaceX was planning to break ground on an eighteen-acre rocket production facility near the port of LA. And April of 2019 marked a bigger milestone: the very first test flights of the rocket. Thus, sometime in the next decade or so, “off to Europe for lunch” may become a standard part of our lexicon.
Seeing into the Future
It’s about to get personal. Before the end of the next decade, this transportation revolution will impact some of the most intimate aspects of our lives. Where we choose to live and work, how much free time we have, how we spend that time. It will change how cities look and feel, the size of the “local” dating pool, the demographics of the “local” school district— the list goes on and on.
Yet, try to visualize that “on and on.” Seriously. Put down this book, close your eyes, and ask yourself a question: How would this transportation transformation change your life? Start small. Consider your day. What errands will you run? What stores will you visit?
Are you sure about that?
This last question may seem innocuous, but think about it this way: In 2006, retail was booming. Sears was worth $14.3 billion, Target $38.2 billion, and Walmart a whopping $158 billion. Meanwhile, an upstart retailer named Amazon was at $17.5 billion. Now fast-forward a decade. What’s changed?
Hard times hit Main Street. By 2017, Sears had lost 94 percent of its value, ending the decade worth $0.9 billion, before promptly going out of business. Target did better, finishing up at $55 billion. Walmart did the best, going up to $243.9 billion. But Amazon? The Everything Store closed out the era worth $700 billion (today $800 billion). And it’s a fairly safe bet that your life changed as a result.
But all Amazon did to change your life was use a new technology, the internet, to expand upon an old technology, mail-order catalogs. The transportation transformation headed our way sits at the convergence of a half-dozen exponential technologies and the confluence of a half-dozen markets. Not easy to picture all that overlapping impact, is it?
It’s not easy for any of us. Studies done with fMRI show that when we project ourselves into the future something peculiar happens: The medial prefrontal cortex shuts down. This is a part of the brain that activates when we think about ourselves. When we think about other people, the inverse happens: It deactivates. And when we think about absolute strangers, it deactivates even more.
You’d expect that thinking about our future selves would excite the medial prefrontal cortex. Yet the opposite happens. It starts to shut down, meaning the brain treats the person we’re going to become as a stranger. And the farther you project into the future, the more of a stranger you become. If, a few paragraphs back, you took the time to think about how the transportation revolution would impact future you, the you that you were thinking of was literally not you.
This is why people have a tough time saving for retirement or staying on a diet or getting regular prostate exams—the brain believes that the person who would benefit from those difficult choices isn’t the same one making those choices. This is also why, if you’ve been reading this chapter and having trouble processing the speed of the change ahead, perhaps fluctuating between “total BS” and “holy crap,” well, you’re not alone. Couple this with the limitations imposed by our local and linear brains in a global and exponential world, and accurate prediction becomes a considerable problem. Even under normal conditions, these built-in features of our neurobiology make us blind to what’s around the bend.
But conditions are not close to “normal.” Not only are a dozen exponential technologies beginning to converge, their impact is unleashing a series of secondary forces. These forces range from our increasing access to information, money, and tools, to our considerable uptick in productive time and life expectancy. These forces are another tsunami of change, accelerating our acceleration, amping up the speed and scale of the coming disruption.
Which is both good and bad news.
The bad has less to do with what’s coming and more to do with our (in)ability to adapt to change. A slew of studies have shown that the convergence of AI and robotics could threaten a significant percentage of America’s workforce over the next few decades. That’s tens of millions of people who will have to be retrained and retooled if we hope to keep pace. The good news is what’s on the other side of that retraining.
Every time a technology goes exponential, we find an internet-sized opportunity tucked inside. Think about the internet itself. While it seemingly decimated industries—music, media, retail, travel, and taxis—a study by McKinsey Global Research found the net created 2.6 new jobs for each one it extinguished.
Over the next decade, we’ll see these kinds of opportunities arise in dozens of industries. As a result, if the internet is our benchmark, more wealth could be created over the next ten years than was over the previous century. Entrepreneurs—including, thankfully, environmentally and socially conscious entrepreneurs—have never had it so good. The time it takes to raise seed capital has shrunk from years to minutes. Unicorn formation, or the time it takes to go from “I’ve got a neat idea” to “I run a billion-dollar company,” was once a two-decade long shot. Today, in some cases, it’s nothing more than a one-year adventure.
Unfortunately, established organizations will have a hard time keeping pace. Our biggest companies and government agencies were designed in another century, for purposes of safety and stability. Built to last, as the saying goes. They were not built to withstand rapid, radical change. This is why, according to Yale’s Richard Foster, 40 percent of today’s Fortune 500 companies will be gone in ten years, replaced, for the most part, by upstarts we’ve not yet heard of.
Institutions are similarly suffering. The educational system was an eighteenth-century invention, designed to batch-process children and prepare them for a life working in factories. That’s not today’s world, which explains why this system is failing to meet our current needs— and it’s not the only institution under duress.
Why are divorce rates so high? One reason is that marriage was created over four thousand years ago, when we got hitched as teens and death came by forty. The institution was designed for a twenty-year maximum commitment. But thanks to advances in healthcare and lifespan, we’re now looking at a half century of togetherness—which puts a whole new spin on “?’til death do us part.”
The point is this: Being able to see around the corner of tomorrow and being agile enough to adapt to what’s coming have never been more important. And, in three parts, that’s exactly what this book will do.
In Part One, we’ll explore nine technologies currently on exponential growth curves, examining where they are today and where they’re going. We’ll also assess a series of secondary forces—call them technological shock waves—and see how they’re further accelerating the rate of change in the world and amplifying the scale of its impact.
In Part Two, focusing on eight industries, we’ll see how converging technologies are reshaping our world. From the future of education and entertainment to the transformation of healthcare and business, this portion provides a blueprint for tomorrow, a map of the major shifts coming to society, and a playbook for anyone interested in surfing that wave.
In Part Three, we move to the bigger picture, looking at a series of environmental, economic, and existential risks that threaten the progress we’re about to make. Next, we’ll expand our view from the decade ahead to the full century, focusing on five great migrations—economic relocations, climate-change upheavals, virtual worlds explorations, outer space colonization, and hive-mind collaborations—that will play now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t with, well, just about everything.
But before we do all that, as Steve Jobs liked to say: Wait, wait… There’s one more thing.
It’s 2028 and you’re having breakfast at home in Cleveland, Ohio. You stand up, kiss the kids goodbye, and head out the door. Today, it’s a meeting in downtown New York. Your personal AI knows your schedule so has an Uber autonomous on standby. As you walk outside, the self-driving car pulls into your driveway.
Time elapsed? Less than ten seconds.
Because you’re wearing a sleep sensor—and your AI also knows you didn’t get much rest last night—it’s the perfect opportunity for a catnap. And your Uber provides nothing less, equipped with a lay-down-flat backseat and a fresh set of sheets.
The car/bed takes you to the local Hyperloop station, where your freshly rested self is transferred into a high-speed pod, then zipped downtown. From the roof of a Cleveland skyscraper, Uber Elevate flies you to one of Manhattan’s mega-skyports. You take the elevator down to the ground floor, where another Uber autonomous awaits to take you to your meeting on Wall Street. Total elapsed time, door-to-door: fifty-nine minutes.
To borrow a term from computation, this is a future of “packet-switched humans,” where you choose your priority—speed, comfort, or cost—specify your start and end point, and the system does the rest. No fuss, no missed details, and backup options always available.
Wait, wait, there’s one more thing.
While the technologies we’ve discussed will decimate the traditional transportation industry, there’s something on the horizon that will disrupt travel itself. What if, to get from A to B, you didn’t have to move your body? What if you could quote Captain Kirk and just say: “Beam me up, Scotty.”
Well, shy of the Star Trek transporter, there’s the world of avatars.
An avatar is a second self, typically in one of two forms. The digital version has been around for a couple of decades. It emerged from the video game industry and was popularized by virtual world sites like Second Life and books-turned-blockbusters like Ready Player One. A VR headset teleports your eyes and ears to another location, while a set of haptic sensors shifts your sense of touch. Suddenly, you’re inside an avatar inside a virtual world. As you move in the real world, your avatar moves in the virtual. Use this technology to give a lecture and you can do it from the comfort of your living room, skipping the trip to the airport, the cross-country flight, and the ride to the conference center.
Robots are the second form of avatars. Imagine a humanoid robot that you can occupy at will. Maybe, in a city far from home, you’ve rented the bot by the minute—via a different kind of ridesharing company—or maybe you have spare robot avatars located around the country. Either way, put on VR goggles and a haptic suit and you can teleport your senses into that robot. This allows you to walk around, shake hands, and take action—all without having to leave your home.
And like the rest of the tech we’ve been talking about, even this future isn’t very far away. In 2018, All Nippon Airways (ANA) funded the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE to speed the development of robotic avatars. Why? Because ANA knows this is one of the technologies likely to disrupt the airline industry—their industry—and they want to be ready.
To put this in different terms, individual car ownership enjoyed over a century of ascendency. The first real threat it faced, today’s ridesharing model, only showed up in the last decade. But that ridesharing model won’t even get ten years to dominate. Already, it’s on the brink of autonomous car displacement, which is on the brink of flying car disruption, which is on the brink of Hyperloop and rockets-to-anywhere decimation. Plus, avatars. The most important part: All of this change will happen over the next ten years.
Welcome to the future that’s faster than you think.
1 Unless otherwise noted in either the text or in the endnotes, all quotes come from direct interviews with sources or, as in this case, the author(s) attended the event in question.