When people like Google CEO, Larry Page, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and X-Prize Foundation CEO, Peter Diamandis, talk about us entering into a period of abundance, there has been a natural tendency to assume we’ll be entering into a life of leisure. People won’t have to work as hard and we will all have more time for travel, vacations, and play.

Yes, we are entering into a world where driverless vehicles will eliminate millions of driving positions; robotic systems will work relentlessly day and night eliminating millions of manufacturing, welding, painting, and assembly positions; and things that seemed impossible to automate in the past will have computers and machines replacing people’s jobs.

With these types of automation and AI (artificial intelligence) replacing human involvement, the discussion has focused on solutions like shared jobs, micro employment, and guaranteed income.

While those may be options, there’s also great danger in preparing for “slacker lifestyles” where people feel less significant, less certain about their future, and less connected to the value they have to offer. As a society we risk becoming soft and lazy.

There is great value in the human struggle, and when we fail to be challenged, our best-laid plans tend to fall apart at the seams.

Today, the amount of time it takes to build ships and skyscrapers, create massive data storage centers for all our growing volumes of information, or produce global wireless networks for all our devices has dropped significantly. But along with each of these drops is a parallel increase in our capabilities and our expectations.

For these reasons, I’d like to reframe the discussion by proposing the following “Laws of Exponential Capabilities”:

LAW #1: With automation, every exponential decrease in effort creates an equal and opposite exponential increase in capabilities.

LAW #2: As today’s significant accomplishments become more common, mega-accomplishments will take their place.

LAW #3: As we raise the bar for our achievements, we also reset the norm for our expectations.

Here’s why this is so critically important.

Automation increases our capabilities

LAW #1 – With automation, every exponential decrease in effort creates an equal and opposite exponential increase in capabilities.

When it takes less effort to do something, we naturally do more things. This has been proven out time and again throughout the centuries.

To illustrate this point, here are three industries that have radically changed humanity over the past centuries – Transportation, Photography, and Media.

1.) Transportation: Thinking in terms of our travel capabilities, if we use the average transportation speeds in Richard Florida’s “Great Reset,” we can extrapolate an exponential growth in the number of miles the average person will travel over their lifetime.

  • 1850 – Average speed 4 mph – Traveling 4 miles per day X 50 year life expectancy = 73,000 miles.
  • 1900 – Average speed 8 mph – Traveling 8 miles per day X 60 year life expectancy = 175,200 miles.
  • 1950 – Average speed 24 mph – Traveling 24 miles per day X 70 year life expectancy = 613,200 miles.
  • 2000 – Average speed 75 mph – Traveling 75 miles per day X 80 year life expectancy = 2,190,000 miles.
  • 2050 – Average speed 225-250 mph (projected) – Traveling 225 miles per day X 90 year life expectancy = 7,391,250 miles.

We have transitioned from slow and difficult forms of transportation to fast and painless. Going from 73,000 to 7.3 million miles in a lifetime is a 100X increase in human mobility.

2.) Photography: The famous photograph titled, “View from the Window at Le Gras” by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, was one of the first photos ever taken and the oldest surviving one.

Photography started as a slow and arduous process in the 1800s requiring exacting precision and lots of time. With the introduction of cheaper and better cameras, film, and processing the number of photos taken began working its way up the exponential growth curve.

But it wasn’t until recently, with the birth of digital cameras in our phones and free storage, that the number of photos per day really took off.

Currently there are roughly 350 million photos a day loaded onto Facebook. If we assume the pictures loaded onto Facebook only represent a small fraction of the total, say 10%, that would mean we are taking 3.5 billion photos every day, or 1.3 trillion per year. As amazing as that sounds, that’s probably a very low number.

3.) Media: Before the time of Gutenberg’s printing press, our information sources were limited to person-to-person conversations and a tiny number of hand written scrolls and manuscripts. People who lived during the middle ages spent very little time consuming information simply because it wasn’t accessible.

By 1600, India’s Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great, had accumulated a personal library of over 24,000 books. By comparison, in 1815, Thomas Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States, totaling 6,487 volumes.

Both of these numbers are in stark contrast to the millions of title available today on Amazon. But when it comes to media, we consume far more than just books.

On a global level, a 2012 study showed that people on average spend 10 hours 39 minutes per day consuming information. This was broken into 260 minutes on the Internet, 150 minutes watching television, 77 minutes mobile Internet, 71 minutes listening to the radio, 43 minutes playing games, and 38 minutes reading print media.

In countries like the U.S., Korea, and Japan, the numbers are considerably higher – over 12 hours per day – and China is now working overtime to reign in a growing problem with people becoming addicted to the Internet. As a result, a number of anti-addiction treatment centers have cropped up to deal with the problem.

Building a global vacuum tube transportation network will be a future mega project

LAW #2 – As today’s significant accomplishments become more common, mega-accomplishments will take their place.

It is no longer reasonable to assume the same mega-project that have challenged us in the past will be the same size and scale of the mega projects that will be needed to challenge us in the future.

Living in a world where our ever-expanding use of automation and AI is reducing the human contribution in nearly every achievement, we are also witnessing a dilution in the value of past benchmarks.

For this reason, a new generation of mega accomplishments are beginning to surface.

One example of a next generation mega project is the Elon Musk – Daryl Oster proposed transportation system where specially designed capsules are placed into sealed vacuum tubes and shot, much like rockets, to their destination. While high-speed trains are breaking the 300 mph speed barrier, tube transportation has the potential of reaching speeds of 4,000 mph, turning it into a form of “space travel on earth.”

Even though tube travel like this will beat every other form of transportation in terms of speed, power consumption, pollution, and safety, the big missing element is its infrastructure, a tube network envisioned to combine well over 100,000 miles of connected links.

While many look at this and see the lack of infrastructure as a huge obstacle, it is just the opposite, one of the biggest opportunities ever.

Constructing the tube network has the potential of becoming the largest infrastructure project the earth has ever seen, with a projected 50-year build-out employing hundreds of millions people along the way.

The 15-year difference in animation quality between
Pixar’s Toy Story 1 and Toy Story 3 (Click for hi res image)

LAW #3 – As we raise the bar for our achievements, we also reset the norm for our expectations.

When Pixar released the first Toy Story in 1995, it was the first feature film to be produced entirely with computer animation. Naturally it looked a little rough around the edges compared to the new stuff, but it represented a massive breakthrough in the way animated films were produced.

Fifteen years later, in 2010, when Toy Story 3 was released, the Pixar team raised the bar considerably on the quality and detail of the animation. It didn’t take them less time to produce, but instead they dedicated tremendous effort to raising the quality standard. (The photo above is a great illustration of the difference.)

This raising of standards in quality, value, and usability can be seen all around us:

  • Printing – From large machine presses to photo-quality images at our desktop within seconds.
  • Music – From makeshift recordings inside seedy studios to producing symphony quality recordings without every leaving our computer.
  • Magazines and Newspapers – We can now subscribe to any magazine or newspaper on the planet and have it instantly sent to our computer.
  • Highways – From dirt roads, to gravel roads, to asphalt roads, to concrete Interstates.
  • Telecom – From wired phones with cranks on the side, to wireless everything.
  • Water Systems – From aqueducts, to wells, to running water everywhere.
  • Food Supplies – From crude little storefronts and farmers markets to the super-grocery stores we have today.
  • Emergency Services – From makeshift fire brigades and primitive doctors to highly sophisticated fire departments, rescue teams, hospitals, and medical services.

Crazy-Big Projects of the Future

Whether it’s building the Great Pyramids in Egypt, erecting the Great Wall of China, or sending someone to the moon, crazy-big projects have a way of defining our humanity and raising the bar for future generations.

As our capabilities improve, we simply need to set our sights higher and aim for the stars…. literally!

If you’re still struggling with what the mega-projects of the future might be, here are a few to consider:

  1. Recreating Infrastructure – Virtually every one of our current infrastructures is in need of total overhaul to meet the needs of future generations. This includes rethinking highways, mass transit, telecom, postal systems, water supplies, food supplies, and more.
  2. Space Industries – Whether it’s space tourism, mining asteroids, space-based power stations, or colonizing other planets, space industries represent an endless challenge for humanity.
  3. Controlling the Weather – We continually find ourselves the victims of forces of nature and have an obligation to mitigate the damage of hurricanes, tornadoes, massive hailstorms, and more.
  4. Reaching the Center of the Earth – We currently know very little about the center of the earth, yet we continually fall victim to earthquakes, volcanoes, and other internal forces we don’t yet understand. Once again, we have an obligation to know more.
  5. Controlling Gravity – The single greatest force of nature is gravity, yet we know very little about it. We not only need to understand gravity, but also need to learn how to control it.
  6. Viewing the Past – How can we create a technology capable of replaying an unrecorded event that happened decades earlier in actual-size, in holographic form?
  7. Traveling at the Speed of Light – The all time human speed record was set in 1969 and we have a long ways to go if we ever intend to travel to other planets.
  8. Inexhaustible Power Supplies – Too much of the world’s economy is dependent upon a rather fragile global power system. The opportunities here are endless.

Final Thoughts

At this point, the “Laws of Exponential Capabilities” are a working theory that I’m hoping to refine over time.

Naturally there are a few downsides to our expanded capabilities. Addictions can become exponentially more addictive. Dangerous people can become exponentially more dangerous. And global conflicts have the potential of becoming exponentially more disastrous.

With all of our increased capabilities, perhaps the one we are lacking the most is our ability to anticipate problems.

That said I‘d love to hear your thoughts. What’s missing, what needs to be reworked, and where is this most and least applicable?

We will all be spending the rest of our lives in the future, so we all have a vested interest in understanding it better.


By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything



15 Responses to “The Laws of Exponential Capabilities”

Comments List

  1. <a href='http://None' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Roger</a>

    Just thinking out loud..... Automating a robotic process today requires a person to write the initial program. This means that in addition to being able to program, the author must either have a personal mastery of a subject or must work with someone who does. And if true, then during the the changeover will there be a period where skilled craftsmen are in high demand? No longer for the craftsman's ability to do a task repeatedly, but for his ability to do it well? How does one store craftsmanship against a possible need? Roger L.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Roger, Some great comments. When we automate the skill of our finest craftsmen, and force these craftsmen who take great pride in their work to find a new occupation, we will indeed feel a great sense of loss. But is this really any different than the occupational transitions we've been through in the past? Many of our greatest map makers no longer have jobs. People who we master typesetters, elevator operators, carriage builders, and stone masons had to rethink their careers in the past. This time around, the number of occupations going obsolete will be far greater. At the same time, there are always sloppy gaps between where machines leave off and the customers begin. That's where many future opportunities will be found. Futurist Thomas Frey
  2. Richard Hackathorn

    All exponential processes will 'hit the wall' when one or more required resources become insufficient to support its growth. What are the limiting resources in the context of Tom's Laws of Exponential Capabilities? It seems to be information processing capacity, whether by human or machine. So far, humans have done well augmenting the limited intellectual abilities of humans with machines. Will we be able to augment our intellect sufficiently to accomplish any of the mega-projects? What are the ultimate limits?
  3. Richard Hackathorn

    Another thought... The mega-projects seem to emphasize bigger, farther and faster. What about smaller, nearer and slower? What about an immersive experience (that sees, hears, touches, smells) where the perspective is of an ant, or one tenth that size, or a millionth? What about an immersive experience where a second becomes an hour, or day, or year? Chasing Ice. Geology would then be intuitive!
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Richard, Thanks for weighing in on this. You're right, as ironic as it may sound, a mega project can be on the nano-scale. It can also be extradimensional, super introspective, ultra precise, and it may even circumvent most of what we believe to be non-circumventable laws of nature. I love your idea of a tremendously slow immersive experience where a second becomes an hour. Yes, every exponential growth curve has its limits. While the purchasing of smart phones may be going through an exponential adoption curve, the limit is when everyone on earth has one. When it comes to growing our capabilities, we can only guess at what those limits may be. Much appreciated, Futurist Thomas Frey
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>John Panigas</a>

    Thank you for this piece. I believe we are also experiencing what groups can do together. Put 2-3 people in a room to solve an issue and they are more productive and thoughtful than giving the challenge to one person. History tells us of individual achievement: Da Vinci, Columbus, Darwin, and the list goes on and on. In my humble opinion, the exponential brain power realized as a result of collaboration is one of the reasons we have progressed so quickly, and the most powerful collaboration tool is the internet.
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Milo Dodds</a>

    Of course there is a certain threshold we must all get to and maintain to be a viable contributor in the global economic system. As we age and hopefully mature our consumption curve changes. We peak during our child rearing years (20s-40s)and on average tend to consume far less in our senior years (60's-?). Technology is good if it can support the Cycle of Life. For example helping others including our children become viable contributors for the future as well as improving our overall Quality of Life..."less can truly be more" in many cases. Who doesn't want cleaner air to breath or healthier food to eat? We are where we are based on the choices we made in the past. If technology can help us make better/wiser decisions for the future then it is positive.
  6. me

    Ah, for the naivete of a fool's altruism. If only practicality weren't a thing and ceilings weren't inevitable. If only our dreams didn't outstrip reality's ability to facilitate. But then reality is at the heart of this isn't it?
  7. Firas Hermez

    We all see technology racing to make what was considered sci-fi only few years ago become a reality. With that said I have been wondering more and more about whether technology alone is enough to take the human species to the next level. The answer in my mind is usually a yes but I also envision a very bumpy ride if we rely on technology alone to progress. The reason why I think we will have a bumpy ride if nothing but technology is relied on is simply because parts of our existing systems (political , financial and possibly cultural) will resist the change brought on by technology, that resistance could potentially slow progress and affect people negatively in some cases. For example, consider the effect of Technological Unemployment, with technology racing ahead a lot of people from all different walks of life are exposed to the risk of losing their jobs, if that happens then those people will not have a decent safety net to fall back on so as a result they will suffer. Based on that example, if our economic systems where adjusted to properly account for a world where work is de-coupled from survival then the effect of TU will be negligible and it will become possible for those who lose their jobs to automation to go and do something else (e.g. re-train) without having to worry about making ends meet at the same time. From a cultural perspective, we still haven't reached the stage where we all consider each other to be a single human civilization , we are still divided, our political systems have not caught up with the fact that technology is connecting everyone and turning us into a global society, some cultures still prefer to be closed to outsiders, many of us are raised on the the principles of competition instead of cooperation. All of this needs to change if we're to ensure a relatively smooth transition towards a future driven by exponential technologies.
  8. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>David Niven Miller</a>

    It is essential to ask if a technology is still needed in the future, rather than assuming it will just continue to get bigger, faster and smarter. Transport is a good example. Will we want a global vacuum tube transport network in the future? Perhaps most people will have no need or desire to travel, because they can go anywhere and talk to anyone instantly using an ultra-realistic communications network. When you can speak to anyone as if they are with you, or visit any place like you are actually there, why bother to travel?
  9. John N

    "Viewing the Past – How can we create a technology capable of replaying an unrecorded event that happened decades earlier in actual-size, in holographic form?" This is a really fascinating idea that I've had as well, but is it even remotely possible? And if so, would it be some sort of time travel, or perhaps speculation that reality has some kind of memory that we're currently unaware of?
  10. Cleg

    This essay reflects closed-system thinking. The writer is focused on "technical achievement" at the expense of broader systems and relationships (as Firas, above, implies). Systemically, we require a suitable ecosystem to simply survive, let alone thrive. As earth's temperature increases, we destroy ocean's fragile balance, first the corals, then the plankton. Plankton provide 80% of earth's oxygen. What good is technology when its byproducts literally suffocate humanity? Relationships - they are far more powerful than any technologies. And, as Firas notes, we have not achieved a common empathy required to share emerging technologies effectively. In the past, technologies have always been used to destroy ideological tribes and people groups, and moving forward there's no evidence this won't continue. People like Diamandis are not good systems thinkers. They create ideas in a limited system, and know how to create wealth, but have little compassion, empathy, or understanding of the subtle interconnectedness of all things. This kind of technology is more like ego-driven poison in the common waters of all beings.
  11. I am Doan

    The Internet of Everything vs The People of Everything. Exponential Imagination of Everything. It's wonderful to read all of your responses. It is difficult to expand boost innovation in a closed system. Contributions from Firas, Milo and Cleg (Roger and John) I can relate to. What are the Big questions to ask before we even get to the Big answers we seek? Technology replacing 'our jobs' can be killing if there is no substitution. A new transition towards rewarding/ awarding people by sharing knowledge and caring (food, meds, prevention programs, housing/ safety?). Altruistic Life Style
  12. <a href='http://www.linkedin/in/fitsyourprofile' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>I am Doan</a>

    + Or continue on our current path of competition ('destruction' ). "Winner takes all" ❗️"Innovate or Die" etcetera. Competition vs Sharing Economy/ Global Society. What can we learn from all the PowerPlay from the Past (Present?)? (R)evolutions always has a price? Or can we be just as bold and innovative through collaboration and set aside our Ego's ? We have quite some advocates of innovation. Ambassadeurs, Apostels, Preachers, Guru's of Innovation. Innovation as the new religion! Peter Diamandis mentioned by Cleg are advocates of Singularity. Transformation through innovation at the cost of...people? Our precious earthly minerals? The path towards our Future is a mixture of the approach of X-Prize/ Space X/ Richard Branson type's of Daredevil VC's and the Crowd as the ultimate Source of Power to create and explore. I am Fascinated by everything science is contributing to inspire and challenge us. I strongly believe that collaboration is the way towards our Future. Through (self) leadership and guidance of experts in all the fields of science. Last year I went to a conference and listened to a keynote speech by Peter Diamandis and a special appearance by an very respectable NASA legend (whom's name eludes me at this moment). They showed images of space travelling and how it would be possible in the near Future or within reach of 'all' mankind. Amazing images/ view ofcourse. Rounding up his keynote, as I witnessed the Eclectic Nothernlight seducing our precious Earth, he added: "Before we reach this level of evolution in transportation, wars will be fought first!". While people were applauding, those words never left my mind. I could not resist and ask him why? Why would we fight each other in competition to (dominate space?) be able to travel through space? I do understand competitiveness and the Winners mentality of Americans and People who hate losing ;-) But at what cost? Big Questions
  13. Phil

    I love it that everyone can be retrained. It seems to be a given that everyone has the wherewithal to graduate from college... What of those who couldn't complete high school in the present world? The ones who have found manual labour to be the only game they can play? What is the future for those who lack the capacity to operate the current technology, let alone the next generation technology? Is there any work for them? Sadly, it seems that the skills that really made humans human are being relentlessly made redundant away by the technologies that I and others keep creating. Time to retire, I've done enough damage already.

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