From where Peter Diamandis sits, the future looks good. Diamandis, who has a graduate degree in aerospace engineering from MIT and a medical degree from Harvard, is the founder and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, which gives money to the cause of “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.” The foundation is best known for awarding the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private manned spaceflight in October 2004. Diamandis’ newest exercise in optimism is the book Abundance: Why the Future Is Better Than You Think (Free Press), which he co-authored with Steven Kotler. Diamandis sat down with reason online Managing Editor Tim Cavanaugh in March to discuss why things are getting better all the time. Check out the full interview at reason.tv.
Q: Can you give us a brief description of what the book is about?
A: A lot of people think that the world is getting worse, but they’re wrong. The world is actually getting better at an extraordinary, accelerated rate. Human life span over the past 100 years has more than doubled. The childhood mortality rate has decreased by more than 90 percent. Income per person, adjusted for inflation, has tripled. Today an American under the poverty line, the poorest of the poor, still has running water, flushing toilets, air conditioning, cellphones; the majority have access to a car; they’re living with a set of capabilities that the wealthiest people on the planet 150 years ago, the robber barons, the monarchs, the emperors, would have been jealous of.
This book talks about how the world is getting better and what are the forces driving us that way. The first force driving us toward abundance is rapid, exponentially growing technology. All of these things—faster and faster computers that are enabling artificial intelligence, and robots, and digital medicine, and synthetic biology—those technologies are being used by the second force, which is the DIY [do-it-yourself] innovator, the guy or the gal who is driven by their passion, who wants to solve grand challenges. The third force is what I call the techno-philanthropist. Today there is more wealth in the hands of individuals than ever before, and these people are making their wealth at a younger age, in their 20s and 30s. In an era of social conscientiousness, instead of building buildings to their names, people are saying: I want to solve this disease, or change education, or health care.
The final force, perhaps the biggest, is what I would call the rising billion; the notion that on Earth we had 2 billion people connect on the Internet in 2010. It’s going from 2 billion to 5 billion people by 2020. Three billion new minds are being connected on the Internet; these are people who have never been heard from before. A few billion people who live on $3 to $5 a day, spending a dollar or two a day per year, that’s trillions of dollars flowing into the economy.
Q: One of the points in the book is that technology actually expands resources and that things we think of as limits are more malleable than we thought.
A: Technology is a scarcity-liberating process. The first story in the book talks about how in the 1840s aluminum was more valuable than gold and platinum. Then the process of electrolysis came along and made aluminum so cheap we have aluminum foil, aluminum cans, and we don’t even think about it anymore. The same will happen in many fields. Take energy. We talk about having energy scarcity. Even though the human race uses 16 terawatts of energy today, there’s 16 terawatts of energy from the Sun that hits the Earth every 88 minutes. We have 6,000 times more solar energy that hits the Earth than we consume.