“Buckle up Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye…”
Leaving Austin, Texas after 10 days immersed in “the future” – or more specifically, listening to some of the world’s smartest people talk about the future – I couldn’t help think of this scene from the original cult-classic film The Matrix. Our confused lead, Neo (aka Keanu Reeves), has just taken the red pill and knows he’s about to peer into an unimaginable world, a world that he’ll never again be able to return from. To his credit, Keanu plays that tangled blend of incredulity, uncertainty and raw terror pretty well.
Every year since 1987, Texas has been home to a conglomerate of festivals called South By SouthWest (or South By as it’s affectionately known by locals). It’s best known for celebrating the convergence of interactive, film and music… as well as comedy, craft beer and Texan BBQ (okay, so those last two might may have been a more personal journey of discovery and celebration).
Twenty plus years later, the festival has ballooned to a half a million in size but to its credit, it has kept its authenticity. Its mission today is roughly the same as all those years ago – helping creative people achieve their goals.
It’s easy to see how they can make such bold claims.
A typical day at South By is spent listening to Bernie Sanders talk about the demise of American politics, the afternoon in an open Q&A with Elon Musk discussing his concerns over AI, or watching the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, make a hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-stand-up speech about the impact of social media on the younger generation. Evenings are spent in any one of the 500+ venues dotted around the city, sharing laugh-out-loud moments with the crew from Saturday Night Live or listening to the latest up-and-coming band try to break through on the biggest of stages.
But back to Dorothy and Kansas going bye-bye.
Similar to Neo, I feel like I’ve just been given a brief look into a new world, a future previously unimaginable (even to someone that spends a lot of time imagining). Leaving SXSW it’s hard to sidestep one unmistakable truth:
The world is going to change A LOT in the next 20 years.
The best way to understand this change is to understand the concept of the point of singularity. The point of singularity has a few interpretations – but the one I like is that it’s effectively a point in time beyond which it’s almost impossible for us to understand how the world will look.
Maybe an example will help.
Imagine I sent you back 150 years and told you to explain to Australian people what Facebook is. Sounds easy at first, but then you remember that Australian people in 1870 wouldn’t have been able comprehend anything even remotely as complicated as the internet. Or mobile devices. Or computers. Or even electricity.
So trying to explain Facebook might be trickier than you first expected. And herein lies the problem – and why the concept of the singularity is so relevant. Without any “points of reference”, it would be impossible to explain our world today to a person 150 years ago. So, for people living in 1870, you could make the case that sometime around 1990 was the point of singularity for them. That is, 1990 is a point in time, after which it is impossible to understand how the world will look because it evolved so quickly that they would lose all points of reference.
So, what’s the point I hear you ask?
Ray Kurzweil (I’ll talk more about him shortly) has continuously stated (and at South By ’18, re-stated) his prediction that the point of singularity for us today is … 2045. Yeap, 25 or so years from now, the world will be as unrecognizable to us today as it was to our forebears from 150 years ago.
At this point, you’d be forgiven for asking, “Who the hell is this Ray chap and why does his prediction matter so much?”
Fair question. So let’s talk about Ray Kurzweil.
Ray Kurzweil is basically the daddy of futurism (aka people predicting the future). He’s one of the world’s leading inventors and thinkers. He’s been called called “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes, and Inc magazine described him as “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison”.
What’s truly fascinating about Ray is his track record in making predictions about the future. Back in the early 90’s, he made 147 predications, with 115 now considered fully correct and another 12 “essentially correct” (that is, off by a year or two).
More stunning than his 86% accuracy rate is the level of detail in the predications that he made. Back in the early 90’s, Ray Kurzweil talked about how in 2019: [i] AI will be capable of making complex art and music [ii] language translation machines will routinely be used in conversation [iii] digital word will make paper books and documents almost completely obsolete and [iv] computers will be embedded everywhere in our environment. (Please see here, here, here and here.)
But remember, Ray made these predictions in the early 1990s.
So, I think it’s fair to give Ray the benefit of the doubt on his prediction that the world is going to change beyond our imagination 25 years from now.
How does all this tie into BBQ-loving Texas?
Well, for me, this was the very real and unexpected magic of South By SouthWest. It’s both for and by people who are literally changing the world as Ray Kurzweil has predicted. The secret to South By’s success is not in any single keynote speaker, panel discussion, “fireside chat” or debate. Instead it’s the sum of all of its parts – it’s that curious thing that happens when you get creative, inquisitive, diverse minds in a room, and they’re all challenging the norm and joining the dots in ways others don’t (or can’t).
So after 10 days and countless sessions, I left South By with a feeling that things are going to change beyond our wildest imagination – but more importantly, and for the first time, with a clear sense of what will drive this change.
So let’s get stuck in and explore each of the six technological innovations changing our future…
… tune back in for part 2 next month to find out 🙂