Seeing the future: Exploring exponential technology

The pace at which technology is advancing is resulting in doubling of capabilities, often at the same or reduced cost, paving the way for digitization, democratization and disruption


Exponential improvements in our ability to capture, store, distribute and utilize solar energy could make energy so abundant that it is non-limiting and ‘free’. Photo: Bloomberg
Exponential improvements in our ability to capture, store, distribute and utilize solar energy could make energy so abundant that it is non-limiting and ‘free’. Photo: Bloomberg

In the world we live in, some technologies are advancing at a breakneck pace, or exponentially. This means that capabilities are doubling or more with every step, often at the same or reduced cost, leading to digitization, democratization and disruption.

This has been most evident with Moore’s law in semiconductors (with the transistor density on silicon doubling every 18 months) over two decades, which led to miniaturization and cost efficiencies for electronics. But, it is not limited to this.

We have seen similar trends in wireless spectral efficiency and bandwidth doubling every 30 months (Cooper’s law) and an exponential trend in the scale and cost of data storage media like hard drives (Kryder’s law).

Swanson’s law talks about a 20% drop in price of solar photovoltaic modules for every doubling of cumulative shipped volume.

These examples are all around us.

However, the impact and speed of change is probably most visible in what we carry around daily in our pockets and purses—our smartphones. They enable us to routinely do things that even just a few years ago required a completely different approach.

Think of how many more pictures you take and how quickly you share them with others.

Think of WhatsApp, Facebook, Ola/Uber, Amazon/Flipkart, Paytm or BookMyShow. These technologies not only digitize and democratize services and products, but also (sometimes in a matter of months) disrupt established industries that have stood for decades.

Exponential technologies can be deceptive.

They don’t seem like they have the power to disrupt—until they do. Artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, machine learning, networks and computing, biotechnology, additive manufacturing, genetic sequencing, nanotechnology and others are all advancing exponentially.

In fact, if trends continue at this pace, then by 2025, (as per a McKinsey 2013 study) we will have 150x storage density, 22x solar panels, 27x industrial robots and 95x 3D printers.

What does this mean for the world we live in?

Consider a few examples:

The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of our planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will ever be obtained from all of the earth’s non-renewable resources of coal, oil and natural gas combined.

Will exponential improvements in our ability to capture, store, distribute and utilize solar energy make energy so abundant that it is non-limiting and “free”?

What does “free energy” do for the availability of clean water through technologies like desalination?

What does unlimited energy and clean water do for the availability of food around the world?

How will advances in robotics, AI and machine learning change the way we design, manufacture and service the world’s infrastructure? What will digitization of product development, additive manufacturing and augmented reality do to the age-old established processes of product design, manufacturing, distribution and service?

Will factories and shop floors ever look the same again?

What happens when self-driving (autonomous) vehicles give back 20-30% productivity to hundreds of millions of people who commute to work every day?

Would you own a car if you can buy a ride in any kind of car you want at any time, depending on what you want to do while it’s driving you…work, relax, socialize, travel with family, etc.? What does this, in turn, do to the automobile industry, car financing, insurance and even real estate (where would you choose to live if the duration of your commute mattered less, since you are productive throughout).

Interactive virtual and augmented reality can be a game-changer in safety, productivity, and the way people learn and interact. Today we already have “teleportation” technology (suitabletech.com/) that uses sight, sound and movement to “beam” people into other locations using a robotic interface and a high-fidelity sound and visual display.

That’s three of the five capabilities we use when we interact with others in person! Last year, I “met” a person who attended a conference remotely using this technology and was moving from one session to the next, asking questions and interacting with others...all while sitting at his desk, hundreds of kilometres away. What does this do to the demand for air travel if it continues to get better over the coming years? What is good enough?

“Point of care” technologies have helped significantly reduce the cost and increase the speed of medical diagnostic testing compared with healthcare facilities. Home blood sugar monitors, portable ECG devices, easily accessible genotyping capability are all examples of such technology advancements. Surgical implants and human tissue are already being 3D printed. The confluence of medical technologies and informatics can be a big disruptor: what do AI and deep learning do to medicine when it becomes possible to integrate large amounts of demographic, historical, pathology, imaging, genomic and disease information to develop insights into diagnosis and most effective treatment? What does that mean for the healthcare industry?

My intent in sharing these examples—and this is just a sampling of the possibilities— is not to instill fear but rather to inspire curiosity. I hope they excite you about the potential of these exponential technologies, and stress the value of being aware of and watching their trajectories closely.

It is important to be proactive and intentionally develop an offensive or defensive position that you believe in. Be an early adopter, disruptor, avid watcher, investor, experimenter, enthusiast, active cynic, disprover—anything but a victim—and most importantly, do it in advance of being forced.

The trick is to identify which of these trends are the most relevant to you and do that two to three cycles ahead of when they actually become good enough to unseat the “old way”.

At GE, we work on tough stuff—solving problems in energy, healthcare, water and transportation for people and countries around the world. It is both hard and rewarding. It requires years, decades of domain expertise and may sometimes make us feel that we are somewhat protected or insulated from this scale of exponential disruption. Not true.

Some time ago, along with a group of colleagues, I had a stimulating discussion on potential ways to identify these disruptors. We are now mapping ecosystems to help us see these disruptions…for example in the energy space we call it “dinosaurs to dining tables”, i.e. the BTU (British thermal unit—traditional unit of heat) flow and revenue/profit flow across the entire spectrum from fossil fuel exploration to consumer consumption.

We are embracing and experimenting with several of these technologies in our labs and building use cases to see the possibilities in our domains. These teams are horizontal in their capabilities but with focused missions—balancing domain experts with lateral thinkers. And a couple of our key learnings: the big disruptions happen at the intersection of multiple exponential trends.

And leadership matters—breakthroughs come from empowering teams to suspend disbelief, question the sacred cows and not be afraid to unlearn.

Does all this sound like science fiction, or are we seeing the future? No matter where you stand, one thing is for sure…we’re in for the ride of our lives.

The question is, are we laying the tracks ahead of us or is someone else?

Munesh Makhija is chairman and managing director of GE India Technology Center, and CTO, GE South Asia.

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