Many national security experts have focused on new, democratized technologies putting extraordinary power in the hands of individuals and small groups to engage in malevolent acts, from attacks with cyber weapons, drones, and bioweapons, to the use of as social media as a terrorist recruiting tool. While these are serious concerns, the bigger impact of these exponential technologies may creating new and unprecedented economic opportunities for millions of people around the world, especially in emerging economies.
Advanced technology, including computers, used to be extremely costly and out of reach for the vast majority of people, even in developed countries. But in the last decade or so, the “democratization” of technology has been making available to almost anyone, anywhere the tools for building companies and “leapfrogging” stages of development such as with mobile phones as economic tools, and, increasingly, smart phones enabled by the increasing ubiquity of broadband Internet.
“Connectivity is the revolution,” a friend at Facebook once commented to me. 46% of the world, or about 3.4 billion people, are now connected to the Internet, most of them with mobile devices. The Internet is the “platform of platforms” that is leveling the global playing field, giving nearly everyone access to other platforms for “bottom up” economic and entrepreneurial activity, including social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which are often used for business connectivity, especially in the developing world. Similarly, communications apps like Skype, WhatsApp, and WeChat, enable free communications over the Internet, while platforms like Etsy enable peer to peer marketing of goods made by individuals or small businesses, bypassing the middleman and connecting people to global markets. Within the next decade, nearly everyone on the planet should have access to affordable broadband Internet, mostly on mobile devices, and enabled if not by governments then by ambitious projects like Google’s Project Loon, Facebooks drones, and Space X’s small satellites.
The Internet provides users anywhere (other than in countries blocking access, like China) access to cloud computing and storage, artificial intelligence, and almost unlimited information from search engines like Google and Bing and map services like Google Maps and Waze. Artificial intelligence expert Ray Kurzweil, in a recent interview, explained: “My smartphone is several thousand times more powerful and millions of times less expensive than the $11 million IBM 7094 computer I used when I was an undergraduate at MIT in 1965. But that’s not the most interesting thing about my phone. If I want to multiply computational and communication power by 10,000—that is to say, if I need to access 10,000 computers—I can do that in the cloud, and that happens all the time. We’re not even aware of it. Do a complex language translation, a complex search or many other types of transactions, and you’re accessing thousands of computers while you sit quietly in a park somewhere.”
iPhones and Android smartphones provide platforms for people almost anywhere to develop apps (there are now nearly 2 million) as a business in itself or to serve a business, non-profit, or government. The Internet is also a platform for affordable and accessible development and productive use of other “platforms” like drones, 3D printing, and robotics. And with the advent of computational biology, “do-it-yourself” tools are available such as CRISPR for gene editing and BioBrics for downloading digital biological “parts” to assemble designer organisms on a computer that can be uploaded via the Internet to “cloud labs” for low-cost creation without the creator having direct access to a lab.
These converging “exponential technologies” have resulted from hundreds of billions of dollars of R&D investment since WWII that have led to Moore’s Law of exponentially increasing capabilities and exponentially lowering of costs, making extraordinary capabilities available globally to enterprising individuals and groups – as well as to governments. This “democratization of technology” will be increasingly disruptive to the global economy. We already see new business models leveraging technology to undermine incumbents. Airbnb is the world’s largest provider of hotel rooms, now about one million on any given night and in all but three countries in the world. Yet Airbnb is an app-based company that does not own a single room and has only about 1,300 employees. Uber is an app-based ride-hailing company that is by far the world’s largest “taxi” service yet it does not own a single for-hire vehicle. Low-cost 3D printers are enabling individuals and small businesses all around the world to make customized products for local consumers in lieu of Chinese imports or to sell in the global market place. Low-cost drones are fast becoming the basis for new businesses, leveraging the exponential drop in prices of components and the use of the Internet and the GPS system.
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The democratization of technology is leading to a world in which economies can be built “bottom up” as well as “top down.” Governments and large-scale business will still be critical, but individuals and small groups have an unprecedented opportunity to start their own companies that leverage advanced technology to build viable businesses and transform their country’s economy. M-Pesa, the cell-phone based payments system in Kenya that began as a startup, is now the platform for 60% of financial transactions in that East African company. This seems to be just the beginning.