Singularity University

Salim Ismail, Author of Exponential Organizations and Founder of ExO Works, Joins Denver Frederick

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The following is a conversation between Salim Ismail, Author of Exponential Organizations and Founder of ExO Works, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.


Salim Ismail ©

Denver: Many people discuss the extraordinary change that is occurring in the world and that lays in front of us, brought about as a result of accelerating technologies: artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, biotech, and a host of other things. But if your conversations are anything like mine, they’re a little scattered and all over the place.

What we could really use is someone to bring clarity to all of this. Well, there are few people, if any, that could bring the kind of clarity that we need any better than my next guest. He is Salim Ismail, the Founding Executive Director of Singularity University, the Lead Author of one of my favorite books of all time, Exponential Organizations, and most recently, the Founder of ExO Works. Good evening, Salim, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

 Salim: Thank you very much! Looking forward to this. 

Denver: We’ve lived in a world—and I certainly have been educated and trained for one—where the extrapolations have been linear and incremental and pretty predictable, all things considered. But you maintain that we have moved into one where those extrapolations are going to be exponential. Help us get our minds around that and the implications of it all.

Salim: So this distinction of linear to exponential is maybe the most important fundamental characteristic of transformation happening today. Very easily, if I take 30 linear steps, I’ll go one, two, three, four, and I’ll get to 30 meters, 30 yards down the street, and we can all predict really well where is one-third or two-thirds of the way in that progression. We’re very good at that. If I say “What’s 15% of 80?” people can figure that out– like that! But If I take 30 doubling steps – 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 – at step 30, I’ve gone a billion meters. I’m actually 26 times around the world, which is a bit further than 30 meters, and it’s very hard to gauge where is one-third or two-thirds of the way in that progression.

Ever since Gordon Moore made his predictions, and in fact before that, we’re seeing doubling patterns in computation where we’re doubling every 18 months the number of transistors that can go onto a chip. That doubling pattern that we’ve seen for 60 years now in computing – unfettered, by the way – continues to go. We’re now seeing that in about a dozen technologies: drones, bitcoin, neuroscience, 3D printing, biotech.

In neuroscience, the resolution at which we can image the brain is doubling every year. In drones, the range at which how far a drone can go with the same weight, et cetera, is doubling every nine months. And so if a drone can carry a 10-kilo package for 10 kilometers, in nine months, it’s carrying a 20-kilo package.  And nine months later, it’s carrying a 40-kilo package, nine months later, 80 kilos…and the really key thing is this acceleration doesn’t stop. Once it becomes an information-based paradigm, that doubling pattern just continues and that’s really hard to get our heads around.

Denver: It sounds, from what you say, it kind of sneaks up on us, doesn’t it? 

Salim: It totally sneaks up on you because for a long time it looks like zero. A really easy example is 3D printing. Lots of people are familiar with it and get excited by it. Very few people are aware that 3D printing is actually 33 years old. It is not new. But when it first came out, the price performance was terrible. You could print out like .001 widgets/hour. Two years later, it doubled to .002 widgets/hour. Two years later, 004…and for a long time it just looks like zero. Then it hit .1, .2, .4, .8, 1.6, 3.2, it starts really going nuts, and then we called it a Black Swan. So if you don’t spot these patterns early, they totally surprise you, disrupt you.  However, if you can spot them early, it’s the biggest advantage you can possibly have. 

Denver: Oh, I can imagine. So this disruption that we’re in right now, we probably think we’re in the middle innings, but you got us in the top or the first. 

Salim: Just starting. Because we’re just starting—

Denver: National anthem just stopped. 

Salim: Yes. It was just going. It’s just going.