This has been a heck of a year for software. Google serviced more than 1200 billion search queries. Tesla accumulated more than 1.6 billion miles to teach its self-driving algorithm, 2500 times more driving than an average human in a lifetime. Facebook-owned Whatsapp and Messenger sent more than 20 trillion messages, and all Facebook services combined, including Instagram, received 180 billion pictures. YouTube had more than 150 million hours of video uploaded, and more than 365 billion hours watched. Online shopping is now 12% of all purchases in the US, up from 3.5% a decade ago(1). Amazon became a $1 trillion company, and Alibaba set a new record on Single’s Day in China with more than $30 billion in sales within 24 hours. Finally, SpaceX started sending satellites into orbit that will beam down internet and enable 100% internet penetration, so everyone on earth can join the party.
In other words, software continues to eat the world.
It has been seven years since Marc Andreessen published his now infamous article Why Software is Eating the World. It is the same number of years since Wiredelta was founded where I, along with the other partners, have enjoyed a front seat row. We have built software with some of the most ambitious companies and entrepreneurs, observing first hand how software is eating the world.
But more importantly, we have witnessed how software is feeding the world.
Unfortunately, most of the debate around software’s effect on society has focused on jobs lost, neglecting the jobs created. In addition, the debate has failed to factor in costs plummeting worldwide due to advancements in software, making life easier to not just survive but thrive. If you could pick a time to live, it would be now. The world is moving forward, and software plays a key role. Let me explain why.
Cost is decreasing
Over the past century, food prices have decreased and continues to be a smaller part of our total expenditure(2). As a result, extreme poverty is crumbling(3), and it’s not only cost to survive that is decreasing, so is cost to thrive. The cost of starting a business has never been lower, and applications you would normally pay a fortune for are becoming virtually free.
Androids and iPhones have made your separate video camera, GPS, digital watch, alarm clock, MP3 player, encyclopedia and video game console obsolete, technology that would have cost you $900,000 just three decades ago(4).
Beyond applications, services are following suit. Everything from financial services, to transportation to education to media to rental services are getting demonetized(5).
Revolut and Transferwise are pushing down currency exchange and transaction fees to zero.
Uber, Grab, Lyft and the like push down cost for transporting anything to a minimum. SpaceX’s self-landing rockets, powered by the latest and greatest within machine learning, will make space travel affordable.
Coursera and Khan Academy has demonetized and democratised learning. To stay relevant, Ivy League schools including Harvard, Stanford and MIT have put thousands of hours of high-quality educational material online for free.
YouTube is making television subscriptions redundant.
Facebook has demonetized news and media distribution.
Netflix and HBO let you watch almost any series or movies ever made for a small monthly fee. Spotify does the same for music.
Airbnb provides travellers with an alternative to hotels and hostels, renting at a low cost.
Lower cost has been the scapegoat of software’s negative effects on society, arguing that software is replacing human jobs. That argument would stand if income per person was falling, so let’s pick that one up from issue island and face it head on.
Income is increasing
So we have established that costs are tanking, not just to feed ourselves, but also to enjoy ourselves. Great news for all of us, especially if income is rising. And it looks like we are in for a treat.
Check out this graph on world GDP over the last two millennia(6). Pretty mental. Of course, we have also grown the world population manifold since Jesus Christ was born, so a higher global GDP doesn’t necessarily mean increases in income per person. Well, we’re in luck, because we have in fact increased GDP per capita over the same period shown in this graph(7). The trend has been positive across continents, and it doesn’t seem to flip any time soon.
While this trend is interesting on a holistic level, it becomes fascinating when diving into the many moving pieces that drive increases in income.
Amazon and Alibaba are making commerce for both buyers and sellers easy, enabling transactions that wouldn’t have been possible in the past. Now, anyone with a product can buy or sell to a global marketplace at low transportation cost.
Google Maps and Tripadvisor have made discovering places a breeze. It levels the playing field and lets businesses that care for their customers thrive. The mellow local coffee shop, which doesn’t have Starbucks-money to pay for prime location, still has a chance.
Instagram and Twitter have made expressing and exploring easy. You can tweet and hashtag together with presidents, billionaires and the common man all at once. Anyone with a powerful story now has a global stage to express themselves.
Tesla already install full autonomy capabilities in their cars, giving all Tesla owners the option to add their car to a fleet of Tesla-taxis driving other people around without a human in the front seat.
Airbnb allows people to make an income by renting out their home on a short or long term basis.
Medium lets writers monetize on their writing. YouTube does the same for video, and Spotify for musicians.
Etsy has craftsmen and creatives sell their handmade or vintage items on a global marketplace.
The world is moving forward with increased levels of income and decreased levels of cost. This is a fantastic trajectory for future generations to continue building a better world. There is no question that technology in general, and software in particular, is the underlying driver behind this progress. During our work in Wiredelta, we have witnessed four areas where software is feeding the world: Connectivity, Commerce, Construction and Cognition.
We connect like never before.
Things are becoming more and more integrated. We, as humans, and the objects we surround ourselves with, are communicating at unprecedented levels.
Computers connect like never before. Our phones, vehicles and home appliances are all talking to each other without human supervision, making up the Internet of Things (IoT). We have not only managed to build smart homes, but smart cities, and soon we will see smart countries connecting and coordinating. It is already possible to summon your car to pick you up. Soon enough you won’t even have to ask. Imagine calling it a day and leaving from work. Your car will look at your calendar and sync that up with your phone’s GPS, knowing that you are leaving and start driving to the front door to pick you up. Once you have entered the car, it will notify your loved ones, tell your home to turn up the heat, turn on the evening news on your smart TV, Google Home or Amazon Echo, maybe even fire up the bathtub if you’ve had a long day. You won’t be asking for any of these things, your devices will be powered by assistants that knows about your preferences, and how they fluctuate depending on your day.
Humans connect like never before. You can reach out to anyone, anywhere with just a few clicks. We chat and talk constantly, sometimes at dangerous levels online making people feel isolated. We have even started taking out intermediaries with blockchain, allowing people to connect peer to peer when we transact. But humans connecting doesn’t stop at chatting, talking and transacting. With AR and VR, you can manipulate space and time(8). You can “teleport” in virtual reality and interact with people thousands of miles away. When VR becomes indistinguishable from reality (which it will), you could visit your loved ones digitally, take them to places, or play games together in an entirely new world. Envision the possibility of working in a virtual office together with your colleagues, from the comfort of your home.
Hybrids, meaning human to non-human, connect like never before. Assistants like Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa are making us all superhuman, giving everyone an assistant that knows more about us than any human assistant could. They provide us with the information we need, when we need it. They answer our questions, heck they even answer questions on our behalf to the people around us. They help us sort out our daily schedule, they order our pizza and they notify us when a movie is in theatres. But hybrids are not only human-to-computer, it’s also computer-to-human. Imagine your Facebook assistant right now learning how to be you, simply by studying your previous interactions on Facebook-powered services. Once activated, your Facebook assistant will write to your friends on your behalf, comment on posts or pictures you are tagged in, respond to messages on Messenger and Whatsapp, even write personal birthday wishes like Joaquin Phoenix in that movie Her.
A cornerstone to progress is to connect. Software allows human-to-human, computer-to-computer, human-to-computer and computer-to-human to connect like never before, which accelerates how software is feeding the world.
We trade like never before.
There is a shift in how we exchange goods and services with each other. Back in the day, there were workers and there were owners. Owners were the capitalists, owning large-scale factories that the workers went to every day to produce a good. At some point, services around these goods started to grow, making service-related businesses bigger and bigger, ultimately freeing up workers from the factories. Today, goods are being demonetized and produced by robots – all powered by software. At the same time, service businesses are easier and easier to start, even without major funding. The barriers to create a business is simply dropping across the board. This is unleashing the marketplace, so wherever there is demand, supply will be provided by humans, machines and a combination thereof.
Humans exchange like never before. The type of projects and businesses humans throw themselves into, and create an income from, is evolving. A few decades ago, it would have been inconceivable that the biggest retailer would be rooted in online sales. Let alone that anyone could sell or buy through the same marketplace. This is exactly what is happening on Amazon, who recently acquired Whole Foods. The barriers to large-scale projects historically reserved for governments are also breaking down. Private endeavours like SpaceX and and community-driven projects like Wikipedia are just a few examples initiatives, which would have seemed like hopeless dreams just a decade ago. The initiatives have spurred products and services in the marketplace that generations could never have dreamed about, all powered by the awesome ingenuity of the human spirit.
Computers trade like never before. Computers continue to automate commerce taking out human inefficiencies and dependencies, allowing humans to focus on creating value elsewhere. This is a good thing, it drives progress. A powerful new technology pushing automation within commerce is blockchain, and the first target is the financial industry. It is amazing to think that just a few decades ago, the New York Stock Exchange would shut down every Wednesday only to process trades and settlements via couriers on bikes. The stock certificates would be physically carried between buildings on Wall Street every time a stock changed hands. This lead to the “Paperwork crisis of the 1960s” in 1968 when the volume of stocks traded rose threefold to 15 million shares per day. As commerce continues to climb in a global economy, so will the need for technologies like blockchain to service our economic activity.
Hybrids are the bedrock of modern day commerce. Today, someone has made a purchase on Amazon, and the order is being fulfilled by a fulfilment robot at one of Amazon’s warehouses. In Seattle you can walk in and out of a Whole Foods with an automatic checkout, no need to stand in line. Information is the most precious good we have in the modern age, and we ask Google for answers 3.5 billion times a day. Your insurance is determined by a robot. In other words, commerce today is filled with hybrids where a human on one side is working with a computer to balance supply and demand. This hybrid combination will only grow in importance, it will play a crucial role for business to continue succeeding.
We create like never before.
The way in which we are creating things around us is undergoing dramatic change. Think about the difference between how we made things since the Stone Age and then all the way up to today. The symbiotic relationship between human and machine will continue to merge.
Humans create like never before. People’s ability to express themselves have never seen times like these. We are the most documented generation of all time, and our footprint on the world seems to know no limits. We are building self-landing rockets going to the international space station circling around Earth at almost 30,000 km/hr. The first building taller than 1 kilometer is well underway in Riyad. To power all this, we extract energy from the miles below Earth’s surface, the wind and the sun. Humanity will continue to create unbelievable things, but contrary to our past, progress will accelerate as we start partnering up with software.
Computers build things never thought of before. Computers are building new things based on human training that wouldn’t have been considered possible by any human. 3D printing is pushing the barriers to modern day production of anything. Soon, anyone will be able to create anything from 3d models they either made themselves or downloaded. Beyond physical objects, software will create things humans didn’t think was possible. AlphaGo brought entire new strategies to the game of Go after beating the world champion. AIs have generated the most epic new compositions after listening to great composers like Mozart. The dream of creating anything out of nothing is becoming a reality.
Hybrids construct things never seen before. With the humans and computers working together, we will create structures, objects and entire materials that hasn’t been seen before. Beyond that, software will take what humans have managed to create, and expand upon it. Innovation is a remix and builds on top of the next layer. Software will speed up this process manyfold by shortening the time needed between prototype and finished product. When 3D printing becomes sufficiently advanced, anyone will be able to create anything as long as they have access to the ingredients necessary to create.
We learn like never before.
Biological intelligence has gotten us far. Very far. We have understood the Big Bang. We have inhabited earth. We have built skyscrapers. We have come up with things like the Internet. All this with an intelligent biological machine running on 20 watts(9). Quite impressive, yet the human intellect that we have gained after millions of iterations is flawed and biased and cannot be trusted. Just take a look at these two figures in the Müeller-Lyer illusion(10). Ask yourself which horizontal line your brain immediately told yourself was longer than the other. Don’t lie. At second glance, you quickly realised that the horizontal lines are equally long.
Artificial intelligence is moving at unprecedented speeds from a lot of systems capable of doing things as well or better than humans in a specific field, known as Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), to systems capable of doing any intellectual that a human can, known as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), to finally arrive at systems that can outperform any human in any intellectual task, known as Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI). While state-of-the-art software currently hasn’t been able to pull off AGI, teams at Google Deepmind, OpenAI and the likes are closing in.
Hybrid intelligence is best described as the holy grail for software to feed the world. It is when biological and artificial intelligence starts merging. We have already started merging with machines, you are already a cyborg. Your phone is an extension of you, your social media is a digital version of you, and medical advances like pacemakers and LASIK are considered a normal improvement of you. Similarly, brain-machine interfaces where a third digital layer will connect to your cortex and merge your biological intelligence with artificial intelligence in the cloud, will be natural to you.
When hybrid intelligence hits the streets, which will take years but not that many years, software is going to unleash our potential like none of us can imagine. Communicating with anyone will be as simple as thinking a thought, no verbal communication needed. A mental picture will be a memory stored in the cloud. Generally visualizing anything for someone else will be extremely accurate, something words could never achieve. You will be able to access all knowledge at all times as if you already knew, and the little voice inside your head, that could be your assistance weighing pros and cons in a difficult decision.
The future is bright. How software will be feeding the world is the topic of our upcoming book “Software is Feeding the World”. To get notified when the book is out, send a message or follow @markdencker on Twitter or @markdencker on Instagram.