Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.
Reflections & Inflections.
Jan 17, 2023
It’ll be some time before the new year’s contours take shape and the meaning of 2023 really coheres. But just two weeks in, there’s no shortage of ideas kicking around about how this year will stand in relation to the recent past and perhaps the future as well. This already seems to be the year that higher ed will reckon with AI, investors (and consumers) will fully realize that non-Tesla automakers make great EVs, big tech companies will get serious – possibly about manufacturing, and long-parched California will be flooded with wave after wave of rains that it can’t capture to use effectively. In all of these ways, 2023 holds the prospect of being the year when we finally recognize that the future – or at least significant elements of the futures we envisioned throughout the 2010s – has arrived.
That’s not to say new futures won’t always be in development as tomorrows worming their way into today, only that many of the “eventualities” that preoccupied futures-focused conversations in the last decade are here. Maybe not exactly as envisioned or hoped but here, all the same. We have AI tools that rival or exceed human performance in any number of analytical, creative, or strategic endeavors. We’ve seen the investment in solar to drive the next phase of a global energy transformation. We’re neck-deep – both in terms of the worsening climate crisis and the challenges of mis-/dis- information in heavily networked societies – in the problems we once imagined might define the 2020s.
We’re here. And as the climate futurist Alex Steffen says, we’re not even prepared for what’s already happened – while somehow still straining to look ahead. My hope, though, is that 2023 will represent a shift in the ways people think and talk about the future – that this will be a year when more leaders, more boards, more voters, more consumers, more of us, recognize that “the future” is too important and much too close to be left to the futurists. It won’t wait.
“In technology,” former Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski once told the writer Charles Duhigg, “all that matters is tomorrow.” Outside and beyond technology, what matters is how today connects to and shapes tomorrow and how it learns from and draws upon yesterday. There’s an opportunity for each of us this year to be at once more thoughtful and more urgent in our work navigating today into tomorrow and reconciling a rapidly changing present with an emergent future.
When I worked at Singularity University in the 2010s, we showed folks a lot of exponential curves. The price-performance of processors. The computational throughput used to train AI models. The costs of genomic sequencing and gene editing. And on and on – each chart meant to make the point that the future was coming and it would be wildly disruptive. Many times, those charts were created on a scale that happened to put the “knee” (bend) of the curve right around the present day, almost as though to emphasize that your very own now was the time to take responsibility for this knowledge and to take action. You were cosmically blessed to be living at an inflection point.
Especially for something like computation, the “knee” of the exponential curve is arbitrary – just a question of scale. And yet, there’s something undeniable about /recognizing/ your responsibility and agency in the present to shape and steward the future. For you, the moment you saw that graph or realized what was to come or how you might play a role – well, that probably WAS an inflection point. And perhaps this is as it should be: the word /inflection/ comes to us from the past participle stem of the Latin /inflectere/ which can also mean “to bend /inward/”.
Maybe 2023 will be the year when more organizations and individuals recognize that the future is indeed here and turn themselves more meaningfully to the question of what they will do about it. (via Jeffrey)
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