6 min read

Computing and the Battle of the Futures

One of my earliest memories is of a decrepit, dusty blue Toyota pickup truck lazily rolling past our house. It was June 1991, and my family lived in N’Djamena, Chad. I was five.

The bed of this truck was spilling over with African men carrying rifles. In the middle of the truck bed, there was some sort of tower-like thing sticking up. Something tall and alien looking poking its head out above the gaggle of men in the back of the truck.

It was an anti-aircraft gun.

At first, I didn’t understand. I mean, I had seen a gun like that before when I went on a tour of a retired battleship from World War II. But what was this huge gun doing in the back of a truck? And what was it about how it looked that seemed so… wrong?

Then it hit me: The anti-aircraft gun wasn’t pointed at the sky.

The gun was mounted for use at street level.

That anti-aircraft gun, and that truck full of men, were on their way to kill people.

I have never forgotten that.

I spent years of my youth in Africa and Asia, and was evacuated from countries a few times due to civil unrest and armed conflict. From early on, I saw that the world could be a very harsh place.

But I also saw grace, compassion, generosity, tender moments of intimacy. So far, I’ve been to 53 countries and all 7 continents (yes, even Antarctica). Even when they had nothing in the way of material possessions, I’ve seen how people from all walks of life could joyfully connect with each other and compassionately share the experience of being alive here on our pale blue dot.

But you know the most important thing I saw in these travels?

I saw a world bursting at the seams with human potential.

I still see that world. Let me tell you about it.

A crisis

When you talk to many people about the trajectory of the world, their outlook falls somewhere between a vague malaise and feeling resigned to a desolate, post-apocalyptic future. This sad future seems inevitable to them, beyond their control.

They can’t really explain it, and if you prod them on why they believe this is, you’ll get some sort of quasi-rational explanation. See if you’ve ever heard any of these:

  • “The planet is going to run out of food. The population is growing too fast!”
  • “We’re just gonna end up nuking each other into oblivion.”
  • “What can I do about poverty and war in Africa? I’m just one person!”
  • “Our company moves too slow! We’re gonna get killed by some new startup that innovates faster…”

…and so it goes. But here’s the thing: these explanations are bullshit.

Though each of these sounds rational and plausible—hey, we’ve all said something like this—each of these reasons is nothing more than a symptom of the crisis we are ACTUALLY facing.

We are facing a crisis of imagination.


The battle of the futures

Most people are living into a default future that they don’t even realize exists. Dave Logan and Steve Zaffron discussed this at length in this book, but the gist is this:

All people and organizations have a “default future,” that is, the future they already have. Yours is the one you know is going to be happen, that is written, that’s in your gut. It’s made up of your hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It is the answer to the question, “what is likely to happen, if nothing unexpected comes along?”

This future drives your actions in a way that requires no thought on your part. It is essentially pre-ordained for you, and you’re just living into it from moment to moment. This is is why it feels inevitable, even though you may want to change it.

The answer to the question, “how do I change this future?” is as simple as it is powerful. You rewrite it.

An opportunity

Of all the things I’ve seen in my travels, the most important is a world bursting with potential, begging to be unleashed.

Imagine a world where people everywhere can collaborate and pool their ideas and effort to invent things that none of them could create alone.

Imagine a world of universal access to personalized education.

Imagine the staggering capabilities of the rising billion plugging into the global network and creating massive new markets and opportunities. (“The fastest way to become a billionaire? Help a billion people.”)

Imagine if the human race could benefit from the very best in all of us. Imagine if we could access and benefit from the full potential of every. single. person. What could be possible then?

This is the world I envision: a world where everyone has the chance to realize their potential.

What will it take?

In a word: abundance.

Abundance is how we make a world where each and every human being has the opportunity to contribute their unique gift to the planet and our race, rather than just trying to survive.

I believe a world of abundance is within our reach in my lifetime.

What is abundance?

When I say “a world of abundance,” this is what I mean:

Abundance is not about providing everyone on this planet with a life of luxury—rather it’s about providing all with a life of possibility… Ultimately, abundance is about creating a world of possibility: a world where everyone’s days are spent dreaming and doing, not scrapping and scraping.
Peter Diamandis

How do we create a world of abundance?

For me, it starts with technology. Technology is a resource liberator, an enabler of and force multiplier for possibility and potential.

To create an abundant world, we’re going to have to solve problems that we have no idea how to solve right now.

To create an abundant world, we’re going to need breakthroughs in every critical field, such as clean energy production, farming, clean water, healthcare, and education, just to name a few.

What do these diverse fields all have in common? Computers.

My mission

As Marc Andreessen famously said, “software is eating the world.”

Software is now a critical component in every major industry and field. Computing is a driving force that helps every other field advance itself, whether by running massive simulations to discover the best way to design a new machine, creating a smart energy grid, creating affordable and personalized healthcare and education, and so on.

What could happen to advance food production, clean energy, water management, healthcare and education, as the power of infinite computing is coupled with the collective ingenuity and wisdom of crowds?

Creativity, aided by infinite computing, is how we’re going to solve the problems standing between us and the abundant future we need.

What is “infinite computing”?

Infinite computing is the confluence of three trends: an exponential increase in available computing power; access to that power; and the precipitous fall in the cost of that power. Today, computing is the least expensive resource we can throw at a problem. And when one combines these trends with the scalability that we can now access via the cloud, we can deploy hundreds, even thousands, of computers to help solve the growing number of challenges we face as designers, engineers and artists.

– Carl Bass, in Wired Magazine

The software of our future

Here’s the kicker: the software of our future will not be written like the software of our past.

The software of our future will be distributed, existing across a massive network of computers. It will be infinitely scalable on demand. It will react to data as needed and take the right actions, at the right time, in the right place.

This infinite computing resource will be used by every scientist, every artist, every engineer, every tinkerer and person who wants to apply their ingenuity and effort and create. When paired with their passion, the possibilities for what can be created are unlimited.

And that’s why I’m committed to making the power of distributed computing accessible to everyone, so more people are able to use this critical resource to invent our future.

I may not know much about solving problems in nanotechnology, clean water, energy production or other essential fields, but I can collaborate with domain experts who do and create computing resources for them to figure it out. (Coincidentally, this is why I started Petabridge with Aaron: to help software developers discover entirely new ways to take on audacious challenges.)

What can you do today?

First: If you’re reading this on a modern laptop or smartphone in a first-world country, realize how lucky you already are. Compared to the rest of the world, regardless of how much money you make, you are in the 1%.

Second: Realize that you can rewrite your future, and in turn, our future.

Third: Here are five ways you can help create a world of abundance starting now. Pick one and run with it.

  1. No matter what you currently do, I implore you to discover what matters to you
  2. Learn more about what it will take to create a world of abundance
  3. Learn about some of the critical challenges on the way to abundance, and start working on one that inspires you
  4. Be a digital volunteer and help people all around the world learn anything with the Khan Academy
  5. If you’re a programmer, get involved with an open-source distributed computing project like Akka on the JVM, Akka.NET on the CLR, Celluloid in Ruby, or Pykka in Python

This is just the beginning of a conversation that is going to bring about an exciting future for us.

What about an abundant world excites you? Leave a comment below and let’s continue the conversation. Ultimately, I’m an impatient optimist and would love to rewrite the future with you, whoever and wherever you are.


p.s. here’s a great little talk by Dave Logan on just how you go about rewriting your default future. Enjoy, and let me know what you think about it in the comments!