On Episode 25 of our goofball, transhumanism and singularity-centric podcast, I brought up the concept of leapfrogging. Before I get into the reasons why leapfrogging, in light of a potentially fast approaching technological Singularity, is worth talking about, it’s probably a good idea to briefly summarize what leapfrogging is and where the term comes from.
WHAT IS LEAPFROGGING?
Most people, at least anyone with the exact same memories as me, think of leapfrogging as that game that they thought they would play at some point in their childhood, but, when the time came, never really saw the point. Or maybe you remember that super old timey video of Robert Wadlow, the man who would eventually grow to 8’11, the tallest man ever likely to live on planet Earth (thanks a lot, modern medicine), playing leap frog as a child. This video.
But in smarty pants economic circles, aka the world’s craziest parties (I’m looking at you, Alan Greenspan), Leapfrogging means something, predictably, smarty pants. Leapfrogging in this context means that organizations emerging into the marketplace take advantage of innovative technologies to leap over the incumbent leaders in a particular field, displacing the former leaders and becoming the field’s new powerhouse. The young upstart, Johnny-come-lately companies capitalize on the old organizations’ reliance on, and comfort with, an old and potentially outdated paradigm to innovate their way to the top of the economic food chain.
The reliance on old paradigms, and a comfortable lead in the field, means the incumbent leaders have basically no incentive to overhaul their entire system, even if new technology emerges that would streamline or improve their company. The incumbents have too much to lose and play it safe. The upstarts have nothing to lose so all they risk is being in the same position they were when they started. They jump into the mix as a tornado of haymakers, because who cares? If they land one of those suckers it’s night-night time for someone. If they fail, well it’s not like they have tons of shareholders and a hundred-year record to worry about.
This disruptive technology that no one will shut up about shows the leapfrog phenomenon in action. These technologies, and companies that take advantage of them, create new leaders in certain fields or create whole new, powerful industries. Current leaders lack the need to use radical new technology to be the leader in the field, a status they already hold, and so lose out when new technology is sufficiently powerful and intelligently used by start-ups that seem to come out of nowhere. There’s no incentive for the incumbent to change until they have already been totally displaced, at which point it’s probably too late.
See Kodak’s reliance on printing physical photos long after it became apparent that everyone was moving to digital. Kodak had the money to make digital cameras, or Instagram, or anything their little hearts desired, and very nearly did. Instead, they shit themselves into oblivion. It is incredibly difficult to overhaul a firmly established structure with that many moving parts that doesn’t want to believe that its business as usual would ever have to change. Kodak needed to embrace and anticipate a new paradigm instead of denying that digital photography was going to disrupt humanity’s relationship to pictures.
HOW IS LEAPFROGGING ENABLED BY RAPIDLY ACCELERATING TECHNOLOGY?
While the history of the term “leapfrogging” comes from the economic phenomena emerging from the competition between businesses, on the podcast I used the term leapfrogging in the context of nations. I didn’t invent this usage and leapfrogging is used in this setting all the time. It’s not hard to see why. Emerging new technology is so powerful, so transformative, that countries adopting new technologies as the standard operating procedure are in many ways at a huge advantage.
The nation of Bhutan, for instance, is an example I used in the episode. Bhutan lacked paved roads until the 1960s and built its first power plant in the 1970s. When the country finally adopted electricity they didn’t have a coal industry to maintain, an oil lobby to pacify, and an outdated electricity grid infrastructure to patch up with gum and twine. They had the advantage of being able to adopt what they saw as the best technology available. In this case because of an abundance of flowing water in the country that happened to be hydro-electric power plants. This method of energy production is renewable, emits no harmful waste, and is not beholden to the big lobby of “Water Moving Downhill”. Therefore their electric infrastructure went from non-existent to far more sustainable and environmentally friendly than the U.S.’s nearly overnight.
We talk about new technology on the podcast like it’s our job and the reason for that is simple: the technology emerging now is exponentially more potent than almost any technology that existed before it, and the technology that emerges tomorrow will be that much more potent than what we have today. Any country that goes from non-existent infrastructure, technology, or method to adopting the latest and best that the world has to offer, makes such a huge leap that it eclipses all previous possible leaps. Each new, wild technology dramatically increases the potential for these countries to become overnight crazytowns.
One incredibly fun thing to do is to read an article from ten years ago with an unbearable air of smugness. It’s so ego strokingly satisfying to read an article like this one from the Economist from 2008, or this one from the Economist also from 2008, and be like “Pfft! Didn’t you guys know that Elon Musk was a total crazy person, badass, superboss?” or “Haha, these idiots probably didn’t even know about Uber or Powerwalls! What a bunch of asshats!” And while these authors are clearly dumb-dumbs for not being able to perfectly predict the future, it’s clear to see why they might be skeptical of technology’s ability to enable a country to leapfrog the West. No matter how dope your 2008 flip phone was, lacking basic national infrastructure was more important.
In the first article, “The Limits of Leapfrogging”, mobile phones are touted as the leapfrogging technology that undeveloped countries adopted at a rapid pace. As much as having wireless communication is neat and all, mobile phones are unusual and not, according to the article, a harbinger of things to come. They cite a project to give all the hospitals in Ethiopia internet connections being abandoned because the powers that be realized that “the lack of internet access was the least of the hospitals’ worries.” It’s not clear what the hospital’s main worry is and why that would mean that having the internet is a bad idea, but I will say that all the internet in the world probably isn’t going to sterilize your surgical equipment. I get it. But if the argument is that having the internet won’t make your medical facilities more potent, then you a dumb-dumb, dumb-dumb.
In the not too distant future Watson will likely be available as a mobile device app that will be the greatest diagnostician the world has ever seen. Having the internet and a mobile phone will give every person holding one instant, and personalized, access to the best primary care physician on the planet. In some ways, adopting a mobile phone might be the only technology a country ever has to adopt. Smart phones are more capable all the time and in addition to potentially having pocket doctors, smart phones enable access to the world’s information matched with a quickly growing list of functionalities. Once upon a time phones were just for calling people. We are quickly reaching a point where any and all information is the purview of the once humble phone.
In the second article from the Economist, “Of Internet Cafes and Power Cuts”, the point is made that no matter how neat computers that can access chatrooms or whatever are, these computers are still reliant on the internet infrastructure, which, I shit you not, comes from a series of underwater cables. An earthquake somehow severed two of these cables and internet access went down from “Cairo to Kolkata.” That sucks. This article is right. Even if you have a computer, when the lines are cut, you have nothing.
While I’m good-naturedly shitting on both of these article they both make excellent point. The “Limits” article in particular points out that lack of clean drinking water, something Tom mentions on nearly every episode, is in almost every relevant way a limiting factor and far more important than a smart phone. Even in “developed” countries like the U.S., access to clean water isn’t a given and we can’t take for granted how fragile and important our water infrastructures are. This should be a top priority for our world, but somehow it isn’t. We have to hope that we can make it a priority so disasters like the one that befell Flint, Michigan don’t have to keep happening before we make lasting, sustainable, and fail safe improvements to our clean water distribution systems.
How could “Of Cafes” have predicted that companies like Facebook, Google, and of course Big Boss Elon, would be rapidly gearing up to create a ubiquitous space or air based internet distribution infrastructures? Even if someone told this author in 2008 that his Elonship, black of hair, first of his name, wanted to launch 4000 low-orbit satellites to beam internet to everyone on Earth with access to the sky, that someone would have been laughed into oblivion. “Dude,” his opponent might say. “A single ULA rocket launch into low orbit costs $400 million. 1000 such launches would cost $400 billion. That number is so stupidly not real that we reserve it only for military budgets and bank bailouts.”
So I can forgive these likely way smarter than me, and fully employed, and probably well-liked by their friends and family, author bozos for not knowing that His Grace, The Musk Dragon, would create his own rocket company to displace the old giants, a running theme here, using a combination of vertical integration and innovative technology, to drop the price of a rocket launch tenfold—a temporary stop on the way to a 100-fold drop in low-orbit launch costs.
Elon Musk, in an effort to make ubiquitous, free internet access for everyone on Earth a fundable goal, personally learned rocket science. Oh, yeah, and also to colonize Mars and save the entire human race from mass extinction but that’s not what this article is about so whatever on that. And as if rocket science, the term that means something so difficult as to be nearly impossible, wasn’t enough, Musk is making his own battery production plant, The Gigafactory, to bring down the cost of batteries enough to make solar power feasible. Not just feasible, if the effectiveness of these batteries can get high enough, and the cost of producing them low enough, then solar power should be the dominant and preferred form of energy production. Almost no one could have seen that chain of events unfolding.
Why this is relevant to the topic at hand is that some of the objections to the feasibility of leapfrogging rely on the fact that grids are hard to create and are massive public undertakings. Mobile phones may have been a neat oddity, but for all the appearance of being grid-nondependent, they are still dependent on electric grids and undersea cables. Where even those infrastructures are absent it has been problematic historically to integrate new technology. At the “Limits” article puts it:
“But with technology, as with education, health care and economic development, such short-cuts are rare. Most of the time, to go high-tech, you need to have gone medium-tech first. “
Perhaps not for much longer.
A home based solar panel system and Tesla Powerwall mean that electric grids needn’t be built or maintained. Each person can be her own electrical oasis, complete with self-sustaining power plant. Earthquakes are unlikely to knock satellites out of the sky
—and if they do it’s probably a why-didn’t-we-listen-to-Nostradamus-oh-shit-it’s-the-end-times kind of situation anyway —so instead internet access will be permanent and stable. As the potency of technologies that take advantage of electrically-powered, internet accessing, mobile devices grows, the capabilities of any country adopting them as their primary communications system increase dramatically. A country that goes from zero to Powerwalls, space based internet, and mobile devices is in no danger of grid collapse.
The same can’t be immediately said for countries like the U.S., even if in theory, the U.S. has access to all these same technologies. The U.S. is the incumbent champ in many ways and is risk averse. Even though the infrastructure is rapidly crumbling it’s still good enough to be in the lead in many meaningful ways so the pressure isn’t present to overhaul the system. That in and of itself, the reality that the system must be overhauled, means that it’s a much more difficult task than simply agreeing to adopt new technologies. Even if the U.S.’s collective political will was clamoring for the change it might still be harder to switch paradigms than to start from scratch.
The U.S. and incumbents like it have so many different interests to satisfy that moving from fossil fuels to solar, from centralized to decentralized electric grids, from very much wired to wireless communications, means that the task is almost impossibly difficult barring some type of cataclysm or revolution. Countries starting from zero have far fewer of these giant interests to pacify and can jump in head first.
I’m not blaming the U.S. here either. It’s not because the U.S. is bad or evil that these changes can’t be made. If you disagree, think about this for second: imagine the oil, gas, and coal industries came to an instant, grinding halt. Imagine that 90% of doctors were out of a job because of Watson-driven home devices and robot surgeons. Imagine all transportation jobs disappeared because infinitely safer, self-driving vehicle usage became the law of the land. Imagine instead of going to schools and universities each person had a personalized tutor bot that taught her anything she wanted to know in a way that perfectly matched her own, particular learning style. There are so many well established industries which participate in, bolster, and are reliant on the U.S.’s current interconnected economy that adopting all these “superior” technologies would be calamitous for our present economic models. The U.S.’s only option is gradual change from an antiquated reliance on entrenched, 19th century in some cases, technologies and grids to the best that science has to offer.
For the throwers of haymakers, this isn’t so. Far from being a civilization collapsing disaster, adopting these new technologies is nothing but upsides. As the tech becomes more potent, the greater the chance of leapfrogging the former champs. And as we can see from just an 8 year jump from those pieces from the Economist, unforeseen technological leaps, industries, and the alien emissary hive mind complex that is Elon Musk, happen regularly and with increasing frequency and speed. In the words of the late Terry Pratchett, “Million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.”
Perhaps the final important idea to consider is from the “Cafes” piece. This article brings up two different aspects of technological adoption: absorption and diffusion. Absorption is how, once a technology is introduced, particularly among young people, it is quickly mastered and folded into everyday life. That, they say, is the easy part. Diffusion, the even distribution of the new technologies, is the hard part. For instance, it might be easier to get industries off the ground in countries that have investment bankers, venture capitalists, and government incentives in place to enable them. However, as the price of transformative technologies drop, as their nature becomes even more decentralized, and their performance skyrockets at the speed of Moore’s Law, this argument that it requires huge systems to enact radical technological change becomes less effective.
Even still, these technologies do have to be physically installed and delivered to places that lack infrastructure which is a logistical, and unfortunately often political, obstacle. While I’ve argued that in many ways that shouldn’t be a problem, the lack of an electric and communication grid being an advantage, the lack of roads could be a major hurdle. But not an insurmountable problem.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how roads might not be a necessary component of a delivery system. Amazon’s delivery drones, while still not ready for prime time, come to mind. And while anyone who knows me knows how much I hate the idea of flying cars for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fodder their conspicuous absence, in the face of decades of so-called futurists predicting their arrival, gives to future deniers, flying cars might really win the day in these areas of the world.
No really! Flying cars, in this case, are actually just heavy load capable drones, which Urban Aeronautics has already developed. Combine that with Elon’s (this fucking guy again) desire to create electric, vertical takeoff airplanes and it’s not hard to envision a near future where countries and areas without roads use Tesla battery powered heavy lift drones, in addition to the smaller Amazon variety, powered ultimately by solar energy, guided by GPS and taking full advantage of the sky-based ubiquitous internet to travel over land not repurposed for mass transit easily, not giving a single shit about lack of asphalt.
Not long after this imagined time, or even concurrent with it, 3-D printing technologies could enable areas to produce many of the goods they might need to take full advantage of the latest innovative tech right at home. Even if 3-D printing a heavy lift drone remains beyond the reach of an individual, perhaps a village can share a 3-D printing facility. There are many ways that each perceived lack in an undeveloped area means a solution that modernizes that same area in a way that truly eclipses the more established, incumbent superpowers. Leapfrogging is real and its potential becomes more interesting and farther-reaching thanks to Moore’s Law, Elon, and digital technologies every single day. Don’t be surprised when you wake up one day to hear that Ethiopia is starting its own asteroid mining company. In this case, the little guys are the ones who can afford to dream the biggest.
A quick note. While I mentioned lack of drinking water and poor clean water infrastructure as an aside it really is an incredibly big deal. If digital technology and Amazon drones can solve this problem it’s not immediately clear to me how. There may be an elegant solution that rises out of planetary inter-connectivity, a massive increase in the efficiency coupled with the greatly reduced cost of desalinization, or some other unforeseen, tech-based solution. After all, I’ve been championing that line of thinking for this entire piece. But waiting around for a solution is not good enough.
This water problem is not a problem for the future. It is a disastrous problem right now. It’s been a disastrous problem for much of the world for a long time and this problem is hitting major American cities at present for a variety of reasons ranging from neglect, criminal and otherwise, to reckless environmental policies. This is a problem we can’t wait for drones to solve and delivering bottled water isn’t enough. This requires immediate and systemic change.
Check out https://waterdefense.org/ find out how you can help.