The most important book I read in 2012 is Abundance, and I couldn't encourage you more to read it in 2013 to kick off the new year on the right tone. If there are "a thousand good business ideas in Mary Meeker's Internet Trends report for aspiring entrepreneurs that want to change the world", as I wrote in that post, there are ahundred thousand good business ideas in Abundance.
Reading Abundance is like going to TED - the main TED, in Long Beach, CA. I first went in February of 2011, and I cannot wait to go again in February of 2013 (only my second time to go). Later in 2013, I'm also going to TED Global in Edinburgh for the first time. Going to TED is a life-changing experience. It was especially moving in 2011 because my wife, Debra, and I had just visited Africa - also for the first time. Africa was life-changing too, but in a very different way. Going to Africa gives you incredible perspective on humanity and what really matters in life. Debra and I went to see the high school we helped build, via the Pipkins, the incredible leaders at The Nobelity Project. Seeing how we had directly helped a small village in Kenya was a game-changer for us. In Africa, you see some of the most beautiful landscape and animals of your life, coupled with the depths of the most pressing problems for humanity. It is overwhelming and when you return there is a thought of, "the problems are too big for humanity to overcome". Going to both - Africa and TED, side-by-side - was especially thought provoking. TED, and the brilliant book Abundance, address this unproductive "too big to try" thought head-on, and that stokes my optimistic entrepreneurial energy in a big way. I think it will do the same for you.
A quick note before you click below to read the rest of this post. It is my longest yet - at over 3,500 words. You may wonder why I took all of this time. Well, first of all, it will serve as a great reference for me too. A huge reason that I took up the Lucky7 blog is not just to serve you - the reader - but also to serve my own needs. Writing is therapeutic. "To teach is to learn" is a motto I've lived my whole life by. Writing this post helped solidify my own understanding of the book and its implications. I plan to come back to my post over the years as the technologies outlined in the book (rather quickly) unfold. Second, my goal is to help as many of the "right" entrepreneurs as possible with this blog. If this review and the book inspires you to help solve some of humanity's grandest challenges that would be a huge win for all of us.
To the pessimists reading this blog and already groaning, Abundance has news for you. It is natural, and unfortunate, to be pessimistic in this age. We live in a 24/7-media environment - the worst of humanity is constantly amplified. Fiscal cliff, Newtown, etc. - a constant barrage. We also clearly have a bias for end-of-the-world type of talk, as just evidenced in our Mayan calendar "fears" (mockery?) and many popular end-of-the-world type books and movies. But as Abundance quotes Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, "the true measure of something's worth is the hours it takes to acquire it" and on this front there is no doubt we are getting better and better. Here is one of my favorite exerts from Ridley's book as quoted inAbundance:
Some of the billions alive today still live in misery and want even worse than the worst experienced in the Stone Age. Some are worse off than they were a few months or years before. But the vast majority of people are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than their ancestors have ever been. The availability of almost everything a person could want has been going rapidly upward for two hundred years and erratically upward for ten thousand years before that: years of life span, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clear air, hours of privacy, means of traveling faster than you can run, ways of communicating father than you can shout. Even allowing for the hundreds of millions who still live in abject poverty, disease and want, this generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square-feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light-years, nanometers, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles, and, of course, dollars than any that went before.
The concept of abundance is all a matter of perspective, and chapter one of the book starts out with the story of aluminum, which used to be worth more than gold and now is an infinitely useful, almost "throwaway-cost" metal. No one would have thought that about aluminum if they were thinking short-term and faced with the incredible difficulties of finding it in a usable form before the late 1800s, when the first commercial processes were developed for easy extraction. And great entrepreneurs must think long-term to build something that truly changes the world. You can download chapter one for free at the Abundance website - this is the chapter that got me hooked when I read it in an airline magazine and then immediately ordered the book afterward.
Abundance goes on to talk about Ray Kurzweil, serial entrepreneur, new employee at Google (just announced), and author of The Singularity is Near, a book that I also love. Just reading chapter one of Kurzweil's book will blow your mind, trust me. You can also watch the documentary about him, Transcendent Man, available here on Netflix for the passive "speed-read" on his concepts and research. Here is an exert from Abundance about Kurzweil's exponential future plotting of computing power that will get you going in the right direction:
Today's average low-end computer calculates at roughly 10 to the 11th (10^11) or a hundred billion calculations per second. Scientists approximate that the level of pattern recognition necessary to tell Grandfather from Grandmother or distinguish the sound of hoofbeats from the sound of falling rain requires the brain to calculate at speeds of roughly 10 to the 16th (10^16) cycles per second, or 10 million billion calculations per second. Using these figures as a baseline and projecting forward using Moore's law, the average $1,000 laptop should be computing at the rate of the human brain in fewer than fifteen years. Fast-forward another twenty-three years, and the average $1,000 laptop is performing 100 million billion billion calculations (10^26) per second - which would be equivalent to all the brains of the entire human race.
The implications for this are staggering, across so many fields and to help solve so many of the world's problems, and this is what Abundance mostly addresses. The co-author of the book, Peter Diamandis, along with Ray Kurzweil founded a university named Singular University focused on these macro-themes instead of the micro-themes of the many great PhD programs already available today at the top universities of the world, especially in the U.S. Singularity University has identified eight exponentially growing fields as the core of their curriculum: biotechnology and bioinformatics; computational systems; networks and sensors; artificial intelligence; robotics; digital manufacturing; medicine; and nanomaterials and nanotechnology. These eight fields flow elegantly throughout the books chapters as various drivers of solutions to the world's biggest problems.
Although Abundance starts out a little slow (at the bottom of this post you'll see my suggestion for the best way to read it), it really picks up speed in Chapter 6, "The Singularity is Nearer", where it gives you a taste of the potential in each of these fields. And then in later chapters the book deep-dives into the potential for us to address the world's biggest problems, a lack of abundance of: 1. Water 2. Food 3. Energy 4. Education 5. Health Care 6. Freedom
As you get into the book, you realize that most of the world's problems will be solved, or be very close to solved, in the next 15-25 years. This is really, really exciting to think about as it will happen in most of our lifetimes. I'm 40 today, and I hope to be around to see all of this - and I may even have a hand in some of the solutions.
In the chapter on water, I found it most fascinating that Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, has been working on this problem with his invention, the Slingshot (named after the biblical David vs. Goliath). The Slingshot is the size of a dorm-room refrigerator, with a power cord, an intake hose, and an outflow hose. Quoting Dean from Abundance:
"Stick the intake hose into anything wet - arsenic-laden water, salt water, the latrine, the holding tanks of a chemical waste treatment plant; really, anything wet - and the outflow is one hundred percent pure pharmaceutical-grade injectable water".
The Slingshot can handle "250 gallons of water a day using the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair dryer" due to it's very clever energy recovery system, recovering 98% of the energy used in its operation. And it runs maintenance free for at least five years. Imagine putting these in the areas of the world where the water situation is the most dire. Coca-Cola is now involved, which is great due to their massive global distribution system. And this is first-gen technology, initially launched in 2003. With this first-gen system, "the cost of producing one thousand liters of drinking water per day is $0.002 per liter", which is a fraction of existing solutions.
And this chapter addresses much more: sanitation, the smart-grid, etc. The possibilities are incredibly exciting.
In the chapter on food, the big discussion is on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and GEs (genetically engineered seeds). This chapter also addresses the innovation of vertical farming, which is essentially farming within skyscrapers in completely controlled environments. In these environments you can use a more advanced derivative of hydroponics called aeroponics. To quote from the book:
Traditional agriculture uses 70 percent of the water on the planet. Hydroponics is 70 percent more efficient than traditional agriculture. Aeroponics, meanwhile, is 70 percent more effective than hydroponics. Thus, if we used aeroponics for agriculture, we could drop water use from 70 percent to 6 percent - quite the savings.
As far as sources of meat protein, versus plants, well that is where it may churn your stomach. But no more than if you watch the Gary Yourofsky video on veganism and what happens inside of animal slaughter houses (what Gary calls "the animal holocaust"). One solution for fish is global aquaculture, or "fish farms". But the main solution is cultured meat, or in-vitro meat. Here the book quotes Jason Matheny, director of New Harvest, a nonprofit that funds research in this area:
"On reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone, switching to cultured meat is the equivalent of everyone in America suddenly driving hybrids. And, healthwise, real beef is always going to have fatty acids that contribute to heart disease. You just can't turn a cow into a salmon, but cultured meat allows us to do just that. With in-vitro meat, we can create a hamburger that prevents heart attacks, rather than one that causes them."
In the chapter on energy, the clear path to abundance is solar as the sun's energy is constantly available around the world (it is always daylight somewhere), coupled with massive improvements in battery power and smart-grid infrastructure. Here the government is involved to drive down the cost. Current US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu recently announced SunShot Initiative, which is focused on spurring American innovation to reduce solar energy system costs another 75% by 2020. This reduction would put costs around $1 per watt - six cents per kilowatt-hour - which is lower than coal.
Another area of research is synthetic algae, an area that Craig Venter is also focused on, which could produce thirty times more energy per acre than conventional biofuels. Craig founded Synthetic Genomics to focus on this massive opportunity.
This chapter also focuses on nuclear power and how much of our knowledge is based on a 1970s understanding. Today's generation IV technologies make this power "passively safe", "meaning that in case of trouble, [the plants are] able to shut themselves down without human intervention" because of their advanced design. Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former CTO, is leading the way in this area with his company TerraPower, which is developing the traveling wave reactor, a self-contained nuclear power unit that "has no moving parts, can't melt down, and can run safely for fifty-plus years, literally without human intervention".
I love how this chapter closes by quoting Bob Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com Corporation, and now a professor at U.T. Austin. I've enjoyed getting to know Bob as I visit U.T. and talk with students in various classes. Among other things, Bob teaches a class along with a well-known angel investor and good friend, Josh Baer, named 1 Semester Startup. Bob talks about the need for us to develop the "Enernet", which should be our next generation energy network, or smart grid. The chapter closes again on solar, which is "pollution, carbon, and stigma free". Solar prices are falling 5-6 percent annually, while capacity is growing at 30 percent per year. Although solar only accounts for 1 percent of our energy now, with this rate of growth it should be eighteen years from now when solar provides 100 percent of our energy needs. And ten years after that with this rate of growth, solar would provide 1,550 percent of today's energy needs and that isn't even factoring in the investments in technology to make energy more efficient, such as Bob Metcalfe's Enernet idea. For the closing quote of this chapter that I found most telling, here is Bob Metcalfe on what you will actually be able to do with that much energy:
"First, why not drop the price of energy by an order of magnitude, driving the planet's economic growth through the roof? Second, we could truly open the space frontier, using that energy to send millions of people to the Moon or Mars. Third, with that amount of energy, you could supply every person on Earth with the American standard of fresh, clean water every day. And, fourth, how about using that energy to actually remove CO2 from the Earth's atmosphere. I know a professor at the University of Calgary, Dr. David Keith, who has developed such a machine."
In the chapter on education, the main focus is on moving beyond our industrial-revolution era, factory model of one-size-fits-all education in public schools to one of self-directed, small-team learning. This chapter talks about Indian physicist Sugata Mitra's experiments where he places a computer with access to the Internet and, with no coaching at all, children teach themselves to learn in areas where this level of technology access has never been available before. Combined with a little coaching, which he has facilitated via the Internet in various cases, that learning almost doubles. Put children in small groups of four where they can discuss what they are learning, and that learning increases by around another 50 percent. With this success, the key is how to get more Internet-enabled computers to children and the chapter discusses Nicholas Negroponte's well-known One Laptop (now Tablet) Per Child project.
Going back to America, the chapter discusses our very high remediation costs of tens of billions per year and how both gaming teaching methods, such as Quest to Learn, and the Khan Academy (see the excellent 60 Minutes segment), with instruction available over the Internet turning the classroom into a coaching environment versus an instruction environment, will create much better results, combined with access globally. This chapter closes by addressing a more personalized form of education and mentions a novel that I loved, The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by author Neal Stephenson as a potential future. I highly recommend reading that book - it is most telling on the future of nanotech and education and overall a terrific science-fiction (or "cyber-punk") novel.
In the chapter on health care, there is a focus on the current and coming shortage of doctors and nurses. Not surprisingly given the teachings from the earlier chapters inAbundance, robots will come to the rescue in this area given how much computing power will increase relative to the power of the human brain (which will eventually be enhanced as we fuse our physical bodies to this type of computing power, to go back to Kurzweil for a spell). To handle populations in remote areas, especially countries today in the "third world", Lab-on-a-Chip technologies are being developed that will also be enhanced by Internet connectivity to both facilitate the correct diagnosis - and cure - and also to monitor for upcoming outbreaks before they get too serious.
As far as surgery, Catherine Mohr, the robotics expert who founded Intuitive Surgical, makers of the da Vinci Surgical System (which we are lucky enough to have here locally at Dell Children's Hospital), is quoted:
Over the next five to ten years, Mohr predicts a proliferation of smaller, special purpose robots, extending far beyond cataract removal. One might handle glaucoma surgery, another a gastric bypass, while a third performs dental repairs. Mohr thinks the fifteen- to twenty-year horizon is even more exciting. "In the future, we'll be able [to] detect cancers by monitoring blood, urine, or breath, and, once detected, remove them robotically. The robot will find the tiny cancerous lesion, insert a needle, and obliterate it, just like you do a cancerous mole today."
On the subject of robo-nurses, I found Dr. Dan Berry's predictions fascinating:
Just like [three-dimensional] laser range finders, all other robo-nurse components are on similar price-performance reduction curves. Pretty soon, the requisite sensors and computing power will be nearly free. All that's left to buy is the mechanical body, which is why [Dr.] Barry believes that $1,000 is the ballpark figure for these bots [in fifteen to twenty years]. So here's your comparison: if we assume that the majority of octogenerians [people over 80-years old] in our future will need some form of assisted living care, we can either spend (at today's costs) trillions of dollars on nursing homes or we can, as Barry suggests, let robots do the work.
The chapter then turns to progress stem cells, which are rapidly evolving to not have to use human embryos to be harvested but instead morphed from reprogrammed cells in your own body. There is incredible potential here, as I'm sure you have heard before. According to Dr. Robert Hariri, "So we're speaking about the potential for 'curing' chronic diseases and revitalizing key organs for less than the price of a laptop [through the rapidly decreasing cost of stem-cell technology]." Also, 3D printing comes into play here, and I was lucky enough to see this presentation at TED. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University Medical Center is pioneering the ability for us to print organs, including the complex and in high demand (for organ donor waiting list patients) kidney, from these devices.
The chapter closes with a discussion on P4 medicine. P4 stands for predictive, personalized, preventive, and participatory. In this area, you will be able to leverage the upcoming trillion-dollar genome sequencing market to develop P4 medicines that prevent you from getting the disease that you are biologically subject to in the first place (especially when you throw nano-tech, or cell-size robots, into the equation). You will even be able to solve obesity by turning off the fat insulin receptor gene, which was only helpful when we rarely ate in our primitive eras but are devastating now in modern America where fast food is abundant and cheap.
The book also addresses the forces that will drive abundance across three chapters, including the DIY innovator, the new technophilanthropists, and the rising billion.
I love this book because it gives much hope to our immediate future. Like I wrote at the beginning of my review, we are going to see all of this happen in our lifetime. If we don't, well, that is a terrible scenario given the problems we face in the world. But given that there are literally tens, if not hundreds, of trillions of dollars of economic opportunity at stake for aspiring entrepreneurs and investors, I'm betting that the human race solves our greatest challenges over the next 20-30 years and we live in a new age of abundance where most of us exist at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I've believed this since I was 10 years old - that computers would accelerate impact in all areas (Kurzweil makes it convenient for me to now say "exponentially impact"). I very clearly remember having these debates with my teachers and friends at that age. And the book Abundance, and events like TED, make it clear that computers are impacting much, much more than merely ubiquitous access to entertainment and an increasing productivity level in business. At both Bazaarvoice and Coremetrics, I founded the companies to help with the latter and they provided their own level of abundance as a result (the power of ubiquitous, digital word of mouth and the power of ubiquitous analytics, both of which today drive massive efficiency gains in commerce overall - helping companies and consumers alike). But the scale of our global challenges and the upcoming solutions are going to make for very exciting times for entrepreneurs indeed in the next 20-30 years. The "nerds" truly will save the human race - and the Earth.
Read Abundance to start off the new year right. To get the best experience, I suggest you read it in this order:
- Chapter 1
- Chapters 4-6
- Chapters 8-9
- Chapters 13-16
- The rest
My bottom line on Abundance: for it's potential to change the world and for chronicling the macro-view of how we will get to a future of massive prosperity as well as celebrating the many entrepreneurs rising to the challenge, innovating, and pursuing trillion-dollar opportunities, Abundance is my choice for book of the year.