The Future is Here

And It Doesn't Care Whether or Not We're Ready

BY BILL BING@BillNBing6.19.14

Filed Under: NEWS: Startups

Amongst the constant barrage of link-bait and content marketing articles (aka “5 ways successful ____ do ____” aka SPAM) that make up my daily Twitter feed, I came across a link from Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of Singularity University (I attended SU's 2010 graduate studies program).

To summarize, Space X just announced and showed off its new spaceship, and Peter was able to go on board and hang out with Space X founder Elon Musk. The spaceship is unreal in its design and appearance – it truly is something out of a sci-fi film. In his post Peter writes that, according to Elon, within 15 years people will be able to use the Dragon V2 to make a roundtrip to Mars for $500,000.

Think about that for a minute – flying roundtrip in a spaceship to Mars. In 15 years. My son is 2 years old, so this is not an absurdly far off time period to me. Hell, it could be a high school graduation present… you know, assuming I have a half million dollars lying around taking up space.

Oh yeah, Google just announced its plans to build a fleet of driverless cars a couple of weeks ago, and before that, Amazon confirmed plans to use drones to deliver food and other items people order from them. This is to say nothing of the advances in synthetic biology, nanotechnology, solar energy, and I won't bore you with additional links or info—you get the idea.

My point is it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day bombardment of information without taking a step back to assess where we are and how much innovation is taking place across a broad variety of fields. The next 10-20 years will be unprecedented in the number and magnitude of breakthrough technologies and developments we see come to fruition. This sounds trite, but it's truly remarkable.

The biggest challenge we collectively face is figuring out how to manage/govern/regulate these advances. Our policies are horribly outdated and our political system is very slow to react. When it does, it usually acts in the best interest of deep-pocketed lobbyists (see: net neutrality).

Take the FDA's approach with 23andMe as an example: the FDA ordered 23andMe to stop selling saliva kits to people who want to do a genetic test and understand if they're at risk for certain diseases. Basically, people would spit in a vial, send it to 23andMe in a package and then get results a few weeks later for $99. The FDA's concern is that the data provided to customers might be wrong.

In the interview linked above, 23andMe's CEO Anne Wojcicki is asked if the US is competitive with genetic testing and she replies, “I think the U.S. is falling behind. There's massive government initiatives going around the world and you see that there's a real enthusiasm for genetics.” The interviewer follows up and asks if 23andMe plans to seek approval abroad and she says, “We haven't confirmed any one way or another, but we want to continue operating all over the world. So we'll see where makes the most sense.”

For further examples, consider the way politicians have treated Tesla (direct sales ban in New Jersey), Airbnb (banned in Portland and possibly San Francisco), the SEC's 600(!) page proposal on equity crowdfunding rules (part of the 2012 Jobs Act; still not implemented), and Uber and Lyft (driver limits in Seattle). And these are seemingly simple issues compared to synthetic biology, drones or freaking spaceships!

To be fair, how many senators or representatives do you think have a solid understanding of the technologies in question? I'd wager less than 10%. The average age of a Senator is 62; 57 for a Representative. Ok, so they might not be on Snapchat, but they could still have technical backgrounds right? Let's see: one senator is an engineer. 1… so by my quick math, that's, um, 1% of the Senate. But hey, at least the House includes 2 physicists, 5 engineers, 5 software executives and 1 microbiologist. Much better – 3% of the House has a science or technology background! All of a sudden my 10% figure above seems awfully generous.

Then we have organizations like the FCC that take senior jobs at the companies they purport to regulate immediately after their terms end. As the article describes there's basically a revolving door between regulators and industry executives. The SEC is no better – in fact they had to enact new rules to ensure that former employees wait a full year before they join lobbyists to petition their former colleagues. Just search for “regulator revolving door” if you want more examples.

So to recap, Senators and Representatives are (for the most part) ignorant as to what's happening in technology, and regulatory organizations are staffed with former lobbyists at deep-pocketed industry leading companies. Other than that, I'd say the political and regulatory environment for new technologies looks promising.

Still, developments are happening at a breakneck pace as advances in one area lead to opportunities in other fields. These products, services and solutions will only slow down and wait for government approval for so long. I suspect that soon, developers of these technologies will either seek countries with more progressive policies (as Ms. Wojcicki of 23andMe alludes to), or simply ignore the regulators and play by the “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” approach.

Either way, the future will not be held back by political incompetence or regulatory sabotage. From curing cancer to flying to Mars, there's too much at stake to wait around for decades of bureaucracy to resolve itself. It's like as a country we're trying to run Autodesk and the other latest applications on an Apple 2e. You can only wait for so long before you throw your hands up in the air and move on.

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