Disruption, Not Innovation, Provides Advantage

Peter Wicher, director, Strategic Relations, Singularity University, speaks at the AWS18 on Feb. 22, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. Air Force Magazine photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

The trick to gaining technological advantage is to anticipate the future based on current trends and accept the reality of what the future will be, and not try to defend past investments in what will soon be obsolete, Peter Wicher, a futurist who is Director of Strategic Relations for Singularity University, advised airmen at AWS18.

Wicher said innovation is “doing the same things, better,” while disruption is doing “new things that make old things obsolete.” As an example, he noted that the automobile was introduced in 1904, but was “a disappointment” at first, being mechanically unreliable and noisy. But by 1912, there were as many cars as horses and by 1917, horses were “gone from city centers.” This massive disruption illustrates how new technologies are often dismissed as fads, but by the time old-style competitors realize what’s happening,”it’s too late” to get ahead of those who invested early, Wicher asserted. He advised that airmen adopt a mindset that recognizes that change and disruption are happening at exponential rates, and to simply innovate is not enough.

Moreover, Wicher said, airmen should lose the notion that there will be fewer resources in the future. The advent of solar and its effect on competitive forms of energy is pushing down energy costs, such that energy could be practically “free” by 2040. Wicher said he has talked with many Middle East industrialists who are already looking to a time when they will not be selling energy anymore. Coupled with desalination, this chep energy trend could also make fresh water abundant in the same era.

“Think in terms of future abundance, not scarcity,” he said.

Exponential trends are also obvious in computer power, the numbers of children who survive infancy, and in worldwide users of the internet, Wicher noted. In 2010, the number of internet users was 1.5 billion; by 2022 it will be five billion.

Artificial intelligence and computer power are also growing fast, and Wicher sees IBM “Watson”-like doctors taking over diagnosis soon, while highly accurate pocket translators for any language should be common in less than a decade.

Those who want to stay ahead of the trends can no longer think about achieving, say, a 10 percent improvement in anything, but instead should be thinking about “a ten times improvement” in any undertaking.

It’s worth noting, he said, that the leader in self-driving cars is an internet search engine company, and the leader in servers used to be an online book seller. Disruption “can come from anywhere,” Wicher said. “Change your mindset … think exponentially … think abundantly.”