In 1998, Kodak had 170,000 employees and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide.
Within just a few years, their business model disappeared.
Recently, I’ve been impressed by a vision of the future as shared by serial entrepreneur and CEO Udo Gollub. He has noted that what happened to Kodak will happen to many industries in the next 10 years. But most don’t see it coming. Did you think, in 1998, that three years later you would never take pictures on film or paper again?
Digital cameras were invented in 1975. The first models had only 10,000 pixels of image resolution, but followed Moore’s law (like transistors, we’ve doubled the number of pixels per square inch every year). Similar to many exponentially growing technologies, it was a disappointment for a long time, but grew progressively more superior and went mainstream in only a few short years.
Welcome to the 4th Industrial Revolution. Welcome to the Exponential Age.
Software will disrupt most traditional industries. Uber, for example, is just a software tool. They don’t own cars, but are now the biggest taxi company in the world. Airbnb is now the biggest hotel company in the world, although they don’t own any properties.
And then there’s Artificial Intelligence. Computers are becoming exponentially better at understanding the world. In 2016, a computer beat the best Go player in the world, 10 years earlier than expected. In the US, young lawyers already have difficulty getting jobs. Because of IBM Watson (IBM), you can now get basic legal advice within seconds, with 90% accuracy (compared with 70% accuracy when provided by humans). So if you study law, consider your options immediately. There will be fewer lawyers in the future.
Watson also helps doctors diagnose cancer, with a four times higher accuracy rate than humans. Facebook (FB) now has pattern recognition software that can recognize faces better than humans. It is forecast that by 2030, computers will become more intelligent than humans.
Autonomous cars: Self driving cars will soon be available to the public. Disruption of the auto industry has already begun. You won’t need to own a car anymore. You will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and will drive you to your destination. You will not need to park; you will only pay for the driven distance and you can be productive while traveling. Our kids may never get a driver’s license and never own a car. This will change cities, because they will need to contain far fewer cars. We can transform former parking space into parks. Currently, more than 1.2 million people worldwide die in car accidents every year. While we currently experience one accident every 60,000 miles, with autonomous driving, this rate will drop dramatically, saving perhaps a million lives each year worldwide.
Most car companies will be at risk of gradually failing. Traditional car companies will try the evolutionary approach and just build a better car, while tech companies (Tesla (TSLA), Apple (AAPL), Uber and Google (GOOG)) will take the revolutionary approach of building a computer on wheels. Engineers from major car companies are are very concerned about the looming threat from Tesla.
Auto insurance companies will have massive trouble because, with far fewer accidents, the price of insurance will become much lower. Their car insurance business will shrink drastically. Likewise, the geographic distribution of Real Estate prices will change. When you can work while you commute and commutes become shorter, as traffic flows more efficiently with autonomous cars, people will move further away to live in more beautiful neighborhoods.
Electric cars will become mainstream. Cities will be less noisy because electric cars are so quiet. Electricity will become progressively less expensive and clean: Solar production has been on an exponential curve for 30 years, but we can now begin to see the impact. Last year, more solar energy was installed worldwide than fossil. For a few days in March 2017, solar power produced half of all the electricity used in California. The price for solar will drop so much that many coal companies will be put out of business and oil will be impacted by reduced demand.
With low cost electricity comes affordable and abundant water. We don’t have scarce water in most places; we only have scarce drinking water. Imagine what will be possible when anyone can have as much clean water as they want.
In health care there will soon be companies that will build medical devices (remember the “Tricorder” from Star Trek) that work with your phone to scan your retina, take your blood sample and sample your breath. They will then analyze biomarkers that will identify nearly any disease. It will be inexpensive, so in ten or twenty years everyone in the developed world can have access to world class diagnosis.
In 3D printing, the price of the cheapest 3D printer has already reduced from $18,000 to $300 in 10 years. In the same period, they became 100 times faster. All major shoe companies have started 3D printing of shoes. Spare airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports. The space station now has a printer that eliminates the need for storing the large amount of spare parts they used to carry. Construction of Real Estate will also be revolutionized, bringing abundant housing to the poor and luxurious options for the rich, all while reducing the need for people to do the work.
Soon, new smartphones will offer 3D scanning. You will be able to 3D scan your feet and print or order your perfect shoe from your home. China has already 3D printed a complete six-story office building. 3D printing will disrupt almost all fields of manufacturing.
Agriculture will evolve dramatically as well. There will soon be a $100 agricultural robot. Farmers in third-world countries will become managers of their fields instead of being manual laborers. The first petri dish beef is now available and will become less expensive and cleaner than beef from cows. Right now, almost one third of all agricultural land is used for cow farming. Imagine the impact if we don’t need that space. There are several startups bringing non-animal source protein to the market that contain more protein than meat.
There are already apps that can recognize your mood. In a few years, there will be apps that can tell by your facial expressions if you are lying. Imagine a live political debate where viewers can see within seconds when a politician tells a lie. Quite a market!
The Internet of Things is on the way to driving dramatically increased service levels, higher efficiency and reliability across most areas of our lives and businesses, while reducing the number of people needed to do the work.
Bitcoin is becoming mainstream and might become the world’s default reserve currency, which would cause a step change in financial industry efficiency.
Our longevity will be impacted as well. Right now, the average human being’s life span increases by three months per year. In 1900 worldwide life expectancy was 31 years. In 1950 it was 48 years, a 55% increase. By 2013 lifespan worldwide increased to 71 years, a further 48% increase. The increase per year is currently accelerating, and it is predicted that around 2036 we’ll begin a temporary period during which more that one year increase in lifespan will occur every year that passes. So we may live for well beyond 100 years.
In education, accelerating ownership of smartphones will give widespread access to world class education.Third world children will be able to use Khan academy for access to everything a child currently learns at school in a First World country.
At work, large swaths of jobs as we know them today will disappear. There will be new jobs, but it is not clear what they’ll be. What is clear is that there will not be enough new jobs to replace lost jobs, by a sizable margin. We are likely to see a large proportion of the working population unable to find employment.
When I look at the future, I see both exciting opportunities and huge peril. We can expect that many of the incredible changes I have described will take longer to have an impact than is currently believed. But these changes are coming, and their effects will be huge.
The likely direct outcome of the current future that is already evolving is that as many as half of the workforce will be impacted, their lives disrupted with the logistical, financial and societal side effects our future will cause. Human beings need to be gainfully employed and challenged to feel fulfilled. While various socially advanced countries will do a better job than others at reducing impact on their people through cross training and guaranteed minimum income programs, this approach is a type of band-aid, and it lacks a levered effect. It is simply not enough.
I see a far more effective method for taking charge of our future.
What if we were to motivate entrepreneurs to build companies that have the creation of new jobs on a large scale as a clear objective? We know that entrepreneurs and startups have a huge impact on what they set their sights on. For example, look at the way Jeff Bezos has changed retail buying. I believe we can drive effective and positive control over our future by causing the most levered group in society– our entrepreneurs–to apply themselves to create employment. As a group, entrepreneurs have the impact that can deliver on the required scale.
Perhaps now is the time to motivate entrepreneurs to solve the upcoming employment vacuum by creating companies that by their nature generate far higher employment.
We cannot rely on altruism. So let’s get the growth capital industry (VC firms, Angel Investor groups, Incubators, and crowdfunding platforms) on board with this objective, to provide the financial motivation to build the critical mass of entrepreneurs that is needed.
And let’s get entrepreneurs to buy in. I have voted with my feet – I have set up the EmployYourFuture program at my company to encourage entrepreneurs to build startups that create jobs at scale.
We can have our future and enjoy it too—a far better alternative than a future that disrupts our children’s lives for decades!
Rod is a Forbes Contributor. This column was first published on Forbes.