Book Review: A Starry-Eyed Vision of the Future

Having prognosticated and pontificated their way through the past decade, Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler have come to dominate the robust market in predicting the future. Diamandis, a scientist and serial entrepreneur, and Kotler, a journalist and peak performance expert, have started or run an impressive string of entities with far-out names like BOLD Capital Partners, Abundance 360, and Flow Research Collective.

BOOK REVIEW “The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives,” by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages).

And they write books. “The Future is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives” is the third installment in a series titled Exponential Technology. This volume, like its predecessors, is a dispatch from the front lines of change. Its message: The future isn’t merely fast; it’s traveling at warp speed, coming soon to a Hyperloop near you.

According to the authors, “huge,” “amazing,” and “incredible” technologies will transform every aspect of our lives. Flying cars will take us to work. Artificial intelligence will diagnose our medical symptoms and robots will perform surgery. We will think and learn by controlling machines with our minds. And how quickly will all of this materialize? Sometime in the next five to 10 years.


This starry-eyed view of tectonic shifts in how we will soon live, work, travel, heal, and learn is divided into three parts and an afterword.  Part one, titled the “Power of Convergence,” explores the “blurry acceleration” we’re seeing today as multiple technologies unite to bring about “nothing-is-ever-the-same breakthroughs.”

And those breakthroughs will in turn bring exponential change. A sample scenario from the year 2028, made possible by the happy convergence of technologies that already exist, or are close to existing: “You’re having breakfast at home in Cleveland, Ohio. You stand up, kiss the kids goodbye, and head out the door [to] a meeting in downtown New York.” Inside of 10 seconds, an Uber autonomous vehicle in touch with your schedule pulls into your driveway. You nap in the car’s lie-flat seat (the car also knows you didn’t sleep well, thanks to your sleep sensor, and the bed is ready for you). The car/bed takes you to a local Hyperloop station (Elon Musk’s vision of a high-speed transportation network that propels passengers in pods at speeds up to 760 mph), your pod zips you to the roof of a skyscraper, Uber Elevate flies you to Manhattan, and another Uber self-driving car takes you to Wall Street. Total elapsed time: 59 minutes.

Meanwhile, I’d like to thank the authors for offering the first comprehensible explanation of blockchain I’ve encountered to date. The blockchain concept is introduced on page 56 and appears on 20 subsequent pages, so the primer early on is much appreciated. A blockbuster of a technology, blockchain will help us determine whether our garment was constructed using child labor. Blockchain smart contracts will facilitate Amazon orders that are delivered to our house by drones. And in the business world, the convergence of blockchain and AI will give rise to what the authors call “decentralized autonomous organizations.”

One word that crops up repeatedly is “incredible” – as in, “Vertical farming has been progressing at an incredible rate.” (Better a vertical farmer than one flat on his back, I always say.) Yes, the authors use the word to mean amazing, or astonishing. But strictly speaking, “incredible” refers to something so implausible as to elicit incredulousness.

According to the authors, technology will transform every aspect of our lives in the next five to 10 years. Flying cars will take us to work, and we will think and learn by controlling machines with our minds.

And here’s where the authors are correct, if unwittingly so. Writing about the future understandably runs the risk of bumping up against readers who are unable to think outside the box. But even those who are open-minded should take note of the authors’ tone, so breathlessly Utopian that, indeed, it strains credulity.

Consider the chapter titled “The Future of Health Care,” which can be found in part two on “The Rebirth of Everything.” In the chapter’s third sentence, there is an error. In referring to pulmonary hypertension, a rare lung disorder, the authors write that it “infects” about 2,000 Americans. In rare cases, it can be caused by infection, but these make up a tiny fraction of patients in the U.S. with this disorder. I believe they meant to write that the condition “affects” about 2,000 Americans.

It’s a small error, but it’s a sloppy one, especially given that Peter Diamandis earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School.

That mistake put me on alert for other problems in the chapter. I found several. Sticking with the topic of pulmonary hypertension, the authors imply that thanks to a particular drug developed by United Therapeutics, the number of patients now living with the condition has climbed from 2,000 to 40,000. While new drugs have undoubtedly helped, according to two pulmonary hypertension experts I checked with, there are additional reasons for the longevity increase, such as better awareness and earlier diagnosis. A failure to mention other substantial factors is just plain irresponsible, but in keeping with the authors’ tendency to simplify the narrative in order to match their exuberant tone.

Ditto with a discussion of Human Longevity Inc., a company co-founded by Diamandis. The company sells a service called “Health Nucleus,” a comprehensive scan that includes genome sequencing, a whole-body MRI, heart and lung CT, as well as other tests that provide “the most complete picture of health currently available.” And everything Human Longevity is measuring and tracking “will soon come to you on demand,” via always-on, always-watching sensors. (Even those who subscribe to the “get-over-it” attitude toward lost privacy might find that notion creepy.)

The authors report that 14.4 percent of patients had significant issues requiring immediate intervention, including undetected coronary artery disease, tumors, and aneurysms. What the authors do not point out is the rate of false positives, overtreatment such as unnecessary stents, and the lack of evidence that screening makes a difference in outcomes.

Rather, they go on to say that thanks to the aforementioned sensors, “your smartphone is about to become your doctor.”

Similarly, the jury is still out on whether robo-surgery is an improvement over human. And there is scant evidence, if any, that increased technology in health care leads to lower costs — another bold assertion the authors make.

If it were mere wishful thinking driving this forecast for health care and other areas covered in the book, that would be one thing.  But dreamy scenarios that omit important factors do a disservice to the reality of where the world is today.

Part three, “The Faster Future,” is where things finally start to feel down-to-earth, plausible, and thus a little more helpful. The authors describe plans for clean drinking water around the globe, cheap energy to combat climate change, and “flow batteries,” which store energy in liquids like molten salt instead of lithium. But just when the future is beginning to sound feasible, the authors start in on virtual worlds, outer space colonization, and hive-mind collaboration.

In case this book leaves you craving still more in the way of futuristic ramblings, you will discover in the afterword that the authors “do a limited number of select keynote speaking engagements every year.” The agency that handles Diamandis puts his speaking fee at $100,000 to $200,000 per gig. Now that’s incredible.

Katie Hafner is a journalist who writes about health care. She is the author of six works of nonfiction, most recently a memoir, “Mother Daughter Me” (Random House), and is at work on a novel. She can be reached on Twitter at @KatieHafner.