For many of us, science fiction has had an abiding allure. From classic episodes of Star Trek to the original Star Wars films (before George Lucas began ‘improving’ and expanding the franchise) to books by authors such as Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card and Ray Bradbury, we’ve had a soft spot for the future and all its wonderful potential.

Innovation can’t come fast enough, and we are waking up to discover that the world of science fiction has become part-reality at last. Exponential technology is making more than we ever dreamed possible.

What is exponential technology?

Moore’s Law states that every 18 months computing power in a silicon chip doubles. Given this, a day may come when technology is able to create chips so small you can’t fit more computing power in them… but surely another innovation will just replace silicon chips. That’s how fast technology is moving, and exponential technology has the greatest impact of all innovations, fast and slow.

In 1974 the first PC revolutionised the way we work, and the birth of the internet built on this advancement to also change the way we think and relax. We could achieve more in the same extraordinary way that air travel affected long-distance journeys made on foot. The calculator did not just replace the slide rule, it made the tool utterly obsolete. Exponential technology goes beyond simple commerce; they enrich users and expand our world view, transforming society in the process. Here are a few of their shared characteristics:

  • It’s highly controversial (think WikiLeaks and Tesla Motors).
  • Its innovations are often shared, or research is done transparently.
  • It creates tremendous potential, makes way for change and encourages evolution.
  • It can disrupt the balance of existing power or established processes.

Examples of exponential technology

So what are some of these maverick innovations? These are a few that are making waves at the moment, and the sectors they are transforming.

  1. Financial Services: the Bitcoin This is THE virtual currency that is changing the financial industry forever. Brad Templeton, founder of the first entirely web-based business ClariNet, sees the Bitcoin as total empowerment for the public. Along with crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending, the Bitcoin enables anyone to take the part of the banker and spend, fund and invest as they see fit.
  2. Government: long-Range Iris Scanning With instant identification, security measures can be taken in a fraction of the time it takes to look up fingerprints in a database, review official documents or ask an essential question. Irises, which are unique, can be scanned at 2 to 6 metres – in the rearview mirror of a car, for example, and used as identification. Good news for police following criminal leads. Iris scanning could also replace computer passwords and long airport security checks. While concerns have been raised over corporate and government surveillance (the United Arab Emirates has scanned the irises of all travellers in and out of the country for over 10 years), there is also the ability to prevent human trafficking.
  3. All industries: 3-D printing The potential to print guns was the start of the discussion but it’s also been possible to print a variety of other mind-blowing items for all sorts of sectors.
  • Medicine and non-profit: low-cost prosthetic limbs for war casualties, birth defects and other injuries. Not Impossible Labs has used crowd sourcing to create affordable appendages for people in Sudan, and have made the design open-source and free. Although mostly in prototype stage, human body parts such as skin and tracheas are being printed for transplant.
  • Military: fighter jet parts for the RAF. Four squadrons of Tornado GR4 aircraft are currently sporting metal components that emerged from a humble printer, thereby lowering costs and maintenance and opening up the possibility of sending these much jets further afield. Where it was previously impossible to provide manufacturing support, a printer may just be the answer.
  • Sports: commemorative items for fans. Models of Old Trafford and Etihad Stadiums worth £1,000 were the competition prizes provided by Hobs and printed at their 3-D studio in Manchester. On a different track, Nike has created the Vapor Carbon Elite Cleat for the US Super Bowl training, with the shoe’s base and cleats produced on a printer.
  • The Arts: lost sculpture and missing bones. The United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and the International Council on Monuments and Sites are working with 3-D printer technology to replicate the Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. On a slightly more prosaic level, The Grant Museum of Zoology in London has been able to print the missing leg bones for one of its rare skeletons, a quagga, which has been missing its limb for many years.
  • Retail: wedding rings, personal action figures, models of unborn babies and chocolates. These are just a few of the things that we are currently able to produce, with clothing, musical instruments and other wallet-seducing items soon to come. Is it the lure of the new or actual quality that attracts us? Only time will tell.
  • The food industry: food and edibles. Sure, the technology is super-expensive now, but as with all radical inventions, just give it time. A gourmet supper of ravioli and chocolate mousse might appear in your print tray sooner than you think.

The impact of exponential technology on businesses

It’s been said that within a decade 40 per cent of the S&P companies flourishing today will not exist. This reveals just how entrenched current technologies are within businesses, and how difficult it is to anticipate great technological change and to move with the times. Given how complex, disruptive and controversial exponential technologies are, how can businesses get to grips with artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing robotics and infinite computing (to name only a few)? The answer is in the research and planning, and only then in piece-by-piece adoption.

Corporate seminars such as the Exponential Finance event held in New York in June 2015 may help business leaders address this issue by asking the following questions:

  • Understand what exponential technologies may have in store for your business and see what best practices you put in place now, in the next few years and the next decade to make good use of such innovations.
  • Identify a strategy for keeping your business contemporary, progressive and relevant.
  • Determine whether your business is agile, flexible and adaptable enough to properly take advantage of an era of unprecedented exponential innovation.
  • Broaden your list of professional partners, collaborators and contributors to include those who will help rather than hinder progress when it comes to adopting new technology.

Your business doesn’t have to change the industry (like Airbnb did for hotels) or radically alter how people use their money, but you can be sure when an industry changes or a process transforms it’s in your professional interest to examine the course of events and possibly adapt to them, too. After all, we’re not living in science fiction anymore – this is real life.