Azeem Azhar: coping with exponential technologies

Quantum computing and blockchain could change the way we work and live. But to make the most of them, we need to reshape the way we think about technology, according to Azeem Azhar during his appearance on What's NEXT.

Azeem Azhar is the writer behind Exponential View which explains how society and the political economy are changing under the force of technology. He brings a unique background to explain the intersection of breakthrough technologies and the economies and societies in which we live.

In the fifth episode of season two of What’s NEXT, he explored the two key technologies likely to reshape the way we live, and the mindset shift we’ll need to make the most of them. 


Azeem Azhar’s fascination with technology dates back to his teenage years at the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s. This was the era when Moore’s Law was producing the first computers capable of raytracing, and of processing fractals and Mandlebrot sets swiftly. It was also his first, tentative step into entrepreneurship, selling fractal prints.

Three decades later, technology remains the obsession at the heart of his work. Azhar suggested that, at the best of times, we don’t know enough about technology — or think enough about how it changes our mental frames of the world. And that’s as true about computing and thinks like genomics, as more complex changes. But it’s two of those big changes that he really wants to talk about. They are:

  1. Quantum computing
  2. The maturation of blockchain fabrics (particularly the programmable ones)

These are not broadly understood by people in general, even if there are communities that understand them very well.

Quantum Computing

The first issue with quantum computing is that second word: “computing”. Classic computing and quantum are both things, but you can’t really compare them. It’s not useful to use an analogy of classical computing because the fundamental maths underlying the two is so different.

Because quantum computing moves away from the Boolean/Aristotelian model underlying classical computing, it renders accessible modelling parts of natural phenomena in ways we haven’t been able to access. To explain, he points out that you can measure the length of a road with a 1-meter ruler, but you can’t measure your child’s toes with it. You need something smaller and more granular. The same is true of computing and natural phenomena. Our world is quantum in paradigm, and we need new tools to measure and model it more accurately.

We live in a world where we have to make rapid approximations of the world to process what is going on. Classical computing does the same. The approximations in quantum computing are much closer to reality.

Fundamentally, he suggests, to understand quantum computing you need to break the models you’ve been taught. His eldest son is being taught 18th- and 19th-century physics, and very little quantum physics. If you’ve been heavily trained in one paradigm, it’s hard to shift.

Blockchain

Why is blockchain so interesting? Azhar points out that it’s a mechanism for creating trust in a system without there needing to be a central authority granting that trust. Right now, when you get your credit card out, your money is backed by the clearing banks. We needed to establish the organisations and system to deliver trust through them.

Blockchain systems deliver trust without any of that. And that matters because it opens up opportunities to a wider group of people, he suggested.

For a financial system to work, you need liquidity. That liquidity is always shifting between financial institutions, so transactions can take place. They make so much money off that. Normal people don’t have access to that system, so they can’t profit from it. Azhar believes that, with blockchains like Ethereum, we as individuals can provide liquidity into the market, and profit from that.

The role of banks

The banks are unlikely to rush into this market. They lack the framework to understand the opportunity. In the late 80s and late 90s, the telephone companies said that the internet can’t work, because you had nobody to guarantee quality of service. A distributed, bottom-up service didn’t fit into their model of the world. The same is true of the banks’ attitude to Ethereum today.

Azhar is clear: we should go ahead anyway. When you distribute access and skills into the market place, it creates opportunities. And it’s worth noting that the startup companies in this space, like Coinbase, are getting very big very quickly.

He acknowledges that there are problems — Ethereum is very slow and very expensive. Is that a fundamental design problem, or something you can engineer your way through? Is it impossible to make cheap?

Coping with exponential technologies

How do organisations process these exponential technologies?

The first question is, Azhar suggests is: “can you be bothered?”. It’s easy to argue that these things will happen slowly. That means that you can see out your time at the top without addressing them. But that approach has consequences.

Microsoft flubbed their response to the internet in 1994, then reacted like a monopolist, was punished for it and then missed the mobile opportunity — but is now an incredibly dynamic company. Adobe has shifted to a SaaS company from a shrink-wrapped box company.

Getting to grips with something new is like a muscle you have to exercise. If you make an early commitment to AI, you benefit from the results. At some point, you just need to step in and get on with it. Don’t be an ostrich.

Which nations are best placed to cope with exponential technologies?

The ability to handle the consequences of innovation is a question of faith in government and the state to handle them. The pandemic has been a great accelerator of change — and has thus shown us which countries can best cope with it. In the US, female participation in the workforce has dropped to levels not seen since Reagan was president. But in France, it hasn’t dropped at all.

On one hand, you can be very loose and dynamic with your economy, but at moments of transition like this, there are many more people who are the candlemakers of today, than there are new jobs in emerging industries. The ability to manage transitions driven by exponential technologies will be best handled by these nations with decent state capacity to support people through the shift.

Rethinking cities in exponential times

A lot of the groundwork was being prepared for changes in cities before the pandemic. This includes ideas like 15-minute cities and walkable neighbourhoods. As the greatest invention of humanity — the city — you would expect it to continue and be resilient. But the form of it it is often determined by the technology of the time. The arrival of cars didn’t change the geography of cities, but it did the size and density.

Exponential technologies will reshape cities. Fewer people will commute into city centres, so those districts will become more mixed-use. But, in global terms, the rise of massive megalopolises of 70m, 80m people will outweigh anything we do in medium-sized towns. Those cities will be the engines of global change.


This is a summary of an interview with Azeem Azhar, conducted by David Mattin and Monique van Dusseldorp during the NEXT Show on March 16th, 2021. You can catch up with Azeem and his work on Twitter and his newsletter and read his thoughts on megacities in our book The Great Redesign: Frameworks for the Future.

Watch the complete episode