The following is a conversation between Steven Kotler, co-author of The Future is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies are Disrupting Business, Industries, and our Lives, and Denver Frederick, the Host of the Business of Giving.

Steven Kotler, Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective and Co-author of The Future is Faster Than You Think

Denver: Technology is accelerating far more quickly than anyone could have imagined. During the next decade, we will experience more upheaval than we have in the past 100 years. It’s not easy to get your mind around the kind of change that will be caused by this rapid technological disruption, but my next guest will help us try. He is Steven Kotler, executive director of the Flow Research Collective and co-author of The Future is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies are Disrupting Business, Industries, and Our Lives. 

Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Steven! 

Steven: It’s good to be with you, Denver. 

…what’s happening now is these individual technologies are starting to converge, and you’re getting massive whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts effect, and when you get converging exponentials, the scale, the size and the scale of the disruption gets magnified.

Denver: The rate of change, in fact, is coming faster than most anyone thinks. How much faster is that? And why aren’t we more aware or prepared for it? 

Steven: So you’re asking, in a sense, a neuroscience question. 

The human brain evolved in an era that it was local, meaning everything we dealt with was roughly a day’s walk away; and linear, meaning the rate of change was very slow. So your great, great grandparents’ lives were very much the same as their great, great, great grandchildren’s lives. Today, we live in a world that is global, meaning what happens in China on the other side of the world, we hear about it here in America seconds later, like our computers get it milliseconds later, and everything impacts everything; and exponential, meaning the rate of change is incredibly quick. 

The human brain did not evolve to process information at this speed or this scale. We have what psychologists call a “linear bias,” so we’re literally blind to it. There are other deficits. We have a very hard time projecting into the future. The brain really isn’t very good at that.  Most people have hard 10-year time horizons built-in in a sense, so you have to use techniques to get farther than that. There are ways to do it. And they’re not hard, but you just have to think around the problem a little bit. You’ve got to think around a few biological limitations. 

But it’s made worse by the fact that not only can we not see exponentials, but at the heart of the book Faster, what we’ve been seeing over the past decade is single exponential technologies — robotics or computers — accelerating at incredible rates of change and then bringing a lot of change in the world. But what’s happening now is these individual technologies are starting to converge, and you’re getting massive whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts effect, and when you get converging exponentials, the scale, the size and the scale of the disruption gets magnified.

So if you think about it, 10-, 12 years ago, we were seeing exponential technologies disrupt products and services, and maybe start to poke at markets a little bit. So iTunes disrupted the music industry, and that was a market. But what we’re now seeing with converging exponentials is the level of disruption has moved up to culture and society and institutions. The entire educational system is totally wobbly and can’t keep pace, like that sort of stuff. 

And the crazy, ridiculous example that we’ve given in the book– but it’s very true– is when the institution of marriage was first created, average human lifespan… we were out of there by 30 or so. So human lifespan has, especially over the course of the 20th century, massively increased, doubled in some parts of the world completely. We’re holding on to an institution that was designed to last 10-, 15 years, historically, for the whole human history, and now we’re trying to get 70-, 80 years out of it. And I’m not saying it’s a bad idea or a good idea–

Denver: You wouldn’t dare.

Steven: –but I’m saying it’s… this is what I mean. Institutions are getting disrupted. This is why divorce rates are 50% at this point. The thing we’re trying to do was designed to last for 10-, 15 years. Trying to do it for 70, that’s an entirely different conversation.

Denver: That is absolutely a great example. And what you said there really brought something home about how we can’t see or process exponentials. That has a lot to do with how we were not prepared for COVID in this country. We could not get the idea that this exponential was going to grow like this because we saw only a few people, then a few more people, but then before you know it, we have what we have. 

Steven: So I will tell you the weirdest thing about that entire story. So Faster, the book we’re talking about, Peter and I were in New York, launching the book on launch day when COVID broke. And Peter is a doctor, and we’re experts on exponential, so we were the first people, literally, I think in America, on television, who answered questions about a disease that nobody had even heard of. And the only thing we knew is: Well, if it’s a virus and it’s contagious, it grows exponentially because that’s what viruses do. That was the extent of our knowledge. 

So we were talking about it with people then, and even then, it was very clear that they didn’t understand what we were saying. You could put the graphs in front of people and you can double it and double it and double it and show people what it looks like, and then they sort of get it. But you have to like, “This is how you go from a million cases to 10 million overnight.” That’s what happens. That’s what exponential change is: a two becomes a four, becomes an eight, becomes a 16, and so forth. 

Denver: And as you said, we’re wired linear. Let me ask you a couple of things you talked about in the book. You started off with flying cars. And I think if people are going to be dismissive about the future, is that we don’t have flying cars. We think about the Jetsons and they’re not here, and that’s where people dismiss it. But you do some research on that. Tell us about where we stand with flying cars? 

Steven: Yes. So, first of all, by the way, the statement you just made is… I’ll talk about all the reasons it’s untrue, but literally, two weeks ago, the world’s first commercial flying car company launched to the public. So you can now–

Denver: I saw that. Yes.

Steven: And the first announcement of the first flying car sky hub was announced to be built in Florida. So anyways, the point with flying cars — and thank you for starting here — is that this is this forever technology. It was always on the horizon, always on the horizon, and it became a meme.

Denver: Yes, it’s never going to happen. 

Steven: It’s a meme! I had a t-shirt in 2002 that said, “Where are my flying cars? Instead, all I got was this disease,” which I thought was ridiculously funny and dark. 

So when we say we have flying cars now, we open the book at Uber Air, Uber, the ride-sharing giant’s second annual flying car conference. The second annual meeting. The first one was about, “Hey, how do we get the cars?” Well, the cars are here. Every major aerospace manufacturer is in this game, every car company. Larry Page from Google is personally financing, I think, three individual flying car companies. We’re talking over 100, 150 companies in this space. And these are seriously, seriously disruptive automobiles. But Uber wants flying car taxi ride-sharing up and running in Dallas, in Dubai, in Los Angeles by 2023. 

So, this is here and it’s coming so fast, and flying cars are the ultimate converging example. They took so long because flying cars is essentially… they’re giant robots. These are quad-copter drones scaled up to human size. They’re AI-flown. Humans can’t fly them, especially in busy city traffic patterns. We have an entire sensor revolution guiding them through the sky so they can see where they’re going and figure out where they are. You have a material science revolution, so you can build flying cars that are light enough for flight, yet durable enough for safety, and at scale. You need 3D printers to print those same parts. And this goes on and on and on. So you get my point.

The point is though it’s not just flying cars. Flying cars are going to show up over the next five-, six years. We’re also getting Hyperloops. You’re going Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 20 minutes, and there’s 25 or 26 Hyperloop projects in the world, and the first one opened for business a couple months ago in Las Vegas. You’ve got The Boring company building tunnels, high-speed tunnels under this thing. Elon Musk just talked about using his rockets that he’s now using to launch satellites to give us 5G and to eventually take people to Mars.  You can use them for terrestrial travel because they’re taking off and landing. They were useful. That was the whole big innovation. So you can do Shanghai to New York… 

Denver: Twenty-five, thirty minutes.

Steven: And Elon says that “I want this out like 2030.” And so, let’s say he’s exaggerating, and it’s 2035. 

Denver: That’s sooner than we think.

Steven: And by the way, and we haven’t even talked about the real innovation, which is every major car company is launching autonomous cars and autonomous taxis and everything else. So everything you’d think of as the transportation industry at all levels… car insurance, but with autonomous taxis, we don’t need car insurance anymore. Personal car ownership is going to start going away. Massive car company consolidation, because as you know, when you get into an Uber, you just want it to be clean. You don’t care who makes the car, the brand. There’s no like, “Oh my God. I rode over here in a Hyundai Uber, not a Toyota.” That doesn’t happen. Every now and again, somebody shows up in one of the big black Ubers, and you’re like, “Oh, you spent money on the fancy ride. OK.” But nobody says…

Denver: I know all about you that I need to know.

Steven: But even then, nobody says,” Oh, that was a Cadillac or a Mercedes.” They just say, “Oh, you spent money on the fancy, expensive Uber.” The brand is gone. 

And the bigger deal is, when I say the size of disruption goes up when you get five exponential transportation changes inside of 10 years, and you can go Shanghai to Dubai like that, and you can go Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 20 minutes. So, if you live in Vegas, how big is the size of the local school district? 

Let’s say all the schools are crappy, and you want your child to go to a really good school, and LA is now 20 minutes away. So that’s like, “What?” What about the dating pool? You live in New York City, you’ll date somebody in Brooklyn all the time because it’s a 20-minute train ride. Jersey, a little bit, too, but you got limits. Suddenly, it’s if you live in LA–

Denver: No limits. Yes.

Steven: –and you’re single.  Can I date somebody in Vegas? Can we meet for dinner? What about corporate offices? I know all that’s changing because of COVID, but let’s say we go… Those are all really wild questions. 

The flying cars, for example, they do 150 miles an hour and they’re capable of three hours of continuous flight for five passengers. That’s the Uber standard that they’re trying to set for these cars. So ask yourself really foundational things about: What does the neighborhood look like? How do we design school districts? What are… all that stuff. 

Denver: Everything changes. And your book is just so rich with so many stories like that. Let me ask you about another– that would be how artificial intelligence and eye tracking are going to work together to change the way we live our lives and do things.

Steven: How long do you got? How long do you got on this one?

Denver: I gave you some nice open-ended questions, didn’t I? 

Steven: Yes, you did. Thank you, Denver. Just like you’re giving me a softball right over the middle of the plate, except the softball weighs like 200 pounds, right? Well, let’s just talk about simple stuff that’s already on the way. Let’s talk about the future of shopping. 

So, let’s stop for a second and say what the book does, just to give people context:  We start in transportation; we go through the 11 largest industries on earth, and we say: What’s going to happen over the next 10 years with all these converging technologies? That’s what the book sort of does. 

Shopping is a great one with eye-tracking. So, we’re going to ultimately have personalized AIs. In the way that Siri exists now on our phone, imagine a Siri that’s a much better AI, much more flexible voice recognition capabilities, et cetera. This new Siri on our phone, our personal AIs, they’re going to, thanks to things like eye tracking, they’re going to be able to do things like watch where our gaze goes. 

So you walk down the street and your eye lingers on a jacket in a clothing store, and you think, “Oh, wow. That’ll really look cool on me.” And your AI goes, “Oh Wow!” This lines up with all your eye-tracking stuff, “This really would look good on you. And by the way, we have your body measurements because we sensored your body. We know how much you weigh. We can order you the jacket perfectly customized for you, 3D printed, 4D. By the way, you can have it in an hour, delivered to your office via drone.” And all you did was look at a jacket. And you got AR glasses on; you’ll get your price menu, and you’ll blink to say “Yes.” That’s just one example. 

Denver: Now, how far away is that, Steven? And it’s hard to guess exactly, but approximately.

Steven: So a lot of this stuff is already here. It’s not put together in that same way. We’ve got the eye-tracking stuff. We’ve got all kinds of apps and stuff. You point your app at the jacket; it tells you who makes it, how to order it, and all that stuff. 

Denver: That’s right.

Steven: So we are in the last mile of this stuff. All the technologies are there. They’re going to get linked together. 

So COVID has massively accelerated…We have something like 125 cures or vaccines that are moving through the pipeline right now. First of all, nothing like that’s ever happened in the history of the world before…This is a miracle, and it’s a miracle that happened thanks to AI.

Denver: But then you got to make them commercially viable as well. 

Steven: And make them commercially viable. And when we wrote the book, Denver, it was one answer. 

So COVID has massively accelerated. I’ll give you a simple example. We have something like 125 cures or vaccines that are moving through the pipeline right now. First of all, nothing like that’s ever happened in the history of the world before. The typical time to vaccine is about five years and billions of dollars. This is a miracle, and it’s a miracle that happened thanks to AI. It’s artificial intelligence and their pattern-matching capabilities that has allowed us to get here faster. Quantum, which wasn’t used for this, but quantum computing is actually better designed for this task, and it’s right behind. It’s very close as well. 

So COVID blew up AI. AI advanced so fast because we needed it to. Health care is advancing even faster than we talked about it in the book. And then I just gave a lecture to a huge food industry organization. You’ve got to understand that food science… if you’re doing drug discovery with an AI, food science is the same thing. It’s just a different kind of drug. We eat one and like it, the other one kills our health, but it’s the same. You’re dealing with the same thing. So we’re seeing this health care revolution right now that we thought would have taken 10 years now being compressed into two or three. 

And right beneath it, that nobody’s looking at, there’s a food revolution. We were going to see an entire reinvention of agriculture over the next 10- to 15 years. But because of what’s going on, parts of it are going to accelerate a lot more quickly as well.

Denver: And would you say COVID is maybe worth two or three years of acceleration? 

Steven: It’s a really interesting question for certain technologies like generative adversarial networks, which is where you take two AIs and you let them fight it out. So you say, “Hey, I want to design a drug.” This is a company called Insilico Medicine, and they have this technology. This is real. They’re in Baltimore. They built a GANs network, Generative Adversarial Networks. Generative meaning they’re creative. 

So with voice interactions, you can say to the computer. “Hey, I need a new drug. It’s going to cure this disease called COVID. It can’t have any really bad reactions,” and blah, blah. And you’re literally like, “It’s got to be gluten-free.” Whatever you want to do, you tell, and it’s not just one AI trying to solve the problem. It’s two AIs fighting it out and competing to solve, to find better solutions than the other AI.

So you’re literally taking speed of AI and adding in competition, which in everything makes it so much better. And that was something that a handful of people were playing with and doing a really good job with and massively speeding up drug development and stuff like that. But now, suddenly, the whole world saw it. We were like, “Oh wow! You can–“

Denver: Yes. You’re right. It’s almost like a market acceptance has happened. Where people might’ve had a lot more resistance to this, when they see how it’s worked, it kind of loosens them up for what’s going to come next.

Steven: A lot. Yes. I think that’s very, very true. And what is a better proof of concept than a vaccine for a disease that’s taken over the world, right? 

Denver: It sold me. Yes. Absolutely. 

Steven: Exactly. You’re like, “Yes. Can we please have more of it?” 

And the other thing that– this is not to mitigate the fact that this disease is causing a massive amount of suffering all over the world, but this kind of thing? This is low-hanging fruit. The entire notion of an epidemic that comes out of nowhere and sweeps across the globe and does this kind of destruction isn’t going to be possible 10- to 15 years from now because we’re also going to have things like bio sniffers. These already exist. 

There’s David Sinclair out of Harvard has a great company that’s making great bio sniffers. They sniff the air. They sense pathogens, blah, blah. We can put things all over the place. Yes, there’s lots of privacy issues that come with it, et cetera, because COVID is a disease that came because somebody decided it was a good idea to eat a bat. We’re about to start growing all of our steak, animal proteins from STEM cells using cultured beef, or we’re coming up with really interesting beef substitutes that are totally right, novel and whatever. 

Denver: That’s really interesting.

Steven: So like every side of this, the AIs to solve the disease problem, like the AIs that are hooked up to the bio sniffers, so the bio sniffer detects something that somebody– somebody passes through Grand Central Station, and they’ve got a weird virus and the biotech there picks up the pathogen and it says “We’ve never seen this before.” And it gets uploaded to an AI in the cloud. All this stuff exists. Now all this is here now. And the AI starts building cures in the same way that we built cures for COVID even before we’re aware that there’s a problem kind of thing–

Denver: Fascinating. Yes.

Steven: –if there’s going to be a problem down the line. All this stuff is very… it’s close. And when I say it’s close, we talked about these possibilities in Abundance, in 2011. Even the ideas of this stuff aren’t new, which is why there are major companies in this space. It’s just not visible to the public. But as you pointed out, everything got accelerated.

What I thought was going to take three to– the joke, when Peter and I were in New York on television, can’t remember if I said it first or Peter said it first. I’m going to give him credit… maybe I should take credit. But we were like on the set of a TV show, it’s a Fox-something or whatever, right before they take, he looked over at me with, “Dude. I think the future is faster than we thought.” And I was just like, “Yeah, man. I know.”

Denver: Absolutely. Well, another industry that’s pretty broken, and you talk about in the book, that’s going to get some acceleration from COVID as well, is the education industry. What do you see happening there with VR and everything else?

Steven: So the easiest way to answer this question is to tell you about what my organization, the Flow Research Collective, is actually working on in this space. And we’re one example, but it’s one I know well, so I’ll just give you this example. 

So I work on flow science. Flow is the state of optimal performance. One of the things we know about flow is that it massively amplifies learning. So the US Department of Defense did studies. They found soldiers in flow can learn like 240% faster than normal. One other thing about flow: flow states have triggers, preconditions that lead to more flow. We’re not going to talk any more about them other than to say: They’re tricky to get at in the real world. They’re easier to get in video games, one of the reasons video games are often designed to produce flow. But they’re easy to get at in VR. 

So we are now working on a, first of all, a biophysical flow detector that can measure, using neurophysiological signals, whether or not you’re in the state. And coupling that to a VR environment that’s designed to amplify flow… by the way, if we layer in an AI level, we can make individually customized equipment so that you put it all together, and you use this in education.  Suddenly, you have an individually customized, virtual, accelerated learning environment, a high-flow accelerated learning environment.

And because it’s virtual, it’s scalable. It’s global. So you can within VR, within AR, with technology that we have that is like going to be on the market within two to three to four years, we’re going to be able to create virtual classrooms that are — probably because we’re getting very good at emotional computing and haptics, things that give us sensory participation — that will actually probably be more engaging for students than actual classroom environments and more social. So hopefully if it’s done, you’ll get all that distributed high-flow accelerated learning environments. 

And we’re doing it… my interest isn’t actually education; my interest is worker retraining because technological unemployment is an issue. And even if it’s not the issue, I think it’s massively overblown. I think people are misinterpreting what’s coming, but certain things like, We’re about to get autonomous trucks everywhere. And these truck drivers are the largest blue-collar employment in America.

Denver: That’s exactly right. 

Steven: Exactly. So, we’re about to have a huge group of people who need to be retrained. And so if you can find an accelerated, a virtual accelerated learning environment to do this with them, it’s a good thing to do. It’s good for society. I’ve discovered that bad things happen in countries where people can’t get jobs. I’ve noticed this.

Denver: I’ve heard about that. 

Steven: I’ve noticed this. So I think it’s a good thing to do for the world. We’ve got the research team that can pull it off. A lot of other people are poking at various aspects of this, but the very platform… and the only reason we’re not going into education is I don’t want to be in a curriculum fight with parents. Let it be somebody else’s headache, like good God, I don’t have children. I don’t want children. I don’t like children. I certainly don’t want to argue with parents about what to teach children because I don’t have any expertise here.

…what I’m telling you also is that we’re about to see the intersection of neuroscience and education and VR. There’s a convergence. And the opportunity isn’t in education; it’s between these things.

Denver: Oh, I’ve heard that before. People say change is hard, but it’s nothing like trying to change education. It’s a whole different battlefield. 

Steven: Yes. There are so many battles in here that I just… and there are really qualified people who have been working hard on this problem who are brilliant at it, who can take a technology and bring it in. 

So my platform is one example, but that’s where we’re going. We’re going to virtual, fully distributed, accelerated learning environments. And this isn’t an important point that we should make here on out and make it one other way. So what I’m telling you also is that we’re about to see the intersection of neuroscience and education and VR. There’s a convergence. And the opportunity isn’t in education; it’s between these things. 

I’ll give you another example. Adam Gazzaley is on my board at the Flow Research Collective. Adam is a neuroscientist at UCSF. And a couple of years ago, he had the cover of Nature, the big science publication because he had created the very first FDA-approved video game that treats cognitive decline in older adults. So–

Denver: He’s been on the show before so I’m familiar with him. 

Steven: So you know Adam’s tech, right?

Denver: Yes. I know Adam. 

Steven: I had to give a speech at NBC four or five years ago when this was before he had the cover of Nature, but I knew what was going on. And I was like, “Guys, you don’t get this. Right now, you think entertainment’s over here, health care is over here, and they’re totally different verticals. But Adam just told you that health care and entertainment are suddenly on the same field. And 10 years from now, do I play a video game, or do I play a video game that makes me smarter because I’m going to play one anyways, so why not? As long as the quality is the same.” And Adam built a great video game. It’s fun to play. So this is what’s happening in education also. 

Denver: Let me ask you this. Do you anticipate, Steven, any difficulties with regulatory resistance? Governments sometimes can be the slowest to move and the slowest to change. And you know there are going to be some entrenched interests that are going to try to keep these technologies at bay. What do you think the government’s role in this is going to be? What’s your forecast for that? 

Steven: So it’s interesting. If you ask my co-author this question, Peter, he will say, “Government can’t keep up. This stuff is moving way, way too fast.” And certainly, in America, for very good reason, we designed a system of checks-and-balances that move slowly. Jefferson wanted to avoid the kinds of revolutions he was seeing in Europe happen all the time, and so he wanted to build a system that balanced and course-corrected and moved slowly. And that is great. It serves a lot of good roles, but it is really difficult when you have stuff like this. 

And what happens when you’re in that place is you have like… the Googles and the Facebooks, those kinds of things show up before we can even think about what the regulations should look like. And suddenly, they’re monsters that own the world, and maybe we didn’t want it that way. And it’s hard to put Pandora back in the box as we all have learned. Everybody wants to say, “Oh, these companies are evil and nefarious.” No, man. That’s not how I see it. 

But I do see that the technology does certain things and we’re new to it. Like this is brand new stuff for the whole human race, so we’re not quite there yet. But where I think Peter’s wrong is Estonia. They put everything online. You can now file your taxes in Estonia in like five minutes from anywhere in the world. 

Denver: You can set up a business there from anywhere.

Steven: Yes. You can set up a business there. The entire country’s health care records are online, on the blockchain. Totally protected, totally private. But if somebody from Estonia goes to New York and breaks an ankle and goes to the doctor, they can get all their medical records through an app, on the phone, boom! Not a problem, and onward and onward. 

And that stuff is low-hanging fruit. The fact that we’re not doing stuff like that, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating. I am more hopeful for government though. I do believe government has a lot of interesting and important roles to play going forward. I think there are different roles. I think government should, for example, care a great deal about the environment. I do a lot of environmental work. 

Denver: I know you do.

Steven: I’ve co-founded environmental companies, blah, blah, blah. The biggest problem right now with environmental stuff, and this is made clear and faster also, it’s not that we don’t have the technologies to solve the problems; it’s that nobody’s putting them together in a coherent manner.

I’ll give you a really simple example. When I first met Dickson Despommier, the godfather of vertical farming: build farms in skyscrapers in the city, blah blah blah.

Denver: Yes, vertical farms and things. 

Steven: All that stuff. Dickson and I, the first conversation we ever had was about how much energy there is in human waste — urine and feces And they were trying to build vertical farms to feed New York. He’s like, “The thing I can’t say out loud is: If we could just link everybody’s goddamn toilets together and recycle the waste, we could do this without a lot of energy, like we can do this with our existing crap.”

And the point is the role government has to take going forward…  you can just jump up and down and say, “I want a closed-loop economy. I want to go cradle to cradle.” But somebody has got to come in and say, “Look. Your waste product has to become somebody else’s feedstock.”

Denver: It has value.

Steven: “Here’s a way to do it. And here’s a system that makes it happen. And this is against the law not to do this. And by the way, we need it by next Tuesday because the planet’s dying.” 

That’s the role you want government at because we’re solving systems-level problems right now, and they’re actual global systems. So you can’t… like even if you say, “Well, the government can’t keep up.” Well, it’s not even just government. It’s all the governments of the world have to work together to keep up, or we’re going to have to figure out how to bypass all of them and just do it. And you’re seeing that… where I get really excited… and a lot of people agree with me in this, the right place to innovate this way is at the city level. 

Denver: Yes. I can ‘t agree with you more. That’s where all the good stuff has been happening. You’re absolutely right. 

Steven: All the good stuff. Mayors have the most power right now. They’re like the last real monarchies left in the world, minus the magic sparkly blood, of course. 

Denver: Of course!

Steven: So you can do stuff at a city level that you can’t do before, and that’s what we’re starting to see with climate change. Like, “OK. Screw your national standards. These are the global standards that people are adhering to so we’re going to hit those. It’d be better.” 

Denver: Cities are right where it’s happening. You know, something I bet is on everybody’s mind, and that is: What is my brain going to be like in 2030? Is it going to be connected? Is there a chip? How’s that going to work? Just give us one glimpse of that. 

Steven: So a couple of things, I don’t think you’re going to have a chip by 2030. But 2035, 2040, we’re going to start seeing those things happen.

I think when it comes to neural implants…I run a neurobiology research institute and while I’m not a neuroscientist, I oversee a team of a lot of neuroscientists. I work with a lot of neuroscientists. And most people here, there are technology leaders who are making predictions out loud about neural implants, who will go unnamed, with great frequency. And either they have managed to secretly revolutionize the entire field of neuroscience and move us 10- to 15 years ahead of where we are, or they’re overstating their progress. And I can’t quite tell which. 

I’m open. I am open to it, but the huge teams that I work with who… the original Harvard research on those brain implants is fricking amazing. It’s crazy. You can’t believe what we’re actually capable of doing, but to get it to, “Oh, I can hotwire the… I can play the internet in my head,” which is some of the claims that I’m hearing by 2030. “No, you’re out of your mind. What are you talking about?” 

Denver: Not going to happen.

Steven: The brain is one of those things. It’s so complicated and we know so little still that those are very bold claims about… it’d be like making claims about deep space exploration, maybe, but we don’t know a whole lot about deep space exploration. 

Denver: Yes. There’s a lot of still-unknowns. 

Steven: Yes.

Denver: Finally, Steven, I think a lot of people are probably saying, “Boy, oh boy. Look at this world that’s coming. How will I ever be ready for it? And that kind of leads us into your next book. 

Steven: My next book. 

…peak performance is nothing more than getting your biology to work for you rather than against you. We now know that if you’re really interested in human peak performance, there’s an order. Things have to be done in a particular order.

Denver: The Art of Impossible, a Peak Performance Primer. Just give us a sneak peek. 

Steven: So I have spent my whole career really studying one thing, which is those moments in time when things that were formerly thought of as impossible became possible. And I’ve done this in every domain of imaginable — sports, science, art, technology, whatever. And whenever the impossible becomes possible, you see two things. We’ve been talking about one of them, which is you see people learning how to harness disruptive accelerating technology. And the other side is you see people learning how to expand human capability. And when these things intersect, sci-fi ideas become sci-fact technology.

Denver: Another convergence.

Steven: Another convergence. And people don’t talk about it, but I spent a lot of time covering action sports in the 1990s. And the little-known fact like action sports in the 1990s, we saw more so-called impossible feats done than ever before, and there’s a lot of human capability side to this that I work on in flow and everything else. But the fact of the matter is that like aerospace technology arrived and skiing and surfing and all… the technology was a massive leap forward as well. So yes, skiers went from jumping off 70-foot cliffs to jumping off 300-foot cliffs in 10- to 15 years. And we didn’t think the human body could handle 75 feet, let alone 300 feet. 

Denver: Exactly.

Steven: And we didn’t think our minds could do it either, and a lot of that is the skiers. But a lot of that is they’ve got freaking space-age platforms under their feet that can absorb the impact. So it’s a ball found. 

But on the human capability side, what has happened over the past 30 years is we’ve actually managed to map the entire… from a neuroscience perspective, and the reason neuroscience matters is psychology is often squishy and metaphorical and hard to train with. Like, I can say, “You need, Denver, a growth mindset.”  That sounds like something.  

Denver: What do I do to get it, right?

Steven: What do you do to get it and really, more specifically, like how does the mechanism work? If you need a growth mindset to learn better, which you do, how does the mechanism work? And then how does that mechanism translate into something practical you can do? 

So what we’ve seen over the past 10- to 15 years is a glut, really great books on peak performance, but you get books on focus and gratitude and attention and flow and take your pick. Art of the Impossible puts them all together because we now know enough about the science to say, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s actually a map.” 

You’re interested in taking on large, big challenges? And this could be like Art of the Impossible — these are lessons learned from people who…cultural impossibles. Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus, four-minute miles, or a theory relativity stuff. But it’s about small “i” impossible. That’s capital “i” impossible. 

Small “I” impossible is like, what I think is impossible for me. This could be overcoming deep trauma or rising out of poverty, figuring out how to get paid for what you love. These are all, when I say impossible, what I mean is there’s no clear path between A and B. And statistically really crappy odds of success. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in the ’70s. I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know any writers. I knew steelworkers. There wasn’t a path from A to B.

Denver: Cleveland!

Steven: The river that caught on fire. That’s what I did. 

Denver: The Mistake by the Lake. 

Steven: And statistically, if I wanted to become a writer, well, my odds of success are slim to none, which is why nobody ever told me, “Oh, Steven, that’s a good idea to become a writer” until I was already a writer. That’s my own personal impossible.

It turns out it doesn’t matter. You can keep going after your own personal impossible, or you could be trying to solve global hunger. The biology is the same and the steps are the same, and there’s a sequence. The cool thing about this is we now know that peak performance is nothing more than getting your biology to work for you rather than against you. We now know that if you’re really interested in human peak performance, there’s an order. Things have to be done in a particular order. We’ve seen all these books like Grit, Gratitude. What do you do first? What do you do second?

…when you don’t use the biology the way it’s been designed to be used, what you get is anxiety and depression. So it turns out that not only are we built to go big, not going big may be bad for you.

Denver: How do you integrate it all together so it works together?

Steven: I like to say, and this is not necessarily a good thing, but I think it’s one of the first Big Think how-to books anybody’s ever written, and you got to be kind of a moron to try. Like I thought it would be a neat, fun, little challenge to try to do it well, and it’s a hard thing to do well, but I really wanted to. It’s a big think book because the argument is, “Look, man, as far as I can tell, after 30 years of studying this stuff, this is what the science shows, we’re actually designed. Human beings are designed to take on large challenges.”

Here’s the interesting thing that also the book points to — we don’t have time to cover all this — but let’s suffice to say there are eight major causes of anxiety and depression right now. This is a huge public health crisis globally, worse with COVID. Two of them are the ones you hear about: genetics — I can’t make the right neurochemicals, so here take a pill; or trauma — PTSD, et cetera. 

The other six are actually the other side of the peak performance skills. So, for example, motivation. If you don’t dial in internal intrinsic motivation properly, you can end up with, for example, one of the major causes of depression: lack of meaningful work. Translated into psychological language, and albeit, mind you, these terms mean something neurobiologically, but psychologically, lack of meaningful work means you don’t have autonomy, mastery, passion, purpose, curiosity, and flow. Those are your big six intrinsic internal motivators. 

Denver: Interesting.

Steven: And so when you don’t use the biology the way it’s been designed to be used, what you get is anxiety and depression. So it turns out that not only are we built to go big, not going big may be bad for you. 

Denver: That’s so interesting. You have to come back to discuss it after it’s out. Will you do that? 

Steven: For sure. Love to.

Denver: OK. Well, this book is The Future is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies are Disrupting Business, Industries, and Our Lives. You will not only be better prepared for what lies ahead, you’ll feel better about it too. Thanks, Steven, for being here today. It was such a delight to have you on the program.

Steven: Denver, it’s always fun to hang with you.

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