Realization of Dr. Salk’s Vision

| Technology

When I give speeches about the exponential growth of information technology, I like to quote Dr. Jonas Salk. He predicted nearly three decades ago, “We are at the beginning of an evolution greater than Darwin ever imagined.”

In 1995, a few months before he died, I had breakfast with Dr. Salk, who was so much more than a medical researcher and virologist. He was a brilliant man, an original, whom The New York Times called “the father of bio-philosophy.”

What’s a bio-philosopher? Here’s how Salk answered one interviewer:

(A bio-philosopher is) someone who draws upon the scriptures of nature, recognizing that we are the product of the process of evolution and  understand that we have become the process itself through the emergence and evolution of our consciousness, our awareness, our capacity to imagine and anticipate the future, and to choose from among alternatives.

I am thinking about Dr. Salk because today’s dreamers are talking about “crowd sourcing.” When we had breakfast, neither Salk nor I had ever heard this term, but he might as well have coined it. He envisioned that beyond connectedness of humans would be the wisdom of the crowds – that is, almost all of humankind would be connected and able to share individual wisdom.

And now, here we are. Crowd sourcing is not only a philosophical notion that is gaining traction, but a practical business idea.

Crowd sourcing is the result of the exponential growth of user-generated media like blogs, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia, to name just a few examples. More and more, participatory communication yields a whole that is more than the sum of its parts; it blurs the line between writer and reader, between speaker and listener, between producer and consumer. In 2006, Time magazine named the collective “You” as Person of the Year, writing, “We’re looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it’s just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get back-hauled into the global intellectual economy.”

What does this mean for American businesses? For one thing, dramatic reductions in the cost of labor as crowd sourcing expands a company’s talent pool to thousands, even millions, of non-employees willing to contribute ideas, test new products, and evaluate marketing campaigns. I often speak about “The Reinvention of Work,” where information sharing and collaboration replace the old top-down management style. Crowd sourcing is a logical extension, a massive collaboration that enhances products and services and matches them instantly to consumer needs. We used to say, “Two heads are better than one.” Crowd sourcing says, “A million heads are better than one!”

Dr. Salk told me at our breakfast that this kind of collective wisdom would change humans in unimaginable ways. We’re watching that happen right before our eyes. I’m sorry that Salk isn’t around to see it – he would have loved it.

Four billion of the 7 billion people on our planet now have cell phones. In the U.S., 50% of cell phones are smart phones, meaning there are as many mobile data service devices as single purpose telephonic voice devices. In the next five years, that 4 billion mobile device user number should increase to 5.5 billion.

Now imagine what it will mean as the new industry of cloud computing, storage and networking is built out. Eighteen months ago, cloud computing was more hype than reality. Today cloud computing is real and its growth is exponential. We are already seeing the power of big data analytics with companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. These companies save everything and are constantly performing extremely sophisticated unstructured data analytics, enabling them to take marketing and personalized user experience to previously unimaginable levels.

Combining innovations-in-mobility with the innovations-in-the-cloud will lead us in a few decades in exactly the direction that Dr. Salk envisioned. While he didn’t know anything about mobile devices or cloud computing, he did see the potential consequences of greater interconnectedness between humans. Dr. Salk called this future bigger than Darwin’s evolution because it will elevate the human species’ collective mind from the conveyance of just information to a collective wisdom.

Darwin’s evolution took millions of years. Salk believed that this next evolution, with technology’s assist, will happen in less than 100 years.