The advent of the global brain
Get ready for the global brain. That was the grand finale of a presentation on the next generation of the Internet I heard last week from Yuri Milner. G-8 leaders had a preview of Milner’s predictions a few months earlier, when he was among the technology savants invited to brief the world’s most powerful politicians in Deauville, France.
Milner is the technology guru most of us have never heard of. He was an early outside investor in Facebook, sinking $200 million in the company in 2009 for a 1.96 percent stake, a decision that was widely derided as crazy at the time. He was also early to spot the potential of Zynga, the gaming company, and of Groupon, the daily deals site.
His investing savvy propelled Milner this year onto the Forbes Rich List, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion. One reason his is not yet a household name is that he does his tech spotting from Moscow, not a city most of us look to for innovative economic ideas.
Milner was speaking in the Ukranian city of Yalta, at the annual mini-Davos hosted by the Ukrainian pipes baron and art collector Victor Pinchuk (disclosure — I moderated at the event). What was striking about Milner’s remarks was how sharply his tone differed from that of the other participants.
The Americans — among them the economists Lawrence H. Summers and Paul Krugman — were glum about their country’s economic stagnation and its political inability to adopt policies that could end it. The Europeans — a group that included the foreign ministers of Sweden and Poland, and Jürgen Fitschen, who has been named co-chief executive of Deutsche Bank — were worried about the sovereign debt crisis.
Even the Turks and the Indians, whose economies grew more than 8 percent last year, were anxious about uneven development at home, and the threat of economic tsunamis coming from abroad.
Milner’s perspective was entirely different. For one thing, at a time when where you sit so often determines where you stand, Milner almost perfectly represents a global technology elite whose frame of reference is planet Earth. He mostly lives in Moscow, but has recently purchased a palatial home in Silicon Valley. He addressed the Ukrainian conference by video link from Singapore.
From that vantage point, the most pressing issue in the world today isn’t recession and political paralysis in the West, or even the rapid development and political transformation in emerging markets, it is the technology revolution, which, in Milner’s view, is only getting started. Here are the changes he thinks are most significant:
• The Internet revolution is the fastest economic change humans have experienced, and it is accelerating. Milner said that two billion people are online today. Over the next decade, he predicts that number will more than double.
• The Internet is not just about connecting people, it is also about connecting machines, a phenomenon Milner dubbed “the Internet of things.” Milner said that five billion devices are connected today. By 2020, he thinks more than 20 billion will be.
• More information is being created than ever before. Milner asserted that as much information was created every 48 hours in 2010 as was created between the dawn of time and 2003. By 2020, that same volume of information will be generated every 60 minutes.
• People are sharing information ever more frequently. The pieces of content shared on Facebook have increased from 140 million in 2009 to four billion in 2011. We are even sending more e-mails: 50 billion were sent in 2006, versus 300 billion in 2010.
• The result, according to Milner, is the dominance of Internet platforms relative to traditional media. “The largest newspaper in the United States is only reaching 1 percent of the population.” he said. “That compares to Internet media, which is used by 25 percent of the population daily and growing.”
• Internet businesses are much more efficient than brick-and-mortar companies. This was one of Milner’s most striking observations, and a clue to the paradox of how we find ourselves simultaneously living in a time of what Milner views as unprecedented technological innovation but also high unemployment in the developed West. As Milner said, “big Internet companies on average are capable of generating revenue of $1 million per employee, and that compares to 10 to 20 percent of that which is normally generated by traditional offline businesses of comparable size.” As an illustration, Milner cited Facebook, where, he said, each single engineer supports one million users.
• Artificial intelligence is part of our daily lives, and its power is growing. Milner cited everyday examples like Amazon.com’s recommendation of books based on ones we have already read and Google’s constantly improving search algorithm.
• Finally — and Milner admitted this was “a bit of a futuristic picture” — he predicted “the emergence of the global brain, which consists of all the humans connected to each other and to the machine and interacting in a very unique and profound way, creating an intelligence that does not belong to any single human being or computer.”
More than most of us, Milner understands that changes in what he calls “the offline world” can have real bite: He lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the politics and economy of Russia today are no cakewalk. But, in a year that has seen the Arab Spring and the threat of the collapse of the euro, Milner’s predictions are an important reminder that the most significant revolution may be happening in cyberspace.