How to See the Future through Zero and Infinity Thinking
When I was in my first year of university, I struggled a lot with my studies. I went into university a very confident 17-year-old and within a matter of weeks I was a frustrated, confused, and struggling student. Math in particular challenged me. I wasn’t a great calculus student in high school in my lack of mastery showed up as I encountered more sophisticated calculus being taught.
It would take a good two years and second and sometimes third attempts to get the material to click. But when it did, it helped me see the world in a new way. For me, the essence of calculus and its many applications in engineering came from thinking about two possibilities: look at what happens between zero and infinity. What happens when the thing you’re testing is valued at zero or infinity?
The great thing about getting this concept to click is that you can apply it to many other things that might be occurring in everyday life.
For example, what happens when the cost of Internet per byte essentially goes to zero?
Of course, the answer is the Internet as we see it today. Or, mobile data usage that we’re used to. However, just 15 years ago this wasn’t the case. You had to meter your Internet usage or be shocked by a bill you’d receive in the mail the next month
The result of essentially free Internet usage is that there is no thought paid to accessing video, playing games, reading emails, or creating content.
We can apply similar thinking with other questions to see the future that will be arriving in the next decade or so. By looking at both questions simultaneously we can determine cones of possibilities.
What would happen if electricity costs went to zero? What would happen if they went to Infinity?
In the first instance, most things would turn into electricity-powered devices. Electric cars, electric appliances, heating, and even fossil fuel production would be driven through electricity use. We wouldn’t be concerned about leaving on lights or running the AC all day. We might develop a lot of wasteful habits but at the same time many polluting alternatives would disappear.
Now let’s look at the opposite scenario — a world where electricity costs — let’s define those as ones the cost of electricity you would get off the grid — go to exorbitant levels. First, we’d look for alternatives. We might end up with much more natural gas usage, even natural gas-based air conditioning. We also might end up with home based natural gas electricity production. In the same vein, off grid and distributed electrical generation would skyrocket. The result might actually be a mushrooming of solar arrays and complete self-reliance from the grid when it came to electricity use.
To help see what the future has in store, we can look at technologies that are expensive today and think about what might happen when their costs go to zero. What if we had unlimited computing power to do things around natural language generation or even video content creation?
It could be that in the next 10 years, because of this ability, sites you visit, or your YouTube main page won’t just pull from content that you might enjoy but create content or modify existing content in order to make it more appealing just for you. It might even be the case where if you’re watching content in a group, the artificial intelligence can create content that could optimize the most friendship generating experience.
What if the next wave of pandemics become so dangerous that the threat of catching some disease makes the price of travel nearly infinite? What would we do for vacations if we could only stay within 50 kilometers of our home? What will we do with the office space that would never be used again? On the other hand, if transportation costs go to zero, what does that do for us in terms of where we chose to live and work?
What if the speed and quality of 3D printing goes to infinity while the price goes to zero? At some point, we would become satisfied with all the doodads that we have in our home and would be able to replace anything that might break in a matter of minutes. Which stores would disappear as a result? What new stores might pop up?
What if the cost of disposing waste went to infinity? This might not just be the financial cost but also the environmental or even a situational cost. For example, if we find ourselves on Mars or at the bottom of the ocean where we can’t just litter, what would we do? We would need a way to break down the things that we use and repurpose them into something useful. We might end up with a slew of new appliances under our counter to sort, incinerate, compost, or melt down things that we no longer use.
Zero and infinity thinking can also help In planning for different business outcomes. What would happen if demand for a product suddenly went to zero? How would one pivot their business or look at new channels and markets? Could a product be repurposed and rebranded? How much runway would a company have if their sales flattened? On the flip side, if demand suddenly skyrocketed, how would the company deal with this? How long would it take for inventory to disappear? What lead-times would suppliers need? Does going to infinity also kill the business?
The Hindu astronomer Brahmagupta is credited with inventing the concept of zero in 628 and the British mathematician John Wallis is credited with inventing the concept of Infinity in 1655. These concepts fueled other mathematicians to develop their theories, notably Newton and Leibniz with what we know today as Calculus. As a result, we can communicate with radio and fiberoptics, launch satellites, and administer IVs. The concepts allowed us to solve many complicated and practical problems.
Zero and infinity also allow us to time travel and see what the future has in store for us.