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. Group of Eight leaders had a preview of Mr. 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.
Mr. Milner is the technology guru many have never heard of. He was an early outside investor in Facebook, sinking $200-million (U.S.) in the company in 2009 for a 1.96-per-cent 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 Mr. Milner this year onto the Forbes Rich List, with an estimated net worth of $1-billion.
Mr. Milner was speaking in the Ukrainian city of Yalta, at the annual mini-Davos hosted by Ukrainian pipes baron and art collector Victor Pinchuk (disclosure: I moderated at the event). What was striking about Mr. Milner’s remarks was how sharply his tone differed from that of the other participants.
The Americans – among them economists Lawrence 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 Jurgen Fitschen, who has been named co-chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank – were worried about the sovereign debt crisis.
Even the Turks and the Indians, whose economies grew more than 8 per cent last year, were anxious about uneven development at home, and the threat of economic tsunamis coming from abroad.
Mr. Milner, in contrast, almost perfectly represents a technology elite with a global reference: He lives in Moscow, recently bought a home in Silicon Valley, and 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 that, in his view, is only getting started.
Here are some of the changes he sees as most significant:
The Internet revolution is the fastest economic change humans have experienced, and it is accelerating. Two billion people are online today, he noted; he predicts that number will double over the next decade.
The Internet is not just about connecting people, it is also about connecting machines, a phenomenon he dubbed “the Internet of things.” Five billion devices are connected today, he said; by 2020, he thinks more than 20 billion will be.
More information is being created than ever before. He asserted that as much information was created every 48 hours in 2010 as was created between the dawn of time and 2003. In 10 years, that much data will be generated every 60 minutes.
The result is the dominance of Internet platforms relative to traditional media, he said: “The largest newspaper in the United States is only reaching 1 per cent of the population ... That compares to Internet media, which is used by 25 per cent of the population daily and growing.”
Internet businesses are much more efficient than brick-and-mortar companies. This was one of his most striking observations, and a clue to the paradox of how we find ourselves simultaneously living in a time of what he views as unprecedented technological innovation but also high unemployment in the developed West. As Mr. Milner said: “Big Internet companies on average are capable of generating revenue of $1-million per employee, and that compares to 10 to 20 per cent of that which is normally generated by traditional offline businesses of comparable size.” As an illustration, he cited Facebook, where, he said, each single engineer supports one million users.
Finally – and Mr. 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, Mr. 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, his predictions are an important reminder that the most significant revolution may be happening in cyberspace.
Chrystia Freeland is editor, Thomson Reuters Digital.