Singularity University and the exponential technologies changing our world

Digital future

Michael Fichardt recently spent 10 weeks at Singularity University. Located in Silicon Valley, the institution is part university, part think-tank, and part business-incubator, which aims is to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” In a series of five articles, Fichardt details his experiences at Singularity University, ranging from the ideas and technologies he saw to the lessons he learned there. In this, the third article in the series, he outlines some of the exponential technologies changing our world.

In their book Bold, co-authors Peter Diamandis and Stephen Kotler, highlight the exponential technologies poised to disrupt many of the world’s established industries and companies. These technologies include: networks and sensors, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics, genomes and synthetic biology and Blockchain, and are detailed below.

Networks and sensors

We are all becoming increasingly connected via our computers, mobile devices and Wi-Fi connections. Internet connectivity is increasing across the globe and in particular across the developing world with many people accessing internet via their mobile devices.

Sensors, which are able to measure temperature, movement, distance and air quality to name a few, are also taking off. We have sensors in our cell phones like the accelerometer that measures movement and orientation, the gyroscope that measures angular rotation, the magnetometer that helps us find north and a GPS chip that helps us plot our position on the map. Our cars have built in navigation sensors to help us park. Some of us have fancy Nest thermostats that have algorithms that learn the preferred temperature we like to maintain in our living rooms. There are security cameras wherever we go.

The amount of sensors measuring everything is set to explode as these sensors become increasingly smaller and cheaper. A report released by the 2013 Stanford University T Sensors Summit highlighted that the number of sensors in the world is expected to grow into the trillions by 2023.

These sensors, all connected in a network, are producing vast amounts of data. By mining the data governments and commercial enterprises are able to obtain valuable information to help them better understand trends and their clients.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence or AI is the ability of computers or machines to display intelligent behaviour. Increased computing power combined with larger and larger volumes of data and more sophisticated algorithms are helping computers to learn and understand complicated phenomena.

There are many that predict that we are merely decades away from AI’s abilities being equal to or surpassing human abilities. Futurist and Cofounder of SU Ray Kurzweil, believes that based on exponential curves AI will surpass human intelligence by 2029.

In their book Bold, Diamandis and Kotler, compare AI or machine learning (a subset of AI) with the basic human skills of looking, reading, writing, and integrating knowledge.
Today machine learning algorithms are able to accurately and reliably read through and interpret things like legal opinions and medical records.

Banks and financial institutions are using algorithms to analyse data and then write up reports on key financial and economic trends.

IBM’s AI platform Watson has been placed to the cloud enabling entrepreneurs and large companies to use the platform to analyse big amounts data in their businesses. This combines specific structure data with that of Watson’s unstructured data. It is Kurzweil’s view that ‘’soon we will give AI permission to listen to every phone conversation we have, read all our emails, eavesdrop on our meetings, review our genome scans, watch what we eat and drink and even tap into our Google Glass feed. By doing this our personal AI assistant will be able to provide us information before we are aware we need it.”

3D printing

The manufacturing process that we have used since the mankind first fashioned a tool from a rock has been that of subtractive manufacturing. Basically we use a large chuck of something, could be metal or rock, and then we cut away or subtract from it to obtain the piece or shape we desire.

In the early eighties along came Charles Hull. He figured out that instead of needing to use subtractive methods to create plastic components he could in fact build up the plastic components by adding UV hardened plastics on top of each other, an additive manufacturing process. This became known as 3-D printing, manufacturing process which takes digital instructions and converts them into three dimensional objects.

3D systems 3D printer

3D Systems’ 3D Printer

While Charles Hull might have invented 3-D printing in the early eighties it has taken 30 years for the technology to travel towards the knee of the exponential curve to a point know where 3-D printing is about to explode.

One of the most striking benefits of the 3D printing additive manufacturing process is that it is possible to build increasingly complex designs with little additional cost.

Today 3-D printers are being used to print many things including components used in motorcars, consumer products like bags, bottles, plates and souvenirs. Boeing currently 3-D prints over 200 of its parts for its aircrafts.

There is little doubt that the future of manufacturing will lie in 3-D printing, large corporation type 3-D printers and then small home based 3-D printers. The technology is democratising manufacturing. Not only large corporations, but also people in their private homes can now become manufacturers.

Robotics

Around 524-million years ago the planet underwent what is known as the Cambrian explosion, a relatively short period in evolution, where the rate of diversification accelerated by an order of magnitude. Basically life on earth undertook an evolutionary step change to resemble much of what it is today.

Wesley SU robot

Wesley the SU robot walking across a desk

Exponential improvements in sensors, computing, data storage and AI are ushering in a Cambrian explosion in robotics. All manner of robots are being developed. Recently Ama zon announced that they would be investing in the drone technology with the plan to use these drones to deliver their merchandise. Google has also recently purchased 8 robotics businesses and has been invested vast sums of money in autonomous cars. Uber has also recently started developing its own version of robocars.

The disruption robots are likely to cause in the job market is already being felt in some quarters. Oxford Martin School has forecast that robots could replace 45% of American jobs within the next decade.

Genomes and Synthetic Biology

DNA is comprised of four letter codes configured in specific arrangements. As in computers it is the code that drives the machine. In biology the DNA operates the body’s manufacturing processes, instructing it to make proteins.

In essence, DNA is code or software that can be reprogrammed. The underlying principle behind synthetic biology is that by rewriting the DNA code we are able to get the body’s manufacturing processes to make what we like. By manipulating DNA with computers we will be able in the future to manufacture a range of things including foods, materials and new organisms.

The interesting thing about biotechnology is that it is accelerating at 5 times the speed of Moore’s Law, making it accessible to the man on the street, with bio-hacker labs popping up across many of the world’s major cities.

Recently newspapers have been running articles which describe CRISPR-Cas9, a new biotechnology that enables the editing of genes. This could allow doctors to insert the right cancer fighting genes into a patient’s immune system or put normal genes into the cells of people that suffer from genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis. CRISPR-Cas9 has a myriad of possible use cases and the ability to revolutionise healthcare.

Blockchain

Melanie Swan, as set out in her book Blockchain: Blueprint for a new economy, believes we are at the dawn of a new revolution. A revolution started by an alternative currency called Bitcoin. A currency issued and backed not by a centralised system but by a distributed network of users relying on a system of automated consensus.

The Blockchain is the decentralized transparent ledger of all the Bitcoin transactions that have ever been executed. Melanie calls it: “a giant interactive spreadsheet that everyone has access to and updates and confirms that the digital transactions transferring funds are unique.”

But the Blockchain is not just useful as transparent ledger for Bitcoin transactions its benefits extend to any system that has previously relied on centralised verification. It has applications in asset registry and exchange platforms. It is an organising paradigm for discovery, valuation and transfer.

It is early days for Blockchain, for it to develop, it will need to display clear value proposition. This could occur in phases as was the case with the adoption of the Internet. What is clear is that it has the same sort of disruptive capabilities to that of the Internet in the early nineties.

Convergence

It is at the convergence of these technologies that the opportunities for solving the world’s challenge lie. The combination of sensors, networks, big data, artificial intelligence and robotics can be very powerful. The healthcare industry is the obvious example of multiple exponential technologies coming together – genomics, big data, machine learning and stem cell therapies – solving all sorts of health problems and enabling people to live significantly longer lives.

Next week I will explain the idea of Moonshots.

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