The first ever Singularity University Global Summit took place a week ago — quite appropriately — in the world’s tech capitol San Francisco. For three entire days it was all about exponential technologies and how they will make all of our lives inevitably better — 10x ideally. While I undeniably needed a few hours to immerse myself in the utopian views of the community, there are two things that in my view really set the Summit apart from other tech conferences: it’s emphasis on great ideas substantiated by actual content and hard evidence, as well as its balanced tale of both promise and peril of exponential technologies changing our world.
There are many exciting technologies and areas affected. Here are five of them with some hot of the press insights and sometimes surprising and counterintuitive data.
Networking and computing
Intentionally not called IoT to stay away from the marketing claim, Brad Templeton instead emphasized the three down to earth components of the Internet of Things: computers, sensors, and networks. Especially the diversity of standards and communication protocols is limiting the networking part, while a larger missing context prevents communication and interaction with and between devices to be frictionless.
Brad Templeton speaking about Networking and Computing at the Singularity Global Summit 2016
A key driver to improve upon these will be the realisation of companies that their own hardware and infrastructure are a good basis to start and participate with in an (ideally open) ecosystem, but that it is not the key and that instead the value of your company lies in software.
“Every company needs to be a software company or it won’t be a company much longer.” — Brad Templeton
A good example of this is GE, having in part already successfully managed a shift from hardware focused giant to industrial software and networking powerhouse. Interesting side note on cloud services and infrastructure: wait for the large telco companies to put server farms into their cell towers to provide faster cloud services at lower latency, around half a millisecond away from the customer.
Renewables are the posterchildren of exponential technologies. But despite a 10x growth in gigawatts and dramatic cost declines in wind energy, solar and storage steal the show.
In 88 minutes, the sun provides 470 exajoules of energy, which is about as much energy as humanity consumes in a year. So not only do we have an abundance of energy from the sunlight, but the cost of generating solar energy has also dropped almost like a stone thrown from the top of the Empire State Building: 200x since 1977 to a point where in an increasing number of regions globally, solar is now the cheapest from of energy even without subsidies. In the US, solar is at half the price of grid electricity and Portugal has run its entire country for four days just on renewables.
Ramez Naam on solar energy and the exponential forces at play
Plus, around 1.3B people today have no access to electricity and they happen to live in the sunniest regions on earth where solar will be the cheapest — speaking of potential.
Couple that with the approaching inflection point of energy storage tech (Germany can already run on 70% self-generated energy in sunny months) driven by the vastly improved economics you have yourself an energy fairytale that will extend into the electric vehicles market that will make these cars “the cheapest vehicles to own and drive.” (Ramez Naam)
Related to energy, if the US switched to electric vehicles entirely, it would no longer need to import any oil. Besides that, the meaning of location, distance, ownership, and consumption will vastly change given the fact that we’re entering an economy where anything will be delivered to us, anywhere, in 30 minutes or less.
The favourite topic within mobility is of course self-driving cars, and surprisingly (at least to me), the German car giants seem to have a leg up. Of course you have fan favourite Tesla, but Daimler, Audi, and BMW are doing great research work and are leading the pack. Keep an eye on Audi to make big splashes soon with is autonomous technology, or Daimler’s car sharing service Car2Go (potentially) fittingly rebranding itself to Car2Come (no pun intended) once we start hailing rides instead of walking to an available car near by. Also, and not only due to its partnership with Uber, watch out for the cars from the North and Volvo closing in on the leading pack.
Despite being hijacked by marketers and advertisers, AI is currently the absolute Silicon Valley darling. Companies like Google (DeepMind), Apple (Turi), or Intel (Nervana) are acquiring a variety of AI startups, IBM has a 100M AI-focused venture fund, and Amazon has around 1000 people working on its Echo. More and more startups are entering the space to push the boundaries of what we thought possible in speech recognition or in the ability to get machines to autonomously talk to each other. However, AI is not all good — or bad for that matter. Recently, a great piece in the New Yorker reminded me of Ray Kurzweil’s classic blog entry of the promise and peril of technology and AI in particular, a good reminder for both skeptics and optimists of tech.
The future of cities
If you tie the four exponential technologies and areas together, you quickly start to reimagine one of the biggest compoments of our lives: cities.
Already today, we are faced with a multitude of challenges such as homelessness, gentrification, inequality, discrimination, or traffic congestion. 50% of people are already living in cities, and soon there will be an additional 2B joining them — not a trend that’s going to help the existing issues.
One of the key questions to ask is how cities can grow organically instead of via a top-down approach? Here, it helps to think of a city as a platform, almost like an organization, which is run by software to connect and efficiently optimize the individual parts of the organization. Open big data platforms, for example, can play a great role in this. Roughly eight years ago, both San Francisco and New York City opened up its data on crime and transportation, allowing for many people to drive for insights and come up with new ideas and solutions. The big boys Intel and GE have teamed up as well to leverage big data to build the cities of the future. Though they are currently only collecting metadata about citizens, it will inevitably involve everyone of us giving up privacy to some extent for the benefit of a better future.
This brings us back to the balance of promise and peril of technology. I’m a strong proponent of the ethical and philosophical discussions needed (yes, maybe philosophy could use an overhaul in light of our digitized world too), but I believe that we really do have a chance to change our world like we were never able to, or even capable of imagining. The biggest risk in my view is not dreaming big enough and trying hard enough. The consequences of falling short are much greater than having a misbehaving robot telling you to go screw yourself after cutting him off in traffic.
Orginally published here.