On Monday I had the good fortune to attend a one day session of Singularity University (hereafter SU) hosted by Taser International. The speakers gave an amazing tour of the exponential growth occurring in most fields of technology, covering topics like artificial intelligence, big data, nanotechnology and business organization in this new era. Although I have been following in these topics for a long time, I learned an incredible amount from this conference. Especially because this Taser session was partially focussed on the law enforcement ramifications of all this, something I haven’t thought as much about. It was a fantastic experience that will leave me thinking for a long time, and one I would highly recommend.
The conference was kicked off by Rick Smith, CEO, director and co-founder of Taser, showing a clip of JFK talking about the moon shot plan.
Smith used the video to demonstrate that exponential progress is not a radical new concept. Smith himself has built a phenomenal, innovative company (with a men-in-black level futuristic office) built around leveraging technology in law enforcement. His commitment to positive innovation is demonstrated by the fact he hosted this conference in order to introduce his employees and customers to the idea of accelerating technological growth. I’m certain this will pay dividends for years to come.
The first speaker was Salim Ismail, entrepreneur and Global Ambassador of SU. He started by talking about the accelerating pace of change in digital technology, pointing out that if the speed of our cars had grown the same way computing speed had, cars would travel much faster than the speed of light by now. From there he proceeded to give a whirlwind sampling of accelerating change in biotech, autonomous vehicles, drones, and many other areas.
His examination of 3D printing was especially illuminating. We have reached a double inflection point in this technology. First, we can now print things that can’t be manufactured any other way. Second, unlike other manufacturing processes, with 3D printing there is no additional cost for more complex objects. This technology is only a few short years from disrupting industries as diverse as auto parts and pastry chefs (yes, we can print food now).
His conclusion was that when an industry becomes digitally based, exponential growth follows. Moore’s law is only one example. The biggest impediments to this change are governments (designed for a steady rate of change), and traditionally organized businesses (designed around creating predictability). This is not surprising since our brains are built to expect, at most, linear change, which was fine for most of our history. Part of SU’s mission is to change that. Their summer graduate program guides teams in envisioning and planning projects that will positively impact a billion people in ten years, such as Matternet and Modern Meadow.
Our next speaker was Neil Jacobstein, co-chair of the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Track at SU, who spoke about breakthroughs in AI. Many things we used to believe only humans could do are now routinely handled by computers. The real promise of AI is not only that it will eventually be able to do everything that humans can do, but that it willl do things it would be impossible for humans to do. His dizzying tour of these applications included:
- IBM’s Jeopardy-winning AI, Watson, which has now “graduated from play to work”, tackling real world problems. (I met one of the creators, Torsten Bittner, last year)
- Pervasive involvement of AI in stock trading
- Warehouse robots and intelligent distribution technologies
- A simulation of a macaque monkey brain
His conclusion was that we will eventually be able to reverse engineer the brain and build human level AI. This will be not be used to replace us, but instead will be used to augment our brains (which have not seen a significant hardware upgrade in at least 50 thousand years). This process has already begun with smart phones giving us access to vast information and capabilities.
Next we heard from Ekho Inc‘s Kent Langley, who spoke about big data. He began by talking about the emerging “internet of things”, which will by 2020 be a $1.9 billion dollar market including 212 trillion connected devices. All these devices will be generating data that will need to be stored, analyzed and leveraged — primarily via AI. But today really big data is still really difficult to deal with.
In the face of this current difficulty, Langley has some concrete recommendations for businesses grappling with big data today. He also talked about all the open source tools available for big data related tasks today, including GNIP, Hadoop, Spark and others.
Marc Goodman of Future Crime spoke next, portraying the world of crime in an era of exponentially stronger and cheaper technology. According to Goodman, we are seeing a paradigm shift in crime. Sony experienced a massive network hack that cost them $171 million dollars. Mexican drug lords built their own private cellular network. Drones are used to fly cellphones and drugs into heavily guarded prisons. The list went on and on.
Despite all this, Goodman’s outlook on the future is hopeful. He closed with a long list of ways the good guys are using technology to fight crime, for example:
- Robots being used to keep schools safe in Korea
- Predictive policing technology used to focus law enforcement resources where they are needed before they are needed
- Crowd sourced intelligence on riot crimes
Then Ismail gave a second presentation, this one about how companies and other groups can cope with a world of exponential growth and change. As the economy becomes more information based (and therefore continues to speed up) all kinds of business assumptions are upended at a rapid pace. Companies are either disrupters or disrupted. Organizations that flatten their hierarchy and distribute decision making have a better chance of survival and success. Companies that democratize the design, manufacturing and distribution of goods are best positioned for the future. Some examples Ismail used included:
Rick Smith spoke briefly about code.org (who’s co-founder Hadi Partovi is on Taser’s board) and the hour of code. He then introduced our keynote speaker, Ray Kurzweil.
Ray Kurzweil is an inventor, author, futurist and entrepreneur. His talk was titled “How to Create a Mind” (also a book) and it was every bit as interesting as I had hoped. He began by a deep exploration of the accelerating growth of computing power. Since 1962 we have seen a many billion fold increase in price/performance ratio of computing power. We’ve seen computing hardware get cheaper, smaller, faster and more powerful, all at a pace that accelerates every year.
He then examined how our brain evolved and how it works today. Science has made great progress recently in understanding the brain. For example we now know that we fill up our brain’s knowledge storing capacity by the time we are twenty, at which point we have to forget something in order to learn something new. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get around that?
Kurzweil believes we will eventually be able to do that and more, by extending our mind into the cloud. He was recently hired by Google to work on natural language comprehension, one of the remaining steps needed to build a digital mind. There is growing consensus in the AI world that we should reach human levels of artificial intelligence by about 2029 — a prediction Kurzweil made many years ago. From there, this AI can improve its own design at an exponentially growing rate. The results of that development are by nature unpredictable — which leads us to the concept of the Singularity.
After the conference was over, I was very honored to be able to attend a dinner with Kurzweil, as well as a few bright folks from Taser. It was definitely one of the most interesting dinner conversations I’ve ever taken part in. Kurzweil deserves his reputation as one of the great thinkers of our time.
There was a child in attendance for much of the day. Having two young, smart daughters of my own, I was intrigued to witness her interest and understanding of the topics covered. She asked a few questions during the Q&A periods which demonstrated her grasp of the material: “If you engineered a horse with the strength of a lion and speed of a cheetah, could you race it?” and “How far away are we from plugging Google into our heads?” Her generation is inheriting a world where asking these kinds of questions will be a daily necessity. I am glad they are up to the task.