8 February 2015

A tale of two cities – and of two speeds

Filed under: Barcelona, Cambridge, futurist, MWC, Singularity University — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 12:30 am

The two cities I have in mind are both Spanish: Barcelona in the north of the country, and Seville in the south. They’re each outstanding cities.


I’ll come back to these two cities in a moment. But first, a word about two speeds – two speeds of futurism – slow-paced futurism and fast-paced futurism.

As someone who’s had the word “Futurist” on my personal business card since early 2009, I’m inspired to see more and more people taking the subject of futurism seriously. There’s a widespread awareness, nowadays, that it’s important to analyse future scenarios. If we spend time thinking about the likely developments of current trends, we’ll be better prepared to try to respond to these trends. Instead of being shocked when disruptive forces burst through from being “under the radar” to having major impacts on lifestyles and society, we’ll have been acting to influence the outcome – pushing hard to increase the likelihood of positive changes, and to decrease the likelihood of negative changes.

But it’s my observation that, in many of the meetings I attend and the discussions I observe, the futurism on display is timid and conservative. Well-meaning speakers contemplate a future, ten or twenty years ahead, that is 95% the same as today, but with, say, 5% changes. In these modestly innovative future scenarios, we might have computers that are faster than today’s, screens that are more ubiquitous than today’s, and some jobs will have been displaced by robots and automation. But human nature will be the same in the future as in the past, and the kinds of thing people spend their time doing will be more-or-less the same as they have been doing for the last ten or twenty years too (except, perhaps, faster).

In contrast, I foresee that, within just a couple of decades, it will be very clear to everyone that momentous changes in human nature and human society are at hand (if they have not already taken place):

  • Robots and other forms of automation will be on the point of displacing perhaps 90% of human employees from the workforce – with “creative” jobs and “managerial” jobs being every bit as much at risk as “muscle” jobs
  • Enhanced suites of medical therapies will be poised to enable decades of healthy life extension, and an associated “longevity dividend” financial bonanza (since costs of healthcare will have plummeted)
  • Systems that exist both inside and outside of the human brain will be ready to dramatically increase multiple dimensions of our intelligence – including emotional and spiritual intelligence as well as rational intelligence
  • Virtual reality and augmented reality will be every bit as vivid and compelling as “natural reality”
  • Artificial general intelligence software will be providing convincing new answers to long-standing unsolved questions of science and philosophy
  • Cryonic suspension of people on the point of death will have become pervasive, since the credibility of the possibility of reanimation by future science will have grown much higher.

So whilst I cautiously welcome the slow-paced futurists, I wish more people would realise the immensity of the transformations ahead, and become fast-paced futurists.

One group of people who do have a strong appreciation of the scale of potential future changes are the faculty of Singularity University. In November, I took part in the Singularity University Summit Europe held at the DeLaMar Theater in Amsterdam.


I was already familiar with a lot of the material covered by the different presenters, but – wow:

  • The information was synthesised in a way that was compelling, entertaining, highly credible, and thought-provoking
  • The different sessions dovetailed extremely well together
  • The speakers clearly knew their material, and were comfortable providing good answers to the various questions raised by audience members (including offbeat and tangential questions).

People in the audience told me later that their jaws had been on the floor for nearly the entire two days.

My own reaction was: I should find ways of enabling lots more people to attend future similar Summits. The experience would likely transform them from being slow-paced futurists to fast-paced futurists.

Happily, many Singularity University faculty members are returning to Europe, for the next Summit in the series. This will be taking place from 12-14 March in Seville. You can find the details here.

SUSS speakers

Sessions at SU Summit Spain will include:

  • Intro to SU and Exponentials – Rob Nail
  • Artificial Intelligence – Neil Jacobstein
  • Robotics – Rob Nail
  • Networks and Computing: Autonomous Cars – Brad Templeton
  • Breakthrough in Digital Biology – Raymond McCauly
  • Future of Medicine – Daniel Kraft
  • Digital Manufacturing – Scott Summit and Nigel Ackland
  • Energy Breakthroughs – Ramez Naam
  • SU Labs – Sandy Miller
  • Global Grand Challenges – Nick Haan
  • Security – David Roberts
  • Institutional Innovation and Scaling from the edge – Salim Ismail

And did I mention that the event is taking place in the fabulous history-laden city of Seville?

As it happens, Summit Spain will be taking place just ten days after another large event that’s also happening in Spain: Mobile World Congress (MWC), held in Barcelona, from 2-5 March. Many readers will know that I’ve been at every MWC since 2002, and I’ve found them to be extremely useful networking events. In my 2014 book Smartphones and beyond, I told the story of my first visit to MWC – which was called “3GSM” at that time, and which was held that year in Cannes, across the border from Spain into France. Unexpected management changes at Symbian, the pioneering smartphone OS company, meant I suddenly had to step into a whole series of press interviews scheduled for that week:

Never having attended 3GSM before, I had a rapid learning curve. Symbian’s PR advisors gave me some impromptu “media training”, to lessen the chance of me fluffing my lines, unwittingly breaching confidentiality restrictions, or otherwise saying something I would subsequently regret. My diary was soon full of appointments to talk to journalists from all over Europe, in the cramped meeting rooms and coffee bars in Cannes. The evenings were bristling with networking events in the yachts which clustered around the dock areas. Happily, when the week was over, there was nothing to regret. Indeed, Symbian’s various PR departments invited me back for numerous interviews at every subsequent 3GSM. In later years, 3GSM changed its name to MWC (Mobile World Congress), and outgrew Cannes, so it relocated instead to Barcelona. I have attended every year since that first sudden immersion in 2002.

But all good things come to an end (so it is said). In recent years, I’ve found MWC to be less compelling. Smartphones, once dramatically different from one year to the next, have slowed down their curve of change. The wellspring of innovation is moving to other industries.

After MWC 2014, I had the privilege to chair a discussion of industry experts in Cambridge, co-hosted by Cambridge Wireless and Accenture, regarding both the highs and lows (the “fiesta” and the “siesta”) of the Barcelona event.

In that panel, the expressions of “siesta” (snooze) were consistently more heartfelt than those of “fiesta” (feast).

When the time came, a few weeks back, for me to decide whether to follow my habit of the last dozen years and book my presence in Barcelona for 2015, I found my heart was no longer inspired by that prospect. I’ve decided not to go.

I’m sure a great deal of important business will happen during these hectic few days at MWC, including some ground-breaking developments in fields such as wearable computing and augmented reality. But that will be slow ground-breaking – whereas it’s my judgement that the world needs, and is headed towards, fast ground-breaking. And Seville, ten days later, is the place to get early warning of these changes. So that’s where I’m headed.

If you’re interested in a preview taster of that early warning – a ninety minute anticipation of these three days – then please consider attending an event happening at Google’s Campus London on the morning of Thursday 12th February. This preview meeting is free to attend, though attendees need to pre-register, here. The preview on Thursday will:

  • Introduce the rich resources of the Singularity University (SU) community
  • Highlight some of the most dramatic of the technological changes that can be expected in the next few years
  • Answer your questions about SU Summit Spain
  • Conduct a lottery among all attendees, with the winner receiving a free admission ticket to SU Summit Spain.

The speakers I’ll be introducing at the preview will be:

  • Russell Buckley: Mentor, angel investor in 40+ startups, Government advisor, fundraising specialist, and Singularitarian
  • Nick Chrissos: Collaboration CTO, Cisco
  • Luis Rey: Director of the Singularity University Summit Spain.

The preview will start at 9am with tea/coffee and light breakfast. Presentations will start at 9.10am.


Icon combo 3
Footnote: If you’re interested in how the wireless industry can respond to the threat of being bypassed (or even steamrollered) by innovation arising elsewhere, you should consider registering for the 7th Future of Wireless International Conference, being held by CW (Cambridge Wireless) on 23-24 June. That conference has the timely theme “Wireless is dead. Long live wireless!” I’ll be one of the keynote speakers at the event. Here’s the description of what I’ll be talking about there (taken from the event website):

Wireless disrupted.

Wireless has spent two decades disrupting numerous other industries. But the boot is now on the other foot. This talk anticipates the powerful forthcoming trends that threaten to steamroller the wireless industry, with the well-spring of innovation moving beyond its grasp. These trends include technologies, such as artificial intelligence, next generation robotics, implantable computing, and cyber-security; they also include dramatic social transformations. The talk ends by suggesting some steps to enable a judo-like response to these threats.

21 October 2014

An exponential approach to peace?

While the information-based world is now moving exponentially, our organizational structures are still very linear (especially larger and older ones)…

We’ve learned how to scale technology… Now it’s time to scale the organization: strategy, structure, processes, culture, KPIs, people and systems

Opening slide

The above messages come from a punchy set of slides that have just been posted on SlideShare by Yuri van Geest. Yuri is the co-author of the recently published book “Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it)”, and the slides serve as an introduction to the ideas in the book. Yuri is also the Dutch Ambassador of the Singularity University (SU), and the Managing Director of the SU Summit Europe which is taking place in the middle of next month in Amsterdam.

Conference overview

Yuri’s slides have many impressive examples of rapid decline in the cost for functionality, over the last few years, in different technology sectors.

Industrial robots

DNA sequencing

But what’s even more interesting than the examples of exponential technology are the examples of what the book calls exponential organizations – defined as follows:

An Exponential Organization (ExO) is one whose impact (or output) is disproportionately large — at least 10x larger — compared to its peers because of the use of new organizational techniques that leverage exponential technologies.

Organizations reviewed in the book include Airbnb, GitHub, Google, Netflix, Quirky, Valve, Tesla, Uber, Waze, and Xiaomi. I’ll leave it to you to delve into the slides (and/or the book) to review what these organizations have in common:

  • A “Massive Transformative Purpose” (MTP)
  • A “SCALE” set of attributes (SCALE is an acronym) enabling enhanced “organizational right brain creativity, growth, and acceptance of uncertainty”
  • An “IDEAS” set of attributes (yes, another acronym) enabling enhanced “organizational left brain order, control, and stability”.

I find myself conflicted by some of the examples in the book. For example, I believe there’s a lot more to the decline of the once all-conquering Nokia than the fact that they acquired Navteq instead of Waze. (I tell a different version of the causes of that decline in my own book, Smartphones and beyond. Nevertheless I agree that organizational matters had a big role in what happened.)

But regardless of some queries over details in the examples, the core message of the book rings true: companies will stumble in the face of fast-improving exponential technologies if they persist with “linear organization practice”, including top-down hierarchies, process inflexibility, and a focus on “ownership” and “control”.

The book quotes with approval the following dramatic assertion from David S. Rose, serial entrepreneur and angel investor:

Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st.

I’d put the emphasis a bit differently: Any company designed for success in the 20th century needs to undergo large structural change to remain successful in the 21st. The book provides advice on what these changes should be – whether the company is small, medium-sized, or large.

A third level of exponential change

I like the change in focus from exponential technology to exponential organizations – more nimble organizational structures that are enabled and even made necessary by the remarkable spread of exponential technologies (primarily those based on information).

However, I’m interested in a further step along that journey – the step to exponential societies.

Can we find ways to take advantage of technological advances, not just to restructure companies, but to restructure wider sets of human relationships? Can we find better ways to co-exist without the threat of armed warfare, and without the periodic outbursts of savage conflict which shatter so many people’s lives?

The spirit behind these questions is conveyed by the explicit mission statement of the Singularity University:

Our mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.

Indeed, the Singularity University has set up a Grand Challenge Programme, dedicated to finding solutions to Humanity’s grand challenges. The Grand Challenge framework already encompasses global health, water, energy, environment, food, education, security, and poverty.

Framework picture

Peace Grand Challenge

A few weeks ago, Mike Halsall and I got talking about a slightly different angle that could be pursued in a special Grand Challenge essay contest. Mike is the Singularity University ambassador for the UK, and has already been involved in a number of Grand Challenge events in the UK. The outcome of our discussion was announced on http://londonfuturists.com/peace-grand-challenge/:

Singularity University and London Futurists invite you to submit an essay describing your idea on the subject ‘Innovative solutions for world peace, 2014-2034’.

Rocket picture v2

First prize is free attendance for one person at the aforementioned Singularity University’s European two-day Summit in Amsterdam, November 19th-20th 2014. Note: the standard price of a ticket to this event is €2,000 (plus VAT). The winner will also receive a cash prize of £200 as a contribution towards travel and other expenses.

We’ve asked entrants to submit their essay to the email address lf.grandchallenge@gmail.com by noon on Wednesday 29th October 2014. The winners will be announced no later than Friday 7th November.

Among the further details from the contest website:

  • Submitted essays can have up to 2,000 words. Any essays longer than this will be omitted from the judging process
  • Entrants must be resident in the UK, and must be at least 18 years old on the closing date of the contest
  • Three runners-up will receive a signed copy of the book Exponential Organizations, as well as free attendance at all London Futurists events for the twelve months following the completion of the competition.

At the time of writing, only a handful of essays have been received. That’s not especially surprising: my experience from previous essay contests is that most entrants tend to leave essay submission until the last 24-48 hours (and a large proportion have arrived within the final 6o minutes).

But you can look at this from an optimistic perspective: the field is still wide open. Make the effort to write down your own ideas as to how technology can defuse violent flashpoints around the world, or contribute to world peace in some other way within the next 20 years. Let’s collectively advance the discussion of how exponential technology can do more than just help us find a more effective taxi ride or the fastest route to drive to our destination. Let’s figure out ways in which that technology can solve, not just traffic jams, but logjams of conflicting ideologies, nationalist loyalties, class mistrust, terrorists and counter-terrorists bristling with weaponry and counter-weaponry, and so on.

But don’t delay, since the contest entry deadline is at noon, UK time, on the 29th of October. (That deadline is necessary to give the winner time to book travel to the Summit Europe.)

London Futurists looks forward to publishing a selection of the best essays – and perhaps even converting some of the ideas into animated video format, for wider appeal.

Footnote: discounted price to attend the SU Summit Europe

Note: by special arrangement with the Singularity University, a small number of tickets for the Summit Europe are being reserved for the extended London Futurists community in the UK, with a €500 discount. To obtain this discount, use partner code ‘SUMMITUK’ when you register.



2 December 2009

The next IT industry: Synthetic biology

Filed under: risks, Singularity University, Synthetic biology — David Wood @ 2:30 am

Synthetic biology will be “the next IT industry”, and will even be “more important than the last one”.  These are two of the claims in the extraordinary video from the Singularity University featuring Andrew Hessel.

The video lasts nearly one hour, and is full of thought-provoking material.  The subtitle of the video is “hacking genomes”.

Here are just a few of the highlights and topics I noted while watching it:

  • Cells inside organisms are in many ways akin to computers inside networks
  • People with engineering backgrounds are bringing engineering ideas into biology
  • push-button biology: “dream is to design … press a button, and have the design translated to DNA sequences that can be synthesised and put to work in living cells”
  • “DNA printers” will become better and better
  • iGEM: international genetically engineered machines
  • DIYbio: “an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers”
  • Developing a genetic programming language
  • Creating the conditions for the emergence of a new generation of “computing whiz kids” – the synthetic biotech equivalents of Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates
  • “We’ll soon see molecular biological labs on iPhones”
  • Cost decrease curve for DNA synthesis (“writing DNA”) is tracking that for DNA sequencing (“reading DNA”), lagging it by around 8 years
  • “The human genome synthesis project is coming”

This is the same field where Craig Venter (famous from the first human genome project) is now working.  To quote from the website of his company, Synthetic Genomics:

The Global Challenge: Sustainably meeting the increasing demand for critical resources

The world is facing increasingly difficult challenges today. Population growth resulting in the growing demand for critical resources such as energy, clean water, food and medicine are taxing our fragile planet. To fulfill these needs we need disruptive technologies. We believe genomic advances offer the world viable, sustainable alternatives.

At Synthetic Genomics Inc. we are creating genomic-driven commercial solutions to revolutionize many industries. We have started by focusing on energy, but we imagine a future where our science could be used to produce a variety of products, from synthetically derived vaccines to prevent human diseases to efficient cost effective ways to create clean drinking water. The world is dependent on science and we’re leading the way in turning novel science into life-changing solutions.

Three possible reactions to the idea of synthetic biology

One reaction to the idea of synthetic biology is to say, “Wow – I’d love to become involved!”

A second reaction is to point out the potential huge risks if the process creates dangerous new life forms, such as a fast-spreading new virus.  One of the audience members in the video lecture asked about this; I wasn’t fully convinced by the answer Andrew Hessel gave.

A third reaction is to say that it’s very unlikely that we will, in fact, be able to improve on nature.  This is similar to a comment made by Mark Wilcox in response to my previous blogpost, “The single biggest problem”.  I wrote that:

rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”

Mark replied:

I actually find it rather arrogant given millions of years of evolution and our relatively short spell of technological development that any of us presume to know what “better than natural” actually is

This last point in turn poses two questions:

  • Is the outcome of millions of years of evolution” the best outcome possible?
  • If not, is there any reliable way to try to do better than evolution?

For a discussion of the imperfect output of evolution, see (for example) my earlier blogpost, “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature“.

It’s also well worth reading the paper by Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg, “The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement” (PDF).  Here’s a copy of the abstract of that paper:

Human beings are a marvel of evolved complexity. Such systems can be difficult to enhance. When we manipulate complex evolved systems, which are poorly understood, our interventions often fail or backfire.

It can appear as if there is a ‘‘wisdom of nature’’ which we ignore at our peril. Sometimes the belief in nature’s wisdom—and corresponding doubts about the prudence of tampering with nature, especially human nature—manifest as diffusely moral objections against enhancement. Such objections may be expressed as intuitions about the superiority of the natural or the troublesomeness of hubris, or as an evaluative bias in favor of the status quo. This chapter explores the extent to which such prudence-derived anti-enhancement sentiments are justified. We develop a heuristic, inspired by the field of evolutionary medicine, for identifying promising human enhancement interventions. The heuristic incorporates the grains of truth contained in ‘‘nature knows best’’ attitudes while providing criteria for the special cases where we have reason to believe that it is feasible for us to improve on nature.

In conclusion, I personally see this emerging field as being full of tremendous promise, though I will seek to ensure that it is approached with great care and thoughtfulness (as well as excitement).

19 November 2009

Progress at the Singularity University

Filed under: Singularity University — David Wood @ 10:30 am

I wonder if you’re going to be teaching at the Singularity University?

That was one of the questions a colleague asked me, when news broke recently that I would be leaving Symbian to explore alternative career options and future scenarios.

I was flattered.  The Singularity University is a recently founded “interdisciplinary university whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges“.  As the Singularity University website continues,

With the support of a broad range of leaders in academia, business and government, SU hopes to stimulate groundbreaking, disruptive thinking and solutions aimed at solving some of the planet’s most pressing challenges. SU is based at the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley.

There’s already an impressive list of SU faculty and advisors.  I replied to my colleague that there were no plans for me to join this group – though I’ve been keeping an eye, from afar, on progress at the SU.

A few days ago, Business Week reported on the successful completion of the SU’s first 9-day executive program:

Singularity University Gives Execs a View of the Future

The school’s executive program offers participants the chance to learn and discuss how technology is changing, or even disrupting, their industries

In his various roles as a computer programmer, an emergency-medicine physician, and the director of Microsoft Medical Media Lab, Michael Gillam stays well ahead of the advances that are transforming health care. Yet even he can be caught unawares by the pace of technological change.

Gillam was reminded of this recently during a nine-day boot camp aimed at instructing professionals on how robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and other cutting-edge disciplines are affecting industries. Gillam, one of 20 participants in Singularity University’s inaugural program for executives, was listening to futurist Ray Kurzweil. “We will have plenty of computation as we go through the 21st century,” Kurzweil told attendees in the small dining room featuring Spanish Mission-style decor. “That is not so controversial. The more controversial aspect is really, will we have the software?”

Watching the presentation, Gillam realized that the medical industry is woefully unprepared to handle and analyze the vast amounts of data likely to be unleashed in coming years as health records are digitized and physicians are able to track more information. “[I realized] we have to do this quickly,” Gillam says. “You look at those graphs and you feel a strong sense of urgency.”

That’s the kind of conceptual shift Singularity University’s creators hope to provoke. Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis began Singularity earlier this year. Singularity offers a nine-week summer program for graduate students and the compressed session Gillam attended.

Preparing for Disruptive Innovation

Singularity’s founders and its executive director Salim Ismail, formerly head of Yahoo’s Brickhouse product incubator, want participants to leave with a sense of where opportunities lie—and the dangers of failing to prepare for them. “We want to help them avoid becoming the next Kodak,” Ismail says in reference to the film company that failed to prepare for the advent of digital photography

The 9-day course looks attractive – but carries a $15k price tag.  Despite this price, it seems there’s already considerable interest in the next run of the course, happening 26th Feb to 7th March:

18 companies, the governments of six countries, and representatives from four U.S. agencies have expressed interest in the next executive session, scheduled to start in February. Some companies have also approached him about creating an in-house version on their own sites, an option Ismail is considering. “The world is completely changing in every domain at a very fast pace,” Ismail says. The companies that are interested in Singularity University “think we have a finger on the pulse of how it’s going to change and how you can navigate that.”

In the meantime, videos of sessions from the executive program have started to appear.  David Orban has posted 8 videos at www.wired.it/video/persone.

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