Have you ever seen any of the Terminator films? If you have, you’ll be familiar with Skynet, a computer network so advanced that it has developed in ways its human designers couldn’t have foreseen, becoming more powerful, learning new things of its own accord and, eventually, achieving self-awareness.
This, in essence, is the concept of “the singularity” or “the technological singularity”, a theoretical moment in the future at which the relationship between humanity and technology will reach a tipping point.
Of course, the Hollywood version of the story wouldn’t be complete without a bit of dramatic jeopardy. The twist in the Terminator franchise is that Skynet turns evil and takes it upon itself to wipe out the human race.
Fortunately, when it comes to real life, we can afford to be a little more optimistic. At least that’s the view of Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the Singularity University and the man who established the now world-famous X Prize Foundation, which offers cash prizes to entrepreneurs who achieve audacious technological goals, such as launching reusable spaceships on a limited budget.
When I call him in the United States, while he’s on his way to a meeting at the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, he points out that there are a number of ways to understand the concept of the singularity. As a starting point, it can be viewed as a moment in time when the ever-accelerating rate of technological change will have reached a pace that defies meaningful prediction.
The world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities
“Right now we can look one, two, three, maybe five years ahead and do a reasonable job of projecting where things will be. But then it gets fuzzy. There is a point in time where the rate of change will be so fast that we won’t be able to fathom it or project it,” he says.
Another popular idea, is that the singularity should be understood as the moment at which artificial intelligence supersedes human intelligence comprehensively, exhibiting the ability to ask and answer questions that human beings can’t understand.
“Then there’s also the notion that we are merging with technology,” he adds. “I have outsourced my memory to the database in my phone, outsourced my spelling to Microsoft Word and we’ve been doing things that humans weren’t biologically designed to do for a while – have a heart valve or knee replacement, travel 700 miles per hour in a jet. That’s all just the beginning of our interface with technology.”
Those who favour a more specific definition, such as Ray Kurzweil, co-founder of the Singularity University and director of engineering at Google, have posited specific dates when the watershed moment will be reached – Kurzweil’s is 2045. But Mr Diamandis says this isn’t something he’s focused on; he sees it as a “fuzzy boundary”.
Instead, he prefers to look at practical consequences and the reality that “exponential technology will transform every element of our lives globally over the next 20 years”.
“Now, my projection is that this is driving us towards a world of abundance where all our basic needs are being met, where we have ubiquitous education, healthcare, access to energy, food and water,” he says.
In his book on the subject, Abundance, Mr Diamandis details how improvements to solar power technology, for instance, will mean that our energy requirements can be met indefinitely. The Sun provides the planet with 6,000 times the total amount of energy that we currently use. Other comparable advances, he argues, will go a long way to countering the threats and problems – famine, overcrowding, resource shortages, climatic events – that we currently face.
He explains that the idea behind the Singularity University, which was set up in 2008, is to harness and learn about the technologies that have the potential to make a massive global impact. Computing, networks, sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 3D printing and synthetic biology are some he names.
The university campus in Silicon Valley is visited by different groups of people, from company chief executives who want to “get a broad understanding of where technology is going and that over-the-horizon view” to graduate students who take on longer courses to work on projects and incubate companies. In these cases, the goal is to come up with what Mr Diamandis calls “ten-to-the-nine-plus companies”, viable businesses that have the potential to affect more than a billion (10⁹) people within a decade.
Companies emerging include Modern Meadows, which aims to develop environmentally friendly “stem cell-derived meat products and leathers”, an e-waste recycling business and a project to launch a 3D printer into space. “Today you have to have billions of dollars of spare parts just in case anything goes wrong. But throw up a 3D printer and some raw material and, if you need something, then you can just manufacture it there,” he says.
Then there’s a company called Matternet, which is working on an infrastructure project that would see a network of aerial drones deliver packages across Africa. “They realised that to build roads in Africa would cost a trillion dollars or more,” says Mr Diamandis. “So you’re never going to be able to build the road infrastructure that we have [in the West]. They asked whether we can simply skip the roads in Africa and go to autonomous aerial vehicles in the same way that we skipped the copper-wire line generation in Africa and went straight to mobile phones.” He claims that Matternet came up with the concept before Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos started talking publicly about a similar idea.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
But couldn’t there be a flaw in Mr Diamandis’ thinking? At the moment the pace and focus of technological change is largely dictated by economic forces. Projects that have grander goals might be lacking in one important area – the ability to provide return on investment.
“I agree that the venture capital community is focused on apps and near-term wins,” he says. “But I’m seeing things differently. Huge investments are now being driven by the notion that the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities. People are looking to make a giant impact. Elon [Musk]’s companies – Solar City, Space X and Tesla – are making a huge difference and companies such as Google are making large investments.
“My perspective is, if you go back thousands of years, the only people who could make a significant difference were the kings and the queens – royalty. Go back hundreds of years, it was the corporate magnates, the robber barons. Today, anybody who wants to can make a difference. So the number of potential problem-solvers has exploded and so have the tools. The common person has access to all the information in the world, access to crowdfunding, access to cloud computing, 3D printing. It’s all exploding exponentially, while the number of problems in the world is still reasonably limited.”
But with such focus being placed on evermore powerful computers, artificial intelligence, robots and the rest, shouldn’t we take more care with this “explosion” of technology and its capabilities, making sure that it is carefully monitored and controlled? To take another line from Hollywood, we may end up regretting, as Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park says, that “scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should”.
“I tend to be far more optimistic about the state of affairs than the media or dystopian Hollywood films,” says Mr Diamandis. “It is no different from when fire or the gun was invented. We have a tendency to see the dangers far before they come and we are usually able to solve issues – we’ve had the ability to destroy ourselves for quite some time, but we haven’t.”
At the moment, Mr Diamandis splits his time across the Singularity University, the X Prize Foundation, Planetary Resources (“asteroid detections and prospecting”), a genomics and cell-therapy company called Human Longevity and a chief executive training programme, A360. But he doesn’t expect to be made redundant by the very technological advances that he has worked so hard to champion. Far from it.
“As computers and AI do more and more of our work, I think we’ll learn what it is to be human. But we’ll constantly be combining, merging and utilising technology – together we’re going to be doing more and more.” And, reassuringly, he adds: “I have a hard time imagining that we’re going to sit idle and let technology take off without us.”