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What is exponential technology? Why should I care?


What is exponential technology? Why should I care?

By September 13, 2016No Comments

We live in an ever-changing world.

This statement is the sort of ‘white sliced bread’ of statements. Ever present, truthful but all-together too boring to unpack at any level. Especially when you are living in the midst of such change. I mean, why ponder the fact that your fridge can connect to the internet when you are busy bug fixing it. Amirite?

For a while, talk of innovation has been one of technological advances we can contextualise in our every-day existence. Computers are faster, so now I have gruntier graphics in my game, more fluid animation in my fav Pixar film, and a phone which allows me to control my world – from dimming my lights through to ordering cookies, or a car to pick me up. Things have ticked along, and we have bumbled along with it. But what happens if the technology increases beyond our ability to contextualise it, or foresee its impacts?  

Exponential theory has at its core the belief that the pace of change is increasing. With this, the doubling price-performance pattern familiar to those of us familiar with Moores Law can be seen in many other fields – from robotics and biotech to neuroscience. In layman’s terms, tech is getting better, faster and cheaper than before and the rate of this is doubling every cycle. 

In the video above, Salim Ismail explains how this sort of price-performance makes  projects possible. Drones could be used in Haiti to deliver food and medicines to hard to reach areas. At the time of his talk, drones capabilities enabled them to carry a 4 kilo package 10 Kms. However Salim explains within 9 months that would double: first 8 Kilos, then 16… and so on and so on.

This doubling pattern can be great – no one is mad about a drone being able to deliver 16 Kilos of medicine to a remote village BUT, and this is a big but – it can also have ramifications we perhaps do not want.

A world of possibilities. 

Recently Foxconn [the folks that make your apple and Samsung products] replaced 60,000 workers with robots laying out a pattern which some say will see “137 million workers from five Southeast Asian countries lose their jobs in the next 20 years”. As the robotics industry exponentially increases, it is oustripping even the cheapest labour in terms of price-performance. This perhaps means faster to market/cheaper devices and increased profit for the manufacturers – but if the cost is the employment of 137 million workers is the cost too high?

Whilst the world has been caught up discussing the nature of startups disrupting industries, the pace of change in fields such as food production, robotics and A.I has the potential to disrupt the very way we live our lives.

A few months ago i sat in the audience whilst Kaila Colbin talked on exponential technologies at the launch of the NZ Singularity U summit – she got real. Instead of dancing around the edge of the uncomfortable conversation – Kaila dived in. If a whole range of technologies are hitting that point of great surging progress, and are converging and melding together economies as small and singularly focussed as ours may need to think fast.

So we as a community may be standing at a point of decision making, about the kind of world we want to live in. The kind of ways we want to use this technology, and the kind of economies we want to build in the face of increasing automation and more.

It is not about fear mongering.

Whilst new technologies will displace jobs, it will as has been seen time and time again create more opportunity. Afterall, if A.I is reporting on the Rio Olympics for social media, surely the content producer for the Washington Post who normally wrangled that content can now write more in-depth and engaging pieces. If a machine learning algorithm can identify cancer in mammograms or slides – does it free-up diagnostic lab scientists to delve into more curious  illnesses? Or even focus resources on prevention?

Organisations like Singularity U seek to layer the lens of progress over this exponential technology, asking how these converging-increasing-technologies can be used to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Meanwhile the likes of Cory Doctorow and even filmmakers like Werner Herzog are asking us to examine our ethics and essential humanness in light of this brave new world.

At Semi Permanent this year we heard a cry from Steve Selzer (Design Manager at Air BnB) for product designers, developers, technical folks, startup wranglers and those crafting a new generation of products, services, and technologies to accept a certain level of responsibility for the world we are creating. He asked the audience to think twice about developing a cookie delivery app, and think more about the problems we face as a world. He asked people to build the friction back into products – to create outcomes and interactions that are more meaningful.

Like most things there is no silver bullet. No shining path to victory, or even clarity on what path to avoid. The ability for us to navigate this world is through unpacking that statement we started with [as vanilla and boring as it is] in such a way that people understand and indeed care about what is next. 

Perhaps the statement is not a statement at all, but instead a battle cry. 

We live in an ever changing world. Help shape it!

Curious about understanding, adapting and thriving in an exponentially changing world? Check out the Singularity U NZ Summit happening from the 14th – the 16th of November 2016.