The power of exponential technologies
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“Exponential” is a term we often hear these days in terms of business and technology. As someone who has interviewed individuals behind some of today’s most mind-boggling inventions and disruptive companies and showcased their cutting-edge ideas to the world, I’ve come to believe that exponential advancement is what India needs the most.
When did the term “exponential” first leap out of the math textbooks and into our newspapers and journals? We can trace it back to 1965, when Gordon Moore, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Intel Corp., first predicted that the number of components per integrated circuit would double every year; with some tweaks here and there, this projection has turned out to be largely true.
The 1977 film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames further popularized exponential thinking; the filmmakers start with an image of a couple picnicking in a park, and demonstrate relative scale by zooming out (by factors of 10, of course) to show the entire universe with just a few steps.
Today, we see examples of beneficial exponential change all around us. Digital cameras, for example, have become ubiquitous and have brought out the creator in each of us. Airbnb, which didn’t even exist eight years ago, now has more rooms than the world’s largest hotel chain and makes it possible for the budget traveller to stay in a friendly home.
In recent years, it has become clear that we need platforms to learn about and encourage the development of exponential technologies, especially to address today’s grand challenges. Singularity University (SU) was created to answer that need. Based in Silicon Valley, SU is part-think tank, part-university, and part-business incubator, offering educational programmes for corporations, entrepreneurs, NGOs and government leaders.
Among the founders of SU is Peter Diamandis, who has started more than 15 high-tech organizations, including the X PRIZE Foundation, and whose enthusiasm for exponential advancement is infectious. His optimistic mindset is conveyed in the titles of his books, Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think and Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World. Peter shapes the ethos at SU and inspires learners to design products and services to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges, such as meeting the world’s water needs through technology to desalinate ocean water. When I asked Peter as to how he manages so many things in his life, he said that he starts an entity, finds good people to lead it and continues being an evangelist.
For SU, that leader is Rob Nail, who is an entrepreneur, angel investor and advisor to many companies. A slight extension of his first name is his passion: robots. There has been a huge transformation in the presentation of robots in this world from the comically faulty robot that feeds Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Today robots can clean our kitchen floors, detect landmines and possibly even offer companionship. At GreyOrange in Gurgaon, robots retrieve and mail what customers have ordered online. Rob is someone who takes his audiences through this world of robotics and its immense influence to shape a positive future while preparing for obvious pitfalls.
Like many of us, I feel both scared and excited by exponential technologies. I worry about the repercussions on families, friendships, careers, and what it takes to remain relevant in this fast-paced world. But the excitement wins out. What strikes me most is that India has a great opportunity to lead in innovating in these new areas. For example, India has shot to the top of the charts in the mobile phone revolution, partly because we lacked sufficient landlines. Similarly, technologies of today and tomorrow can enable India to leapfrog old systems and become leaders in our own right.
Soon, drones may make their way to the remotest village to deliver medicines. Perhaps robots can bring back the fun in learning by teaching each kid in the way he or she learns best. The onset of this new technological age, with everything from crowdfunding to caring robots, has the potential to improve the world tremendously.
When we begin to embrace the idea of a future that looks very different from today, we can harness these powerful technologies to create exponential impact.
The author is founder and CEO of INK who will be hosting exponential technology leaders at the SingularityU India Summit in association with INK this month.