How to Prepare for Our Rapidly Approaching Science Fiction Future

This is a repost of an article I wrote back in 2012 after I was invited to spend a few days at the Singularity University Executive Program. What I did not know when I wrote this article was that a little more than two years later I would graduate from the program and, soon thereafter, take over the reins of not only the EP but all of our Open Enrollment programs. It is interesting to be able to look back in time and see that, while some of the specific technologies have moved forward, answers to many of the bigger questions like, “How will we govern ourselves?” have not. While many things in the world continue to get better everyday, there is undoubtedly a lot of work left to do. I’m thoroughly appreciative of the opportunity to work alongside an amazing team that brings these programs to life and provides a forum for leaders to engage in creating the future, together.

I had the privilege of spending the last two days as a guest at Singularity University’s Executive Program in Silicon Valley. And, after listening to a variety of experts in fields as diverse as computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology and neuroscience, I can safely say that the science fiction writers got it right. Really, really right. We already have Star Trek Communicators in the form of the iPhones and Android phones that we carry around in our pockets 24 hours a day, though there is an argument to be made that these devices are much more than that.

Given that most of us can’t be more than 10 feet away from our smart phones at anytime, are they really the beginning of the widespread integration of man and machine? The fact that we use our fingers and voices to control them rather than electrical impulses from the brain is an “arbitrary distinction”, as I heard multiple times this week. If the idea that you are already part cyborg has you feeling uneasy, its probably best for you to stop reading now.

The term “singularity” is a reference to the theory that humankind is rapidly approaching a point where technological intelligence will be greater than human intelligence. And after listening to the assembled speakers at the SU campus, it sounds like its coming quickly. The exponential growth and convergence of capabilities in genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence is pushing us towards a future which could be startling, and is unpredictable. What happens when robots become smarter than we are? What happens when robots can build themselves (read: reproduce)? What happens when advances in technology allow us to live forever? Will we want to? What will there be for us to do in a world where robots and machines are smarter and better at doing just about everything?

And that is where the excitement starts to build for me. If we take for granted that we are going to achieve this future of singularity in the coming generations, and after what I’ve seen the last few days it sure seems like we will, then we as humans are going to have a lot of work to do in building what will amount to an entirely new kind of social model. How will we govern ourselves? How will sentient robots integrate into society? How do we keep technology in the hands of those who wish to do good instead of evil? There will be a lot of complex issues for us to answer, and though it might fly in the face of everything else I’ve written here, I’m putting my money on humans playing the critical role in solving these kinds of issues instead of machines. To do so, however, we’ll need to find a spirit of cooperative problem-solving that is in desperately short supply in many of our institutions today. To be honest, that might be the biggest challenge we face. But the reward is massive.

I think it sounds a lot more fun to shape the future than to let the future shape us, so the best advice I can give anyone who is interested in learning more is to go to Singularity University’s homepage, check out their faculty, and then go to their YouTube channel to find videos of their speeches and presentations (like the inspiring one above). Then find a few hours and a quiet place to sit, allow your mind to be blown and allow your creativity to run wild.

There is a future to be created and fortunes to be made as industries will be fundamentally reshaped by countless technologies originally envisioned by those frighteningly accurate science fiction writers many years ago.

  • Are 3D printers from Cubify all that different from Star Trek’s transporters when you can print a physical object on the other side of the world with a touch of a button?
  • Has Gattaca come to life with personal genetics testing from 23andMe?
  • Are HAL 9000 and Alex Trebek’s friend IBM Watson just computer brothers from another mother? How about George Jetson’s car and Google’s driverless car? The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin, and South African Sprinter Oscar Pistorious?

If they aren’t exact matches, they are certainly very close. So, what’s the science fiction that you want to create? There’s never been a time in human history when creating anything has been more possible.

This post originally appeared on Medium on July 13, 2018.

What You Can Learn From Lowe’s Experiment to Employ Robots in Their Stores

The Lowebot is the latest incarnation of the relationship between Lowe’s Home Improvement and Fellow Robots, one of the many envelope-pushing startups we have at Singularity University. This collaboration, which also spawned the OSHbot which has now been in service in an Orchard Supply Hardware (a Lowe’s subsidiary) in the Bay Area for two years now, is an example that I always point out to the boards and executive teams that come through Singularity University. It represents two things that most Fortune 500 companies are not doing, namely:

  1. Being bold.
  2. Doing so publicly.
Fellow Robots
Image: Fellow Robots

While the Lowebot is certainly earning media mentions and could easily be mistaken for a media gimmick, the most valuable opportunity I see with the Lowebot is the opportunity to learn. Not just to see what robots can do in a retail store environment, but the opportunity to learn how humans use and interact with them and to leverage that information to evolve not only the next version of the Lowebot, but the entire field of robotic assistants. If robotic assistants are our future, then Lowe’s is quickly discovering more about that future, in a real-world environment, than anyone else and that has implications well beyond home improvement.

My advice to CEOs is to do something as bold as what Lowe’s is doing with the Lowebot. Do it to learn. Do it to stake a claim in a new or developing industry. And if you can’t figure out what to do, then look for progressive and forward-thinking talent and partners who can help you find something bold to do. Because in today’s business environment if you aren’t boldly leading into the future, you’re probably falling behind.

This post originally appeared on Medium on September 19, 2016.