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#434837 In Defense of Black Box AI

Deep learning is powering some amazing new capabilities, but we find it hard to scrutinize the workings of these algorithms. Lack of interpretability in AI is a common concern and many are trying to fix it, but is it really always necessary to know what’s going on inside these “black boxes”?

In a recent perspective piece for Science, Elizabeth Holm, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, argued in defense of the black box algorithm. I caught up with her last week to find out more.

Edd Gent: What’s your experience with black box algorithms?

Elizabeth Holm: I got a dual PhD in materials science and engineering and scientific computing. I came to academia about six years ago and part of what I wanted to do in making this career change was to refresh and revitalize my computer science side.

I realized that computer science had changed completely. It used to be about algorithms and making codes run fast, but now it’s about data and artificial intelligence. There are the interpretable methods like random forest algorithms, where we can tell how the machine is making its decisions. And then there are the black box methods, like convolutional neural networks.

Once in a while we can find some information about their inner workings, but most of the time we have to accept their answers and kind of probe around the edges to figure out the space in which we can use them and how reliable and accurate they are.

EG: What made you feel like you had to mount a defense of these black box algorithms?

EH: When I started talking with my colleagues, I found that the black box nature of many of these algorithms was a real problem for them. I could understand that because we’re scientists, we always want to know why and how.

It got me thinking as a bit of a contrarian, “Are black boxes all bad? Must we reject them?” Surely not, because human thought processes are fairly black box. We often rely on human thought processes that the thinker can’t necessarily explain.

It’s looking like we’re going to be stuck with these methods for a while, because they’re really helpful. They do amazing things. And so there’s a very pragmatic realization that these are the best methods we’ve got to do some really important problems, and we’re not right now seeing alternatives that are interpretable. We’re going to have to use them, so we better figure out how.

EG: In what situations do you think we should be using black box algorithms?

EH: I came up with three rules. The simplest rule is: when the cost of a bad decision is small and the value of a good decision is high, it’s worth it. The example I gave in the paper is targeted advertising. If you send an ad no one wants it doesn’t cost a lot. If you’re the receiver it doesn’t cost a lot to get rid of it.

There are cases where the cost is high, and that’s then we choose the black box if it’s the best option to do the job. Things get a little trickier here because we have to ask “what are the costs of bad decisions, and do we really have them fully characterized?” We also have to be very careful knowing that our systems may have biases, they may have limitations in where you can apply them, they may be breakable.

But at the same time, there are certainly domains where we’re going to test these systems so extensively that we know their performance in virtually every situation. And if their performance is better than the other methods, we need to do it. Self driving vehicles are a significant example—it’s almost certain they’re going to have to use black box methods, and that they’re going to end up being better drivers than humans.

The third rule is the more fun one for me as a scientist, and that’s the case where the black box really enlightens us as to a new way to look at something. We have trained a black box to recognize the fracture energy of breaking a piece of metal from a picture of the broken surface. It did a really good job, and humans can’t do this and we don’t know why.

What the computer seems to be seeing is noise. There’s a signal in that noise, and finding it is very difficult, but if we do we may find something significant to the fracture process, and that would be an awesome scientific discovery.

EG: Do you think there’s been too much emphasis on interpretability?

EH: I think the interpretability problem is a fundamental, fascinating computer science grand challenge and there are significant issues where we need to have an interpretable model. But how I would frame it is not that there’s too much emphasis on interpretability, but rather that there’s too much dismissiveness of uninterpretable models.

I think that some of the current social and political issues surrounding some very bad black box outcomes have convinced people that all machine learning and AI should be interpretable because that will somehow solve those problems.

Asking humans to explain their rationale has not eliminated bias, or stereotyping, or bad decision-making in humans. Relying too much on interpreted ability perhaps puts the responsibility in the wrong place for getting better results. I can make a better black box without knowing exactly in what way the first one was bad.

EG: Looking further into the future, do you think there will be situations where humans will have to rely on black box algorithms to solve problems we can’t get our heads around?

EH: I do think so, and it’s not as much of a stretch as we think it is. For example, humans don’t design the circuit map of computer chips anymore. We haven’t for years. It’s not a black box algorithm that designs those circuit boards, but we’ve long since given up trying to understand a particular computer chip’s design.

With the billions of circuits in every computer chip, the human mind can’t encompass it, either in scope or just the pure time that it would take to trace every circuit. There are going to be cases where we want a system so complex that only the patience that computers have and their ability to work in very high-dimensional spaces is going to be able to do it.

So we can continue to argue about interpretability, but we need to acknowledge that we’re going to need to use black boxes. And this is our opportunity to do our due diligence to understand how to use them responsibly, ethically, and with benefits rather than harm. And that’s going to be a social conversation as well as as a scientific one.

*Responses have been edited for length and style

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Posted in Human Robots

#434823 The Tangled Web of Turning Spider Silk ...

Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time. It’s a bit surprising given that one of the more common phobias is arachnophobia—a debilitating fear of spiders.

Perhaps more fantastical is that young Peter Parker, a brainy high school science nerd, seemingly developed overnight the famous web-shooters and the synthetic spider silk that he uses to swing across the cityscape like Tarzan through the jungle.

That’s because scientists have been trying for decades to replicate spider silk, a material that is five times stronger than steel, among its many superpowers. In recent years, researchers have been untangling the protein-based fiber’s structure down to the molecular level, leading to new insights and new potential for eventual commercial uses.

The applications for such a material seem near endless. There’s the more futuristic visions, like enabling robotic “muscles” for human-like movement or ensnaring real-life villains with a Spider-Man-like web. Near-term applications could include the biomedical industry, such as bandages and adhesives, and as a replacement textile for everything from rope to seat belts to parachutes.

Spinning Synthetic Spider Silk
Randy Lewis has been studying the properties of spider silk and developing methods for producing it synthetically for more than three decades. In the 1990s, his research team was behind cloning the first spider silk gene, as well as the first to identify and sequence the proteins that make up the six different silks that web slingers make. Each has different mechanical properties.

“So our thought process was that you could take that information and begin to to understand what made them strong and what makes them stretchy, and why some are are very stretchy and some are not stretchy at all, and some are stronger and some are weaker,” explained Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University and director of the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab, in an interview with Singularity Hub.

Spiders are naturally territorial and cannibalistic, so any intention to farm silk naturally would likely end in an orgy of arachnid violence. Instead, Lewis and company have genetically modified different organisms to produce spider silk synthetically, including inserting a couple of web-making genes into the genetic code of goats. The goats’ milk contains spider silk proteins.

The lab also produces synthetic spider silk through a fermentation process not entirely dissimilar to brewing beer, but using genetically modified bacteria to make the desired spider silk proteins. A similar technique has been used for years to make a key enzyme in cheese production. More recently, companies are using transgenic bacteria to make meat and milk proteins, entirely bypassing animals in the process.

The same fermentation technology is used by a chic startup called Bolt Threads outside of San Francisco that has raised more than $200 million for fashionable fibers made out of synthetic spider silk it calls Microsilk. (The company is also developing a second leather-like material, Mylo, using the underground root structure of mushrooms known as mycelium.)

Lewis’ lab also uses transgenic silkworms to produce a kind of composite material made up of the domesticated insect’s own silk proteins and those of spider silk. “Those have some fairly impressive properties,” Lewis said.

The researchers are even experimenting with genetically modified alfalfa. One of the big advantages there is that once the spider silk protein has been extracted, the remaining protein could be sold as livestock feed. “That would bring the cost of spider silk protein production down significantly,” Lewis said.

Building a Better Web
Producing synthetic spider silk isn’t the problem, according to Lewis, but the ability to do it at scale commercially remains a sticking point.

Another challenge is “weaving” the synthetic spider silk into usable products that can take advantage of the material’s marvelous properties.

“It is possible to make silk proteins synthetically, but it is very hard to assemble the individual proteins into a fiber or other material forms,” said Markus Buehler, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, in an email to Singularity Hub. “The spider has a complex spinning duct in which silk proteins are exposed to physical forces, chemical gradients, the combination of which generates the assembly of molecules that leads to silk fibers.”

Buehler recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science Advances that found dragline spider silk exhibits different properties in response to changes in humidity that could eventually have applications in robotics.

Specifically, spider silk suddenly contracts and twists above a certain level of relative humidity, exerting enough force to “potentially be competitive with other materials being explored as actuators—devices that move to perform some activity such as controlling a valve,” according to a press release.

Studying Spider Silk Up Close
Recent studies at the molecular level are helping scientists learn more about the unique properties of spider silk, which may help researchers develop materials with extraordinary capabilities.

For example, scientists at Arizona State University used magnetic resonance tools and other instruments to image the abdomen of a black widow spider. They produced what they called the first molecular-level model of spider silk protein fiber formation, providing insights on the nanoparticle structure. The research was published last October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A cross section of the abdomen of a black widow (Latrodectus Hesperus) spider used in this study at Arizona State University. Image Credit: Samrat Amin.
Also in 2018, a study presented in Nature Communications described a sort of molecular clamp that binds the silk protein building blocks, which are called spidroins. The researchers observed for the first time that the clamp self-assembles in a two-step process, contributing to the extensibility, or stretchiness, of spider silk.

Another team put the spider silk of a brown recluse under an atomic force microscope, discovering that each strand, already 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, is made up of thousands of nanostrands. That helps explain its extraordinary tensile strength, though technique is also a factor, as the brown recluse uses a special looping method to reinforce its silk strands. The study also appeared last year in the journal ACS Macro Letters.

Making Spider Silk Stick
Buehler said his team is now trying to develop better and faster predictive methods to design silk proteins using artificial intelligence.

“These new methods allow us to generate new protein designs that do not naturally exist and which can be explored to optimize certain desirable properties like torsional actuation, strength, bioactivity—for example, tissue engineering—and others,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lewis’ lab has discovered a method that allows it to solubilize spider silk protein in what is essentially a water-based solution, eschewing acids or other toxic compounds that are normally used in the process.

That enables the researchers to develop materials beyond fiber, including adhesives that “are better than an awful lot of the current commercial adhesives,” Lewis said, as well as coatings that could be used to dampen vibrations, for example.

“We’re making gels for various kinds of of tissue regeneration, as well as drug delivery, and things like that,” he added. “So we’ve expanded the use profile from something beyond fibers to something that is a much more extensive portfolio of possible kinds of materials.”

And, yes, there’s even designs at the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab for developing a Spider-Man web-slinger material. The US Navy is interested in non-destructive ways of disabling an enemy vessel, such as fouling its propeller. The project also includes producing synthetic proteins from the hagfish, an eel-like critter that exudes a gelatinous slime when threatened.

Lewis said that while the potential for spider silk is certainly headline-grabbing, he cautioned that much of the hype is not focused on the unique mechanical properties that could lead to advances in healthcare and other industries.

“We want to see spider silk out there because it’s a unique material, not because it’s got marketing appeal,” he said.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434772 Traditional Higher Education Is Losing ...

Should you go to graduate school? If so, why? If not, what are your alternatives? Millions of young adults across the globe—and their parents and mentors—find themselves asking these questions every year.

Earlier this month, I explored how exponential technologies are rising to meet the needs of the rapidly changing workforce.

In this blog, I’ll dive into a highly effective way to build the business acumen and skills needed to make the most significant impact in these exponential times.

To start, let’s dive into the value of graduate school versus apprenticeship—especially during this time of extraordinarily rapid growth, and the micro-diversification of careers.

The True Value of an MBA
All graduate schools are not created equal.

For complex technical trades like medicine, engineering, and law, formal graduate-level training provides a critical foundation for safe, ethical practice (until these trades are fully augmented by artificial intelligence and automation…).

For the purposes of today’s blog, let’s focus on the value of a Master in Business Administration (MBA) degree, compared to acquiring your business acumen through various forms of apprenticeship.

The Waning of Business Degrees
Ironically, business schools are facing a tough business problem. The rapid rate of technological change, a booming job market, and the digitization of education are chipping away at the traditional graduate-level business program.

The data speaks for itself.

The Decline of Graduate School Admissions
Enrollment in two-year, full-time MBA programs in the US fell by more than one-third from 2010 to 2016.

While in previous years, top business schools (e.g. Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton) were safe from the decrease in applications, this year, they also felt the waning interest in MBA programs.

Harvard Business School: 4.5 percent decrease in applications, the school’s biggest drop since 2005.
Wharton: 6.7 percent decrease in applications.
Stanford Graduate School: 4.6 percent decrease in applications.

Another signal of change began unfolding over the past week. You may have read news headlines about an emerging college admissions scam, which implicates highly selective US universities, sports coaches, parents, and students in a conspiracy to game the undergraduate admissions process.

Already, students are filing multibillion-dollar civil lawsuits arguing that the scheme has devalued their degrees or denied them a fair admissions opportunity.

MBA Graduates in the Workforce
To meet today’s business needs, startups and massive companies alike are increasingly hiring technologists, developers, and engineers in place of the MBA graduates they may have preferentially hired in the past.

While 85 percent of US employers expect to hire MBA graduates this year (a decrease from 91 percent in 2017), 52 percent of employers worldwide expect to hire graduates with a master’s in data analytics (an increase from 35 percent last year).

We’re also seeing the waning of MBA degree holders at the CEO level.

For decades, an MBA was the hallmark of upward mobility towards the C-suite of top companies.

But as exponential technologies permeate not only products but every part of the supply chain—from manufacturing and shipping to sales, marketing and customer service—that trend is changing by necessity.

Looking at the Harvard Business Review’s Top 100 CEOs in 2018 list, more CEOs on the list held engineering degrees than MBAs (34 held engineering degrees, while 32 held MBAs).

There’s much more to leading innovative companies than an advanced business degree.

How Are Schools Responding?
With disruption to the advanced business education system already here, some business schools are applying notes from their own innovation classes to brace for change.

Over the past half-decade, we’ve seen schools with smaller MBA programs shut their doors in favor of advanced degrees with more specialization. This directly responds to market demand for skills in data science, supply chain, and manufacturing.

Some degrees resemble the precise skills training of technical trades. Others are very much in line with the apprenticeship models we’ll explore next.

Regardless, this new specialization strategy is working and attracting more new students. Over the past decade (2006 to 2016), enrollment in specialized graduate business programs doubled.

Higher education is also seeing a preference shift toward for-profit trade schools, like coding boot camps. This shift is one of several forces pushing universities to adopt skill-specific advanced degrees.

But some schools are slow to adapt, raising the question: how and when will these legacy programs be disrupted? A survey of over 170 business school deans around the world showed that many programs are operating at a loss.

But if these schools are world-class business institutions, as advertised, why do they keep the doors open even while they lose money? The surveyed deans revealed an important insight: they keep the degree program open because of the program’s prestige.

Why Go to Business School?
Shorthand Credibility, Cognitive Biases, and Prestige
Regardless of what knowledge a person takes away from graduate school, attending one of the world’s most rigorous and elite programs gives grads external validation.

With over 55 percent of MBA applicants applying to just 6 percent of graduate business schools, we have a clear cognitive bias toward the perceived elite status of certain universities.

To the outside world, thanks to the power of cognitive biases, an advanced degree is credibility shorthand for your capabilities.

Simply passing through a top school’s filtration system means that you had some level of abilities and merits.

And startup success statistics tend to back up that perceived enhanced capability. Let’s take, for example, universities with the most startup unicorn founders (see the figure below).

When you consider the 320+ unicorn startups around the world today, these numbers become even more impressive. Stanford’s 18 unicorn companies account for over 5 percent of global unicorns, and Harvard is responsible for producing just under 5 percent.

Combined, just these two universities (out of over 5,000 in the US, and thousands more around the world) account for 1 in 10 of the billion-dollar private companies in the world.

By the numbers, the prestigious reputation of these elite business programs has a firm basis in current innovation success.

While prestige may be inherent to the degree earned by graduates from these business programs, the credibility boost from holding one of these degrees is not a guaranteed path to success in the business world.

For example, you might expect that the Harvard School of Business or Stanford Graduate School of Business would come out on top when tallying up the alma maters of Fortune 500 CEOs.

It turns out that the University of Wisconsin-Madison leads the business school pack with 14 CEOs to Harvard’s 12. Beyond prestige, the success these elite business programs see translates directly into cultivating unmatched networks and relationships.

Relationships
Graduate schools—particularly at the upper echelon—are excellent at attracting sharp students.

At an elite business school, if you meet just five to ten people with extraordinary skill sets, personalities, ideas, or networks, then you have returned your $200,000 education investment.

It’s no coincidence that some 40 percent of Silicon Valley venture capitalists are alumni of either Harvard or Stanford.

From future investors to advisors, friends, and potential business partners, relationships are critical to an entrepreneur’s success.

Apprenticeships
As we saw above, graduate business degree programs are melting away in the current wave of exponential change.

With an increasing $1.5 trillion in student debt, there must be a more impactful alternative to attending graduate school for those starting their careers.

When I think about the most important skills I use today as an entrepreneur, writer, and strategic thinker, they didn’t come from my decade of graduate school at Harvard or MIT… they came from my experiences building real technologies and companies, and working with mentors.

Apprenticeship comes in a variety of forms; here, I’ll cover three top-of-mind approaches:

Real-world business acumen via startup accelerators
A direct apprenticeship model
The 6 D’s of mentorship

Startup Accelerators and Business Practicum
Let’s contrast the shrinking interest in MBA programs with applications to a relatively new model of business education: startup accelerators.

Startup accelerators are short-term (typically three to six months), cohort-based programs focusing on providing startup founders with the resources (capital, mentorship, relationships, and education) needed to refine their entrepreneurial acumen.

While graduate business programs have been condensing, startup accelerators are alive, well, and expanding rapidly.

In the 10 years from 2005 (when Paul Graham founded Y Combinator) through 2015, the number of startup accelerators in the US increased by more than tenfold.

The increase in startup accelerator activity hints at a larger trend: our best and brightest business minds are opting to invest their time and efforts in obtaining hands-on experience, creating tangible value for themselves and others, rather than diving into the theory often taught in business school classrooms.

The “Strike Force” Model
The Strike Force is my elite team of young entrepreneurs who work directly with me across all of my companies, travel by my side, sit in on every meeting with me, and help build businesses that change the world.

Previous Strike Force members have gone on to launch successful companies, including Bold Capital Partners, my $250 million venture capital firm.

Strike Force is an apprenticeship for the next generation of exponential entrepreneurs.

To paraphrase my good friend Tony Robbins: If you want to short-circuit the video game, find someone who’s been there and done that and is now doing something you want to one day do.

Every year, over 500,000 apprentices in the US follow this precise template. These apprentices are learning a craft they wish to master, under the mentorship of experts (skilled metal workers, bricklayers, medical technicians, electricians, and more) who have already achieved the desired result.

What if we more readily applied this model to young adults with aspirations of creating massive value through the vehicles of entrepreneurship and innovation?

For the established entrepreneur: How can you bring young entrepreneurs into your organization to create more value for your company, while also passing on your ethos and lessons learned to the next generation?

For the young, driven millennial: How can you find your mentor and convince him or her to take you on as an apprentice? What value can you create for this person in exchange for their guidance and investment in your professional development?

The 6 D’s of Mentorship
In my last blog on education, I shared how mobile device and internet penetration will transform adult literacy and basic education. Mobile phones and connectivity already create extraordinary value for entrepreneurs and young professionals looking to take their business acumen and skill set to the next level.

For all of human history up until the last decade or so, if you wanted to learn from the best and brightest in business, leadership, or strategy, you either needed to search for a dated book that they wrote at the local library or bookstore, or you had to be lucky enough to meet that person for a live conversation.

Now you can access the mentorship of just about any thought leader on the planet, at any time, for free.

Thanks to the power of the internet, mentorship has digitized, demonetized, dematerialized, and democratized.

What do you want to learn about?

Investing? Leadership? Technology? Marketing? Project management?

You can access a near-infinite stream of cutting-edge tools, tactics, and lessons from thousands of top performers from nearly every field—instantaneously, and for free.

For example, every one of Warren Buffett’s letters to his Berkshire Hathaway investors over the past 40 years is available for free on a device that fits in your pocket.

The rise of audio—particularly podcasts and audiobooks—is another underestimated driving force away from traditional graduate business programs and toward apprenticeships.

Over 28 million podcast episodes are available for free. Once you identify the strong signals in the noise, you’re still left with thousands of hours of long-form podcast conversation from which to learn valuable lessons.

Whenever and wherever you want, you can learn from the world’s best. In the future, mentorship and apprenticeship will only become more personalized. Imagine accessing a high-fidelity, AI-powered avatar of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Arthur C. Clarke (one of my early mentors) to help guide you through your career.

Virtual mentorship and coaching are powerful education forces that are here to stay.

Bringing It All Together
The education system is rapidly changing. Traditional master’s programs for business are ebbing away in the tides of exponential technologies. Apprenticeship models are reemerging as an effective way to train tomorrow’s leaders.

In a future blog, I’ll revisit the concept of apprenticeships and other effective business school alternatives.

If you are a young, ambitious entrepreneur (or the parent of one), remember that you live in the most abundant time ever in human history to refine your craft.

Right now, you have access to world-class mentorship and cutting-edge best-practices—literally in the palm of your hand. What will you do with this extraordinary power?

Join Me
Abundance-Digital Online Community: I’ve created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance-Digital. Abundance-Digital is my ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs – those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434755 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
DeepMind and Google: The Battle to Control Artificial Intelligence
Hal Hodson | 1843
“Hassabis thought DeepMind would be a hybrid: it would have the drive of a startup, the brains of the greatest universities, and the deep pockets of one of the world’s most valuable companies. Every element was in place to hasten the arrival of AGI and solve the causes of human misery.”

ROBOTICS
Robot Valets Are Now Parking Cars in One of France’s Busiest Airports
James Vincent | The Verge
“Stanley Robotics say its system uses space much more efficiently than humans, fitting 50 percent more cars into the same area. This is thanks in part to the robots’ precision driving, but also because the system keeps track of when customers will return. This means the robots can park cars three or four deep, but then dig out the right vehicle ready for its owner’s return.”

COMPUTING
Quantum Computing Should Supercharge This Machine-Learning Technique
Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“Quantum computing and artificial intelligence are both hyped ridiculously. But it seems a combination of the two may indeed combine to open up new possibilities.”

BIOTECH
Scientists Reawaken Cells From a 28,000-Year-Old Mammoth
Becky Ferreira | Motherboard
“Yuka the woolly mammoth died a long time ago, but scientists gave her cells a short second life in mouse egg cells.”

ETHICS
CRISPR Experts Are Calling for a Global Moratorium on Heritable Gene Editing
Niall Firth | MIT Technology Review
“We still don’t know what the majority of our genes do, so the risks of unintended consequences or so-called off-target effects—good or bad—are huge. …Changes in a genome might have unforeseen outcomes in future generations as well. ‘Attempting to reshape the species on the basis of our current state of knowledge would be hubris,’ the letter reads.”

GENETICS
Unleash the Full Potential of the Human Genome Project
Paul Glimcher | The Hill
“So how do the risks embedded in our genes become the diseases, the so-called phenotypes, we seek to cure or prevent? …It is not just nature, but also nurture, which leads to disease. This is something that we have known for centuries, but which we seem to have conveniently forgotten in our rush to embrace the technology of genetics. In 1990 the only thing we could measure comprehensively was genetics, so we did it. But why did we stop there?”

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Posted in Human Robots

#434753 Top Takeaways From The Economist ...

Over the past few years, the word ‘innovation’ has degenerated into something of a buzzword. In fact, according to Vijay Vaitheeswaran, US business editor at The Economist, it’s one of the most abused words in the English language.

The word is over-used precisely because we’re living in a great age of invention. But the pace at which those inventions are changing our lives is fast, new, and scary.

So what strategies do companies need to adopt to make sure technology leads to growth that’s not only profitable, but positive? How can business and government best collaborate? Can policymakers regulate the market without suppressing innovation? Which technologies will impact us most, and how soon?

At The Economist Innovation Summit in Chicago last week, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, policymakers, and academics shared their insights on the current state of exponential technologies, and the steps companies and individuals should be taking to ensure a tech-positive future. Here’s their expert take on the tech and trends shaping the future.

Blockchain
There’s been a lot of hype around blockchain; apparently it can be used for everything from distributing aid to refugees to voting. However, it’s too often conflated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and we haven’t heard of many use cases. Where does the technology currently stand?

Julie Sweet, chief executive of Accenture North America, emphasized that the technology is still in its infancy. “Everything we see today are pilots,” she said. The most promising of these pilots are taking place across three different areas: supply chain, identity, and financial services.

When you buy something from outside the US, Sweet explained, it goes through about 80 different parties. 70 percent of the relevant data is replicated and is prone to error, with paper-based documents often to blame. Blockchain is providing a secure way to eliminate paper in supply chains, upping accuracy and cutting costs in the process.

One of the most prominent use cases in the US is Walmart—the company has mandated that all suppliers in its leafy greens segment be on a blockchain, and its food safety has improved as a result.

Beth Devin, head of Citi Ventures’ innovation network, added “Blockchain is an infrastructure technology. It can be leveraged in a lot of ways. There’s so much opportunity to create new types of assets and securities that aren’t accessible to people today. But there’s a lot to figure out around governance.”

Open Source Technology
Are the days of proprietary technology numbered? More and more companies and individuals are making their source code publicly available, and its benefits are thus more widespread than ever before. But what are the limitations and challenges of open source tech, and where might it go in the near future?

Bob Lord, senior VP of cognitive applications at IBM, is a believer. “Open-sourcing technology helps innovation occur, and it’s a fundamental basis for creating great technology solutions for the world,” he said. However, the biggest challenge for open source right now is that companies are taking out more than they’re contributing back to the open-source world. Lord pointed out that IBM has a rule about how many lines of code employees take out relative to how many lines they put in.

Another challenge area is open governance; blockchain by its very nature should be transparent and decentralized, with multiple parties making decisions and being held accountable. “We have to embrace open governance at the same time that we’re contributing,” Lord said. He advocated for a hybrid-cloud environment where people can access public and private data and bring it together.

Augmented and Virtual Reality
Augmented and virtual reality aren’t just for fun and games anymore, and they’ll be even less so in the near future. According to Pearly Chen, vice president at HTC, they’ll also go from being two different things to being one and the same. “AR overlays digital information on top of the real world, and VR transports you to a different world,” she said. “In the near future we will not need to delineate between these two activities; AR and VR will come together naturally, and will change everything we do as we know it today.”

For that to happen, we’ll need a more ergonomically friendly device than we have today for interacting with this technology. “Whenever we use tech today, we’re multitasking,” said product designer and futurist Jody Medich. “When you’re using GPS, you’re trying to navigate in the real world and also manage this screen. Constant task-switching is killing our brain’s ability to think.” Augmented and virtual reality, she believes, will allow us to adapt technology to match our brain’s functionality.

This all sounds like a lot of fun for uses like gaming and entertainment, but what about practical applications? “Ultimately what we care about is how this technology will improve lives,” Chen said.

A few ways that could happen? Extended reality will be used to simulate hazardous real-life scenarios, reduce the time and resources needed to bring a product to market, train healthcare professionals (such as surgeons), or provide therapies for patients—not to mention education. “Think about the possibilities for children to learn about history, science, or math in ways they can’t today,” Chen said.

Quantum Computing
If there’s one technology that’s truly baffling, it’s quantum computing. Qubits, entanglement, quantum states—it’s hard to wrap our heads around these concepts, but they hold great promise. Where is the tech right now?

Mandy Birch, head of engineering strategy at Rigetti Computing, thinks quantum development is starting slowly but will accelerate quickly. “We’re at the innovation stage right now, trying to match this capability to useful applications,” she said. “Can we solve problems cheaper, better, and faster than classical computers can do?” She believes quantum’s first breakthrough will happen in two to five years, and that is highest potential is in applications like routing, supply chain, and risk optimization, followed by quantum chemistry (for materials science and medicine) and machine learning.

David Awschalom, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange and senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, believes quantum communication and quantum sensing will become a reality in three to seven years. “We’ll use states of matter to encrypt information in ways that are completely secure,” he said. A quantum voting system, currently being prototyped, is one application.

Who should be driving quantum tech development? The panelists emphasized that no one entity will get very far alone. “Advancing quantum tech will require collaboration not only between business, academia, and government, but between nations,” said Linda Sapochak, division director of materials research at the National Science Foundation. She added that this doesn’t just go for the technology itself—setting up the infrastructure for quantum will be a big challenge as well.

Space
Space has always been the final frontier, and it still is—but it’s not quite as far-removed from our daily lives now as it was when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969.

The space industry has always been funded by governments and private defense contractors. But in 2009, SpaceX launched its first commercial satellite, and in subsequent years have drastically cut the cost of spaceflight. More importantly, they published their pricing, which brought transparency to a market that hadn’t seen it before.

Entrepreneurs around the world started putting together business plans, and there are now over 400 privately-funded space companies, many with consumer applications.

Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels and managing partner of Space Capital, pointed out that the technology floating around in space was, until recently, archaic. “A few NASA engineers saw they had more computing power in their phone than there was in satellites,” he said. “So they thought, ‘why don’t we just fly an iPhone?’” They did—and it worked.

Now companies have networks of satellites monitoring the whole planet, producing a huge amount of data that’s valuable for countless applications like agriculture, shipping, and observation. “A lot of people underestimate space,” Anderson said. “It’s already enabling our modern global marketplace.”

Next up in the space realm, he predicts, are mining and tourism.

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work
From the US to Europe to Asia, alarms are sounding about AI taking our jobs. What will be left for humans to do once machines can do everything—and do it better?

These fears may be unfounded, though, and are certainly exaggerated. It’s undeniable that AI and automation are changing the employment landscape (not to mention the way companies do business and the way we live our lives), but if we build these tools the right way, they’ll bring more good than harm, and more productivity than obsolescence.

Accenture’s Julie Sweet emphasized that AI alone is not what’s disrupting business and employment. Rather, it’s what she called the “triple A”: automation, analytics, and artificial intelligence. But even this fear-inducing trifecta of terms doesn’t spell doom, for workers or for companies. Accenture has automated 40,000 jobs—and hasn’t fired anyone in the process. Instead, they’ve trained and up-skilled people. The most important drivers to scale this, Sweet said, are a commitment by companies and government support (such as tax credits).

Imbuing AI with the best of human values will also be critical to its impact on our future. Tracy Frey, Google Cloud AI’s director of strategy, cited the company’s set of seven AI principles. “What’s important is the governance process that’s put in place to support those principles,” she said. “You can’t make macro decisions when you have technology that can be applied in many different ways.”

High Risks, High Stakes
This year, Vaitheeswaran said, 50 percent of the world’s population will have internet access (he added that he’s disappointed that percentage isn’t higher given the proliferation of smartphones). As technology becomes more widely available to people around the world and its influence grows even more, what are the biggest risks we should be monitoring and controlling?

Information integrity—being able to tell what’s real from what’s fake—is a crucial one. “We’re increasingly operating in siloed realities,” said Renee DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge and head of policy at Data for Democracy. “Inadvertent algorithmic amplification on social media elevates certain perspectives—what does that do to us as a society?”

Algorithms have also already been proven to perpetuate the bias of the people who create it—and those people are often wealthy, white, and male. Ensuring that technology doesn’t propagate unfair bias will be crucial to its ability to serve a diverse population, and to keep societies from becoming further polarized and inequitable. The polarization of experience that results from pronounced inequalities within countries, Vaitheeswaran pointed out, can end up undermining democracy.

We’ll also need to walk the line between privacy and utility very carefully. As Dan Wagner, founder of Civis Analytics put it, “We want to ensure privacy as much as possible, but open access to information helps us achieve important social good.” Medicine in the US has been hampered by privacy laws; if, for example, we had more data about biomarkers around cancer, we could provide more accurate predictions and ultimately better healthcare.

But going the Chinese way—a total lack of privacy—is likely not the answer, either. “We have to be very careful about the way we bake rights and freedom into our technology,” said Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at Human Rights Foundation.

Technology’s risks are clearly as fraught as its potential is promising. As Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, put it, “Everything we’ve talked about today is simply a tool, and can be used for good or bad.”

The decisions we’re making now, at every level—from the engineers writing algorithms, to the legislators writing laws, to the teenagers writing clever Instagram captions—will determine where on the spectrum we end up.

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