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Drones. Self-driving cars. Flying robo taxis. If the headlines of the last few years are to be believed, terrestrial transportation in the future will someday be filled with robotic conveyances and contraptions that will require little input from a human other than to download an app.
But what about the other 70 percent of the planet’s surface—the part that’s made up of water?
Sure, there are underwater drones that can capture 4K video for the next BBC documentary. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are capable of diving down thousands of meters to investigate ocean vents or repair industrial infrastructure.
Yet most of the robots on or below the water today still lean heavily on the human element to operate. That’s not surprising given the unstructured environment of the seas and the poor communication capabilities for anything moving below the waves. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are probably the closest thing today to smart cars in the ocean, but they generally follow pre-programmed instructions.
A new generation of seafaring robots—leveraging artificial intelligence, machine vision, and advanced sensors, among other technologies—are beginning to plunge into the ocean depths. Here are some of the latest and most exciting ones.
The Transformer of the Sea
Nic Radford, chief technology officer of Houston Mechatronics Inc. (HMI), is hesitant about throwing around the word “autonomy” when talking about his startup’s star creation, Aquanaut. He prefers the term “shared control.”
Whatever you want to call it, Aquanaut seems like something out of the script of a Transformers movie. The underwater robot begins each mission in a submarine-like shape, capable of autonomously traveling up to 200 kilometers on battery power, depending on the assignment.
When Aquanaut reaches its destination—oil and gas is the primary industry HMI hopes to disrupt to start—its four specially-designed and built linear actuators go to work. Aquanaut then unfolds into a robot with a head, upper torso, and two manipulator arms, all while maintaining proper buoyancy to get its job done.
The lightbulb moment of how to engineer this transformation from submarine to robot came one day while Aquanaut’s engineers were watching the office’s stand-up desks bob up and down. The answer to the engineering challenge of the hull suddenly seemed obvious.
“We’re just gonna build a big, gigantic, underwater stand-up desk,” Radford told Singularity Hub.
Hardware wasn’t the only problem the team, comprised of veteran NASA roboticists like Radford, had to solve. In order to ditch the expensive support vessels and large teams of humans required to operate traditional ROVs, Aquanaut would have to be able to sense its environment in great detail and relay that information back to headquarters using an underwater acoustics communications system that harkens back to the days of dial-up internet connections.
To tackle that problem of low bandwidth, HMI equipped Aquanaut with a machine vision system comprised of acoustic, optical, and laser-based sensors. All of that dense data is compressed using in-house designed technology and transmitted to a single human operator who controls Aquanaut with a few clicks of a mouse. In other words, no joystick required.
“I don’t know of anyone trying to do this level of autonomy as it relates to interacting with the environment,” Radford said.
HMI got $20 million earlier this year in Series B funding co-led by Transocean, one of the world’s largest offshore drilling contractors. That should be enough money to finish the Aquanaut prototype, which Radford said is about 99.8 percent complete. Some “high-profile” demonstrations are planned for early next year, with commercial deployments as early as 2020.
“What just gives us an incredible advantage here is that we have been born and bred on doing robotic systems for remote locations,” Radford noted. “This is my life, and I’ve bet the farm on it, and it takes this kind of fortitude and passion to see these things through, because these are not easy problems to solve.”
On Cruise Control
Meanwhile, a Boston-based startup is trying to solve the problem of making ships at sea autonomous. Sea Machines is backed by about $12.5 million in capital venture funding, with Toyota AI joining the list of investors in a $10 million Series A earlier this month.
Sea Machines is looking to the self-driving industry for inspiration, developing what it calls “vessel intelligence” systems that can be retrofitted on existing commercial vessels or installed on newly-built working ships.
For instance, the startup announced a deal earlier this year with Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, to deploy a system of artificial intelligence, computer vision, and LiDAR on the Danish company’s new ice-class container ship. The technology works similar to advanced driver-assistance systems found in automobiles to avoid hazards. The proof of concept will lay the foundation for a future autonomous collision avoidance system.
It’s not just startups making a splash in autonomous shipping. Radford noted that Rolls Royce—yes, that Rolls Royce—is leading the way in the development of autonomous ships. Its Intelligence Awareness system pulls in nearly every type of hyped technology on the market today: neural networks, augmented reality, virtual reality, and LiDAR.
In augmented reality mode, for example, a live feed video from the ship’s sensors can detect both static and moving objects, overlaying the scene with details about the types of vessels in the area, as well as their distance, heading, and other pertinent data.
While safety is a primary motivation for vessel automation—more than 1,100 ships have been lost over the past decade—these new technologies could make ships more efficient and less expensive to operate, according to a story in Wired about the Rolls Royce Intelligence Awareness system.
Sea Hunt Meets Science
As Singularity Hub noted in a previous article, ocean robots can also play a critical role in saving the seas from environmental threats. One poster child that has emerged—or, invaded—is the spindly lionfish.
A venomous critter endemic to the Indo-Pacific region, the lionfish is now found up and down the east coast of North America and beyond. And it is voracious, eating up to 30 times its own stomach volume and reducing juvenile reef fish populations by nearly 90 percent in as little as five weeks, according to the Ocean Support Foundation.
That has made the colorful but deadly fish Public Enemy No. 1 for many marine conservationists. Both researchers and startups are developing autonomous robots to hunt down the invasive predator.
At the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, for example, students are building a spear-carrying robot that uses machine learning and computer vision to distinguish lionfish from other aquatic species. The students trained the algorithms on thousands of different images of lionfish. The result: a lionfish-killing machine that boasts an accuracy of greater than 95 percent.
Meanwhile, a small startup called the American Marine Research Corporation out of Pensacola, Florida is applying similar technology to seek and destroy lionfish. Rather than spearfishing, the AMRC drone would stun and capture the lionfish, turning a profit by selling the creatures to local seafood restaurants.
Lionfish: It’s what’s for dinner.
A new wave of smart, independent robots are diving, swimming, and cruising across the ocean and its deepest depths. These autonomous systems aren’t necessarily designed to replace humans, but to venture where we can’t go or to improve safety at sea. And, perhaps, these latest innovations may inspire the robots that will someday plumb the depths of watery planets far from Earth.
Image Credit: Houston Mechatronics, Inc. Continue reading →
Powerful surveillance cameras have crept into public spaces. We are filmed and photographed hundreds of times a day. To further raise the stakes, the resulting video footage is fed to new forms of artificial intelligence software that can recognize faces in real time, read license plates, even instantly detect when a particular pre-defined action or activity takes place in front of a camera.
As most modern cities have quietly become surveillance cities, the law has been slow to catch up. While we wait for robust legal frameworks to emerge, the best way to protect our civil liberties right now is to fight technology with technology. All cities should place local surveillance video into a public cloud-based data trust. Here’s how it would work.
In Public Data We Trust
To democratize surveillance, every city should implement three simple rules. First, anyone who aims a camera at public space must upload that day’s haul of raw video file (and associated camera meta-data) into a cloud-based repository. Second, this cloud-based repository must have open APIs and a publicly-accessible log file that records search histories and tracks who has accessed which video files. And third, everyone in the city should be given the same level of access rights to the stored video data—no exceptions.
This kind of public data repository is called a “data trust.” Public data trusts are not just wishful thinking. Different types of trusts are already in successful use in Estonia and Barcelona, and have been proposed as the best way to store and manage the urban data that will be generated by Alphabet’s planned Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto.
It’s true that few people relish the thought of public video footage of themselves being looked at by strangers and friends, by ex-spouses, potential employers, divorce attorneys, and future romantic prospects. In fact, when I propose this notion when I give talks about smart cities, most people recoil in horror. Some turn red in the face and jeer at my naiveté. Others merely blink quietly in consternation.
The reason we should take this giant step towards extreme transparency is to combat the secrecy that surrounds surveillance. Openness is a powerful antidote to oppression. Edward Snowden summed it up well when he said, “Surveillance is not about public safety, it’s about power. It’s about control.”
Let Us Watch Those Watching Us
If public surveillance video were put back into the hands of the people, citizens could watch their government as it watches them. Right now, government cameras are controlled by the state. Camera locations are kept secret, and only the agencies that control the cameras get to see the footage they generate.
Because of these information asymmetries, civilians have no insight into the size and shape of the modern urban surveillance infrastructure that surrounds us, nor the uses (or abuses) of the video footage it spawns. For example, there is no swift and efficient mechanism to request a copy of video footage from the cameras that dot our downtown. Nor can we ask our city’s police force to show us a map that documents local traffic camera locations.
By exposing all public surveillance videos to the public gaze, cities could give regular people tools to assess the size, shape, and density of their local surveillance infrastructure and neighborhood “digital dragnet.” Using the meta-data that’s wrapped around video footage, citizens could geo-locate individual cameras onto a digital map to generate surveillance “heat maps.” This way people could assess whether their city’s camera density was higher in certain zip codes, or in neighborhoods populated by a dominant ethnic group.
Surveillance heat maps could be used to document which government agencies were refusing to upload their video files, or which neighborhoods were not under surveillance. Given what we already know today about the correlation between camera density, income, and social status, these “dark” camera-free regions would likely be those located near government agencies and in more affluent parts of a city.
Extreme transparency would democratize surveillance. Every city’s data trust would keep a publicly-accessible log of who’s searching for what, and whom. People could use their local data trust’s search history to check whether anyone was searching for their name, face, or license plate. As a result, clandestine spying on—and stalking of—particular individuals would become difficult to hide and simpler to prove.
Protect the Vulnerable and Exonerate the Falsely Accused
Not all surveillance video automatically works against the underdog. As the bungled (and consequently no longer secret) assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi demonstrated, one of the unexpected upsides of surveillance cameras has been the fact that even kings become accountable for their crimes. If opened up to the public, surveillance cameras could serve as witnesses to justice.
Video evidence has the power to protect vulnerable individuals and social groups by shedding light onto messy, unreliable (and frequently conflicting) human narratives of who did what to whom, and why. With access to a data trust, a person falsely accused of a crime could prove their innocence. By searching for their own face in video footage or downloading time/date stamped footage from a particular camera, a potential suspect could document their physical absence from the scene of a crime—no lengthy police investigation or high-priced attorney needed.
Given Enough Eyeballs, All Crimes Are Shallow
Placing public surveillance video into a public trust could make cities safer and would streamline routine police work. Linus Torvalds, the developer of open-source operating system Linux, famously observed that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In the case of public cameras and a common data repository, Torvald’s Law could be restated as “given enough eyeballs, all crimes are shallow.”
If thousands of citizen eyeballs were given access to a city’s public surveillance videos, local police forces could crowdsource the work of solving crimes and searching for missing persons. Unfortunately, at the present time, cities are unable to wring any social benefit from video footage of public spaces. The most formidable barrier is not government-imposed secrecy, but the fact that as cameras and computers have grown cheaper, a large and fast-growing “mom and pop” surveillance state has taken over most of the filming of public spaces.
While we fear spooky government surveillance, the reality is that we’re much more likely to be filmed by security cameras owned by shopkeepers, landlords, medical offices, hotels, homeowners, and schools. These businesses, organizations, and individuals install cameras in public areas for practical reasons—to reduce their insurance costs, to prevent lawsuits, or to combat shoplifting. In the absence of regulations governing their use, private camera owners store video footage in a wide variety of locations, for varying retention periods.
The unfortunate (and unintended) result of this informal and decentralized network of public surveillance is that video files are not easy to access, even for police officers on official business. After a crime or terrorist attack occurs, local police (or attorneys armed with a subpoena) go from door to door to manually collect video evidence. Once they have the videos in hand, their next challenge is searching for the right “codex” to crack the dozens of different file formats they encounter so they can watch and analyze the footage.
The result of these practical barriers is that as it stands today, only people with considerable legal or political clout are able to successfully gain access into a city’s privately-owned, ad-hoc collections of public surveillance videos. Not only are cities missing the opportunity to streamline routine evidence-gathering police work, they’re missing a radically transformative benefit that would become possible once video footage from thousands of different security cameras were pooled into a single repository: the ability to apply the power of citizen eyeballs to the work of improving public safety.
Why We Need Extreme Transparency
When regular people can’t access their own surveillance videos, there can be no data justice. While we wait for the law to catch up with the reality of modern urban life, citizens and city governments should use technology to address the problem that lies at the heart of surveillance: a power imbalance between those who control the cameras and those who don’t.
Cities should permit individuals and organizations to install and deploy as many public-facing cameras as they wish, but with the mandate that camera owners must place all resulting video footage into the mercilessly bright sunshine of an open data trust. This way, cloud computing, open APIs, and artificial intelligence software can help combat abuses of surveillance and give citizens insight into who’s filming us, where, and why.
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It’s hard to avoid the prominence of AI in our lives, and there is a plethora of predictions about how it will influence our future. In their new book Solomon’s Code: Humanity in a World of Thinking Machines, co-authors Olaf Groth, Professor of Strategy, Innovation and Economics at HULT International Business School and CEO of advisory network Cambrian.ai, and Mark Nitzberg, Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human-Compatible AI, believe that the shift in balance of power between intelligent machines and humans is already here.
I caught up with the authors about how the continued integration between technology and humans, and their call for a “Digital Magna Carta,” a broadly-accepted charter developed by a multi-stakeholder congress that would help guide the development of advanced technologies to harness their power for the benefit of all humanity.
Lisa Kay Solomon: Your new book, Solomon’s Code, explores artificial intelligence and its broader human, ethical, and societal implications that all leaders need to consider. AI is a technology that’s been in development for decades. Why is it so urgent to focus on these topics now?
Olaf Groth and Mark Nitzberg: Popular perception always thinks of AI in terms of game-changing narratives—for instance, Deep Blue beating Gary Kasparov at chess. But it’s the way these AI applications are “getting into our heads” and making decisions for us that really influences our lives. That’s not to say the big, headline-grabbing breakthroughs aren’t important; they are.
But it’s the proliferation of prosaic apps and bots that changes our lives the most, by either empowering or counteracting who we are and what we do. Today, we turn a rapidly growing number of our decisions over to these machines, often without knowing it—and even more often without understanding the second- and third-order effects of both the technologies and our decisions to rely on them.
There is genuine power in what we call a “symbio-intelligent” partnership between human, machine, and natural intelligences. These relationships can optimize not just economic interests, but help improve human well-being, create a more purposeful workplace, and bring more fulfillment to our lives.
However, mitigating the risks while taking advantage of the opportunities will require a serious, multidisciplinary consideration of how AI influences human values, trust, and power relationships. Whether or not we acknowledge their existence in our everyday life, these questions are no longer just thought exercises or fodder for science fiction.
In many ways, these technologies can challenge what it means to be human, and their ramifications already affect us in real and often subtle ways. We need to understand how
LKS: There is a lot of hype and misconceptions about AI. In your book, you provide a useful distinction between the cognitive capability that we often associate with AI processes, and the more human elements of consciousness and conscience. Why are these distinctions so important to understand?
OG & MN: Could machines take over consciousness some day as they become more powerful and complex? It’s hard to say. But there’s little doubt that, as machines become more capable, humans will start to think of them as something conscious—if for no other reason than our natural inclination to anthropomorphize.
Machines are already learning to recognize our emotional states and our physical health. Once they start talking that back to us and adjusting their behavior accordingly, we will be tempted to develop a certain rapport with them, potentially more trusting or more intimate because the machine recognizes us in our various states.
Consciousness is hard to define and may well be an emergent property, rather than something you can easily create or—in turn—deduce to its parts. So, could it happen as we put more and more elements together, from the realms of AI, quantum computing, or brain-computer interfaces? We can’t exclude that possibility.
Either way, we need to make sure we’re charting out a clear path and guardrails for this development through the Three Cs in machines: cognition (where AI is today); consciousness (where AI could go); and conscience (what we need to instill in AI before we get there). The real concern is that we reach machine consciousness—or what humans decide to grant as consciousness—without a conscience. If that happens, we will have created an artificial sociopath.
LKS: We have been seeing major developments in how AI is influencing product development and industry shifts. How is the rise of AI changing power at the global level?
OG & MN: Both in the public and private sectors, the data holder has the power. We’ve already seen the ascendance of about 10 “digital barons” in the US and China who sit on huge troves of data, massive computing power, and the resources and money to attract the world’s top AI talent. With these gaps already open between the haves and the have-nots on the technological and corporate side, we’re becoming increasingly aware that similar inequalities are forming at a societal level as well.
Economic power flows with data, leaving few options for socio-economically underprivileged populations and their corrupt, biased, or sparse digital footprints. By concentrating power and overlooking values, we fracture trust.
We can already see this tension emerging between the two dominant geopolitical models of AI. China and the US have emerged as the most powerful in both technological and economic terms, and both remain eager to drive that influence around the world. The EU countries are more contained on these economic and geopolitical measures, but they’ve leaped ahead on privacy and social concerns.
The problem is, no one has yet combined leadership on all three critical elements of values, trust, and power. The nations and organizations that foster all three of these elements in their AI systems and strategies will lead the future. Some are starting to recognize the need for the combination, but we found just 13 countries that have created significant AI strategies. Countries that wait too long to join them risk subjecting themselves to a new “data colonialism” that could change their economies and societies from the outside.
LKS: Solomon’s Code looks at AI from a variety of perspectives, considering both positive and potentially dangerous effects. You caution against the rising global threat and weaponization of AI and data, suggesting that “biased or dirty data is more threatening than nuclear arms or a pandemic.” For global leaders, entrepreneurs, technologists, policy makers and social change agents reading this, what specific strategies do you recommend to ensure ethical development and application of AI?
OG & MN: We’ve surrendered many of our most critical decisions to the Cult of Data. In most cases, that’s a great thing, as we rely more on scientific evidence to understand our world and our way through it. But we swing too far in other instances, assuming that datasets and algorithms produce a complete story that’s unsullied by human biases or intellectual shortcomings. We might choose to ignore it, but no one is blind to the dangers of nuclear war or pandemic disease. Yet, we willfully blind ourselves to the threat of dirty data, instead believing it to be pristine.
So, what do we do about it? On an individual level, it’s a matter of awareness, knowing who controls your data and how outsourcing of decisions to thinking machines can present opportunities and threats alike.
For business, government, and political leaders, we need to see a much broader expansion of ethics committees with transparent criteria with which to evaluate new products and services. We might consider something akin to clinical trials for pharmaceuticals—a sort of testing scheme that can transparently and independently measure the effects on humans of algorithms, bots, and the like. All of this needs to be multidisciplinary, bringing in expertise from across technology, social systems, ethics, anthropology, psychology, and so on.
Finally, on a global level, we need a new charter of rights—a Digital Magna Carta—that formalizes these protections and guides the development of new AI technologies toward all of humanity’s benefit. We’ve suggested the creation of a multi-stakeholder Cambrian Congress (harkening back to the explosion of life during the Cambrian period) that can not only begin to frame benefits for humanity, but build the global consensus around principles for a basic code-of-conduct, and ideas for evaluation and enforcement mechanisms, so we can get there without any large-scale failures or backlash in society. So, it’s not one or the other—it’s both.
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2018 was a big year for science and technology. The first gene-edited babies were born, as were the first cloned monkeys. SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy, and NASA’s InSight lander placed a seismometer on Mars. Bitcoin’s value plummeted, as did the cost of renewable energy. The world’s biggest neuromorphic supercomputer was switched on, and quantum communication made significant progress.
As 2018 draws to a close and we start anticipating the developments that will happen in 2019, here’s a look back at our ten most-read articles of the year.
This 3D Printed House Goes Up in a Day for Under $10,000
Vanessa Bates Ramirez | 3/18/18
“ICON and New Story’s vision is one of 3D printed houses acting as a safe, affordable housing alternative for people in need. New Story has already built over 800 homes in Haiti, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Mexico, partnering with the communities they serve to hire local labor and purchase local materials rather than shipping everything in from abroad.”
Machines Teaching Each Other Could Be the Biggest Exponential Trend in AI
Aaron Frank | 1/21/18
“Data is the fuel of machine learning, but even for machines, some data is hard to get—it may be risky, slow, rare, or expensive. In those cases, machines can share experiences or create synthetic experiences for each other to augment or replace data. It turns out that this is not a minor effect, it actually is self-amplifying, and therefore exponential.”
Low-Cost Soft Robot Muscles Can Lift 200 Times Their Weight and Self-Heal
Edd Gent | 1/11/18
“Now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have built a series of low-cost artificial muscles—as little as 10 cents per device—using soft plastic pouches filled with electrically insulating liquids that contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied to them.”
These Are the Most Exciting Industries and Jobs of the Future
Raya Bidshahri | 1/29/18
“Technological trends are giving rise to what many thought leaders refer to as the “imagination economy.” This is defined as “an economy where intuitive and creative thinking create economic value, after logical and rational thinking have been outsourced to other economies.” Unsurprisingly, humans continue to outdo machines when it comes to innovating and pushing intellectual, imaginative, and creative boundaries, making jobs involving these skills the hardest to automate.”
Inside a $1 Billion Real Estate Company Operating Entirely in VR
Aaron Frank | 4/8/18
“Incredibly, this growth is largely the result of eXp Realty’s use of an online virtual world similar to Second Life. That means every employee, contractor, and the thousands of agents who work at the company show up to work—team meetings, training seminars, onboarding sessions—all inside a virtual reality campus.To be clear, this is a traditional real estate brokerage helping people buy and sell physical homes—but they use a virtual world as their corporate offices.”
How Fast Is AI Progressing? Stanford’s New Report Card for Artificial Intelligence
Thomas Hornigold | 1/18/18
“Progress in AI over the next few years is far more likely to resemble a gradual rising tide—as more and more tasks can be turned into algorithms and accomplished by software—rather than the tsunami of a sudden intelligence explosion or general intelligence breakthrough. Perhaps measuring the ability of an AI system to learn and adapt to the work routines of humans in office-based tasks could be possible.”
When Will We Finally Achieve True Artificial Intelligence?
Thomas Hornigold | 1/1/18
“The issue with trying to predict the exact date of human-level AI is that we don’t know how far is left to go. This is unlike Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, the doubling of processing power roughly every couple of years, makes a very concrete prediction about a very specific phenomenon. We understand roughly how to get there—improved engineering of silicon wafers—and we know we’re not at the fundamental limits of our current approach. You cannot say the same about artificial intelligence.”
IBM’s New Computer Is the Size of a Grain of Salt and Costs Less Than 10 Cents
Edd Gent | 3/26/18
“Costing less than 10 cents to manufacture, the company envisions the device being embedded into products as they move around the supply chain. The computer’s sensing, processing, and communicating capabilities mean it could effectively turn every item in the supply chain into an Internet of Things device, producing highly granular supply chain data that could streamline business operations.”
Why the Rise of Self-Driving Vehicles Will Actually Increase Car Ownership
Melba Kurman and Hod Lipson / 2/14/18
“When people predict the demise of car ownership, they are overlooking the reality that the new autonomous automotive industry is not going to be just a re-hash of today’s car industry with driverless vehicles. Instead, the automotive industry of the future will be selling what could be considered an entirely new product: a wide variety of intelligent, self-guiding transportation robots. When cars become a widely used type of transportation robot, they will be cheap, ubiquitous, and versatile.”
A Model for the Future of Education
Peter Diamandis | 9/12/18
“I imagine a relatively near-term future in which robotics and artificial intelligence will allow any of us, from ages 8 to 108, to easily and quickly find answers, create products, or accomplish tasks, all simply by expressing our desires. From ‘mind to manufactured in moments.’ In short, we’ll be able to do and create almost whatever we want. In this future, what attributes will be most critical for our children to learn to become successful in their adult lives? What’s most important for educating our children today?”
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How we work and play is about to transform.
After a prolonged technology “winter”—or what I like to call the ‘deceptive growth’ phase of any exponential technology—the hardware and software that power virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications are accelerating at an extraordinary rate.
Unprecedented new applications in almost every industry are exploding onto the scene.
Both VR and AR, combined with artificial intelligence, will significantly disrupt the “middleman” and make our lives “auto-magical.” The implications will touch every aspect of our lives, from education and real estate to healthcare and manufacturing.
The Future of Work
How and where we work is already changing, thanks to exponential technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics.
But virtual and augmented reality are taking the future workplace to an entirely new level.
Virtual Reality Case Study: eXp Realty
I recently interviewed Glenn Sanford, who founded eXp Realty in 2008 (imagine: a real estate company on the heels of the housing market collapse) and is the CEO of eXp World Holdings.
Ten years later, eXp Realty has an army of 14,000 agents across all 50 US states, three Canadian provinces, and 400 MLS market areas… all without a single traditional staffed office.
In a bid to transition from 2D interfaces to immersive, 3D work experiences, virtual platform VirBELA built out the company’s office space in VR, unlocking indefinite scaling potential and an extraordinary new precedent.
Real estate agents, managers, and even clients gather in a unique virtual campus, replete with a sports field, library, and lobby. It’s all accessible via head-mounted displays, but most agents join with a computer browser. Surprisingly, the campus-style setup enables the same type of water-cooler conversations I see every day at the XPRIZE headquarters.
With this centralized VR campus, eXp Realty has essentially thrown out overhead costs and entered a lucrative market without the same constraints of brick-and-mortar businesses.
Delocalize with VR, and you can now hire anyone with internet access (right next door or on the other side of the planet), redesign your corporate office every month, throw in an ocean-view office or impromptu conference room for client meetings, and forget about guzzled-up hours in traffic.
As a leader, what happens when you can scalably expand and connect your workforce, not to mention your customer base, without the excess overhead of office space and furniture? Your organization can run faster and farther than your competition.
But beyond the indefinite scalability achieved through digitizing your workplace, VR’s implications extend to the lives of your employees and even the future of urban planning:
Home Prices: As virtual headquarters and office branches take hold of the 21st-century workplace, those who work on campuses like eXp Realty’s won’t need to commute to work. As a result, VR has the potential to dramatically influence real estate prices—after all, if you don’t need to drive to an office, your home search isn’t limited to a specific set of neighborhoods anymore.
Transportation: In major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the implications are tremendous. Analysts have revealed that it’s already cheaper to use ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft than to own a car in many major cities. And once autonomous “Car-as-a-Service” platforms proliferate, associated transportation costs like parking fees, fuel, and auto repairs will no longer fall on the individual, if not entirely disappear.
Augmented Reality: Annotate and Interact with Your Workplace
As I discussed in a recent Spatial Web blog, not only will Web 3.0 and VR advancements allow us to build out virtual worlds, but we’ll soon be able to digitally map our real-world physical offices or entire commercial high-rises.
Enter a professional world electrified by augmented reality.
Our workplaces are practically littered with information. File cabinets abound with archival data and relevant documents, and company databases continue to grow at a breakneck pace. And, as all of us are increasingly aware, cybersecurity and robust data permission systems remain a major concern for CEOs and national security officials alike.
What if we could link that information to specific locations, people, time frames, and even moving objects?
As data gets added and linked to any given employee’s office, conference room, or security system, we might then access online-merge-offline environments and information through augmented reality.
Imagine showing up at your building’s concierge and your AR glasses automatically check you into the building, authenticating your identity and pulling up any reminders you’ve linked to that specific location.
You stop by a friend’s office, and his smart security system lets you know he’ll arrive in an hour. Need to book a public conference room that’s already been scheduled by another firm’s marketing team? Offer to pay them a fee and, once accepted, a smart transaction will automatically deliver a payment to their company account.
With blockchain-verified digital identities, spatially logged data, and virtually manifest information, business logistics take a fraction of the time, operations grow seamless, and corporate data will be safer than ever.
Or better yet, imagine precise and high-dexterity work environments populated with interactive annotations that guide an artisan, surgeon, or engineer through meticulous handiwork.
Take, for instance, AR service 3D4Medical, which annotates virtual anatomy in midair. And as augmented reality hardware continues to advance, we might envision a future wherein surgeons perform operations on annotated organs and magnified incision sites, or one in which quantum computer engineers can magnify and annotate mechanical parts, speeding up reaction times and vastly improving precision.
The Future of Free Time and Play
In Abundance, I wrote about today’s rapidly demonetizing cost of living. In 2011, almost 75 percent of the average American’s income was spent on housing, transportation, food, personal insurance, health, and entertainment. What the headlines don’t mention: this is a dramatic improvement over the last 50 years. We’re spending less on basic necessities and working fewer hours than previous generations.
Chart depicts the average weekly work hours for full-time production employees in non-agricultural activities. Source: Diamandis.com data
Technology continues to change this, continues to take care of us and do our work for us. One phrase that describes this is “technological socialism,” where it’s technology, not the government, that takes care of us.
Extrapolating from the data, I believe we are heading towards a post-scarcity economy. Perhaps we won’t need to work at all, because we’ll own and operate our own fleet of robots or AI systems that do our work for us.
As living expenses demonetize and workplace automation increases, what will we do with this abundance of time? How will our children and grandchildren connect and find their purpose if they don’t have to work for a living?
As I write this on a Saturday afternoon and watch my two seven-year-old boys immersed in Minecraft, building and exploring worlds of their own creation, I can’t help but imagine that this future is about to enter its disruptive phase.
Exponential technologies are enabling a new wave of highly immersive games, virtual worlds, and online communities. We’ve likely all heard of the Oasis from Ready Player One. But far beyond what we know today as ‘gaming,’ VR is fast becoming a home to immersive storytelling, interactive films, and virtual world creation.
Within the virtual world space, let’s take one of today’s greatest precursors, the aforementioned game Minecraft.
For reference, Minecraft is over eight times the size of planet Earth. And in their free time, my kids would rather build in Minecraft than almost any other activity. I think of it as their primary passion: to create worlds, explore worlds, and be challenged in worlds.
And in the near future, we’re all going to become creators of or participants in virtual worlds, each populated with assets and storylines interoperable with other virtual environments.
But while the technological methods are new, this concept has been alive and well for generations. Whether you got lost in the world of Heidi or Harry Potter, grew up reading comic books or watching television, we’ve all been playing in imaginary worlds, with characters and story arcs populating our minds. That’s the nature of childhood.
In the past, however, your ability to edit was limited, especially if a given story came in some form of 2D media. I couldn’t edit where Tom Sawyer was going or change what Iron Man was doing. But as a slew of new software advancements underlying VR and AR allow us to interact with characters and gain (albeit limited) agency (for now), both new and legacy stories will become subjects of our creation and playgrounds for virtual interaction.
Take VR/AR storytelling startup Fable Studio’s Wolves in the Walls film. Debuting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Fable’s immersive story is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s book and tracks the protagonist, Lucy, whose programming allows her to respond differently based on what her viewers do.
And while Lucy can merely hand virtual cameras to her viewers among other limited tasks, Fable Studio’s founder Edward Saatchi sees this project as just the beginning.
Imagine a virtual character—either in augmented or virtual reality—geared with AI capabilities, that now can not only participate in a fictional storyline but interact and dialogue directly with you in a host of virtual and digitally overlayed environments.
Or imagine engaging with a less-structured environment, like the Star Wars cantina, populated with strangers and friends to provide an entirely novel social media experience.
Already, we’ve seen characters like that of Pokémon brought into the real world with Pokémon Go, populating cities and real spaces with holograms and tasks. And just as augmented reality has the power to turn our physical environments into digital gaming platforms, advanced AR could bring on a new era of in-home entertainment.
Imagine transforming your home into a narrative environment for your kids or overlaying your office interior design with Picasso paintings and gothic architecture. As computer vision rapidly grows capable of identifying objects and mapping virtual overlays atop them, we might also one day be able to project home theaters or live sports within our homes, broadcasting full holograms that allow us to zoom into the action and place ourselves within it.
Increasingly honed and commercialized, augmented and virtual reality are on the cusp of revolutionizing the way we play, tell stories, create worlds, and interact with both fictional characters and each other.
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