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Life is pretty different now than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. It’s sort of exciting, and sort of scary. And hold onto your hat, because it’s going to keep changing—even faster than it already has been.
The good news is, maybe there won’t be too many big surprises, because the future will be shaped by trends that have already been set in motion. According to Singularity University co-founder and XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, a lot of these trends are unstoppable—but they’re also pretty predictable.
At SU’s Global Summit, taking place this week in San Francisco, Diamandis outlined some of the meta-trends he believes are key to how we’ll live our lives and do business in the (not too distant) future.
Increasing Global Abundance
Resources are becoming more abundant all over the world, and fewer people are seeing their lives limited by scarcity. “It’s hard for us to realize this as we see crisis news, but what people have access to is more abundant than ever before,” Diamandis said. Products and services are becoming cheaper and thus available to more people, and having more resources then enables people to create more, thus producing even more resources—and so on.
Need evidence? The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty is currently lower than it’s ever been. The average human life expectancy is longer than it’s ever been. The costs of day-to-day needs like food, energy, transportation, and communications are on a downward trend.
Take energy. In most of the world, though its costs are decreasing, it’s still a fairly precious commodity; we turn off our lights and our air conditioners when we don’t need them (ideally, both to save money and to avoid wastefulness). But the cost of solar energy has plummeted, and the storage capacity of batteries is improving, and solar technology is steadily getting more efficient. Bids for new solar power plants in the past few years have broken each other’s records for lowest cost per kilowatt hour.
“We’re not far from a penny per kilowatt hour for energy from the sun,” Diamandis said. “And if you’ve got energy, you’ve got water.” Desalination, for one, will be much more widely feasible once the cost of the energy needed for it drops.
Knowledge is perhaps the most crucial resource that’s going from scarce to abundant. All the world’s knowledge is now at the fingertips of anyone who has a mobile phone and an internet connection—and the number of people connected is only going to grow. “Everyone is being connected at gigabit connection speeds, and this will be transformative,” Diamandis said. “We’re heading towards a world where anyone can know anything at any time.”
Increasing Capital Abundance
It’s not just goods, services, and knowledge that are becoming more plentiful. Money is, too—particularly money for business. “There’s more and more capital available to invest in companies,” Diamandis said. As a result, more people are getting the chance to bring their world-changing ideas to life.
Venture capital investments reached a new record of $130 billion in 2018, up from $84 billion in 2017—and that’s just in the US. Globally, VC funding grew 21 percent from 2017 to a total of $207 billion in 2018.
Through crowdfunding, any person in any part of the world can present their idea and ask for funding. That funding can come in the form of a loan, an equity investment, a reward, or an advanced purchase of the proposed product or service. “Crowdfunding means it doesn’t matter where you live, if you have a great idea you can get it funded by people from all over the world,” Diamandis said.
All this is making a difference; the number of unicorns—privately-held startups valued at over $1 billion—currently stands at an astounding 360.
One of the reasons why the world is getting better, Diamandis believes, is because entrepreneurs are trying more crazy ideas—not ideas that are reasonable or predictable or linear, but ideas that seem absurd at first, then eventually end up changing the world.
Everyone and Everything, Connected
As already noted, knowledge is becoming abundant thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones and wireless internet; everyone’s getting connected. In the next decade or sooner, connectivity will reach every person in the world. 5G is being tested and offered for the first time this year, and companies like Google, SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon are racing to develop global satellite internet constellations, whether by launching 12,000 satellites, as SpaceX’s Starlink is doing, or by floating giant balloons into the stratosphere like Google’s Project Loon.
“We’re about to reach a period of time in the next four to six years where we’re going from half the world’s people being connected to the whole world being connected,” Diamandis said. “What happens when 4.2 billion new minds come online? They’re all going to want to create, discover, consume, and invent.”
And it doesn’t stop at connecting people. Things are becoming more connected too. “By 2020 there will be over 20 billion connected devices and more than one trillion sensors,” Diamandis said. By 2030, those projections go up to 500 billion and 100 trillion. Think about it: there’s home devices like refrigerators, TVs, dishwashers, digital assistants, and even toasters. There’s city infrastructure, from stoplights to cameras to public transportation like buses or bike sharing. It’s all getting smart and connected.
Soon we’ll be adding autonomous cars to the mix, and an unimaginable glut of data to go with them. Every turn, every stop, every acceleration will be a data point. Some cars already collect over 25 gigabytes of data per hour, Diamandis said, and car data is projected to generate $750 billion of revenue by 2030.
“You’re going to start asking questions that were never askable before, because the data is now there to be mined,” he said.
Increasing Human Intelligence
Indeed, we’ll have data on everything we could possibly want data on. We’ll also soon have what Diamandis calls just-in-time education, where 5G combined with artificial intelligence and augmented reality will allow you to learn something in the moment you need it. “It’s not going and studying, it’s where your AR glasses show you how to do an emergency surgery, or fix something, or program something,” he said.
We’re also at the beginning of massive investments in research working towards connecting our brains to the cloud. “Right now, everything we think, feel, hear, or learn is confined in our synaptic connections,” Diamandis said. What will it look like when that’s no longer the case? Companies like Kernel, Neuralink, Open Water, Facebook, Google, and IBM are all investing billions of dollars into brain-machine interface research.
Increasing Human Longevity
One of the most important problems we’ll use our newfound intelligence to solve is that of our own health and mortality, making 100 years old the new 60—then eventually, 120 or 150.
“Our bodies were never evolved to live past age 30,” Diamandis said. “You’d go into puberty at age 13 and have a baby, and by the time you were 26 your baby was having a baby.”
Seeing how drastically our lifespans have changed over time makes you wonder what aging even is; is it natural, or is it a disease? Many companies are treating it as one, and using technologies like senolytics, CRISPR, and stem cell therapy to try to cure it. Scaffolds of human organs can now be 3D printed then populated with the recipient’s own stem cells so that their bodies won’t reject the transplant. Companies are testing small-molecule pharmaceuticals that can stop various forms of cancer.
“We don’t truly know what’s going on inside our bodies—but we can,” Diamandis said. “We’re going to be able to track our bodies and find disease at stage zero.”
The world is far from perfect—that’s not hard to see. What’s less obvious but just as true is that we’re living in an amazing time. More people are coming together, and they have more access to information, and that information moves faster, than ever before.
“I don’t think any of us understand how fast the world is changing,” Diamandis said. “Most people are fearful about the future. But we should be excited about the tools we now have to solve the world’s problems.”
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Elon Musk grabbed a lot of attention with his July 16 announcement that his company Neuralink plans to implant electrodes into the brains of people with paralysis by next year. Their first goal is to create assistive technology to help people who can’t move or are unable to communicate.
If you haven’t been paying attention, brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that allow people to control robotic arms with their thoughts might sound like science fiction. But science and engineering efforts have already turned it into reality.
In a few research labs around the world, scientists and physicians have been implanting devices into the brains of people who have lost the ability to control their arms or hands for over a decade. In our own research group at the University of Pittsburgh, we’ve enabled people with paralyzed arms and hands to control robotic arms that allow them to grasp and move objects with relative ease. They can even experience touch-like sensations from their own hand when the robot grasps objects.
At its core, a BMI is pretty straightforward. In your brain, microscopic cells called neurons are sending signals back and forth to each other all the time. Everything you think, do and feel as you interact with the world around you is the result of the activity of these 80 billion or so neurons.
If you implant a tiny wire very close to one of these neurons, you can record the electrical activity it generates and send it to a computer. Record enough of these signals from the right area of the brain and it becomes possible to control computers, robots, or anything else you might want, simply by thinking about moving. But doing this comes with tremendous technical challenges, especially if you want to record from hundreds or thousands of neurons.
What Neuralink Is Bringing to the Table
Elon Musk founded Neuralink in 2017, aiming to address these challenges and raise the bar for implanted neural interfaces.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s system is the breadth and depth of their approach. Building a BMI is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring expertise in electrode design and microfabrication, implantable materials, surgical methods, electronics, packaging, neuroscience, algorithms, medicine, regulatory issues, and more. Neuralink has created a team that spans most, if not all, of these areas.
With all of this expertise, Neuralink is undoubtedly moving the field forward, and improving their technology rapidly. Individually, many of the components of their system represent significant progress along predictable paths. For example, their electrodes, that they call threads, are very small and flexible; many researchers have tried to harness those properties to minimize the chance the brain’s immune response would reject the electrodes after insertion. Neuralink has also developed high-performance miniature electronics, another focus area for labs working on BMIs.
Often overlooked in academic settings, however, is how an entire system would be efficiently implanted in a brain.
Neuralink’s BMI requires brain surgery. This is because implanted electrodes that are in intimate contact with neurons will always outperform non-invasive electrodes where neurons are far away from the electrodes sitting outside the skull. So, a critical question becomes how to minimize the surgical challenges around getting the device into a brain.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s announcement was that they created a 3,000-electrode neural interface where electrodes could be implanted at a rate of between 30 and 200 per minute. Each thread of electrodes is implanted by a sophisticated surgical robot that essentially acts like a sewing machine. This all happens while specifically avoiding blood vessels that blanket the surface of the brain. The robotics and imaging that enable this feat, with tight integration to the entire device, is striking.
Neuralink has thought through the challenge of developing a clinically viable BMI from beginning to end in a way that few groups have done, though they acknowledge that many challenges remain as they work towards getting this technology into human patients in the clinic.
Figuring Out What More Electrodes Gets You
The quest for implantable devices with thousands of electrodes is not only the domain of private companies. DARPA, the NIH BRAIN Initiative, and international consortiums are working on neurotechnologies for recording and stimulating in the brain with goals of tens of thousands of electrodes. But what might scientists do with the information from 1,000, 3,000, or maybe even 100,000 neurons?
At some level, devices with more electrodes might not actually be necessary to have a meaningful impact in people’s lives. Effective control of computers for access and communication, of robotic limbs to grasp and move objects as well as of paralyzed muscles is already happening—in people. And it has been for a number of years.
Since the 1990s, the Utah Array, which has just 100 electrodes and is manufactured by Blackrock Microsystems, has been a critical device in neuroscience and clinical research. This electrode array is FDA-cleared for temporary neural recording. Several research groups, including our own, have implanted Utah Arrays in people that lasted multiple years.
Currently, the biggest constraints are related to connectors, electronics, and system-level engineering, not the implanted electrode itself—although increasing the electrodes’ lifespan to more than five years would represent a significant advance. As those technical capabilities improve, it might turn out that the ability to accurately control computers and robots is limited more by scientists’ understanding of what the neurons are saying—that is, the neural code—than by the number of electrodes on the device.
Even the most capable implanted system, and maybe the most capable devices researchers can reasonably imagine, might fall short of the goal of actually augmenting skilled human performance. Nevertheless, Neuralink’s goal of creating better BMIs has the potential to improve the lives of people who can’t move or are unable to communicate. Right now, Musk’s vision of using BMIs to meld physical brains and intelligence with artificial ones is no more than a dream.
So, what does the future look like for Neuralink and other groups creating implantable BMIs? Devices with more electrodes that last longer and are connected to smaller and more powerful wireless electronics are essential. Better devices themselves, however, are insufficient. Continued public and private investment in companies and academic research labs, as well as innovative ways for these groups to work together to share technologies and data, will be necessary to truly advance scientists’ understanding of the brain and deliver on the promise of BMIs to improve peoples’ lives.
While researchers need to keep the future societal implications of advanced neurotechnologies in mind—there’s an essential role for ethicists and regulation—BMIs could be truly transformative as they help more people overcome limitations caused by injury or disease in the brain and body.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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