Tag Archives: invention
Brain-machine interface enthusiasts often gush about “closing the loop.” It’s for good reason. On the implant level, it means engineering smarter probes that only activate when they detect faulty electrical signals in brain circuits. Elon Musk’s Neuralink—among other players—are readily pursuing these bi-directional implants that both measure and zap the brain.
But to scientists laboring to restore functionality to paralyzed patients or amputees, “closing the loop” has broader connotations. Building smart mind-controlled robotic limbs isn’t enough; the next frontier is restoring sensation in offline body parts. To truly meld biology with machine, the robotic appendage has to “feel one” with the body.
This month, two studies from Science Robotics describe complementary ways forward. In one, scientists from the University of Utah paired a state-of-the-art robotic arm—the DEKA LUKE—with electrically stimulating remaining nerves above the attachment point. Using artificial zaps to mimic the skin’s natural response patterns to touch, the team dramatically increased the patient’s ability to identify objects. Without much training, he could easily discriminate between the small and large and the soft and hard while blindfolded and wearing headphones.
In another, a team based at the National University of Singapore took inspiration from our largest organ, the skin. Mimicking the neural architecture of biological skin, the engineered “electronic skin” not only senses temperature, pressure, and humidity, but continues to function even when scraped or otherwise damaged. Thanks to artificial nerves that transmit signals far faster than our biological ones, the flexible e-skin shoots electrical data 1,000 times quicker than human nerves.
Together, the studies marry neuroscience and robotics. Representing the latest push towards closing the loop, they show that integrating biological sensibilities with robotic efficiency isn’t impossible (super-human touch, anyone?). But more immediately—and more importantly—they’re beacons of hope for patients who hope to regain their sense of touch.
For one of the participants, a late middle-aged man with speckled white hair who lost his forearm 13 years ago, superpowers, cyborgs, or razzle-dazzle brain implants are the last thing on his mind. After a barrage of emotionally-neutral scientific tests, he grasped his wife’s hand and felt her warmth for the first time in over a decade. His face lit up in a blinding smile.
That’s what scientists are working towards.
The human skin is a marvelous thing. Not only does it rapidly detect a multitude of sensations—pressure, temperature, itch, pain, humidity—its wiring “binds” disparate signals together into a sensory fingerprint that helps the brain identify what it’s feeling at any moment. Thanks to over 45 miles of nerves that connect the skin, muscles, and brain, you can pick up a half-full coffee cup, knowing that it’s hot and sloshing, while staring at your computer screen. Unfortunately, this complexity is also why restoring sensation is so hard.
The sensory electrode array implanted in the participant’s arm. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019)..
However, complex neural patterns can also be a source of inspiration. Previous cyborg arms are often paired with so-called “standard” sensory algorithms to induce a basic sense of touch in the missing limb. Here, electrodes zap residual nerves with intensities proportional to the contact force: the harder the grip, the stronger the electrical feedback. Although seemingly logical, that’s not how our skin works. Every time the skin touches or leaves an object, its nerves shoot strong bursts of activity to the brain; while in full contact, the signal is much lower. The resulting electrical strength curve resembles a “U.”
The LUKE hand. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019).
The team decided to directly compare standard algorithms with one that better mimics the skin’s natural response. They fitted a volunteer with a robotic LUKE arm and implanted an array of electrodes into his forearm—right above the amputation—to stimulate the remaining nerves. When the team activated different combinations of electrodes, the man reported sensations of vibration, pressure, tapping, or a sort of “tightening” in his missing hand. Some combinations of zaps also made him feel as if he were moving the robotic arm’s joints.
In all, the team was able to carefully map nearly 120 sensations to different locations on the phantom hand, which they then overlapped with contact sensors embedded in the LUKE arm. For example, when the patient touched something with his robotic index finger, the relevant electrodes sent signals that made him feel as if he were brushing something with his own missing index fingertip.
Standard sensory feedback already helped: even with simple electrical stimulation, the man could tell apart size (golf versus lacrosse ball) and texture (foam versus plastic) while blindfolded and wearing noise-canceling headphones. But when the team implemented two types of neuromimetic feedback—electrical zaps that resembled the skin’s natural response—his performance dramatically improved. He was able to identify objects much faster and more accurately under their guidance. Outside the lab, he also found it easier to cook, feed, and dress himself. He could even text on his phone and complete routine chores that were previously too difficult, such as stuffing an insert into a pillowcase, hammering a nail, or eating hard-to-grab foods like eggs and grapes.
The study shows that the brain more readily accepts biologically-inspired electrical patterns, making it a relatively easy—but enormously powerful—upgrade that seamlessly integrates the robotic arms with the host. “The functional and emotional benefits…are likely to be further enhanced with long-term use, and efforts are underway to develop a portable take-home system,” the team said.
E-Skin Revolution: Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES)
Flexible electronic skins also aren’t new, but the second team presented an upgrade in both speed and durability while retaining multiplexed sensory capabilities.
Starting from a combination of rubber, plastic, and silicon, the team embedded over 200 sensors onto the e-skin, each capable of discerning contact, pressure, temperature, and humidity. They then looked to the skin’s nervous system for inspiration. Our skin is embedded with a dense array of nerve endings that individually transmit different types of sensations, which are integrated inside hubs called ganglia. Compared to having every single nerve ending directly ping data to the brain, this “gather, process, and transmit” architecture rapidly speeds things up.
The team tapped into this biological architecture. Rather than pairing each sensor with a dedicated receiver, ACES sends all sensory data to a single receiver—an artificial ganglion. This setup lets the e-skin’s wiring work as a whole system, as opposed to individual electrodes. Every sensor transmits its data using a characteristic pulse, which allows it to be uniquely identified by the receiver.
The gains were immediate. First was speed. Normally, sensory data from multiple individual electrodes need to be periodically combined into a map of pressure points. Here, data from thousands of distributed sensors can independently go to a single receiver for further processing, massively increasing efficiency—the new e-skin’s transmission rate is roughly 1,000 times faster than that of human skin.
Second was redundancy. Because data from individual sensors are aggregated, the system still functioned even when any individual receptors are damaged, making it far more resilient than previous attempts. Finally, the setup could easily scale up. Although the team only tested the idea with 240 sensors, theoretically the system should work with up to 10,000.
The team is now exploring ways to combine their invention with other material layers to make it water-resistant and self-repairable. As you might’ve guessed, an immediate application is to give robots something similar to complex touch. A sensory upgrade not only lets robots more easily manipulate tools, doorknobs, and other objects in hectic real-world environments, it could also make it easier for machines to work collaboratively with humans in the future (hey Wall-E, care to pass the salt?).
Dexterous robots aside, the team also envisions engineering better prosthetics. When coated onto cyborg limbs, for example, ACES may give them a better sense of touch that begins to rival the human skin—or perhaps even exceed it.
Regardless, efforts that adapt the functionality of the human nervous system to machines are finally paying off, and more are sure to come. Neuromimetic ideas may very well be the link that finally closes the loop.
Image Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering.. Continue reading →
J.C.R. Licklider's proposals for “man-machine symbiosis” led to the invention of the internet Continue reading →
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.
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.
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 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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Development across the entire information technology landscape certainly didn’t slow down this year. From CRISPR babies, to the rapid decline of the crypto markets, to a new robot on Mars, and discovery of subatomic particles that could change modern physics as we know it, there was no shortage of headline-grabbing breakthroughs and discoveries.
As 2018 comes to a close, we can pause and reflect on some of the biggest technology breakthroughs and scientific discoveries that occurred this year.
I reached out to a few Singularity University speakers and faculty across the various technology domains we cover asking what they thought the biggest breakthrough was in their area of expertise. The question posed was:
“What, in your opinion, was the biggest development in your area of focus this year? Or, what was the breakthrough you were most surprised by in 2018?”
I can share that for me, hands down, the most surprising development I came across in 2018 was learning that a publicly-traded company that was briefly valued at over $1 billion, and has over 12,000 employees and contractors spread around the world, has no physical office space and the entire business is run and operated from inside an online virtual world. This is Ready Player One stuff happening now.
For the rest, here’s what our experts had to say.
Dr. Tiffany Vora | Faculty Director and Vice Chair, Digital Biology and Medicine, Singularity University
“That’s easy: CRISPR babies. I knew it was technically possible, and I’ve spent two years predicting it would happen first in China. I knew it was just a matter of time but I failed to predict the lack of oversight, the dubious consent process, the paucity of publicly-available data, and the targeting of a disease that we already know how to prevent and treat and that the children were at low risk of anyway.
I’m not convinced that this counts as a technical breakthrough, since one of the girls probably isn’t immune to HIV, but it sure was a surprise.”
For more, read Dr. Vora’s summary of this recent stunning news from China regarding CRISPR-editing human embryos.
Andrew Fursman | Co-Founder/CEO 1Qbit, Faculty, Quantum Computing, Singularity University
“There were two last-minute holiday season surprise quantum computing funding and technology breakthroughs:
First, right before the government shutdown, one priority legislative accomplishment will provide $1.2 billion in quantum computing research over the next five years. Second, there’s the rise of ions as a truly viable, scalable quantum computing architecture.”
*Read this Gizmodo profile on an exciting startup in the space to learn more about this type of quantum computing
Ramez Naam | Chair, Energy and Environmental Systems, Singularity University
“2018 had plenty of energy surprises. In solar, we saw unsubsidized prices in the sunny parts of the world at just over two cents per kwh, or less than half the price of new coal or gas electricity. In the US southwest and Texas, new solar is also now cheaper than new coal or gas. But even more shockingly, in Germany, which is one of the least sunny countries on earth (it gets less sunlight than Canada) the average bid for new solar in a 2018 auction was less than 5 US cents per kwh. That’s as cheap as new natural gas in the US, and far cheaper than coal, gas, or any other new electricity source in most of Europe.
In fact, it’s now cheaper in some parts of the world to build new solar or wind than to run existing coal plants. Think tank Carbon Tracker calculates that, over the next 10 years, it will become cheaper to build new wind or solar than to operate coal power in most of the world, including specifically the US, most of Europe, and—most importantly—India and the world’s dominant burner of coal, China.
Here comes the sun.”
GLOBAL GRAND CHALLENGES
Darlene Damm | Vice Chair, Faculty, Global Grand Challenges, Singularity University
“In 2018 we saw a lot of areas in the Global Grand Challenges move forward—advancements in robotic farming technology and cultured meat, low-cost 3D printed housing, more sophisticated types of online education expanding to every corner of the world, and governments creating new policies to deal with the ethics of the digital world. These were the areas we were watching and had predicted there would be change.
What most surprised me was to see young people, especially teenagers, start to harness technology in powerful ways and use it as a platform to make their voices heard and drive meaningful change in the world. In 2018 we saw teenagers speak out on a number of issues related to their well-being and launch digital movements around issues such as gun and school safety, global warming and environmental issues. We often talk about the harm technology can cause to young people, but on the flip side, it can be a very powerful tool for youth to start changing the world today and something I hope we see more of in the future.”
Pascal Finette | Chair, Entrepreneurship and Open Innovation, Singularity University
“Without a doubt the rapid and massive adoption of AI, specifically deep learning, across industries, sectors, and organizations. What was a curiosity for most companies at the beginning of the year has quickly made its way into the boardroom and leadership meetings, and all the way down into the innovation and IT department’s agenda. You are hard-pressed to find a mid- to large-sized company today that is not experimenting or implementing AI in various aspects of its business.
On the slightly snarkier side of answering this question: The very rapid decline in interest in blockchain (and cryptocurrencies). The blockchain party was short, ferocious, and ended earlier than most would have anticipated, with a huge hangover for some. The good news—with the hot air dissipated, we can now focus on exploring the unique use cases where blockchain does indeed offer real advantages over centralized approaches.”
*Author note: snark is welcome and appreciated
Hod Lipson | Director, Creative Machines Lab, Columbia University
“The biggest surprise for me this year in robotics was learning dexterity. For decades, roboticists have been trying to understand and imitate dexterous manipulation. We humans seem to be able to manipulate objects with our fingers with incredible ease—imagine sifting through a bunch of keys in the dark, or tossing and catching a cube. And while there has been much progress in machine perception, dexterous manipulation remained elusive.
There seemed to be something almost magical in how we humans can physically manipulate the physical world around us. Decades of research in grasping and manipulation, and millions of dollars spent on robot-hand hardware development, has brought us little progress. But in late 2018, the Berkley OpenAI group demonstrated that this hurdle may finally succumb to machine learning as well. Given 200 years worth of practice, machines learned to manipulate a physical object with amazing fluidity. This might be the beginning of a new age for dexterous robotics.”
Jeremy Howard | Founding Researcher, fast.ai, Founder/CEO, Enlitic, Faculty Data Science, Singularity University
“The biggest development in machine learning this year has been the development of effective natural language processing (NLP).
The New York Times published an article last month titled “Finally, a Machine That Can Finish Your Sentence,” which argued that NLP neural networks have reached a significant milestone in capability and speed of development. The “finishing your sentence” capability mentioned in the title refers to a type of neural network called a “language model,” which is literally a model that learns how to finish your sentences.
Earlier this year, two systems (one, called ELMO, is from the Allen Institute for AI, and the other, called ULMFiT, was developed by me and Sebastian Ruder) showed that such a model could be fine-tuned to dramatically improve the state-of-the-art in nearly every NLP task that researchers study. This work was further developed by OpenAI, which in turn was greatly scaled up by Google Brain, who created a system called BERT which reached human-level performance on some of NLP’s toughest challenges.
Over the next year, expect to see fine-tuned language models used for everything from understanding medical texts to building disruptive social media troll armies.”
Andre Wegner | Founder/CEO Authentise, Chair, Digital Manufacturing, Singularity University
“Most surprising to me was the extent and speed at which the industry finally opened up.
While previously, only few 3D printing suppliers had APIs and knew what to do with them, 2018 saw nearly every OEM (or original equipment manufacturer) enabling data access and, even more surprisingly, shying away from proprietary standards and adopting MTConnect, as stalwarts such as 3D Systems and Stratasys have been. This means that in two to three years, data access to machines will be easy, commonplace, and free. The value will be in what is being done with that data.
Another example of this openness are the seemingly endless announcements of integrated workflows: GE’s announcement with most major software players to enable integrated solutions, EOS’s announcement with Siemens, and many more. It’s clear that all actors in the additive ecosystem have taken a step forward in terms of openness. The result is a faster pace of innovation, particularly in the software and data domains that are crucial to enabling comprehensive digital workflow to drive agile and resilient manufacturing.
I’m more optimistic we’ll achieve that now than I was at the end of 2017.”
SCIENCE AND DISCOVERY
Paul Saffo | Chair, Future Studies, Singularity University, Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Stanford Media-X Research Network
“The most important development in technology this year isn’t a technology, but rather the astonishing science surprises made possible by recent technology innovations. My short list includes the discovery of the “neptmoon”, a Neptune-scale moon circling a Jupiter-scale planet 8,000 lightyears from us; the successful deployment of the Mars InSight Lander a month ago; and the tantalizing ANITA detection (what could be a new subatomic particle which would in turn blow the standard model wide open). The highest use of invention is to support science discovery, because those discoveries in turn lead us to the future innovations that will improve the state of the world—and fire up our imaginations.”
Pablos Holman | Inventor, Hacker, Faculty, Singularity University
“Just five or ten years ago, if you’d asked any of us technologists “What is harder for robots? Eyes, or fingers?” We’d have all said eyes. Robots have extraordinary eyes now, but even in a surgical robot, the fingers are numb and don’t feel anything. Stanford robotics researchers have invented fingertips that can feel, and this will be a kingpin that allows robots to go everywhere they haven’t been yet.”
Nathana Sharma | Blockchain, Policy, Law, and Ethics, Faculty, Singularity University
“2017 was the year of peak blockchain hype. 2018 has been a year of resetting expectations and technological development, even as the broader cryptocurrency markets have faced a winter. It’s now about seeing adoption and applications that people want and need to use rise. An incredible piece of news from December 2018 is that Facebook is developing a cryptocurrency for users to make payments through Whatsapp. That’s surprisingly fast mainstream adoption of this new technology, and indicates how powerful it is.”
Neil Jacobstein | Chair, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Singularity University
“I think one of the most visible improvements in AI was illustrated by the Boston Dynamics Parkour video. This was not due to an improvement in brushless motors, accelerometers, or gears. It was due to improvements in AI algorithms and training data. To be fair, the video released was cherry-picked from numerous attempts, many of which ended with a crash. However, the fact that it could be accomplished at all in 2018 was a real win for both AI and robotics.”
Divya Chander | Chair, Neuroscience, Singularity University
“2018 ushered in a new era of exponential trends in non-invasive brain modulation. Changing behavior or restoring function takes on a new meaning when invasive interfaces are no longer needed to manipulate neural circuitry. The end of 2018 saw two amazing announcements: the ability to grow neural organoids (mini-brains) in a dish from neural stem cells that started expressing electrical activity, mimicking the brain function of premature babies, and the first (known) application of CRISPR to genetically alter two fetuses grown through IVF. Although this was ostensibly to provide genetic resilience against HIV infections, imagine what would happen if we started tinkering with neural circuitry and intelligence.”
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For big companies, success is a blessing and a curse. You don’t get big without doing something (or many things) very right. It might start with an invention or service the world didn’t know it needed. Your product takes off, and growth brings a whole new set of logistical challenges. Delivering consistent quality, hiring the right team, establishing a strong culture, tapping into new markets, satisfying shareholders. The list goes on.
Eventually, however, what made you successful also makes you resistant to change.
You’ve built a machine for one purpose, and it’s running smoothly, but what about retooling that machine to make something new? Not so easy. Leaders of big companies know there is no future for their organizations without change. And yet, they struggle to drive it.
In their new book, Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, Kyle Nel, Nathan Furr, and Thomas Ramsøy aim to deliver a roadmap for corporate transformation.
The book focuses on practical tools that have worked in big companies to break down behavioral and cognitive biases, envision radical futures, and run experiments. These include using science fiction and narrative to see ahead and adopting better measures of success for new endeavors.
A thread throughout is how to envision a new future and move into that future.
We’re limited by the bubbles in which we spend the most time—the corporate bubble, the startup bubble, the nonprofit bubble. The mutually beneficial convergence of complementary bubbles, then, can be a powerful tool for kickstarting transformation. The views and experiences of one partner can challenge the accepted wisdom of the other; resources can flow into newly co-created visions and projects; and connections can be made that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
The authors call such alliances uncommon partners. In the following excerpt from the book, Made In Space, a startup building 3D printers for space, helps Lowe’s explore an in-store 3D printing system, and Lowe’s helps Made In Space expand its vision and focus.
In a dingy conference room at NASA, five prototypical nerds, smelling of Thai food, laid out the path to printing satellites in space and buildings on distant planets. At the end of their four-day marathon, they emerged with an artifact trail that began with early prototypes for the first 3D printer on the International Space Station and ended in the additive-manufacturing future—a future much bigger than 3D printing.
In the additive-manufacturing future, we will view everything as transient, or capable of being repurposed into new things. Rather than throwing away a soda bottle or a bent nail, we will simply reprocess these things into a new hinge for the fence we are building or a light switch plate for the tool shed. Indeed, we might not even go buy bricks for the tool shed, but instead might print them from impurities pulled from the air and the dirt beneath our feet. Such a process would both capture carbon in the air to make the bricks and avoid all the carbon involved in making and then transporting traditional bricks to your house.
If it all sounds a little too science fiction, think again. Lowe’s has already been honored as a Champion of Change by the US government for its prototype system to recycle plastic (e.g., plastic bags and bottles). The future may be closer than you have imagined. But to get there, Lowe’s didn’t work alone. It had to work with uncommon partners to create the future.
Uncommon partners are the types of organizations you might not normally work with, but which can greatly help you create radical new futures. Increasingly, as new technologies emerge and old industries converge, companies are finding that working independently to create all the necessary capabilities to enter new industries or create new technologies is costly, risky, and even counterproductive. Instead, organizations are finding that they need to collaborate with uncommon partners as an ecosystem to cocreate the future together. Nathan [Furr] and his colleague at INSEAD, Andrew Shipilov, call this arrangement an adaptive ecosystem strategy and described how companies such as Lowe’s, Samsung, Mastercard, and others are learning to work differently with partners and to work with different kinds of partners to more effectively discover new opportunities. For Lowe’s, an adaptive ecosystem strategy working with uncommon partners forms the foundation of capturing new opportunities and transforming the company. Despite its increased agility, Lowe’s can’t be (and shouldn’t become) an independent additive-manufacturing, robotics-using, exosuit-building, AR-promoting, fill-in-the-blank-what’s-next-ing company in addition to being a home improvement company. Instead, Lowe’s applies an adaptive ecosystem strategy to find the uncommon partners with which it can collaborate in new territory.
To apply the adaptive ecosystem strategy with uncommon partners, start by identifying the technical or operational components required for a particular focus area (e.g., exosuits) and then sort these components into three groups. First, there are the components that are emerging organically without any assistance from the orchestrator—the leader who tries to bring together the adaptive ecosystem. Second, there are the elements that might emerge, with encouragement and support. Third are the elements that won’t happen unless you do something about it. In an adaptive ecosystem strategy, you can create regular partnerships for the first two elements—those already emerging or that might emerge—if needed. But you have to create the elements in the final category (those that won’t emerge) either with an uncommon partner or by yourself.
For example, when Lowe’s wanted to explore the additive-manufacturing space, it began a search for an uncommon partner to provide the missing but needed capabilities. Unfortunately, initial discussions with major 3D printing companies proved disappointing. The major manufacturers kept trying to sell Lowe’s 3D printers. But the vision our group had created with science fiction was not for vendors to sell Lowe’s a printer, but for partners to help the company build a system—something that would allow customers to scan, manipulate, print, and eventually recycle additive-manufacturing objects. Every time we discussed 3D printing systems with these major companies, they responded that they could do it and then tried to sell printers. When Carin Watson, one of the leading lights at Singularity University, introduced us to Made In Space (a company being incubated in Singularity University’s futuristic accelerator), we discovered an uncommon partner that understood what it meant to cocreate a system.
Initially, Made In Space had been focused on simply getting 3D printing to work in space, where you can’t rely on gravity, you can’t send up a technician if the machine breaks, and you can’t release noxious fumes into cramped spacecraft quarters. But after the four days in the conference room going over the comic for additive manufacturing, Made In Space and Lowe’s emerged with a bigger vision. The company helped lay out an artifact trail that included not only the first printer on the International Space Station but also printing system services in Lowe’s stores.
Of course, the vision for an additive-manufacturing future didn’t end there. It also reshaped Made In Space’s trajectory, encouraging the startup, during those four days in a NASA conference room, to design a bolder future. Today, some of its bold projects include the Archinaut, a system that enables satellites to build themselves while in space, a direction that emerged partly from the science fiction narrative we created around additive manufacturing.
In summary, uncommon partners help you succeed by providing you with the capabilities you shouldn’t be building yourself, as well as with fresh insights. You also help uncommon partners succeed by creating new opportunities from which they can prosper.
Helping Uncommon Partners Prosper
Working most effectively with uncommon partners can require a shift from more familiar outsourcing or partnership relationships. When working with uncommon partners, you are trying to cocreate the future, which entails a great deal more uncertainty. Because you can’t specify outcomes precisely, agreements are typically less formal than in other types of relationships, and they operate under the provisions of shared vision and trust more than binding agreement clauses. Moreover, your goal isn’t to extract all the value from the relationship. Rather, you need to find a way to share the value.
Ideally, your uncommon partners should be transformed for the better by the work you do. For example, Lowe’s uncommon partner developing the robotics narrative was a small startup called Fellow Robots. Through their work with Lowe’s, Fellow Robots transformed from a small team focused on a narrow application of robotics (which was arguably the wrong problem) to a growing company developing a very different and valuable set of capabilities: putting cutting-edge technology on top of the old legacy systems embedded at the core of most companies. Working with Lowe’s allowed Fellow Robots to discover new opportunities, and today Fellow Robots works with retailers around the world, including BevMo! and Yamada. Ultimately, working with uncommon partners should be transformative for both of you, so focus more on creating a bigger pie than on how you are going to slice up a smaller pie.
The above excerpt appears in the new book Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future by Kyle Nel, Nathan Furr, and Thomas Ramsøy, published by Harvard Business Review Press.
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