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Should you go to graduate school? If so, why? If not, what are your alternatives? Millions of young adults across the globe—and their parents and mentors—find themselves asking these questions every year.
Earlier this month, I explored how exponential technologies are rising to meet the needs of the rapidly changing workforce.
In this blog, I’ll dive into a highly effective way to build the business acumen and skills needed to make the most significant impact in these exponential times.
To start, let’s dive into the value of graduate school versus apprenticeship—especially during this time of extraordinarily rapid growth, and the micro-diversification of careers.
The True Value of an MBA
All graduate schools are not created equal.
For complex technical trades like medicine, engineering, and law, formal graduate-level training provides a critical foundation for safe, ethical practice (until these trades are fully augmented by artificial intelligence and automation…).
For the purposes of today’s blog, let’s focus on the value of a Master in Business Administration (MBA) degree, compared to acquiring your business acumen through various forms of apprenticeship.
The Waning of Business Degrees
Ironically, business schools are facing a tough business problem. The rapid rate of technological change, a booming job market, and the digitization of education are chipping away at the traditional graduate-level business program.
The data speaks for itself.
The Decline of Graduate School Admissions
Enrollment in two-year, full-time MBA programs in the US fell by more than one-third from 2010 to 2016.
While in previous years, top business schools (e.g. Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton) were safe from the decrease in applications, this year, they also felt the waning interest in MBA programs.
Harvard Business School: 4.5 percent decrease in applications, the school’s biggest drop since 2005.
Wharton: 6.7 percent decrease in applications.
Stanford Graduate School: 4.6 percent decrease in applications.
Another signal of change began unfolding over the past week. You may have read news headlines about an emerging college admissions scam, which implicates highly selective US universities, sports coaches, parents, and students in a conspiracy to game the undergraduate admissions process.
Already, students are filing multibillion-dollar civil lawsuits arguing that the scheme has devalued their degrees or denied them a fair admissions opportunity.
MBA Graduates in the Workforce
To meet today’s business needs, startups and massive companies alike are increasingly hiring technologists, developers, and engineers in place of the MBA graduates they may have preferentially hired in the past.
While 85 percent of US employers expect to hire MBA graduates this year (a decrease from 91 percent in 2017), 52 percent of employers worldwide expect to hire graduates with a master’s in data analytics (an increase from 35 percent last year).
We’re also seeing the waning of MBA degree holders at the CEO level.
For decades, an MBA was the hallmark of upward mobility towards the C-suite of top companies.
But as exponential technologies permeate not only products but every part of the supply chain—from manufacturing and shipping to sales, marketing and customer service—that trend is changing by necessity.
Looking at the Harvard Business Review’s Top 100 CEOs in 2018 list, more CEOs on the list held engineering degrees than MBAs (34 held engineering degrees, while 32 held MBAs).
There’s much more to leading innovative companies than an advanced business degree.
How Are Schools Responding?
With disruption to the advanced business education system already here, some business schools are applying notes from their own innovation classes to brace for change.
Over the past half-decade, we’ve seen schools with smaller MBA programs shut their doors in favor of advanced degrees with more specialization. This directly responds to market demand for skills in data science, supply chain, and manufacturing.
Some degrees resemble the precise skills training of technical trades. Others are very much in line with the apprenticeship models we’ll explore next.
Regardless, this new specialization strategy is working and attracting more new students. Over the past decade (2006 to 2016), enrollment in specialized graduate business programs doubled.
Higher education is also seeing a preference shift toward for-profit trade schools, like coding boot camps. This shift is one of several forces pushing universities to adopt skill-specific advanced degrees.
But some schools are slow to adapt, raising the question: how and when will these legacy programs be disrupted? A survey of over 170 business school deans around the world showed that many programs are operating at a loss.
But if these schools are world-class business institutions, as advertised, why do they keep the doors open even while they lose money? The surveyed deans revealed an important insight: they keep the degree program open because of the program’s prestige.
Why Go to Business School?
Shorthand Credibility, Cognitive Biases, and Prestige
Regardless of what knowledge a person takes away from graduate school, attending one of the world’s most rigorous and elite programs gives grads external validation.
With over 55 percent of MBA applicants applying to just 6 percent of graduate business schools, we have a clear cognitive bias toward the perceived elite status of certain universities.
To the outside world, thanks to the power of cognitive biases, an advanced degree is credibility shorthand for your capabilities.
Simply passing through a top school’s filtration system means that you had some level of abilities and merits.
And startup success statistics tend to back up that perceived enhanced capability. Let’s take, for example, universities with the most startup unicorn founders (see the figure below).
When you consider the 320+ unicorn startups around the world today, these numbers become even more impressive. Stanford’s 18 unicorn companies account for over 5 percent of global unicorns, and Harvard is responsible for producing just under 5 percent.
Combined, just these two universities (out of over 5,000 in the US, and thousands more around the world) account for 1 in 10 of the billion-dollar private companies in the world.
By the numbers, the prestigious reputation of these elite business programs has a firm basis in current innovation success.
While prestige may be inherent to the degree earned by graduates from these business programs, the credibility boost from holding one of these degrees is not a guaranteed path to success in the business world.
For example, you might expect that the Harvard School of Business or Stanford Graduate School of Business would come out on top when tallying up the alma maters of Fortune 500 CEOs.
It turns out that the University of Wisconsin-Madison leads the business school pack with 14 CEOs to Harvard’s 12. Beyond prestige, the success these elite business programs see translates directly into cultivating unmatched networks and relationships.
Graduate schools—particularly at the upper echelon—are excellent at attracting sharp students.
At an elite business school, if you meet just five to ten people with extraordinary skill sets, personalities, ideas, or networks, then you have returned your $200,000 education investment.
It’s no coincidence that some 40 percent of Silicon Valley venture capitalists are alumni of either Harvard or Stanford.
From future investors to advisors, friends, and potential business partners, relationships are critical to an entrepreneur’s success.
As we saw above, graduate business degree programs are melting away in the current wave of exponential change.
With an increasing $1.5 trillion in student debt, there must be a more impactful alternative to attending graduate school for those starting their careers.
When I think about the most important skills I use today as an entrepreneur, writer, and strategic thinker, they didn’t come from my decade of graduate school at Harvard or MIT… they came from my experiences building real technologies and companies, and working with mentors.
Apprenticeship comes in a variety of forms; here, I’ll cover three top-of-mind approaches:
Real-world business acumen via startup accelerators
A direct apprenticeship model
The 6 D’s of mentorship
Startup Accelerators and Business Practicum
Let’s contrast the shrinking interest in MBA programs with applications to a relatively new model of business education: startup accelerators.
Startup accelerators are short-term (typically three to six months), cohort-based programs focusing on providing startup founders with the resources (capital, mentorship, relationships, and education) needed to refine their entrepreneurial acumen.
While graduate business programs have been condensing, startup accelerators are alive, well, and expanding rapidly.
In the 10 years from 2005 (when Paul Graham founded Y Combinator) through 2015, the number of startup accelerators in the US increased by more than tenfold.
The increase in startup accelerator activity hints at a larger trend: our best and brightest business minds are opting to invest their time and efforts in obtaining hands-on experience, creating tangible value for themselves and others, rather than diving into the theory often taught in business school classrooms.
The “Strike Force” Model
The Strike Force is my elite team of young entrepreneurs who work directly with me across all of my companies, travel by my side, sit in on every meeting with me, and help build businesses that change the world.
Previous Strike Force members have gone on to launch successful companies, including Bold Capital Partners, my $250 million venture capital firm.
Strike Force is an apprenticeship for the next generation of exponential entrepreneurs.
To paraphrase my good friend Tony Robbins: If you want to short-circuit the video game, find someone who’s been there and done that and is now doing something you want to one day do.
Every year, over 500,000 apprentices in the US follow this precise template. These apprentices are learning a craft they wish to master, under the mentorship of experts (skilled metal workers, bricklayers, medical technicians, electricians, and more) who have already achieved the desired result.
What if we more readily applied this model to young adults with aspirations of creating massive value through the vehicles of entrepreneurship and innovation?
For the established entrepreneur: How can you bring young entrepreneurs into your organization to create more value for your company, while also passing on your ethos and lessons learned to the next generation?
For the young, driven millennial: How can you find your mentor and convince him or her to take you on as an apprentice? What value can you create for this person in exchange for their guidance and investment in your professional development?
The 6 D’s of Mentorship
In my last blog on education, I shared how mobile device and internet penetration will transform adult literacy and basic education. Mobile phones and connectivity already create extraordinary value for entrepreneurs and young professionals looking to take their business acumen and skill set to the next level.
For all of human history up until the last decade or so, if you wanted to learn from the best and brightest in business, leadership, or strategy, you either needed to search for a dated book that they wrote at the local library or bookstore, or you had to be lucky enough to meet that person for a live conversation.
Now you can access the mentorship of just about any thought leader on the planet, at any time, for free.
Thanks to the power of the internet, mentorship has digitized, demonetized, dematerialized, and democratized.
What do you want to learn about?
Investing? Leadership? Technology? Marketing? Project management?
You can access a near-infinite stream of cutting-edge tools, tactics, and lessons from thousands of top performers from nearly every field—instantaneously, and for free.
For example, every one of Warren Buffett’s letters to his Berkshire Hathaway investors over the past 40 years is available for free on a device that fits in your pocket.
The rise of audio—particularly podcasts and audiobooks—is another underestimated driving force away from traditional graduate business programs and toward apprenticeships.
Over 28 million podcast episodes are available for free. Once you identify the strong signals in the noise, you’re still left with thousands of hours of long-form podcast conversation from which to learn valuable lessons.
Whenever and wherever you want, you can learn from the world’s best. In the future, mentorship and apprenticeship will only become more personalized. Imagine accessing a high-fidelity, AI-powered avatar of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Arthur C. Clarke (one of my early mentors) to help guide you through your career.
Virtual mentorship and coaching are powerful education forces that are here to stay.
Bringing It All Together
The education system is rapidly changing. Traditional master’s programs for business are ebbing away in the tides of exponential technologies. Apprenticeship models are reemerging as an effective way to train tomorrow’s leaders.
In a future blog, I’ll revisit the concept of apprenticeships and other effective business school alternatives.
If you are a young, ambitious entrepreneur (or the parent of one), remember that you live in the most abundant time ever in human history to refine your craft.
Right now, you have access to world-class mentorship and cutting-edge best-practices—literally in the palm of your hand. What will you do with this extraordinary power?
Abundance-Digital Online Community: I’ve created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance-Digital. Abundance-Digital is my ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs – those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.
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When you think of trends that might be shaping the future, the first things that come to mind probably have something to do with technology: Robots taking over jobs. Artificial intelligence advancing and proliferating. 5G making everything faster, connected cities making everything easier, data making everything more targeted.
Technology is undoubtedly changing the way we live, and will continue to do so—probably at an accelerating rate—in the near and far future. But there are other trends impacting the course of our lives and societies, too. They’re less obvious, and some have nothing to do with technology.
For the past nine years, entrepreneur and author Rohit Bhargava has read hundreds of articles across all types of publications, tagged and categorized them by topic, funneled frequent topics into broader trends, analyzed those trends, narrowed them down to the most significant ones, and published a book about them as part of his ‘Non-Obvious’ series. He defines a trend as “a unique curated observation of the accelerating present.”
In an encore session at South by Southwest last week (his initial talk couldn’t fit hundreds of people who wanted to attend, so a re-do was scheduled), Bhargava shared details of his creative process, why it’s hard to think non-obviously, the most important trends of this year, and how to make sure they don’t get the best of you.
“Non-obvious thinking is seeing the world in a way other people don’t see it,” Bhargava said. “The secret is curating your ideas.” Curation collects ideas and presents them in a meaningful way; museum curators, for example, decide which works of art to include in an exhibit and how to present them.
For his own curation process, Bhargava uses what he calls the haystack method. Rather than searching for a needle in a haystack, he gathers ‘hay’ (ideas and stories) then uses them to locate and define a ‘needle’ (a trend). “If you spend enough time gathering information, you can put the needle into the middle of the haystack,” he said.
A big part of gathering information is looking for it in places you wouldn’t normally think to look. In his case, that means that on top of reading what everyone else reads—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist—he also buys publications like Modern Farmer, Teen Vogue, and Ink magazine. “It’s like stepping into someone else’s world who’s not like me,” he said. “That’s impossible to do online because everything is personalized.”
Three common barriers make non-obvious thinking hard.
The first is unquestioned assumptions, which are facts or habits we think will never change. When James Dyson first invented the bagless vacuum, he wanted to sell the license to it, but no one believed people would want to spend more money up front on a vacuum then not have to buy bags. The success of Dyson’s business today shows how mistaken that assumption—that people wouldn’t adapt to a product that, at the end of the day, was far more sensible—turned out to be. “Making the wrong basic assumptions can doom you,” Bhargava said.
The second barrier to thinking differently is constant disruption. “Everything is changing as industries blend together,” Bhargava said. “The speed of change makes everyone want everything, all the time, and people expect the impossible.” We’ve come to expect every alternative to be presented to us in every moment, but in many cases this doesn’t serve us well; we’re surrounded by noise and have trouble discerning what’s valuable and authentic.
This ties into the third barrier, which Bhargava calls the believability crisis. “Constant sensationalism makes people skeptical about everything,” he said. With the advent of fake news and technology like deepfakes, we’re in a post-truth, post-fact era, and are in a constant battle to discern what’s real from what’s not.
Bhargava’s efforts to see past these barriers and curate information yielded 15 trends he believes are currently shaping the future. He shared seven of them, along with thoughts on how to stay ahead of the curve.
We tend to trust things we have a history with. “People like nostalgic experiences,” Bhargava said. With tech moving as fast as it is, old things are quickly getting replaced by shinier, newer, often more complex things. But not everyone’s jumping on board—and some who’ve been on board are choosing to jump off in favor of what worked for them in the past.
“We’re turning back to vinyl records and film cameras, deliberately downgrading to phones that only text and call,” Bhargava said. In a period of too much change too fast, people are craving familiarity and dependability. To capitalize on that sentiment, entrepreneurs should seek out opportunities for collaboration—how can you build a product that’s new, but feels reliable and familiar?
Women have increasingly taken on more leadership roles, advanced in the workplace, now own more homes than men, and have higher college graduation rates. That’s all great for us ladies—but not so great for men or, perhaps more generally, for the concept of masculinity.
“Female empowerment is causing confusion about what it means to be a man today,” Bhargava said. “Men don’t know what to do—should they say something? Would that make them an asshole? Should they keep quiet? Would that make them an asshole?”
By encouraging the non-conforming, we can help take some weight off the traditional gender roles, and their corresponding divisions and pressures.
Innovation has become an over-used word, to the point that it’s thrown onto ideas and actions that aren’t really innovative at all. “We innovate by looking at someone else and doing the same,” Bhargava said. If an employee brings a radical idea to someone in a leadership role, in many companies the leadership will say they need a case study before implementing the radical idea—but if it’s already been done, it’s not innovative. “With most innovation what ends up happening is not spectacular failure, but irrelevance,” Bhargava said.
He suggests that rather than being on the defensive, companies should play offense with innovation, and when it doesn’t work “fail as if no one’s watching” (often, no one will be).
Thanks to social media and other technologies, there are a growing number of fabricated things that, despite not being real, influence how we think. “15 percent of all Twitter accounts may be fake, and there are 60 million fake Facebook accounts,” Bhargava said. There are virtual influencers and even virtual performers.
“Don’t hide the artificial ingredients,” Bhargava advised. “Some people are going to pretend it’s all real. We have to be ethical.” The creators of fabrications meant to influence the way people think, or the products they buy, or the decisions they make, should make it crystal-clear that there aren’t living, breathing people behind the avatars.
Another reaction to the fast pace of change these days—and the fast pace of life, for that matter—is that empathy is regaining value and even becoming a driver of innovation. Companies are searching for ways to give people a sense of reassurance. The Tesco grocery brand in the UK has a “relaxed lane” for those who don’t want to feel rushed as they check out. Starbucks opened a “signing store” in Washington DC, and most of its regular customers have learned some sign language.
“Use empathy as a principle to help yourself stand out,” Bhargava said. Besides being a good business strategy, “made with empathy” will ideally promote, well, more empathy, a quality there’s often a shortage of.
From automating factory jobs to flipping burgers to cleaning our floors, robots have firmly taken their place in our day-to-day lives—and they’re not going away anytime soon. “There are more situations with robots than ever before,” Bhargava said. “They’re exploring underwater. They’re concierges at hotels.”
The robot revolution feels intimidating. But Bhargava suggests embracing robots with more curiosity than concern. While they may replace some tasks we don’t want replaced, they’ll also be hugely helpful in multiple contexts, from elderly care to dangerous manual tasks.
Similar to retro trust and enterprise empathy, organizations have started to tell their brand’s story to gain customer loyalty. “Stories give us meaning, and meaning is what we need in order to be able to put the pieces together,” Bhargava said. “Stories give us a way of understanding the world.”
Finding the story behind your business, brand, or even yourself, and sharing it openly, can help you connect with people, be they customers, coworkers, or friends.
Tech’s Ripple Effects
While it may not overtly sound like it, most of the trends Bhargava identified for 2019 are tied to technology, and are in fact a sort of backlash against it. Tech has made us question who to trust, how to innovate, what’s real and what’s fake, how to make the best decisions, and even what it is that makes us human.
By being aware of these trends, sharing them, and having conversations about them, we’ll help shape the way tech continues to be built, and thus the way it impacts us down the road.
Image Credit: Rohit Bhargava by Brian Smale Continue reading →
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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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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Governments are one of the last strongholds of an undigitized, linear sector of humanity, and they are falling behind fast. Apart from their struggle to keep up with private sector digitization, federal governments are in a crisis of trust.
At almost a 60-year low, only 18 percent of Americans reported that they could trust their government “always” or “most of the time” in a recent Pew survey. And the US is not alone. The Edelman Trust Barometer revealed last year that 41 percent of the world population distrust their nations’ governments.
In many cases, the private sector—particularly tech—is driving greater progress in regulation-targeted issues like climate change than state leaders. And as decentralized systems, digital disruption, and private sector leadership take the world by storm, traditional forms of government are beginning to fear irrelevance. However, the fight for exponential governance is not a lost battle.
Early visionaries like Estonia and the UAE are leading the way in digital governance, empowered by a host of converging technologies.
In this article, we will cover three key trends:
Digital governance divorced from land
AI-driven service delivery and regulation
Let’s dive in.
Governments Going Digital
States and their governments have forever been tied to physical territories, and public services are often delivered through brick-and-mortar institutions. Yet public sector infrastructure and services will soon be hosted on servers, detached from land and physical form.
Enter e-Estonia. Perhaps the least expected on a list of innovative nations, this former Soviet Republic-turned digital society is ushering in an age of technological statecraft.
Hosting every digitizable government function on the cloud, Estonia could run its government almost entirely on a server. Starting in the 1990s, Estonia’s government has covered the nation with ultra-high-speed data connectivity, laying down tremendous amounts of fiber optic cable. By 2007, citizens could vote from their living rooms.
With digitized law, Estonia signs policies into effect using cryptographically secure digital signatures, and every stage of the legislative process is available to citizens online.
Citizens’ healthcare registry is run on the blockchain, allowing patients to own and access their own health data from anywhere in the world—X-rays, digital prescriptions, medical case notes—all the while tracking who has access.
Today, most banks have closed their offices, as 99 percent of banking transactions occur online (with 67 percent of citizens regularly using cryptographically secured e-IDs). And by 2020, e-tax will be entirely automated with Estonia’s new e-Tax and Customs Board portal, allowing companies and tax authority to exchange data automatically. And i-Voting, civil courts, land registries, banking, taxes, and countless e-facilities allow citizens to access almost any government service with an electronic ID and personal PIN online.
But perhaps Estonia’s most revolutionary breakthrough is its recently introduced e-residency. With over 30,000 e-residents, Estonia issues electronic IDs to global residents anywhere in the world. While e-residency doesn’t grant territorial rights, over 5,000 e-residents have already established companies within Estonia’s jurisdiction.
After registering companies online, entrepreneurs pay automated taxes—calculated in minutes and transmitted to the Estonian government with unprecedented ease.
The implications of e-residency and digital governance are huge. As with any software, open-source code for digital governance could be copied perfectly at almost zero cost, lowering the barrier to entry for any group or movement seeking statehood.
We may soon see the rise of competitive governing ecosystems, each testing new infrastructure and public e-services to compete with mainstream governments for taxpaying citizens.
And what better to accelerate digital governance than AI?
Legal Compliance Through AI
Just last year, the UAE became the first nation to appoint a State Minister for AI (actually a friend of mine, H.E. Omar Al Olama), aiming to digitize government services and halve annual costs. Among multiple sector initiatives, the UAE hopes to deploy robotic cops by 2030.
Meanwhile, the U.K. now has a Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, and just last month, world leaders convened at the World Government Summit to discuss guidelines for AI’s global regulation.
As AI infuses government services, emerging applications have caught my eye:
Smart Borders and Checkpoints
With biometrics and facial recognition, traditional checkpoints will soon be a thing of the past. Cubic Transportation Systems—the company behind London’s ticketless public transit—is currently developing facial recognition for automated transport barriers. Digital security company Gemalto predicts that biometric systems will soon cross-reference individual faces with passport databases at security checkpoints, and China has already begun to test this at scale. While the Alibaba Ant Financial affiliate’s “Smile to Pay” feature allows users to authenticate digital payments with their faces, nationally overseen facial recognition technologies allow passengers to board planes, employees to enter office spaces, and students to access university halls. With biometric-geared surveillance at national borders, supply chains and international travelers could be tracked automatically, and granted or denied access according to biometrics and cross-referenced databases.
Policing and Security
Leveraging predictive analytics, China is also working to integrate security footage into a national surveillance and data-sharing system. By merging citizen data in its “Police Cloud”—including everything from criminal and medical records, transaction data, travel records and social media—it may soon be able to spot suspects and predict crime in advance. But China is not alone. During London’s Notting Hill Carnival this year, the Metropolitan Police used facial recognition cross-referenced with crime data to pre-identify and track likely offenders.
AI may soon be reaching legal trials as well. UCL computer scientists have developed software capable of predicting courtroom outcomes based on data patterns with unprecedented accuracy. Assessing risk of flight, the National Bureau of Economic Research now uses an algorithm leveraging data from hundreds of thousands of NYC cases to recommend whether defendants should be granted bail. But while AI allows for streamlined governance, the public sector’s power to misuse our data is a valid concern and issues with bias as a result of historical data still remain. As tons of new information is generated about our every move, how do we keep governments accountable?
Enter the blockchain.
Transparent Governance and Accountability
Without doubt, alongside AI, government’s greatest disruptor is the newly-minted blockchain. Relying on a decentralized web of nodes, blockchain can securely verify transactions, signatures, and other information. This makes it essentially impossible for hackers, companies, officials, or even governments to falsify information on the blockchain.
As you’d expect, many government elites are therefore slow to adopt the technology, fearing enforced accountability. But blockchain’s benefits to government may be too great to ignore.
First, blockchain will be a boon for regulatory compliance.
As transactions on a blockchain are irreversible and transparent, uploaded sensor data can’t be corrupted. This means middlemen have no way of falsifying information to shirk regulation, and governments eliminate the need to enforce charges after the fact.
Apply this to carbon pricing, for instance, and emission sensors could fluidly log carbon credits onto a carbon credit blockchain, such as that developed by Ecosphere+. As carbon values are added to the price of everyday products or to corporations’ automated taxes, compliance and transparency would soon be digitally embedded.
Blockchain could also bolster government efforts in cybersecurity. As supercities and nation-states build IoT-connected traffic systems, surveillance networks, and sensor-tracked supply chain management, blockchain is critical in protecting connected devices from cyberattack.
But blockchain will inevitably hold governments accountable as well. By automating and tracking high-risk transactions, blockchain may soon eliminate fraud in cash transfers, public contracts and aid funds. Already, the UN World Food Program has piloted blockchain to manage cash-based transfers and aid flows to Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Blockchain-enabled “smart contracts” could automate exchange of real assets according to publicly visible, pre-programmed conditions, disrupting the $9.5 trillion market of public-sector contracts and public investment projects.
Eliminating leakages and increasing transparency, a distributed ledger has the potential to save trillions.
It is truly difficult to experiment with new forms of government. It’s not like there are new countries waiting to be discovered where we can begin fresh. And with entrenched bureaucracies and dominant industrial players, changing an existing nation’s form of government is extremely difficult and usually only happens during times of crisis or outright revolution.
Perhaps we will develop and explore new forms of government in the virtual world (to be explored during a future blog), or perhaps Sea Steading will allow us to physically build new island nations. And ultimately, as we move off the earth to Mars and space colonies, we will have yet another chance to start fresh.
But, without question, 90 percent or more of today’s political processes herald back to a day before technology, and it shows in terms of speed and efficiency.
Ultimately, there will be a shift to digital governments enabled with blockchain’s transparency, and we will redefine the relationship between citizens and the public sector.
One day I hope i-voting will allow anyone anywhere to participate in policy, and cloud-based governments will start to compete in e-services. As four billion new minds come online over the next several years, people may soon have the opportunity to choose their preferred government and citizenship digitally, independent of birthplace.
In 50 years, what will our governments look like? Will we have an interplanetary order, or a multitude of publicly-run ecosystems? Will cyber-ocracies rule our physical worlds with machine intelligence, or will blockchains allow for hive mind-like democracy?
The possibilities are endless, and only we can shape them.
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