Vivek Wadhwa

You are currently browsing articles tagged Vivek Wadhwa.

In a recent Guardian essay, Stephen Hawking identified our age as the “most dangerous time for our planet.” Considering climate change, wealth inequality, the retreat of liberal democracy, and, perhaps, a re-embrace of nuclear proliferation, the physicist may very well be correct. While I thought his prescriptions to address the widening chasm between haves and have-nots were noble, they didn’t seem realistic to me. I have serious concerns that we’re increasingly taking a horrifying path.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Vivek Wadhwa feels similarly about Hawking’s best intentions. He suggests a better answer might be citizens having a greater voice in the nature of the technological tools shaping our future, though I’m dubious if that will make a dent, either. Technology isn’t often directed by a succession of sober-minded, rational choices. An excerpt:

Technology is the main culprit here, widening the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. As Hawking explained, automation has already decimated jobs in manufacturing and is allowing Wall Street to accrue huge rewards that the rest of us underwrite. Over the next few years, technology will take more jobs from humans. Robots will drive the taxis and trucks; drones will deliver our mail and groceries; machines will flip hamburgers and serve meals. And, if Amazon’s new cashierless stores are a success, supermarkets will replace cashiers with sensors. This is not speculation; it is imminent. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The dissatisfaction is not particularly American. With the developing world coming online with smartphones and tablets, billions more people are becoming aware of what they don’t have. The unrest we have witnessed in the United States, Britain and, most recently, Italy will become a global phenomenon.

Hawking’s solution is to break down barriers within and between nations, to have world leaders acknowledge that they have failed and are failing the many, to share resources and to help the unemployed retrain. But this is wishful thinking. It isn’t going to happen.

Witness the outcome of the elections: We moved backward on almost every front. Our politicians will continue to divide and conquer, Silicon Valley will deny its culpability, and the very technologies, such as social media and the Internet, that were supposed to spread democracy and knowledge will instead be used to mislead, to suppress and to bring out the ugliest side of humanity.•

Tags: ,

When it comes to biotech or AI or military robotization, many think we can make sober decisions which will limit these amazingly powerful tools from becoming the most destructive weapons imaginable. But progress does not often proceed in an orderly fashion. Priorities can differ wildly from state to state and corporation to corporation, and decisions made by one actor can impact what others do. You can say you never want to tinker with genetics to radically improve human intelligence, but you may feel differently if another nation decides to. And this technology is likely moving too fast to for its negative potential to be unnaturally constrained by legislation.

In a Washington Post column, Vivek Wadhwa and Aaron Johnson write wisely on the the topic of military automation. They encourage a complete ban on such systems, but even smaller states will eventually be able to disrupt such an accord. An excerpt:

The technology is still imperfect, but it is becoming increasingly accurate — and lethal. Deep learning has revolutionized image classification and recognition and will soon allow these systems to exceed the capabilities of an average human soldier.

But are we ready for this? Do we want Robocops policing our cities? The consequences, after all, could be very much like we’ve seen in dystopian science fiction. The answer surely is no.

For now, the U.S. military says that it wants to keep a human in the loop on all life-or-death decisions. All of the drones currently deployed overseas fall into this category: They are remotely piloted by a human (or usually multiple humans). But what happens when China, Russia and rogue nations develop their autonomous robots and acquire with them an advantage over our troops? There will surely be a strong incentive for the military to adopt autonomous killing technologies.

The rationale then will be that if we can send a robot instead of a human into war, we are morally obliged to do so, because it will save lives — at least, our soldiers’ lives, and in the short term.•

Tags: ,


Raymond Orterg check presented to Lindbergh.

In 1919, New York City immigrant hotelier and restaurateur Raymond Orteig had an inspiring if dangerous idea to speed up the development of aviation. He established a $25,000 prize to go to the first pilot to complete a successful solo flight between New York and Paris. The businessman received a great return on his investment as numerous aviators individually poured time and resources into the endeavor. The first six attempts ended in failure and death, before Charles Lindbergh collected the check from Orteig, who had flown to Paris for the occasion.

I was reminded of Orteig by a recent Vivek Wadhwa column in the Washington Post which compared him to Peter Diamandis, who 20 years ago established the $10,000,000 X Prize to similarly stimulate space travel. Below is a Brooklyn Daily Eagle feature published a few months after Lindbergh’s 1927 triumph, which told of Orteig’s unlikely rags-to-riches story and how he sparked one of history’s great moments.






Tags: , , ,


The rest of us can’t currently afford to live like Vivek Wadhwa, with a Tesla in his garage and solar panels on his roof–not yet, anyway. Today’s tech luxuries often become tomorrow’s new normal, however, the original R&D supported by governments first and then deep-pocketed early adopters. The problem is, while these great inventions will bring with them epic good–maybe even species-saving good–there will be destabilizing effects attending them. Th question is this: How much can we shape the future? How much can we tame these unintended consequences of 3D printers and automation and robotics?

I think we can select to some extent, but in the welter of competing companies and countries, consensus and consent can be lost. If China goes all in on genetic engineering, can other countries afford to opt out? Can there possibly be any OFF switch when the Internet of Things becomes the thing, when we don’t only place a computer in our pocket but have ourselves been placed inside the machine? Some decisions we’ll make and others will be made in a faceless scrum.

From Wadhwa’s latest thoughtful column for the Washington Post:

In short, the distant future is no longer distant.  The pace of technological change is rapidly accelerating, and those changes are coming to you very soon, whether you like it or not.

Such rapid, ubiquitous change has, of course, a dark side. Many jobs as we know them will disappear. Our privacy will be further compromised. Future generations may never drive a car or ride in one driven by a human being. We have to worry about biological terrorism and killer drones. Someone you know — maybe you — will have his or her DNA sequence and fingerprints stolen. Man and machine will begin to merge into a single entity.  You will have as much food as you can possibly eat, for better and for worse.

The ugly state of politics in the United States and Britain illustrates the impact of income inequality and the widening technological divide. More and more people are being left behind by innovation and they are protesting in every way they can. Technologies such as social media are being used to fan the flames and to exploit ignorance and bias.  The situation will get only worse — unless we find ways to share the prosperity we are creating.

We have a choice: to build an amazing future, such as we saw on the TV series Star Trek, or to head into the dystopia of Mad Max.



Quite regularly, articles announce AI and/or the Internet of Things are close to arriving in a writ-large way, and they’re all more or less correct. It’s happening soon, provided you don’t define soon too rigidly. The latter, which will be both boon and bane, seems something we could do right now if we could agree on standards. The former is improving rapidly in so-called Weak AI, which will remove human hands from many of Labor’s wheels. The more complicated Strong AI (the conscious kind) isn’t likely upon us despite the hype. Even before it has the chance to be realized, however, machine intelligence will bring serious peril along with unprecedented promise.

In his latest Washington Post editorial, Vivek Wadhwa sees the Google Glass half full, believing we’re on the brink of major AI advances. He makes a sound if hopeful argument, though he utilizes a quote in his opening from an old Brad Darrach Life article that has had its accuracy questioned. Wadhwa writes “Despite Marvin Minsky’s 1970 prediction that “in from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being,’ we still consider that a feat of science fiction.” Minsky immediately and vehemently denied making this statement to Darrach, and as John Markoff wrote in his recent book, Machines of Loving Grace, other important points of the piece were disputed. Wadhwa’s larger idea that big predictions have been too ambitious in the past is true, though this particular example seems flawed.

An excerpt:

AI has applications in every area in which data are processed and decisions required. Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly likened AI to electricity: a cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything. He said that it “will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now ‘cognitize.’ This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 start-ups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI This is a big deal, and now it’s here.”

AI will soon be everywhere. Businesses are infusing AI into their products and helping them analyze the vast amounts of data they are gathering. Google, Amazon, and Apple are working on voice assistants for our homes that manage our lights, order our food, and schedule our meetings. Robotic assistants such as Rosie from The Jetsons and R2-D2 of Star Wars are about a decade away.

Do we need to be worried about the runaway “artificial general intelligence” that goes out of control and takes over the world? Yes — but perhaps not for another 15 or 20 years. There are justified fears that rather than being told what to learn and complementing our capabilities, AIs will start learning everything there is to learn and know far more than we do. Though some people, such as futurist Ray Kurzweil, see us using AI to augment our capabilities and evolve together, others, such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, fear that AI will usurp us. We really don’t know where all this will go.

What is certain is that AI is here and making amazing things possible.•


Hulk Hogan, Terry Bollea

It’s been said by some economists that widening wealth inequality is unimportant if everyone is getting somewhat richer. I’ve never agreed. That much money concentrated at the very upper region of a society will come back to haunt, in the form of undue political power or in other ways. The Libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel insinuating himself in the Gawker-Hulk Hogan trial is just such a case in point.

If you’d told me five years ago that Gawker might go under because it needlessly published a Hulk Hogan sex tape, I would have thought, Yes, that sounds about right. A dicey if occasionally righteous publication from the start, the site had come to house a few too many immature, prurient, destructive employees. They chose their fights stupidly, myopically, maybe fatally.

That seemed to be the end of the story: Hulk Hogan is dumb, and Gawker even dumber, somehow making him seem sympathetic. That’s not how it had to be. If the site had leaked just the part of the video in which the former professional wrestler made his ugly racist remarks, the company would have been widely supported. But Gawker being Gawker, it pointlessly aimed for the crotch. End of story, it seemed.

But then it was revealed that Thiel had been quietly bankrolling the Hogan suit, trying to use his endless cash to put the publication out of business as part of a personal vendetta. It’s a chilling action, one that creates a template for the megarich to cow our press, a bloodless analogue to Russian plutocrats “relieving” journalists of their duties. It’s even worse behavior than Thiel being a delegate for a bigoted, xenophobic horror like Donald Trump, who has himself threatened to curb the powers of the press should he become President. If the country is guided by the thin skin of the super-rich rather than the parchment of the Constitution, we’re not exactly America.

In the Washington Post, Vivek Wadhwa writes of Thiel’s wrongheaded gambit and Silicon Valley’s general resistance to media scrutiny. The opening:

Gawker infringes on privacy and publishes tabloid-like stories that damage reputations. It is one of the most sensationalist and objectionable media outlets in the country. It also has not been kind to me. So it’s not a company that I would expect to be defending. But I worry that the battle that billionaire Peter Thiel has clandestinely been waging against it will be damaging to Silicon Valley by furthering distrust of its motives.

For better or worse, Gawker is entitled to the same freedom as any other news outlet. If it crosses the line, as it likely did with wrestler Hulk Hogan, the courts should deal with it. Silicon Valley’s power brokers should not get involved because they have access to resources that rival those of governments. They can outspend any other entity and manipulate public opinion.

Silicon Valley has more than an unfair advantage; its technologies exceed anything that the titans of the industrial age had. These technologies were built on the trust of the public — and that is needed for an industry that asks customers to share with them with literally every part of their lives.  This enormous influence should come with restraint and an understanding that those with power will be scrutinized — sometimes unfairly and unjustly.•

Tags: ,


It’s no secret that regulation, not traditionally the nimblest of things, has trouble keeping pace with technology, but Vivek Wadhwa states the case well in a new Washington Post column. He points out that decisions made on these thorny questions are often done emotionally–would Tim Cook be willingly working with the government if there had been a terrorist attack on Apple headquarters?–but the bigger issue is the briskness with which our tools are progressing. Think about how quickly drones and driverless have morphed in just the past few years. Wadhwa uses another example: the iPhone. An excerpt:

It takes decades, sometimes centuries, to reach the type of consensus that is needed to enact the far-reaching legislation that Congress will have to consider. Laws are essentially codified ethics, a consensus that is reached by society on what is right and wrong. This happens only after people understand the issues and have seen the pros and cons.

Consider our laws on privacy. These date back to the late 1800s, when newspapers first started publishing gossip. They wrote a series of intrusive stories about Boston lawyer Samuel Warren and his family. This led his law partner, future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, writing a Harvard Law Review article “The Right of Privacy”  which argued for the right to be left alone. This essay laid the foundation of American privacy law, which evolved over 200 years. It also took centuries to create today’s copyright laws, intangible property rights, and contract law. All of these followed the development of technologies such as the printing press and steam engine.

Today, technology is progressing on an exponential curve; advances that would take decades now happen in years, sometimes months. Consider that the first iPhone was released in June 2007. It was little more than an iPod with an embedded cell phone. This has evolved into a device which captures our deepest personal secrets, keeps track of our lifestyles and habits, and is becoming our health coach and mentor. It was inconceivable just five years ago that there could be such debates about unlocking this device.•


123allenkeaton (2)

In a Techcrunch piece, Vivek Wadhwa identifies 2016 as a technological inflection point, naming six fields which he believes will see significant progress, promising the next 12 months “will be the beginning of an even bigger revolution, one that will change the way we live, let us visit new worlds, and lead us into a jobless future.”

I don’t know for most of the areas he mentions that this year will be any more important than 2015 or 2017. Consider the example of space exploration. Perhaps in 2016 private companies or government will accomplish something more impressive than the Falcon 9 landing or maybe not. Even if they do, it will be part of an incremental process rather than a radical breakthrough. Life on Mars will get nearer every year.

Wadhwa’s best bet, I think, is in the area of driverless cars, which will likely move much closer to fruition based on tests done this year. The writer is more measured with robotics, believing the industrial kind is on the cusp of major advances, but personal assistants still have a ways to go. An excerpt:

The 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge required robots to navigate over an eight-task course simulating a disaster zone. It was almost comical to see them moving at the speed of molasses, freezing up, and falling over. Forget folding laundry and serving humans; these robots could hardly walk. As well, although we heard some three years ago that Foxconn would replace a million workers with robots in its Chinese factories, it never did so.

The breakthroughs may, however, be at hand. To begin with, a new generation of robots is being introduced by companies such as Switzerland’s ABB, Denmark’s Universal Robots, and Boston’s Rethink Robotics—robots dextrous enough to thread a needle and sensitive enough to work alongside humans. They can assemble circuits and pack boxes. We are at the cusp of the industrial-robot revolution.

Household robots are another matter. Household tasks may seem mundane, but they are incredibly difficult for machines to perform. Cleaning a room and folding laundry necessitate software algorithms that are more complex than those to land a man on the moon. But there have been many breakthroughs of late, largely driven by A.I., enabling robots to learn certain tasks by themselves and teach each other what they have learnt. And with the open source robotic operating system, ROS, thousands of developers worldwide are getting close to perfecting the algorithms.

Don’t be surprised when robots start showing up in supermarkets and malls—and in our homes.  Remember Rosie, the robotic housekeeper from the TV series The Jetsons?  I am expecting version 1 to begin shipping in the early 2020s.•


tireturningani (2)

There has, of course, been plenty of pushback against Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruption (most notably in Jill Lepore’s 2014 New Yorker takedown), but in a Washington Post editorial, Vivek Wadhwa suggests we don’t even concern ourselves about disproving such a thing when the ground has so significantly shifted in the last 20 years that it can’t possibly be applicable anymore.

Saying Uber isn’t truly disruptive, as Christensen does, because it doesn’t neatly fit within the strictures of his theory, is silliness. Ridesharing + driverless could be the most disruptive economic event of our times, regardless of what a classic model says about it. That new normal will be good and bad, a boon and bane all at once, requiring not just free-market solutions but political ones as well.

From Wadhwa:

Christensen says that Uber and Tesla Motors aren’t genuinely disruptive, not fitting the tenets of his theory of disruptive innovation. In that, the competition comes from the lower end or an unserved part of a market and then migrates upward to the mainstream market. He says that Uber has gone in exactly the opposite direction by building a position in the mainstream market and then addressing historically overlooked segments.  And Tesla Motors can’t be disruptive because it is tackling the high end of the car market.  “If disruption theory is correct, Tesla’s future holds either acquisition by a much larger incumbent or a years-long and hard-fought battle for market significance,” say Christensen and his co-authors in the paper.

Christensen’s disruption theory is not correct. The competition no longer comes from the lower end of a market; it comes from other, completely different, industries.  For the taxi industry, Uber came out of nowhere. At first Uber tried competing with high-end limousines. Then it launched UberX to offer cheap taxi service. Now it wants it all.  Through UberFresh, it is piloting same-day grocery delivery; through UberEats, it promises lunch in 10 minutes. Uber is challenging supermarkets,, and the catering industry — all at the same time. With UberHealth, it is planning to bring flu shots to people in need. When Uber finishes writing the software for its self-driving cars, it will create a genuine tsunami of disruption in every industry that depends upon transportation.

Tesla has already proven the superiority of its electric cars. Now it is changing their economics.•

Tags: ,

The future usually arrives…later. Some things, however, zoom past the anticipation-and-frustration period.

Tell someone in 1980 about the future of cellphones or in 1990 about the near-term reality of the Internet or in 2000 about the development of drones or driverless. None of these advances seemed possible.

If we are to snake our way through the Anthropocene, it would be really advantageous if solar and other renewables were among these black swan technologies. In a Washington Post editorial, Vivek Wadhwa predicts energy will soon be clean, ubiquitous and free. That doesn’t seem likely, but I suppose it’s not impossible. One important caveat: There are entrenched corporate interests that don’t want to see it happen and could slow down the process.

Wadhwa’s opening:

In the 1980s, leading consultants were skeptical about cellular phones. McKinsey & Company noted that the handsets were heavy, batteries didn’t last long, coverage was patchy, and the cost per minute was exorbitant. It predicted that in 20 years the total market size would be about 900,000 units, and advised AT&T to pull out. McKinsey was wrong, of course. There were more than 100 million cellular phones in use in 2000; there are billions now. Costs have fallen so far that even the poor — all over world — can afford a cellular phone.

The experts are saying the same about solar energy now. They note that after decades of development, solar power hardly supplies 1 percent of the world’s energy needs. They say that solar is inefficient, too expensive to install, and unreliable, and will fail without government subsidies. They too are wrong.  Solar will be as ubiquitous as cellular phones are.•


Vivek Wadhwa, who wisely looks at issues from all sides, has written an excellent Singularity Hub article analyzing which technologies he believes will impact global politics in the next two decades.

In the opening, he asserts something I think very true: an ascendant China isn’t really scary but that state in steep decline would be. He further argues in that first paragraph that fossil fuel is in its dying days, something that probably needs to be true if China, with its world-high cancer and air-pollution rates, is to remain stable. A nation of 1.3 billion will only cough and choke for so long. Solar and wind can’t arrive soon enough for that country, and for us all, though oil-dependent nations unable to transition will be destabilized.

An excerpt about 3D printers:

In conventional manufacturing, parts are produced by humans using power-driven machine tools, such as saws, lathes, milling machines, and drill presses, to physically remove material to obtain the shape desired. In digital manufacturing, parts are produced by melting successive layers of materials based on 3D models — adding materials rather than subtracting them. The “3D printers” that produce these use powered metal, droplets of plastic, and other materials — much like the toner cartridges that go into laser printers. 3D printers can already create physical mechanical devices, medical implants, jewelry, and even clothing. But these are slow, messy, and cumbersome — much like the first generations of inkjet printers were. This will change.

In the early 2020s we will have elegant low-priced printers for our homes that can print toys and household goods. Businesses will use 3D printers to do small-scale production of previously labor-intensive crafts and goods. Late in the next decade, we will be 3D-printing buildings and electronics. These will eventually be as fast as today’s laser printers are. And don’t be surprised if by 2030, the industrial robots go on strike, waving placards saying “stop the 3D printers: they are taking our jobs away.”

The geopolitical implications of these changes are exciting and worrisome.•



An uncommonly thoughtful technology entrepreneur, Vivek Wadhwa doesn’t focus solely on the benefits of disruption but its costs as well. He believes we’re headed for a jobless future and has debated the point with Marc Andreessen, who thinks such worries are so much needless hand-wringing. 

Here’s the most important distinction: If time proves Wadhwa wrong, his due diligence in the matter will not have hurt anyone. But if Andreessen is incorrect, his carefree manner will seem particularly ugly.

No one need suggest we inhibit progress, but we better have political solutions ready should entrenched technological unemployment become the new normal. Somehow we’ll have to work our way through the dissonance of a largely free-market economy meeting a highly automated one.

In a new Washington Post piece on the topic, Wadhwa considers some solutions, including the Carlos Slim idea of a three-day workweek and the oft-suggested universal basic income. The opening:

“There are more net jobs in the world today than ever before, after hundreds of years of technological innovation and hundreds of years of people predicting the death of work.  The logic on this topic is crystal clear.  Because of that, the contrary view is necessarily religious in nature, and, as we all know, there’s no point in arguing about religion.”

These are the words of tech mogul Marc Andreessen, in an e-mail exchange with me on the effect of advancing technologies on employment. Andreessen steadfastly believes that the same exponential curve that is enabling creation of an era of abundance will create new jobs faster and more broadly than before, and calls my assertions that we are heading into a jobless future a luddite fallacy.

I wish he were right, but he isn’t. And it isn’t a religious debate; it’s a matter of public policy and preparedness. With the technology advances that are presently on the horizon, not only low-skilled jobs are at risk; so are the jobs of knowledge workers. Too much is happening too fast. It will shake up entire industries and eliminate professions. Some new jobs will surely be created, but they will be few. And we won’t be able to retrain the people who lose their jobs, because, as I said to Andreessen, you can train an Andreessen to drive a cab, but you can’t retrain a laid-off cab driver to become an Andreessen.  The jobs that will be created will require very specialized skills and higher levels of education — which most people don’t have.

I am optimistic about the future and know that technology will provide society with many benefits. I also realize that millions will face permanent unemployment.•


In a Washington Post piece, Vivek Wadha reveals how bullish he is on the near-term future of robotics in the aftermath of the DARPA challenge. He believes Jetsons-level assistants are close, and although he acknowledges such progress would promote technological unemployment, he doesn’t really dwell on that thorny problem. An excerpt:

For voice recognition, we are already pretty close to C-3PO-like capabilities. Both Apple and Google use artificial intelligence to do a reasonably good job of translating speech to text, even in noisy environments. No bot has passed the Turing Test yet, but they are getting closer and closer. When it happens, your droid will be able to converse with you in complex, human-like interactions.

The computational power necessary to enable these robots to perform these difficult tasks is still lacking. Consider, however, that in about seven or eight years, your iPhone will have the computational ability of a human brain, and you can understand where we are headed.

Robots will be able to walk and talk like human beings.

What are presently halting steps moving up stairs will, in the next DARPA challenge, become sure-footed ascents. The ability to merely open a door will become that of opening a door and holding a bag of groceries and making sure the dog doesn’t get out.

And, yes, Rosie will replace lots of human jobs, and that is reason to worry — and cheer.•


Hmm, I don’t agree with Vivek Wadhwa that there’ll be no role for humans in labor in the future, but it will take far less than a total foundering of our system for us to find ourselves with an unacceptable level of technological unemployment, so I certainly concur with him in the bigger picture. From Cole Stangler at International Business Times:

The breadth and speed of recent innovations — think robotics, synthetic biology, nanotechnology and 3D printers — coupled with relatively high unemployment, have fueled a debate over whether humans will be permanently erased from the labor force. It’s a potentially dystopian landscape that would have future workers longing for the unemployment rate seen in Friday’s job figures.

“I’m really worried about this,” says Vivek Wadhwa, author and fellow at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance. “In the long term, I see no role for human beings.”

Wadhwa recently oversaw academic programs at Singularity University, a think tank-like group in Silicon Valley whose goal is to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”

He says self-driving cars and trains will replace workers in the transportation industry, artificial intelligence, sensors and smartphones will eliminate the need for most doctors, nurses and surgeons–and algorithms will displace most human writers. (“I don’t mean to insult your profession,” he says.)

All of this, Wadhwa says, will happen in the next five to 15 years.•

Tags: ,

It’s probably a fair bet that most people believe computers are already more intelligent than us. But even computationally it’s possible our smartphones will be smarter than us in five to ten years. Even if it hasn’t happened by then, it will happen. Something that was impossible a few decades ago, that would have cost billions if it had been possible, will soon be available at a reasonable price, prepared to sit in your pocket or palm.

As Ted Greenwald of the WSJ recently reminded, smart machines don’t have to make us dumb. From automobiles to digital watches, we’ve always ceded certain chores to technology, but these new machines won’t be anything like the ones we know. They will be by far the greatest tools we’ve ever created. What will that mean, positive or negative? I’m wholeheartedly in favor of them, even think they’re necessary, but that doesn’t mean great gifts aren’t attended by great challenges.

From Vivek Wadhwa at the Washington Post:

Ray Kurzweil made a startling prediction in 1999 that appears to be coming true: that by 2023 a $1,000 laptop would have the computing power and storage capacity of a human brain.  He also predicted that Moore’s Law, which postulates that the processing capability of a computer doubles every 18 months, would apply for 60 years — until 2025 — giving way then to new paradigms of technological change.

Kurzweil, a renowned futurist and the director of engineering at Google, now says that the hardware needed to emulate the human brain may be ready even sooner than he predicted — in around 2020 — using technologies such as graphics processing units (GPUs), which are ideal for brain-software algorithms. He predicts that the complete brain software will take a little longer: until about 2029.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling.  Within seven years — about when the iPhone 11 is likely to be released — the smartphones in our pockets will be as computationally intelligent as we are. It doesn’t stop there, though.  These devices will continue to advance, exponentially, until they exceed the combined intelligence of the human race. Already, our computers have a big advantage over us: they are connected via the Internet and share information with each other billions of times faster than we can. It is hard to even imagine what becomes possible with these advances and what the implications are.•

Tags: , ,

The 2015 version of the Gates Annual Letter makes bold and hopeful predictions for the world by 2030 (infant mortality halved, an HIV vaccine, Africa a prosperous continent, etc.) In the spirit of the missive, Politico invited other thinkers to consider life 15 years hence. Below are two examples representing polar opposites, neither of which seems particularly likely.


Technology for the good

By Vivek Wadhwa, fellow at the Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University

Technology is advancing faster than people think and making amazing things possible. Within two decades, we will have almost unlimited energy, food and clean water; advances in medicine will allow us to live longer and healthier lives; robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods and do our chores. It will also become possible to solve critical problems that have long plagued humanity such as hunger, disease, poverty and lack of education. Think of systems to clean water; sensors to transform agriculture; digital tutors that run on cheap smartphones to educate children; medical tests on inexpensive sensor-based devices. The challenge is to focus our technology innovators on the needs of the many rather than the elite few so that we can better all of humanity.•


No breakthroughs for the better

By Leslie Gelb, president emeritus and board senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

The world of 2030 will be an ugly place, littered with rebellion and repression. Societies will be deeply fragmented and overwhelmed by irreconcilable religious and political groups, by disparities in wealth, by ignorant citizenry and by states’ impotence to fix problems. This world will resemble today’s, only almost everything will be more difficult to manage and solve.

Advances in technology and science won’t save us. Technology will both decentralize power and increase the power of central authorities. Social media will be able to prompt mass demonstrations in public squares, even occasionally overturning governments as in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, but oligarchs and dictators will have the force and power to prevail as they did in Cairo. Almost certainly, science and politics won’t be up to checking global warming, which will soon overwhelm us.

Muslims will be the principal disruptive factor, whether in the Islamic world, where repression, bad governance and economic underperformance have sparked revolt, or abroad, where they are increasingly unhappy and disdained by rulers and peoples. In America, blacks will become less tolerant of their marginalization, as will other persecuted minorities around the world. These groups will challenge authority, and authority will slam back with enough force to deeply wound, but not destroy, these rebellions.

A long period of worldwide economic stagnation and even decline will reinforce these trends. There will be sustained economic gulfs between rich and poor. And the rich will be increasingly willing to use government power to maintain their advantages.

Unfortunately, the next years will see a reversal of the hopes for better government and for effective democracies that loomed so large at the end of the Cold War.•

Tags: , , ,

While I’m clearly excited (and concerned) about autonomous cars, I think the shock of this new technology, something that wasn’t even discussed much in the general population just five years ago, has caused some to believe the future is now or tomorrow at least. It will likely take longer, and we’re probably in for a long run of robocars and traditional ones sharing lane space. In a new piece, Vivek Wadhwa of Venturebeat disagrees. The opening:

“My prediction is that in fewer than 15 years, we will be debating whether human beings should be allowed to drive on highways.

After all, we are prone to road rage; rush headlong into traffic jams; break rules; get distracted; and crash into each other. That is why our automobiles need tank-like bumper bars and military-grade crumple zones. And it is why we need speed limits and traffic police.

Self-driving cars won’t have our limitations. They will prevent tens of thousands of fatalities every year and better our lifestyles. They will do to human drivers what the horseless carriage did to the horse and buggy.

Tesla’s announcement of an autopilot feature in its next-generation Model S takes us much closer to this future. Yes, there are still technical and logistical hurdles; some academics believe it will take decades for robotic cars to learn to navigate the complexities of the ‘urban jungle;’ and policy makers are undecided about the rules and regulations.

But just as Tesla produced an electric vehicle that I liken to a spaceship that travels on land, so too will it keep adding software upgrades until its autopilot doesn’t need a human operator at the steering wheel. I expect this to happen within a decade — despite the obstacles. I have already placed an order for the new model so that I can be part of this evolution.”


On the day after the People’s Climate March, I think it’s clear that though we’ve yet to reach a tipping point in terms of green-energy use, hearts and minds have been won. Wallets and bank balances are soon to follow, as alternative power is going to keep dropping in price the way fossil fuels never could. From Vivek Wadhwa at the Washington Post:

“In the 1980s, leading consultants were skeptical about cellular phones.  McKinsey & Company noted that the handsets were heavy, batteries didn’t last long, coverage was patchy, and the cost per minute was exorbitant.  It predicted that in 20 years the total market size would be about 900,000 units, and advised AT&T to pull out.  McKinsey was wrong, of course.  There were more than 100 million cellular phones in use 2000; there are billions now.  Costs have fallen so far that even the poor — all over world — can afford a cellular phone.

The experts are saying the same about solar energy now.  They note that after decades of development, solar power hardly supplies 1 percent of the world’s energy needs.  They say that solar is inefficient, too expensive to install, and unreliable, and will fail without government subsidies.  They too are wrong.  Solar will be as ubiquitous as cellular phones are.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that solar power has been doubling every two years for the past 30 years — as costs have been dropping. He says solar energy is only six doublings — or less than 14 years — away from meeting 100 percent of today’s energy needs. Energy usage will keep increasing, so this is a moving target.  But, by Kurzweil’s estimates, inexpensive renewable sources will provide more energy than the world needs in less than 20 years.  Even then, we will be using only one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the Earth.”


1976: “It may hold the solution to the energy problem.”


At Foreign Policy, Vivek Wadhwa of Singularity University hits back at the idea that China is manufacturing America into the ground. Quite the contrary, he argues that manufacturing jobs are returning to the U.S. because of our superior knowledge of AI, though many of the tasks will be handled by robotic hands rather than human ones. A note in the article about the coming personalization of even large-scale products:

Neil Jacobstein, who chairs the AI track at the Silicon Valley-based graduate program Singularity University, says that AI technologies will find their way into manufacturing and make it ‘personal’: that we will be able to design our own products at home with the aid of AI design assistants. He predicts a ‘creator economy’ in which mass production is replaced by personalized production, with people customizing designs they download from the Internet or develop themselves.

How will we turn these designs into products? By ‘printing’ them at home or at modern-day Kinko’s — shared public manufacturing facilities such as TechShop, a membership-based manufacturing workshop, using new manufacturing technologies that are now on the horizon.” (Thanks Browser.)

Tags: ,