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LEADING EDGE - by Vivek Wadhwa

Help Is on the Way

Advancing technology will tackle many of our current ills.

Think what has happened with the Internet — which advanced at a snail’s pace until 15 years ago. - Vivek WadhwaPeople believe we’ve run out of ideas. As children, we dreamed of a world of flying cars and space colonies, robotic servants, and Star Trek-like tricorders, replicators, and holodecks. Yet even today our cars mostly still run on internal combustion, our jetliners were designed in the ’60s — as was the Internet – our infrastructure is crumbling, and our economy is a mess.

True, our dreams haven’t all become a reality, but we have achieved a lot more than people realize. And the best lies ahead – provided that our institutions react responsibly. This is the decade in which we will lay the foundation for solutions to the world’s grand challenges: education, health, and shortages of energy, water, and food.

How? A wide assortment of technologies is advancing at exponential rates and converging. Engineers know the impact Moore’s law has had in computing. The same is happening in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), 3-D printing, nanomaterials, medicine, and synthetic biology. This is making it possible for small teams to do what was once possible only by governments and large corporations: solve big problems.

Think what has happened with the Internet — which until 15 years ago had advanced at a snail’s pace. It has changed the way we work, shop, and communicate. Knowledge once found in costly encyclopedias is today abundant and free. Poor farmers in India are connected to their counterparts in China and Peru, and to scientists and students at MIT. The Internet caused social upheaval in the Middle East and facilitated the creation of India’s $100 billion IT industry.

Take AI, which we left for dead after the hype it generated in the ’80s. It enabled IBM’s Watson to defeat Jeopardy! champions and is making possible self-driving cars, voice recognition, advanced learning systems, and digital doctors.

Then there is robotics. The robots of today aren’t the androids or Cylons we used to see in science fiction movies, but specialized electromechanical devices controlled by software and remote controls. Robots are now capable of performing surgery, milking cows, and flying fighter jets.

3-D printing has advanced to the point where we can “print” physical mechanical devices, medical implants, jewelry, and even clothing. The cheapest 3-D printers, which print rudimentary objects, currently sell for between $500 and $1,000. Soon, we will have printers at this price that can print toys and household goods. Within this decade we will see 3-D printers doing the small-scale production of previously labor-intensive crafts and goods. In the next decade we can expect the manufacturing of the majority of goods to be done locally, buildings and electronics to be 3-D printed, and a rising creative class to be empowered by digital making.

Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) allow us to build inexpensive gyros, accelerometers, and temperature, current/magnetic fields, pressure, chemical, and DNA sensors. Entrepreneurs are developing iPhone cases that act like medical assistants and detect disease; smart pills that monitor our internals; and tattooed body sensors that monitor heart, brain, and body activity.

Using nanotechnology, engineers and scientists are developing new materials such as carbon nanotubes, ceramic-matrix nanocomposites (and their metal- and polymer-matrix equivalents), and new carbon fibers. They are developing products that are stronger, lighter, more energy efficient, and more durable than anything that exists today.

With the price of a full genome sequence dropping to about $1,000 and advances in “writing” DNA, researchers and even high school students are creating new organisms and synthetic life-forms — algae that efficiently produce liquid fuel, biological computers, new materials and structures, and bioengineered viruses that attack disease.

My main worry is that we haven’t developed sufficient ethical guidelines for the coming era and will fail to ward off dangers posed by these technologies. Synthetic biology, for instance, could create doomsday viruses. Social media, such as Facebook, already enable governments and criminals to know more about us than Big Brother ever dreamed, and nanomaterials could wreak havoc on the planet. Will humanity advance alongside its exciting new tools?


Vivek Wadhwa is a scholar specializing in entrepreneurship. He is vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University and is also affiliated with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, Stanford University, and Emory University.


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