Singularity University New Zealand Summit 2016: Aftermath

 This post begins with an introduction to Singularity University and the recent Summit in New Zealand. If you are familiar with the organisation and/or the event — skip to my thoughts below.

I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Singularity University Summit in Australasia, which was held in Christchurch, New Zealand, last week. Thought-Wired, a company that I co-founded and have been working on for a few years now, was invited to demonstrate the product we are developing. Our product aims to leverage off brainwave-reading technologies to allow people with severe physical disabilities to communicate and interact with their environment.

During breaks between sessions and before each day, the team and I showed how our software can be used to drive a robotic vehicle (a small one) and do some basic communication activities, such as saying “yes” or “no”, or answering multi-choice questions. In light of the theme of the conference we also attempted to explain to the Summit delegates the potential for exponential impact.

In a nutshell, Singularity University aims to “empower a global community with the mindset, skillset, and network to create an abundant future”, and exponential technologies are at the core of this. It runs programs for individuals or organisations, where futurists and experts share their ideas and advice to engage, inspire and arm people with the tools they need to effect positive change on the world. Much of this leverages off Moore’s Law and the mindset they teach is to go beyond innovation, and instead, aim for disruption.

“Innovation: doing the same things better. Disruption: doing new things that make the old things obsolete.” – SU

There are also programs to support ideation, start-up creation and acceleration, mentorship and enterprise scaling.

We were fortunate enough to be able to catch most of the speakers over the two-and-a-half days of the Summit, and the breadth of topics ranged from cyber security, crypto-currency, and astrophysics to education, autonomous cars and artificial intelligence. The phrase “mind-blowing” was pretty much the mantra of the event (although the official call-to-arms may have been something like “Understand, adapt and thrive”).


Thoughts - not food!

Thoughts – not food!

Even though I wasn’t technically a delegate, it was great to be able to interact with New Zealand’s influencers, innovators and other like minded people, and participate in some of the dialogue on Twitter. I’ve had some time to decompress, gather the remaining pieces of my blown-mind and thought I would share some of my takeaways. I noticed that many of the more vocal delegates are educators and found it interesting that a lot of the discussions I’ve seen have been from an educational perspective. I must need to expand my social network or something (not that it’s a bad thing, since I do think education is absolutely vital).

This is actually a good segue into my first thought. Educators are so important, especially when you consider their role in transferring knowledge and skills to, and supporting our youth. The abundance of educators at the Summit was great, and I have no doubt that much of the youth will indirectly benefit from it. But what of the old youth?

I am oxymoronically referring to people around my age (maybe even younger), who have long since left the education system (including tertiary), and would be unlikely to attend something like the Summit on their own accord. I’m sure many of these people would feel stuck in their jobs or dismayed at the lack of tangible effect they are having or can have on the world. How do we access them, spread the message and catalyse them into action? I feel very privileged to see and hear about what I do — but how do we extend that to a greater audience? My circle of friends would contain an unusually high number of people with PhDs, and even then there aren’t that many who think about disruption or exponential technologies beyond following them on their news feeds.

Furthermore, how do we get this type of thinking to trickle into other social groups, which might not be as highly educated, but still brimming with untapped potential, drive and ability? How do we build momentum?

This leads on to my second thought: what happens now after the Summit? At the end of last week we felt inspired and motivated, ready to change the world overnight. Today though, we’re back at our regular jobs — is the feeling still there? Is it as strong? How do we maintain this momentum we’ve built, and spread it through our networks and community? Is there a risk of us being trapped in an echo chamber where we motivate and congratulate ourselves, but nothing extends beyond our own little bubble? (And we’re beginning to see the effects of these little bubbles).

So many questions and I wish I knew the answers. There is some comfort in the fact that there are others who are thinking the same thing and are attacking it head-on  – for example a hui was organised in Auckland recently, and I’m sure there are similar happenings around the country. What I really want to see from here though, is growth.

My next takeaway kind of feeds on from these ideas of accessibility and inclusion, and is relevant to the actual technological side of things. At the Summit, we were told that 4 billion people are living on less than $5 USD a week. That’s more than half the world’s population. That’s insane.

And for these 4 billion people, are things like self-driving cars going to be useful? Are they going to see much benefit from advances in AI? Are their governments going to be able to afford to buy and maintain surgical robots or advanced biotechnologies? Exponential technologies that only cater to the top 20% or so of the population will not be sustainable, and access to exponential technologies is something that really needs to be considered.

I believe access to technology was brought up by one speaker but it was a theme that was not discussed much. I would be curious to see with the growth of companies who have been identified as disruptive and exponential :  how sustainable their exponential growth is; where do they reach saturation; and at that saturation point, what proportion of the population have they affected? I’ve illustrated what I mean in the figure below.

Turns out, my drawings look like the work of a 5 year old

Turns out, my drawings look like the work of a 5 year old

Exponential growth is great, but obviously the world has a finite number of people on it, and only when uptake reaches 100% has optimal saturation been obtained. A technology that benefits a small portion of the population may experience exponential growth, revenue and profit – but what about optimal impact?

This brings me to my final thought. The phrase “exponential technology” was thrown around a lot at the Summit. This, coupled with the talks about autonomous cars, AI, crypto-currency and so on, would make you naturally associate exponential technology with advanced or high-tech technologies.

I want to remind you that as a society, we’re currently living in the most advanced stage of technology ever, and yet there is a significant proportion of the population who don’t have access to and/or are not benefiting from it. There is still a huge amount of potential for low-tech solutions to have exponential impact, so it’s not necessary to always look for the most advanced solution.

In my opinion, you don’t have to be disruptive to make an impact, and even just a little bit of innovation can still be the difference between something incremental, and something exponential. There are only six degrees of separation between every human being on the planet, and this interconnection between us runs deep. With our compassion, resolve, intelligence, ability to communicate, and will to survive, there’s no reason why we, ourselves, should not be exponential.