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Notes from Nasa — my time at Singularity University

For the last three weeks, I have been at Singularity University at Nasa Research Centre, Silicon Valley. I was so honoured to be selected to this 10 week innovation program on a scholarship along with 79 other entrepreneurs, innovators and change makers from across the globe.

First off about the program. We are all on here on the Global Solutions Program at Singularity University where our job is to deep dive into exponential technologies such as Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Digital Biology, Digital Fabrication and Nanotechnology. With this knowledge we are tasked with conceptualising products that can solve the grand challenges of the world and impact a billion lives in 10 years.

So what’s it like here on Nasa’s campus?

It’s frankly amazing. The class is filled with incredibly talents folk from 40 countries across the globe — future astronauts, social entrepreneurs who have influenced governments, civil journalists and driven entrepreneurs. The venue is on Nasa federal land with giant hangars that had spacecrafts built in them. Obama landed on the airstrip behind us a couple of weeks ago. Crazy.

The university was founded in 2008 by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweill. Peter is a serial entrepreneur in the space sector. He is also author of best selling books Bold and Abundance. Ray is a futurist and inventor, director of artificial intelligence at Google and called the rightful heir to Thomas Edison by Inc magazine. The university inception was inspired by Ray’s book, The Singularity is Near where he explores the exponential rate of technology ingenuity and the profound impact on society.

I have had lots of lectures over the last 3 weeks. It’s been pretty much 5 TED level speaker and workshop sessions a day across exponential technologies and importantly exposure across the grand challenges of the world — disaster resilience, food, energy, environment, health, prosperity, governance, learning, security, shelter, water and space.

Today I have been particularly captivated by robotics following some very cool presentations from innovators including Rob Nail and Neil Jacobstein along with building robots myself. Here are 3 areas I find fascinating:

Robots in our homes and in stores

Given that I have a close background in retail and online, I found this area really interesting. Lowe’s and robot startup, Fellow Robot have been recently testing customer service robots. Imagine going into a DIY store and being met by a friendly robot that facially recognises and greets you by name. You ask to find ‘hammers’ and you are taken to the ‘hammer’ aisle. It understand your buying behaviour and recommends other suitable products. Also if the product isn’t in stock it can order it for you immediately and arrange home delivery. Lots of interesting data to leverage plus a connector to online for remarketing offline to online.

Lowes oshbot

In our homes we will not only see companion robots as seen in films like Robot & Frank but we will see robots exhibit the power of empathy . This taps into the field of computing called Affective Computing. Companies such BeyondVerbal are actively exploring this robotic space. For example, think of coming home after a stressful day and leaning on your robot companion for emotional support and guidance. This level of awareness is predicted in the years to come.

Will Robots replace humans in the work force?

Well this is happening already. Chinese company Foxconn recently replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots. Tesla have doubled the number of robots they use in the last 3 years.

This trend is set to increase. 47% of jobs at risk of shifting to automated solutions in the US. This figure is set to become an astonishing 77% in places like China. It’s 35% in the UK (but who knows given Brexit …let’s not go there).

Risk of jobs being replaced by automation

So what does that mean? Well, this morning we had a debate around how this will affect society. Should we introduce universal basic income as was debated in Switzerland’s government in June this year? The proposal was declined, by the way, but the debate is healthy. The optimist says the worst was feared in previous technological cycles, such as when computers entered the office. People will simply retool and new jobs we just can’t image yet will emerge. In addition, we will as a society move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because of greater societal abundance. The pessimist says that automation will lead to a mass unemployment and possibly revolt if not addressed carefully. Which ever is true, the reality is that commercial organisations will seek to do what is profitable. Solutions will need to be explored that work for society. I for one want to be part of this debate.

A new chapter, Roboethics

Remember the character, Data, from Star Trek? Human on the outside but robot inside. Its predicted that in not so many years, we will see a world of super intelligent robots working with and serving humans. When we do, we will have to face fascinating ethical questions such as — are robots sentient beings? Do we have the right to wipe clean robot’s memories when we upgrade? Not such straight forward questions when robots start developing feelings and memories (just as we do) and we create emotional attachment to our new companions.

According to a recent report in The Washington Post, this robot tried to escape from a Russian lab twice. It’s highly unlikely that it ‘feels’ sad and is running way but maybe one day:

Lab robot escapes twice

Another interesting ethical question comes up regarding sex with robots. Unsurprisingly, campaigns are growing opposing this such as The Campaign Against Sex Robots.

It’s a busy schedule here and more to come. I hope this is interesting food for thought. Any feedback, thoughts or questions get in touch!