The SingularityU’s Guide to Learning the Future

Disclaimer: This is not a promotion of SingularityU’s programs. I know very little about their details.

When I told my friends that I was going to Amsterdam for this Thanksgiving break to attend a conference, they kept asking “but what are you really going to Amsterdam for?” Well, while I admit that I definitely enjoyed the beautiful and fun aspects of the Netherlands, attending this summit was my favorite part of this trip. This is an event where over 800 entrepreneurs, professionals, and industry experts around the world pay $2,500 to learn, network, and get inspired about the future of technology, business, and impact. Thanks to Babson College, I was very lucky to be part of 2017 Singularity University the Netherlands Summit. I’d like to first share what I learned about the future as well as some resources that you can utilize to learn about the future.

It doesn’t take being in the middle of the Silicon Valley to notice how fast the world is changing. While we ignore incremental usage of new technologies on a daily basis, various disruption has brought an unprecedented economic shift. With such changes in micro and macro economics, the question of how we apply changes seems as important, if not more, as what further changes are in our way. From his book, Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future, Andrew McAfee writes:

From the rise of billion-dollar, Silicon Valley unicorns to the demise or transformation of Fortune 500 stalwarts, the turbulence and transformation in the economy can seem chaotic and random. The application of machine, platform, crowd isn’t always easy, but with the right lenses, chaos gives way to order, and complexity becomes simpler.

Such phenomena will become even more widespread with the prevalence of varying technologies that have not yet hit fruition, from blockchain to quantum computing.

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Gartner’s Hype Cycle, 2017

Additionally, there also exists new scientific innovation — almost daily — that will change the world and its living creatures, some of which most of us are pretty clueless about. I, myself am pretty clueless when it comes to not only what’s going to be possible in our near future, but more importantly, what to do about it. What I know for sure is that these changes are too important to ignore.

This isn’t a mere fear of “which job do I choose so I don’t get replaced by a robot?”, but rather about how I can at least be familiar with these new trends, little by little, so I apply my values — empathy, health, and purpose — to these new changes rather than having them altered by the new world. Regardless of further technological/scientific innovation, it is us human beings that will ultimately drive social impact, not the technology. It’s time to turn the buzzwords into real meanings.

About Singularity University

Singularity University is not a typical, traditional, or even accredited institution, but claims itself as a global learning and innovation community of entrepreneurs, corporations, development organizations, governments, investors and academic institutions across 110 countries. SingularityU provides various programs from executive programs for C-level executives to Global Solutions Program, an immersive, residential experience around Global Grand Challenges, taking place at its campus at NASA Research Park in Mountain View, CA. SingularityU Summit, also a big part of what SingularityU does, is operated based on country partners that are in charge of sales, marketing, and operations of hosting local events. (SingularityU The Netherlands is the first country partner of Singularity University, officially opened by Queen Máxima on June 2016 in Eindhoven.)

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Exponential Technologies

The term “exponential” was mentioned dozens of times during the summit. In fact, this term captures a lot of what SingularityU’s contents are about.

Technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.”

- Ray Kurzweil, Co-founder, Singularity University

Exponential technologies refer to a phenomenon in which the power and/or speed doubles each year, and/or the cost drops by half. This is based on the two following principles:

  1. Moore’s Law(Gordon Moore): Processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years.
  2. The Law of Accelerating Returns(Ray Kurzweil): The rate of progress in any evolutionary learning environment(a system that learns via trial and error over time) increases exponentially. The more advanced a system that improves through iterative learning becomes, the faster it can progress.

SingularityU lists exponential technologies as below, which are currently accelerating and shaping major industries and all aspects of our lives:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Blockchain & Cryptocurrency
  • Biotechnology
  • Cybersecurity
  • Digital Manufacturing
  • Digital Medicine
  • Nanotechnology
  • Neuroscience
  • Robotics & Drone
  • Space

What I learned about the future from the summit

  1. Turn your fear into learning opportunity

Changes are big and fast, and we shouldn’t fear them. Instead, we should seek ways to take advantage of them by staying informed and making action. Check out the recommended books, resources and companies per each exponential technology below.

2. Turn your learning into action

When I worked at Google this summer, “democratization” was the word that I heard quite often. It was also a core part of my sales pitch about Google Cloud Platform, since it enables CEOs, CMOs or business analysts to leverage big data and machine learning technologies. Such trend of XaaS(Anything as a Service) is affecting various industries and job functions. In other words, with a little bit of studying, it’s easier than ever to make a change. In his TED talk, Ben Wellington talks about how a combination of unexpected questions and smart data crunching can produce strangely useful insights, and shares tips on how to release large sets of data so that anyone can use them.

3. Always prioritize human-centered problem-solving.

More often than not, building technology for technology’s sake results in creating unnecessary problems and waste instead of solutions. Instead, this TechCo article lays out the following important questions to consider in creating net positive impact:

  • Does this invention solve a problem or does it further complicate things for the user? Is it useful? Are you just flexing your “inventor brain?”
  • What are the ethical implications of this invention? Can it be used for the wrong reasons?
  • Is it safe? (There was an interesting case brought up by a panelist about a recent incident of a “smart sex toy” that got hacked and caused injury. She did mention that she was encouraged to bring this up since we were in…the Netherlands.)

Also, inventions without context often stir up divisive culture. In his Reddit AMA, Tim Ferriss mentioned the following as part of the reason for having left the Bay Area to Austin for his own “sanity, growth, and happiness”:

Silicon Valley also has an insidious infection that is spreading — a peculiar form of McCarthyism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCarthyism) masquerading as liberal open-mindedness. I’m as socially liberal as you get, and I find it nauseating how many topics or dissenting opinions are simply out-of-bounds in Silicon Valley. These days, people with real jobs (unlike me) are risking their careers to even challenge collective delusions in SF. Isn’t this supposed to be where people change the world by challenging the consensus reality? By seeing the hidden realities behind the facades? That’s the whole reason I traveled west and started over in the Bay Area. Now, more and more, I feel like it’s a Russian nesting doll of facades — Washington DC with fewer neck ties, where people openly lie to one another out of fear of losing their jobs or being publicly crucified. It’s weird, unsettling, and, frankly, really dangerous. There’s way too much power here for politeness to be sustainable. If no one feels they can say “Hey, I know it makes everyone uncomfortable, but I think there’s a leak in the fuel rods in this nuclear submarine…” we’re headed for big trouble.

4. Acquire a holistic perspective

Check your bias before sharing your opinion or even the seemingly credible data you find. See if you’re just looking at things on the surface. For example, one can be keen to daily news and conclude that the world is becoming a worse place. This involves various measures, some of which we may not be so familiar with. If we use the percentage of world population living in absolute poverty as a significant measure, the world is indeed becoming a better place by a big difference, very fast.

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According to these household surveys, 44% of the world population lived in absolute poverty in 1981. Since then, the share of poor people in the world has declined very fast — in fact, faster than ever before in world history. In 32 years, the share of people living in extreme poverty was divided by 4, reaching levels below 11% in 2013. Although the World Bank estimates for 2015 are not yet available, the projections suggest that the incidence of extreme poverty has fallen below 10% for that year. Interestingly, another data suggests that most people believe that the poverty level is increasing.

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5. There are many unanswered important questions

In terms of implications of technological innovation, many compare them to the use of fire. We can use fire to cook, while it can also burn down a house. Similar analogies can be found through Kranzberg’s 6 laws of technology, the first of which says, “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

I wonder then — how did we learn to use fire for the right purpose? Whatever that process looked like, what we’re facing with things like cybersecurity, human biotechnology, and data privacy is far more impactful by an order of magnitude. And yet, we have so many unanswered questions and unset rules. There have been recent efforts such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) proposed by the European Commission to fortify data protection for individuals within the European Union (EU) as well as managing the export process of personal data outside the EU. This can be a positive step towards encouraging more people to be more conscious about those “unanswered questions”. I believe more people should do more initiatives like this across more topics.

Important Questions to ask yourself

  • What are my core values that will never change, regardless of how the world changes?
  • What are you doing to “unlearn” the things you’ve learned before?
  • How will you turn your product into platform?
  • How do I ensure that I’m using technology for good?
  • How would my life change if I was given Universal Basic Income?
  • How can my data/digital identity be safeguarded?
  • To what extent do I want to learn about current technologies?
  • How are new technologies affecting my job and how would I prepare for the change?

Concluding contradictions

While this summit was very informative and rich in contents, it also left me with numerous ironies. To name a few:

  1. Conference-goers vs. entrepreneurs

Events like this have a common theme of encouraging people to create changes. A lot of speakers from events like this talk about changemakers like MLK, Gandhi, Mandela, Musk, Zuckerberg, or Bezos, so that we’re all inspired to create changes like them. Interestingly, I assume that all of these changemakers weren’t so interested in attending a summit/conference about creating a change. They just did what they thought they were supposed to do. As a fervent conference-goer myself, I don’t deny the value of such events. However, albeit a great amount of inspiration that conferences can provide, we should always remember that it is action that will help us become the change.

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From “2017 SingularityU the Netherlands Summit”

2. Prestigious education vs. portfolio

I find it interesting that almost all speakers, or so-called “SingularityU faculty”, have gone through an Ivy League education — Stanford, Harvard, MIT, etc.(somebody has even gone through all three of them somehow). And yet, what we’re usually taught to do from these entrepreneurship stories is not to spend so much resources and energy in being a part of prestigious education and rather creating your own portfolio. I did ask a speaker about the value of prestigious education today even in entrepreneurship space and he told me that the value of such degree will slowly fade, while the value of having a robust platform will not. Will Ivy League degree be less of a robust platform in the future? I’m not sure.

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From “Hacks & Recipe for Getting Admitted to Ivy League & Elite Colleges”

3. Measuring measurable things vs. not measuring measurable things

How we measure hard skills seems to have been improving significantly over the past decades thanks to tools like GitHub. But how about the things that are supposedly hard to measure and yet are in a great need of fair measurement? Where’s the GitHub for human resources, marketing or communication skills? Is this because we tend to put more attention/resources to measuring the things that are easier to measure? If so, it leads us to two problems:

a) We are not as conscious about the accuracy of quantitative measures (i.e GDP being an inadequate measure of progress)

b) There’s a great imbalance between measuring things with divergent nature (i.e hard vs. soft skill, reason vs. emotion, money vs. happiness)

Why not have Forbes World’s 100 Happiest People rather than Forbes 100 Billionaires? Easier said than done, but I think the latter deserves more attention.

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This could be a start? “Forbes The Happiest Cities To Work In Right Now”

4. Changing the world vs. Changing yourself

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Evolution Attitude: Learn, Unlearn, Relearn…

The thought of “changing the world” has certainly been permeating within younger population for the better. This is no exception to older and more experienced population, as more corporations are realizing how creating net positive impact on society comes with immense economic values. A common mistake among these aspiring changemakers — young or old — seems to be the tendency not to change themselves. With the world changing so fast and vastly, we should also be conscious about changing ourselves too. I’m not referring to the things that make us human — our values, empathy, or dream. I’m referring to things like the way we learn and what we’ve learned in the past. We should all strive to become the master of unlearning, as we won’t be able to attain new knowledge with fresh vision and most importantly, not catch up with new waves of innovation. This is why executives nowadays are advised to have millenials as mentors instead of mentoring them.

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How you can learn about the future/exponential technologies

Curated by SingularityU, below is a list of books and resources you may want to dive into, per aforementioned exponential technology.

Artificial Intelligence

Read

Learn from

Resources

Blockchain & Cryptocurrency

Read

Learn from

Resources

Biotechnology

Read

Learn from

Resources

Cybersecurity

Read

Learn from

  • Mikko Hyppoönen @mikkoews
  • Bruce Schneier @schneierblog
  • Eugene Kaspersky @e_kaspersky
  • Kevin Mitnick
  • Katie Moussouris @k8em0

Resources

Digital Manufacturing

Read

Learn from

  • Skylar Tibbits @skylartibbits
  • Peter Weijmarshausen @weijmarshausen
  • Mark Hatch
  • Dale Dougherty
  • Anouk Wipprecht @AnoukWipprecht
  • Ruslan Salakhutdinov @rsalakhu

Resources

Digital Medicine

Read

Learn from

Resources

Nanotechnology

Read

Learn from

  • George Whitesides
  • Fraser Stoddart @sirfrasersays
  • modernelectron.com
  • Michelle Simmon @cqc2t

Resources

Neuroscience

Read

Learn from

  • Daniel Kahneman
  • Ale Smidts
  • Dan Ariely
  • Michael M. Merzenich
  • May-Britt Moser @MayBrittMoser

Resources

Robotics & Drone

Read

Learn from

Resources

Space

Read

Learn from

  • Elon Musk @elonmusk
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson
  • Sunita Williams @Astro_suni
  • Peter Diamandis

Resources

Thank you for the read and feel free to add any resources.

Special thanks to Lisa Thomas!

Social impact | Biz Dev | Digital | I drive the expansion of tech ventures to APAC. Featured writer under The Startup, Medium’s largest active publication.

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