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Vivek Wadhwa: The Future is Bright... If We're Cautious

Vivek Wadhwa explains why he's both optimistic and pessimistic about the inevitable change that will come about by way of technological advancement.

Vivek Wadhwa:  You know, when I was young I grew up watching Star Trek. I used to dream about tricorders, replicators, these transporters, all these amazing advances we saw. I also imagined I would be using communicators, that I’d have a replicator reproducing all the ice cream and chocolate that I wanted. So I used to imagine a world of amazing things and we had solved the problems of humanity and we were shooting for the stars, and we were exploring new worlds. That's how I thought it would be when I grew up. Look at the world I grew up into, poverty, hunger, despair, where we put each other down, where we're worried about scarcity running out of resources. It's the exact opposite of what I thought we would have when I grew up when I was young. So I, like the rest of the world, became pessimistic. I mean two or three years ago I too was worried about shortages of energy, food, hunger, overpopulation, the world coming apart because of all of the battles we're fighting.


If you read my writing right now I'm the greatest optimist there is. I talk about this being the most innovative decade in human history when we'll solve the grand challenges of humanity. I talk about the Star Trek future we're headed into. What changed over there? What changed was that I started learning about the advances that are happening in technology. In hanging out with people like Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil at Singularity University, I started learning about the fact that computing is moving exponentially and it's causing many other fields to go exponential. We all know about Moore's Law and we've seen how computers advance in capabilities. Indeed our smartphones are more powerful than the greatest supercomputers of yesteryear.


The same advances are now happening in 3-D printing, in artificial intelligence, robotics, synthetic biology, and in medicine. And what they're making possible is for us to solve the grand challenges of humanity. I now believe that within the next ten to 20 to 30 years we're going to have unlimited energy. Solar is advancing most predictably but there will be many other technologies that become viable over the next five or ten years, which means that in the 2025, 2030 timeframe we should be in an era of almost unlimited energy. We'll have solar cells or other technologies, which generate energy locally, which lets us power electric cars, which are clean. They let us now produce unlimited clean water. We can grow unlimited food. We can 3-D print meat. So we're headed into an era where technology is going to make it possible for us to get out of this shortage mode we've been in, as well with lots of advances in healthcare.


We already now have sensory-based devices that we carry in our pockets, they're called smartphones. They track where we go, when we sleep, they track our activity levels. We'll also have wearable devices that monitor our internals and monitor our vital signs. They'll all be connected to the cloud. We'll have AI based physicians, which monitor us on a 24/7 basis and tell us when we're about to get sick. They'll advise us on how to eat better, how to live healthier lifestyles. So we'll be living longer, we'll be living a healthier, we'll be having an abundance of the basics we need. We'll be able to 3-D print buildings. This is an era we're headed into.  And when I finish giving my talks, people start looking more closely at the things that are happening, reading up. And I had most people coming to me later on weeks after they've heard my talk about advancing technologies and say, you know Vivek, you really opened our eyes. It does indeed seem that the world is headed in the right direction. There's all these amazing technology advances happening, which are going to better mankind.


Now by the way, I've have also become really concerned about the dark side of technology. For a while I was just thinking the world is going to be a wonderful place, it was all good, you know, ra-ra-ra, ra-ra-ra. Now I've also started worrying about the fact that we're creating a dark side it to all of this; that we could be creating killer viruses; that with all this automation with 3-D printing and robotics we're headed into an era when we won't need human beings doing manufacturing. With AI based physicians we won't need as many doctors. We won't need supermarket clerks. We won't need people doing delivery. We won't need truck drivers. We won't need taxi drivers. We're headed into a jobless future. It's almost certain that automation now takes away more jobs than it creates. That's the way it's always been. It's almost certain that we’ll have social unrest because large parts of the population have become unemployed and they have nothing better to do. They are not like the rest who want to now start learning new careers and doing things. It's almost certain that laws and ethics can't keep pace with advancing technologies. The fact is we're already having these battles in the Supreme Court. This case about Aereo broadcasting TV signals went to the Supreme Court, and now we're watching Uber battle the taxi industry. We have Airbnb battling the hotel industry. We're having these new technology companies battling old-line industries. This is the beginning. We're going to see more and more debates about what's right and what's wrong.


The laws can't keep up because laws are based on - laws are essentially codified ethics. That we develop a consensus as a society about what's good and what's bad and then it becomes what's right and what's wrong, and then it becomes what's legal and what's illegal. That's the way the progression goes. On most of those technologies we haven't decided what's good or bad. Is it good to have drones delivering our goods? Yeah it will be convenient if we can get Starbucks delivered to our homes in the morning rather than having to drive down to the coffee shop. But these drones also have high definition cameras in them. If they happen to fly by your bathroom and you've got the window open, is it okay for them to be photographing you? Is it okay now for these drones to be carrying weapons? What happens if you had a swarm of drones now attacking buildings?


So, we haven't figured out what's legal, what's illegal, what's right or wrong, so we're going to be having many debates about it. So you've got the optimistic Vivek Wadhwa who thinks about the amazing world we're headed into, how everything is going to be wonderful and we will solve the grand challenges of humanity. And then you've got this fellow at Stanford Law School whose researching the ethics and legal issues of advancing technologies. And this professor is really worried about the dark side of technology and the nightmares that are being created by the people who are taking these technologies and using them for bad. So it's a very interesting era we're headed into. The only thing that's certain is that change will happen. The only thing that's certain is that technologies will advance. The only thing that's certain is that we will have good and we will have bad. It's really up to us to decide what we do with it and how we deal with these advances. We can make the world, the Star Trek utopia we dreamed about, or we can make it a Mad Max madhouse and be killing each other and destroy humanity. It's really up to us. So this is why I encourage students to now start learning ethics and values and to focus on bettering the world because it's really up to us what we do with it. We need more people now focused on the betterment of humanity, on using technology for good versus evil so we can balance it out. The bad will always be there, we just have to have more people doing good and uplifting humanity. If we do that we can have this amazing utopian world that we watched on Star Trek where we fix the problems of humanity, we're now going to new lands, to new galaxies exploring new worlds and uplifting humanity and the rest of the universe as a whole.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton



Singularity University's Vivek Wadhwa why he's both optimistic and pessimistic about the inevitable change that will come about by way of technological advancement. The biggest reason for optimism is that he sees many industries growing at exponential rates thanks to technological innovations. By the 2030s we should have secured unlimited energy, clean vehicles, mass-produced 3d-printed meat, and other mankind-bettering innovations. Of course, there's also a dark side to the development of technologies that cut humans out of from workforce, pose threats as killer viruses, and outpace society's laws and ethics.

It's up to us, he says, to take these tech innovations and work toward solving the problems of humanity rather than creating more of them through selfishness and greed.

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