Optimists at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University are pushing the frontiers of human progress through innovation and emerging technologies, looking to greater longevity and better health.
As part of his series on Making $ense of financial news, PBS NewsHour correspondent Paul Solman explores a future of exponential growth as envisioned by Singularity University and its founders such as Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, mining technology to solve the world’s problems.
NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman recently traveled to California and filed this report on some innovative thinkers. It’s part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.
PAUL SOLMAN: On the back lot at 20th Century Fox, the world of make-believe, and a typical make-believe vision of the future, courtesy of FOX CEO Jim Gianopulos.
JIM GIANOPULOS, CEO, 20th Century Fox: Here’s a little peek at what’s in store for us.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: At Weyland Industries, it has long been our goal to create artificial intelligence almost indistinguishable from mankind itself.
PAUL SOLMAN: The sci-fi pipe dream of moving pictures for as long as they have existed, but no dream to those assembled here.
This wasn’t a film industry gathering, but a conference put together by Singularity University, a futuristic Silicon Valley think tank which fosters and showcases high-tech inventions. The goal is to make the world a better place as fast as possible.
Co-founder Peter Diamandis.
PETER DIAMANDIS, chairman, Singularity University: These tools that are now in your hands allow us to really take on any challenge. It’s about the most efficient use of capital and tools that have ever existed.
PAUL SOLMAN: Singularity’s mission is to solve humanity’s most pressing problems by spurring new technologies in food, water, energy, supposedly scarce, but, with the tinkerings of technology, says Diamandis, potentially abundant.
PETER DIAMANDIS: We have the potential during our lifetime, in the next 10 to 30 years, to slay water, energy shortage, hunger, health care, educational issues, where we can create a world of abundance, where we can meet the basic needs of every man, woman and child on this planet.
PAUL SOLMAN: The key, says Diamandis, is that tech growth is not linear, one, two, three, four, five, but exponential, one, two, four, eight, 16, or even faster than that.
PETER DIAMANDIS: The rate of innovation is a function of the total number of people connected and exchanging ideas. It has gone up as population has gone up. It’s gone up as people have concentrated in cities.
You know, the coffee shop is the location where people exchange and share ideas. Now the global coffee shop is the Internet, and the more people are connected, the more innovation we have.
Think about the fact that a Masai warrior in the middle of Africa today on one of these cell phones has better mobile com than President Reagan did 25 years ago. And if they’re on Google on a smartphone, they’ve got better access to knowledge than President Clinton did 15 years ago. It’s extraordinary.
PAUL SOLMAN: But, says high-tech entrepreneur Carl Bass, we haven’t seen anything yet.
CARL BASS, CEO, Autodesk: Within five to 10 years, we will be printing biological structures with actual function.
PAUL SOLMAN: 3-D printing is already a reality, copying machines that literally copy in three dimensions toys, product prototypes, and now living things as well.
CARL BASS: There’s some fantastic work going on at Wake Forest, where they’re using that same technology of 3-D printing, and they have already printed a human kidney. It’s not ready for transplant, but I suspect, within five to 10 years, it will be.
PAUL SOLMAN: This conference was filled with sci-fi-like eye-openers. The self-driving car has now been OKed in Nevada.
DOCTOR: So we can put your hands right here.
PAUL SOLMAN: Dr. Dan Kraft gave me an EKG — and with a stent installed, I’ve had a lot of them — with his cell phone.
DOCTOR: It’s just a two-lead EKG, pretty basic. But I can see the basic things, that your heart is beating regularly, that your Q.R. complex looks normal, that you’re not having an S.T. elevation, which would be associated with chest pain or acute attack.
PAUL SOLMAN: Former astronaut Dan Barry said the day was soon coming when robots would provide all sorts of services, from the workaday to the intimate.
DAN BARRY, Singularity University: Robot sex is going to be big. It really is.
DAN BARRY: This is funny, right? But it’s not funny if you’re 75 years old and you just lost your partner and you are lonely and you’re by yourself, you still have sexual drive, and you have no outlet for that.
PAUL SOLMAN: Among the best-known inventors at the conference was Dean Kamen, whose innovations include this prosthetic arm. It freed double amputee Chuck Hildreth from total dependence, freed his wife from feeding him.
DEAN KAMEN, Founder, DEKA Research & Development Corporation: His wife is standing behind me at the time and starts to cry because she says he hasn’t fed himself. And now here he is. And she says to me, “Dean, you have got a choice. We keep the arm or you keep Chuck.”
PAUL SOLMAN: Now, Kamen and his cutting-edge contraptions may be familiar, in that we have introduced many here on the NewsHour over the years, from his medical marvels to transportation aids for overworked NewsHour correspondents. Kamen invented the Segway.
But for the past decade, Kamen’s most ambitious project may be the Slingshot, a device to make drinkable the world’s dirty water.
DEAN KAMEN: It is poison. It is toxic waste. Take water that’s got fecal matter, cryptosporidium, giardia, every other kind of organic toxin or inorganic. We said, let’s make a box that’s small and portable that you can plop down anywhere.
PAUL SOLMAN: A box the size of a dorm room fridge that almost instantaneously boils and then condenses water, 250 gallons a day.
DEAN KAMEN: Water that’s so pure, it’s equivalent to rainwater. It’s distilled water. And we believe that, if we can build these machines to scale at a cost that is, we think, highly realistic, we will be able to put these things all over the world where people that today have to make a choice between drinking something that will make them sick or possibly kill them and their children, or not drinking at all, which will surely kill them, that’s not a choice people should have to make, not in the 21st century.
PAUL SOLMAN: Kamen has cajoled Coca-Cola into distributing these devices, first venue, rural Ghana, where they’re now being installed. Eventually, Slingshots could be everywhere.
To Peter Diamandis, Kamen’s project exemplifies the mission of Singularity University.
PETER DIAMANDIS: Converting that which was scarce to that which is abundant.
PAUL SOLMAN: Abundance is the title of Diamandis’ new book, and describes his vision of the future: transformations in water, food, energy.
PETER DIAMANDIS: What people don’t realize is that we’re living on a planet that’s bathed with energy; 5,000 times more energy hits the Earth’s surface than we consume as a species in a year. It’s just not accessible yet. But there’s good news in this area. There are breakthroughs constantly in solar energy production.
Last year, in 2011, the cost of solar in the world dropped by almost 50 percent.
PAUL SOLMAN: Admittedly, solar now provides less than 1 percent of U.S. energy needs. But Singularity University’s other co-founder, Ray Kurzweil, whom we interviewed by something called Teleportec, says the public is pointlessly pessimistic.
RAY KURZWEIL, Chancellor, Singularity University: And I think the major reason that people are pessimistic is they don’t realize that these technologies are growing exponentially.
For example, solar energy is doubling every two years. It’s now only seven doublings from meeting 100 percent of the world’s energy needs, and we have 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to do that.
PAUL SOLMAN: One last high-tech frontier: meat. At the moment, livestock production takes up a third of the world’s ice-free land, generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases, via organic exhaust, front and rear.
And eating just one serving of red meat a day, says a new Harvard study, correlates with a 12 percent increased risk of death.
Enter in vitro meat, not to be confused with pink slime.
PETER DIAMANDIS: We have the technology now, it’s being done in a number of labs, to actually grow meat products in the laboratory, in the test tube, so to speak. And people say, that’s disgusting. Have you ever seen how Chicken McNuggets are made?
PAUL SOLMAN: But an in vitro hamburger doesn’t sound like it would be good for you.
PETER DIAMANDIS: Well, actually, these kinds of new food products will be far better for you, because they will have the best proteins, the best fats, the nutrients built in.
PAUL SOLMAN: It will taste like a hamburger?
PETER DIAMANDIS: It will taste better than a hamburger.
PAUL SOLMAN: By this time, we were sufficiently wowed, if not downright overwhelmed.
But, keeping our journalistic wits about us, we posed the skeptic’s question to Vint Cerf, known as the father of the Internet. Did he think this conference might just be over-hyping the future?
VINT CERF, chief Internet evangelist, Google: I have been surprised repeatedly by the things that we’ve been able to do that would have been thought to be science fiction in the past. What Craig Venter talked about this morning about creating synthetic life would have been science fiction — in fact, it was science fiction — and he’s pushed the boundaries of what’s real.
PAUL SOLMAN: But what about Craig Venter himself? The man who cracked the human genome in record time a decade ago is now hard at work creating new life forms for fuels, food and vaccines. He surprised us by issuing a warning of sorts. Singularity’s brand-new world, he said, is not just around the corner.
CRAIG VENTER, CEO, Synthetic Genomics: Most of what you’ve heard here so far today is fantasy or bull (EXPLETIVE DELETED).
PAUL SOLMAN: Venter was venting for effect, perhaps, since he too is creating the future. But think of the world’s growing problems, he says.
CRAIG VENTER: If all these dreams come true — and I hope these people are right — then we will solve everything. Nobody has the solutions in hand right now.
We have potential solutions. We don’t have ways to provide the fuel, we don’t have ways to provide the food, clean water, medicine for seven billion people now. How are we going to do it for eight, nine, 10 billion people in the coming decades?
PAUL SOLMAN: How, indeed? But here in the make-believe world of the future, you can be sure someone has started working on the question.