We live in a world of exponentially increasing technology advancements. Never in the history of mankind have so many such advancements emerged in parallel and in combination, carrying so much impact.
The phenomena are marked in time: The timing from what once seemed impossible to possible and functional can become extremely short – sometimes measured in just days or weeks. Ever heard the maxim that internet years are like dog years, where one in actual elapsed time equates to seven? Exponential advancement is the reason.
Some exponential advancements are now so predictable, such as the rate of growth of computing power, that companies have baked-in the expected advancements in their products. Similarly, it is fairly predictable that full genome sequencing today can be done for a few hundreds of dollars, as opposed to the thousands required in 2015, or the millions in 2006, or the billions for the first full sequence in 2003. The speed of wireless communications will soon multiply by at least 10X, and deep learning will continue to exponentially advance in capability in our near future. And all of this is happening in concert. As a result, it has become harder and harder to develop new companies based on any of these advancements alone.
The greatest opportunities for new venture breakthroughs come when we apply multiple exponentially growing advancements of these technologies together. Call this the “collision of exponential technologies.” This collision amplifies both power and possibility. It’s not the old business adage of 1+1=3. It’s 1+1=1000.
When our team created the Siri venture and launched the first mobile virtual assistant in 2010, we had three fundamental insights — the last of which made it all possible:
First, we understood that clumsy point-and-click access on smartphones was dramatically reducing the number of people transacting on websites. Providing a solution to this pain point was our goal.
Second, we realized there was a new market opportunity for a smartphone system that was better able to search for things and even do things for you. We conceived of a virtual assistant that would understand your query, recognize your intention, reason about it, and provide you an answer. Such a system could massively reduce the number of keystrokes to getting an answer.
Third, we grasped that there was specific opportunity in the collision of (1) the exponentially advancing computational power, speed, and storage on the iPhone, (2) then-recent progress in AI algorithms for recognizing speech and intent, and (3) the proliferating cloud services for computing, storage, and access to thousands of web services.
The timing of these technology advances was crucial. The first iPhone targeted for Siri deployment did not have sufficient computing power — latency would make it too painful for consumer use. We initially restricted the market domain to areas in which Siri would be most capable of recognizing a query (travel and entertainment), so the AI system could manage missing or ambiguous information and other data-access hurdles. We needed sufficiently high-speed communications so cloud services and associated web services would be accessible and adequate.
It was truly remarkable that all of the capabilities we needed were simultaneously and exponentially advancing in approach to the time we could build a mobile personal assistant.
Without any one of these, Siri would have remained science fiction — too slow, or too error prone, or unable to recognize a user’s intent. But with the collision of all the necessary elements, Siri became the first mobile application to put the power of artificial intelligence at the command of millions of people, helping them in their daily lives.
The virtual assistant revolution isn’t over. Siri and her multiplying “siblings” are still infants — and are on their own exponential curve. They will continue to grow their abilities to maintain context, personalize, recognize emotion, predict needs, and more.
Colliding exponentials create previously unfathomable opportunity. Here are two examples of collisions happening today which I believe we will see great breakthroughs within the next few years:
1. The anthropomorphic robotics revolution.
Robotic systems in the past were largely confined to a cage — on the factory floor building cars, for example. They were designed for repeatable and narrowly predetermined tasks. Picking up a toy, folding clothes, or loading a dishwasher seem easy to us, but have been impossible for robots. Synchronizing the technological capabilities required — programming, computation, hardware, sensors, communications — has been beyond reach.
But the collision of exponential development in new mediums, such as robot “muscle,” novel actuators for gripping, extremely light weight materials, and new battery systems; AI systems that enable situational recognition and reasoning about movement and grasping, for example; and cloud-based computing, communications, and storage solutions — all bring us to a stage where robots can “leave the cage” and work side-by-side with humans.
2. The mobility revolution.
The timing for: (1) vehicle systems internals including sensors and batteries + (2) computing, communications, and cloud services + (3) AI => autonomous mobile systems.
We’re still reinventing our concept of what’s possible in transportation. Our old definitions of cars and trucks, scooters and bikes, airplanes and even wheelchairs no longer apply. New vehicles yet to be imagined will be invented to travel the land, sea, and air.
The exponential advance of multiple supporting technologies is driving us toward a mobility revolution. This isn’t just about autonomous cars and drones. Any vehicle will be “smart” and assist in navigation, communication, safety, and more. Any vehicle will connect and communicate to other vehicles and to humans. Any vehicle will function with intelligence.
There is no doubt that colliding exponentials will also create revolutions in biotech, virtual and augmented reality, and more. Now imagine the collision of all of those revolutions! What will happen as we combine the virtual assistance with the biotech revolution, mobility, and anthropomorphic robotics? It’s up to you, dear reader, to conceive of the next great breakthroughs, but we can’t possibly imagine all that will come. That’s the nature of exponential improvement.
Every revolution produces both positive and negative impact. This has been true since the invention of the wheel — which was used to transport both food and armies — giving life and taking it.
But the opportunities for optimizing our collective health and elevating the human condition are wondrous.
My own belief is that we can’t stop the collision of exponentials and the technological revolutions they produce. To paraphrase Engelbart’s Law, it’s intrinsically human to get better at getting better.
Norman Winarsky is cofounder of Siri, Lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Advisor to Health2047 in venture development and commercialization.