Glimpsing the Future

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center lasers point toward the moon

This past week I had the privilege of working on the Innovation Partnership Program, an event co-created by XPRIZE and Singularity University. The speakers were absolutely amazing. For four days I listened to an incredible array of men and one woman who are taking an active part in creating the world around us now and into the future. Their insights blew me away.

I can’t share all of what was said because it was a private event for executives of Fortune 200 companies, but since many of the speakers have talks available online I’ll give you those references so you can experience some of their brilliance directly.

Exponential / Disruptive / Moonshot Thinking

The event’s leaders, Peter Diamandis & Salim Ismail, are on a mission to get business leaders to stop thinking linearly and start thinking exponentially, particularly to keep up with the speed of change in technology. They admonish leaders to stop trying to improve and learn to disrupt instead, encouraging them to think in terms of moonshots.

Hard to summarize this, but just know that spending 4 days listening to people who consider exponential thinking as necessary — it’s really their normal — has had its effect on me already. And this was despite the fact that I was only able to hear bits of their talks as I was working, collecting their presentations, and setting furniture and water glasses onstage…

Medical / Health

I spent years working in the HIV field, so it’s no wonder I was drawn to the medical technologies. Dan Barry and Daniel Kraft shared some mind-bending advances using robotics, AI, and sensors.

click on this picture & watch the second video. Amazing!

On the technology front, I’m particularly excited about robotics that can assist the disabled (Barry discussed current examples of exoskeletons for paraplegics¬†and robotic limbs which are controlled by thought through a Brain Computer Interface (BCI), and about nanotechnology that can isolate and target individual cells – Kraft talks about targeting the cells that cause cancer to return (at 15:17). (I wonder about the possibilities of targeting as-yet-elusive viruses, too. Such as HIV. Of course.)

P4 medicine

On a larger scale, I’m fascinated by “P4 Medicine” that Kraft mentioned. P4 Medicine is a term coined by Leroy Hood for a future in which systems thinking + advances in technology = healthcare that is Predictive, Preventive, Personal, and Participatory. Some of this is already happening, but it’s only going to get better in the future. Being able to personalize treatments – and to target them with increasing precision – makes possible a future of increasingly effective treatments, free from random side-effects.

Several speakers discussed big data, and in the field of health I remembered reading about people casting interesting epidemiological nets into the sea of social media, for instance tracking the course of a flu based on reading Facebook statuses about getting sick. As our ability to do natural language processing improves this one approach becomes more feasible. Far beyond that, as more people wear sensors to track health (like the fitbit), we’ll have ever-greater amounts of data and who knows what we’ll learn? (Personal note: I’ve been inspired to get & start wearing the fitbit myself)

Avi Reichental gave a fascinating talk on 3D printing, including how it’s being used for medical purposes (e.g., “bioprinting“). It’s like living science fiction to be able to print a new ear (already happened) or heart (still in the lab stage) using cells as the source material. The idea that in the future we could possibly print using molecular-sized building blocks led to some interesting speculation about being able to send the codes for medicines to remote locations and have them print drugs locally (and I got excited thinking about this as one way to get around cold-chain issues).

Throughout the event the questions of access and developing nations was raised. Some developments certainly help get better care more inexpensively to remote areas (e.g., smartphone based ultrasound) but others threaten to widen the gap between those who do and don’t have access to the latest technologies. Astro Teller also voiced an overall warning about how our (U.S.) system of healthcare significantly relies on people being sick to stay in business, and that we need to rethink/discover ways to make money based on keeping people well instead.

Of course there’s a dangerous side to this as well, one discussed by Marc Goodman, a defense specialist. His article in The Atlantic entitled “Hacking the President’s DNA”, co-authored with Andrew Hessel and Steven Kotler, is disturbing at the same time it’s informative. (Beyond the health arena, Goodman reiterated several of the warnings that he laid out in his TED talk.)

Autonomous Robots, Self-Driving Cars

Brad Templeton talked about the robotic car and its potential impact on the future. One really cool thought was that a robocar doesn’t need to park – it can independently move on to another task once someone has been dropped off, opening up the possibility of eliminating the need for parking and freeing up a lot of additional land in cities for things like parks, bike lanes, and walking areas.

I’m also into anything that can lead to the end of factory farming, and the idea of deliverybots which could do continuous small, frequent deliveries may be part of making that happen. Fingers crossed! Side note: The entire field of agriculture seems ripe for technology disruptions in the near future.

Crowdsourcing / Networked Everything / Urbanization

Much of the event discussed and/or included the possibilities of crowdsourcing. We’re certainly familiar with this in terms of crowdsourcing solutions to big ideas (XPRIZE) and funding (Kickstarter), but I hadn’t paid attention to companies who managed to practically and effectively implement crowdsourcing in the field of complex design. Local Motors crowdsourced car and motorcycle design, and Quirky uses the crowd to find and develop all kinds of inventions. Both companies give evidence that there are undoubtably more business models ripe for innovation.

For the first time in history, the majority of people across the globe live in urban areas. Add this to the fact that we can communicate globally easily and instantaneously, and it feels like we are just at the beginning of a new way of seeing the world, one that is less geographically dependent and more focused on the larger collective (or at least I hope so!). Does it also portend a future of city-states, as suggested by Paul Saffo?

Saffo provided my favorite takeaway quote/warning: “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” He cautioned that all this was not going to be easy. Or quick.


While the word “innovation” was core to every presentation, Larry Keeley focused on Ten Types of Innovation in the context of business. He lambasted equating developing a new product as “innovation,” giving a hilarious recreation of the “brainstorming” scene where a top exec demands “We need to innovate!” and others scramble.

Steve Jurvetson talked about disruptive innovations through a wide range of fields, noting that technology is expanding the arenas which are catching the attention of VCs. (Note: The linked talk is over 3 years old – forever in Silicon Valley – but still so relevant).

Getting Practical

9803159_origThe week wasn’t only the one-way absorption of big thoughts. The execs also did some hands-on work that revealed a bit about their thinking processes and pushed them to go bigger. Tom Wujec led them through the Marshmallow Challenge, discussed how to solve a wicked problem, and brilliantly captured the sessions with visual notetaking throughout the event, inviting creative/different thinking among the execs.

And with the big goal of getting each business to engage in moonshot thinking, Eileen Bartholomew introduced everyone to prize theory, referencing a comprehensive article by McKinsey on philanthropic prizes. She and Chris Frangione then led them all in a wild improvised exercise in prize design (one that made me thankful our production team was tight).

I dearly hope these giant companies launch the challenges they drafted that afternoon because they’re all positioned to solve major problems which could truly change the world. And that would be the best possible outcome from four days of cross-pollinating big thoughts.