Using tech to build a better world for tomorrow


TAGS: Interview, Technology, Conference

Ramez Naam is the embodiment of the spirit of universal curiosity that runs through Singularity University. During his 13 years at Microsoft, he worked on internet search, email and browsing services. He holds 19 patents in a wide range of areas, from search engines to AI and machine learning. Naam is also an entrepreneur and the author of a number of fiction and nonfiction books. In our email conversation, we covered aspects of the future ranging from clean energy to self-driving cars.

What is the purpose of Singularity University and the Singularity Summits? What do you define as exponential technologies and how do you help companies/countries embrace them and benefit from them?

Singularity University is dedicated to helping leaders use exponential technologies – like AI, robotics, blockchain and biotechnology, to name a few – to improve the world, improve their business, and improve the lives of billions. Exponential technologies like computing and mobile phones have already helped billions of people around the world. At the same time, they’ve empowered startups and entrepreneurs to launch businesses that disrupted established incumbents. If we want to use exponential technologies to improve our businesses and our nations, we have to understand the way in which they disrupt.

Greece is notoriously behind in adopting disruptive technologies, especially in its public sector. What is the most important precondition for a government like Greece’s to leapfrog into the digital age?

You need an open marketplace, where it’s easy to start a business, where regulation doesn’t overly stifle new business ideas and new technologies. You also need a government that’s transparent and open, that publishes real, accurate, timely data about its activities and about the nation as a whole back to its citizens and businesses. And you need to align incentives, so people who use these technologies to improve Greece – either from within the public sector or by launching new businesses – are rewarded and serve as role models for others to do more.

How soon could clean energy replace fossil fuels and nuclear fission as our main energy sources? What are the key factors that will determine this? Why is solar energy used for only 2 percent of the world’s electricity generation if the technology is now so much more cost-effective?

Clean energy like solar and wind is still in its infancy. It’s only in the last three or four years that we saw the first cases of solar being cheaper than coal or gas anywhere in the world. But that tipping point – which first happened only in the sunniest parts of the world – is now spreading away from the poles. In the south of Germany, for the first time, we’ve seen open auctions where solar has come in, without any subsidies, as cheaper than coal. That means that in Greece, one of the sunniest places in Europe, we should now be able to build solar power cheaper than coal or gas, if we have truly open power markets and auctions. By my estimates, within 10 to 12 years, solar and wind together will be more than a third of all electricity production, and will be larger than coal, gas, nuclear or hydro.

What role will energy storage play in the clean energy future?

Energy storage is absolutely critical. The sun goes down at night. Wind speeds go up and down. Cheap energy storage can enable us to capture solar and wind energy when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, and save them to use in the evenings and in low wind situations. Energy storage is still extremely expensive – it’s actually several times more expensive to store a kilowatt hour of electricity in a battery than it is to capture it via solar or wind in the first place. But that is changing. The price of batteries has dropped by 80 percent – a factor of 5 – just since 2010. Batteries are dropping in price at the same pace solar did a decade ago.

How optimistic are you that level 5 autonomous driving will become ubiquitous? Won’t it be hard for society to accept deaths (albeit far fewer) caused by machines with the rise of driverless cars? And won’t the full safety benefits only be felt once driving is fully autonomous – thus creating a bit of a catch-22?

We’re on the verge of what most people would see as fully autonomous vehicles. My own best guess is that by 2020 at the latest, millions of people in some major cities will be able to use an app to call a ride from an autonomous vehicle. That’ll happen at first only in large cities, perhaps mostly in the US, and perhaps only in cities with good weather. Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, with its sunny weather, fairly orderly traffic and wide streets, is one of the cities that Google’s company Waymo is looking to launch in as soon as the end of this year. Those vehicles will actually be what we think of as “Level 4” autonomous. They’ll be geo-fenced to within a city, meaning they don’t do everything humans do. But riders mostly won’t care.

Most people will first encounter an autonomous vehicle not by buying one – but by riding in one in one of these pay-by-the-trip fleets. And those vehicles, largely, will be electric, since electric vehicles are cheaper per kilometer than gasoline vehicles. That combination of factors – autonomous driving, paying for rides rather than paying to buy a vehicle, and electric mobility – will change transportation at an incredible pace.

How concerned should we be about the dark side of all this? If job losses from globalization have led to such political turbulence in the West, what would the full blossoming of AI, IoT etc do?

We’ve never invented a technology that only had good sides. Trains took soldiers to the front in World War I, and fueled a conflict that killed millions. Airplanes were used to drop bombs. Coal power and gasoline engines created smog and emitted greenhouse gases that fuel climate change.

So, yes, there are going to be dark sides. And we should be paying careful attention to how to address them. At the same time, all that technology has led us to today – to the best age we’ve ever seen in history. Today a smaller fraction of humanity is desperately poor than ever. A smaller fraction of humanity is hungry than ever. More people can read than ever. More people live in a democracy than ever. You’re less likely to die of murder or warfare than ever. Our trajectory as a species tells me that we’ll mostly use these technologies to build an even better world tomorrow than we have today.