This coming November, an important international institution in the field of technology, Singularity University, will make its Greek debut. SingularityU Greece Summit, which will take place at the Athens Concert Hall on November 19 and 20, will be a showcase of the innovations that are set to dominate tomorrow’s economy: the “internet of things,” artificial intelligence, biotechnology and so on.
The man behind Singularity University is Peter Diamandis. This passionately optimistic Homo universalis – an author, a scientist and an entrepreneur, among other things – was interviewed by Kathimerini via email and commented on exponential technologies and how they will change the world, as well as the opportunities and the challenges that they will create. He also told the story of his family, and how it infused him with the insatiable ambition which led him to look up to the stars – not just in contemplation, but in search of a way to get there.
We started off with Singularity University: What led to its creation? How does he view its mission? “I founded my first university when I was still a graduate student, at MIT and Harvard Medical School, in 1987. It was the International Space University, which I started with Bob Richards and Todd Hawley. The idea was based on the fact that at the time there wasn’t an institution that taught all aspects of space – from legislation and policy to the engineering aspects and the technology. Today, ISU is housed in a wonderful 100-million-dollar campus in Strasbourg, France. Fast forward 20 years: It’s 2007 and I’m backpacking through Patagonia in Chile and I’ve got a copy of Ray Kurzweil’s book, ‘The Singularity is Near’ – Ray had just joined the board of trustees at the XPRIZE Foundation. Reading the book, I thought that there wasn’t a place one could go and get an overview of all these exponential technologies, whose power is doubling every year, and of how they will affect business, society, our families.”
As he tells it, he wrote a brief proposal for such an institution and sent it to Kurzweil, who “loved the idea.” Shortly thereafter, Diamandis chaired the founding conference for Singularity University at NASA’s Ames Research Center, near San Francisco, with the participation of Google’s Larry Page, among others. The mission of Singularity University, its co-founder explains, is “to educate graduate students, entrepreneurs and executives about exponential technologies and how they can be used to solve the biggest problems of the planet and create a world of abundance. As I’m fond of saying to my SU classes, the biggest problems in the world are also the biggest business opportunities. You want to make a billion dollars? Find a way to help a billion people.”
Diamandis is also the brains behind the XPRIZE Foundation, which organizes and funds large-scale tech competitions aiming to solve some of the greatest challenges that humanity faces (other than Kurzweil, its board of trustees includes Larry Page, Arianna Huffington and the director James Cameron).
The logic of the XPRIZE, he explains, is first of all about “leveraging your philanthropic dollar. Historically, when you spend one dollar on some philanthropic cause, only 20-30 percent ends up benefiting that cause. With large-scale incentive competitions, the initial amount offered is increased fivefold, tenfold or more through the spending of the participating teams. The second thing is we don’t preguess who has the breakthrough. I like to say that the day before something is truly a breakthrough, it is still a crazy idea. With the XPRIZE, we tell the contestants that we don’t care about where they went to school, what their background is; if they solve the problem, they win. It is a pure meritocracy – and it is very efficient: You have 50 or 500 teams tackling the problem, and you only pay someone if they solve it.”
The Greek-American “cyber-utopian,” however, doesn’t just engage in philanthropic or educational activities. Among the companies he has founded is Planetary Resources, whose objective is asteroid mining.
Diamandis believes it is “inevitable” that such activity will take place. Right now, he explains, “it is impossible for spaceships to refuel in space, and this limits what they can do. It’s like traveling from Athens to Thessaloniki without gas stations on the way – you’d have to carry a massive fuel tank on top of your car. By mining asteroids, we hope to produce liquid oxygen, which is 80 percent of the mass of the fuel on space rockets. I think we’ll see private missions to Mars within the next decade, and Elon [Musk] is focused on getting to Mars with human missions by 2024. Even if it takes him until 2028, it’s still extraordinary!”
He admits that the financial and regulatory issues are “complicated.” “It’s really hard – as it was for the first explorers who discovered the New World. Everything is difficult, until you make it happen. And we have more access to capital now than ever before, more access to exponential technologies – sensors, networks, computers that can do high-resolution simulations, 3D printing of components… All this is making opening up space very possible!”
How optimistic is he that his innate optimism, his quintessentially American “can-do attitude,” can be injected into Greece – a country emerging deeply wounded from a long recession, with its citizens desperate for meaningful change?
“Exponential technologies are the great tool of democratization,” he says. “An entrepreneur in Athens has access to the same computing power, the same knowledge, the same possibilities of raising money through crowdfunding and 3D printing via the cloud as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley or Israel. So this is an amazing time to be an entrepreneur: What matters is will, commitment, not geography.
“In this time of abundance, I know many Greeks who are driven to learn, driven to greatness. But there is also another side of Greece, which I’m not excited about: the Greece which prefers to party rather than work hard. In order to succeed, whether in Greece or London or the US, you have to work hard around the clock. The other thing that I get angry about is the constant talk of how great Greece used to be 2,000 years ago. I’m tired of talking about the past. I want to focus on the future of the country, how it wants to brand itself on the world stage, which entrepreneurs it is going to support.”
From Lesvos to space, in two generations
Diamandis grew up in New York in a comfortable home as a second-generation Greek American. The circumstances of his father’s upbringing, however, were much more humble.
“I grew up in a very close family and I knew my father’s story from a young age: how he traveled from the small village of Mystegna on Lesvos to Athens to take the medical school exam – his own father, who was very stern, had told him not to come back unless he passed, and he took it seriously…
“All his friends and relatives stayed at home and became teachers or priests. He had a bigger vision.
“In Athens, he met my mother, and within two days they were engaged. My mother had been living in the US since she was 10, and, two years after their engagement, he followed her to New York.
“He didn’t speak a word of English at the time, and it took him six years to get his medical license, but he did it, and became a very successful obstetrician-gynecologist.
“He was a very good man, with a strong moral sense, who taught me the fundamental principles that have guided me in my life to this day. And I see his journey, from a small village on Lesvos to a successful practice in New York, as equivalent to my ambition to get to the moon or Mars.”
A world of haves and super-haves
The cheerleaders of the new digital age are constantly advertising the benefits of the new technological breakthroughs. The question must be asked though: What do you think of the dangers that come with them – to privacy, to truth and the perception of objective reality, to individual freedom?
“Technology always combined promise and peril – from the knife that could be used for hunting or to kill someone, to fire, which could be used to cook or to burn down homes. In the new age of abundance, in the next few years, we will have 50 billion digitally connected devices on the planet, and a trillion sensors. Ten years after that, it will be 500 billion devices and 100 trillion sensors – they will be able to see and measure everything. Hundreds of satellites will be in orbit, millions of drones will be flying through the air, the streets will be filled with autonomous vehicles which will perceive everything that occurs within a 100-meter radius. So it will be very difficult to do anything in secret. This will inevitably mean a loss of privacy; but it also means that those who wish to do harm will always be observed. If a demonstration is being broadcast via a television camera, it is less likely that the evil dictator will oppress women and children. One of the foundations I support in Africa, the Lindbergh Foundation, sends drones over herds of elephants and rhinoceroses; when the poachers see the drones, they stay away from the herds. In the United States, police cars now have cameras; if they record the police officer beating a suspect, the officer will be brought to justice. When we are being observed, we tend to behave more ethically. There will certainly be challenges caused by new technologies – but these challenges will be solved by technology itself.”
In the future, as Diamandis envisions it, his digital assistant will have access to everything he says, reads or hears, and will help him identify his biases and tell the difference between reality and its simulations. “We are moving toward a time in which AI will be able to create things that look entirely real – images, sounds – but are not. The question is not whether this kind of technological progress should or should not happen. It’s happening anyway, it cannot be stopped. The question is how do we use it to make the world a better place. And today there are more entrepreneurs out there than ever before, who are finding solutions to problems.”
What will determine whether the new technologies will be used for good – to free humanity instead of enslaving it, to eliminate poverty instead of increasing inequality?
“I’ll begin with the last point, because it’s very important that this message is conveyed to your readers. There is a widening gap between rich and poor – but it’s not what people should be focusing on. In the past, there were the kings, the royal family up on the hilltop, and everyone else, who had nothing. What’s happening now is that we are moving very quickly toward a world of haves and super-haves. We are lifting up every man, woman and child on the planet – meeting their needs for food, water, education, healthcare. Yes, there will be some trillionaires living on Mars. But I’d rather live in a world where we have raised the baseline for everyone and there are some super-haves than one in which humanity languished for millennia, with the great mass of people in extreme poverty.”
Diamandis turns his gaze to the way things were 100 years ago: “In 1918, 50 million people died from the Spanish flu, following the 15-20 million who were killed in World War I. We romanticize the past, but we forget that life then was brutish and short, that so many people lived like slaves in order to survive. Since then, thanks to technology, we live in a world of incredible abundance.”