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No aging, robot cars - and radical business plans

The rate of technological progress is about to shift into high gear, some futurists say. Are you ready to take advantage of the business opportunities?

By Chris Taylor, Business 2.0 Magazine senior editor


If Ray Kurzweil is right, the business landscape - indeed, the entire human race - is about to be transformed beyond all recognition.

Kurzweil is a renowned computer scientist and inventor (he built the first flatbed scanner). And no less a figure than Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has called Kurzweil the greatest thinker on artificial intelligence alive today. So when he talks, it's worth paying attention.

Here's the question Kurzweil is asking these days: What if the exponential growth shown in Moore's Law applies not just to etching transistors in silicon chips, but to all of human progress and innovation?

For many in Silicon Valley, that's not a question so much as a description of reality. Two weeks ago, the largest auditorium on Stanford University's campus was packed to capacity for the Singularity Summit. A dozen leading researchers and futurists of all stripes came together to discuss what signs of a rapidly advancing future we could already see.

At the summit, Kurzweil gave his latest vision of the future: "We won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century - it will be more like 20,000 years of progress at today's rate. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the Singularity: technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."

"In practical terms," Kurzweil added, "human aging and illness will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. Nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes, and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem."

Changing the rate of change
It's easy to dismiss the Singularity as a crackpot concept - indeed, Kurzweil pokes fun at himself by posing for his latest book, The Singularity is Near, with the title handscrawled on a sandwich board around his neck.

But for people working in technology, it's hard to argue with. Think of the long half-century it took IBM (Research) to rise to dominate the computing world. Now compare that to the decade between Microsoft's (Research) IPO and the establishment of its monopoly on operating systems. And then contrast that to Google's (Research) lightning-quick ascendance to power.

The Singularity's effects go far beyond tech, however. The most immediate impact of growing artificial intelligence, a speaker at the summit convincingly argued, will be in the auto industry.

Robot drivers
Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford AI Lab, gave an overview of the DARPA Grand Challenge, in which teams were challenged to build a car that would drive itself, without remote assistance, across the desert from LA to Las Vegas inside ten hours. In 2004, the idea was a joke, and none of the robot cars came close to finishing; in 2005, with double the number of teams entering, four cars crossed the finish line. It's hard to find a better example of the kind of utterly surprising, paradigm-shifting exponential improvement in technology that Kurzweil is talking about.

In 2007 and 2008, the DARPA Grand Challenge shifts to city streets (in particular, those of Stanford's campus, which you may want to avoid for a while). Robot cars will be challenged to complete a course while obeying all traffic laws and avoiding collisions.

Thrun predicts we'll have reliable urban robot driving by 2010, and that a majority of miles will be driven autonomously by 2030. You'll have more time to answer your e-mail, and arguments over who's going to be the designated driver would be a thing of the past.

Even this small piece of the Singularity, if true, would be immensely disruptive. Worried about the effect of rising oil prices and wages on the cost of shipping goods? You could offset both if your trucks could drive themselves across the continent, at the most fuel-efficient speed, without taking a break.

Roadside restaurants would suffer, but there'd be a whole new market for on-the-road feeding and refueling. Many McDonald's (Research) franchises would have to go mobile.

Forging new plans
Look further ahead, says Kurzweil, and you'll see nanotech taking over manufacturing in the 2020s, and uploading our brains into computer storage - digital immortality, in other words - shortly thereafter. (He's dead serious about this last part, and has put himself on a radical course of intravenous vitamins and supplements in hopes of staying alive long enough to live forever).

All three of these developments would cause such radical shifts in commerce, you could spend from now until the Singularity coming up with new business plans.

Which is precisely Kurzweil's point. Not enough of us are talking about the prospect of speeded-up change. Established businesses will become vulnerable faster than ever, unleashing new possibilities for entrepreneurs. If the Singularity happens, basically, the only limits to what you can achieve are in your imagination. So it's time to start exercising it.

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