“May you live in interesting times.”
— Chinese proverb
This (somewhat liberally translated) Chinese proverb is something you hear often in Silicon Valley these days. Some say it is a curse. Regardless, nobody denies its truth when it comes to the changing technology brings to our world.
Driven by the exponentially accelerating rate of technological progress we now have (literally) supercomputers in our pockets, can access the world’s information at our fingertips, can sequence genes in our kitchen labs, and 3D print prototypes on our desktops. Gordon Moore’s 50-year-old prediction that “the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years” (know commonly as Moore’s law) holds up to this day and has long spilled over into other technologies and industries: your iPhone 10 has 1000 times the computational power of a Cray 1 supercomputer from the mid-1970s at about 1/50,000th of the cost—a staggering 50 million times price/performance improvement. Sequencing the human gene took us a from performance ratio to conventional sources of energy like coal—turning a scarce natural resource into something that will be abundantly available at little to no cost in the near-term future.
Experts will gladly tell you that computational power is already abundant, as is the storage of all that data our connected systems produce. Sequencing our genome will be close to free within the next 10 years or so. And you will soon pay a small flat fee for being connected to the electric grid but not pay for the actual electrons anymore.
All this progress, at an ever-increasing pace, creates a wealth of new opportunities and disrupts exist- ing markets faster and more forceful than ever before. Ray Kurzweil formulated this in the law of accelerating returns: once an industry becomes information-enabled it moves on an exponential curve. Thus finding industries that are not yet information enabled (and there are plenty) and bringing these into the information age is one of the most promising business ideas these days.
“We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”
— Albert Einstein
At the same time, humanity faces pressing and severe problems.
The United Nations predicts that by 2050 our planet will be populated by 9 billion people, which makes food supply a fundamental issue. Today, with about 7.2 billion people living on Earth, we technically have enough food; it is just not equally distributed (which is by no means an easy problem to solve). To feed the projected number of people, we need to grow our agricultural output by 2% year over year. Over the last few decades, we grew output by 1%, which makes one look at the current GMO debate through a very different lens.
Global Warming is already a major contributor to unpredictable and often devastating changes in weather patterns. A large number of experts suggest that by the turn of the century the sea levels will rise by as much as 2 meters. Whole countries such as Bangladesh will be flooded, should we see such a dramatic rise in our oceans. This will result in a mass movement of people as they flee to higher ground. If you want to get a taste of what this looks like, just look at the Syrian refugee crisis in the European Union.
Or take water: without access to clean drinking water, most other interventions, such as better learning tools, access to electricity, or economic opportunities, are moot. And despite the technology being available to make even the most polluted water potable, more than 800 million people globally don’t have access to clean drinking water.
All these, and many others, challenges are large-scale, often intertwined, complex, and pressing. And technology, particularly the technologies that move on an exponentially accelerating curve, can and almost certainly will be our best tool to solve these grand global challenges.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
— George Bernard Shaw
Let me introduce you to my friend, Nithya Ramanathan. Nithya teaches computer science at UCLA. A few years ago, Nithya started to fixate on a problem that affects millions of people, mostly children, worldwide: spoiled vaccines.
Most vaccines require proper cooling and handling on their journey from point of production to consumption. They need to be kept at a specific temperature without too much variance. This logistic chain is called the cold chain. And 75% of vaccines in the developing world show signs of freezing, with an estimated one-fourth to one-third of all vaccines that are administered being ineffective.
Nithya, together with a small team, developed an internet-connected temperature sensor that travels with the vaccine fridge through the cold chain. Constantly measuring the temperature and sending information about irregularities to both the nurse and doctor who are administering the vaccine as well as cloud-based software, Nithya’s device provides, for the first time, not only real-time insights into the status of an individual batch of vaccines but also an aggregated view into where the problems typically occur.
The device is now used in six countries; in three states in India alone there are now 11,000 devices in the field, saving the lives of millions of babies each year. And trust me, Nithya has barely just begun.
The remarkable thing about Nithya’s solution is that her device is incredible simple: by leveraging a readily available exponential technology — a cheap, $30, Chinese — manufactured Android smartphone combined with a tiny bit of simple, custom hardware, a temperature sensor, and a bit of software — Nithya’s team have built the most successful intervention in the field today.
“Work is love made visible. The goal is not to live forever; the goal is to create something that will.”
— Kahlil Gibran
Here’s the reason why I am telling you all this: everybody can do this. Everybody can be Nithya, get up, assemble a small team, pick a big, hairy problem, and tackle it. Even if you are not a software developer, hardware hacker, or bioengineer, I am confident that you know people who are.
Collectively, we are creating a world of technological abundance—readily available, cheap, and easy to use. It is for us to use it in the best possible way. It is on us to ask ourselves, What does it take to make the problem go away?