In this session Vivek attempted to dispel the myth that innovation has peaked. He did this by presenting numerous compelling examples of recent exciting advances in technology and describing several predicted breakthroughs. Throughout this discussion he challenged attendees to focus on saving the world instead of focusing on making a quick buck by turning out the next social media startup. He further postulated that the next billion dollar idea was not in social media, which he characterized as frivolous.
Here are a few of his examples of both where technology seems to have plateaued and, conversely, where it is accelerating.
Some examples where technology has plateaued
- We flew to this conference in aircraft that are likely 50 years old.
- In the last 2 generations nuclear power was invented and the automobile came into common use. But these technologies we interact with daily seem almost frozen now.
- The last big business boom was fueled by the social media creations of college drop-outs.
A few examples of upcoming awesome
Things look bleak. We're on the the edge of peak oil, scarcity of fresh water looms in front of us, and climate change is beginning to have very real impacts on humanity. All this time, though, we've lost sight of the progress we're making in strides.
- Smart phones put the world's information in your pocket. You, with your smart phone, have better access to developing world events than President Regan did 30 years ago. You also have better access to medical information that physicians of the 80s.
- Solar power is approaching financial parity with traditional energy generation techniques. Solar cells are already starting to pop up all over India to replace diesel generators, and this will only get better.
- The first sequencing of the human genome took 13 years and cost $3 billion. Today you can have it done for $3000. Soon it may be as cheap as $100.
- The smart phone in your pocket has more computing power than the entire world did in 1970. It also has more sophisticated sensors for acceleration and orientation than multimillion dollar projects of yesteryear.
Challenges in front of us
All of these great advances are happening, even if we don't recognize their magnitude. Based on how fast things are advancing on these fronts, immagine what impact you can have on making fresh water available to the 2.4 billion people who currently lack it. Imagine how effective you could be at helping educate the world.
Vivek's presentation was charismatic and inspiring. I felt challenged to save the world, and making an impact seemed quite possible. But, pretty quickly this feeling passed. He presented scores of examples of advancing technology and promised future breakthroughs, but one thing history has taught us is that we cannot predict when a field of development will hit unforeseen challenges and plateau. For example, solar cells may continue to advance rapidly, but our ability to store and load balance this energy may greatly reduce its impact. We never know when there's a road block around the corner.
Additionally, in an attempt to tune his discussion to and audience dominated by women, some of the claims he made started to edge into oppositional sexism. For example, he made the blanket statement that the audience is better suited to save the world because unlike men, women are altruistic and not focused on building financial wealth. As a result, we will not be distracted by starting a frivolous social media startup. These kinds of assumptions left a bad taste in my mouth. Just because we're women does not mean that we do not share some of the same drives as our male counterparts.
In spite of these issues, this session did challenge me to explore how I can better use my skills to positively impact humanity.