Don’t be scared, be excited

Native New Yorker Kaila Colbin is the New Zealand Ambassador for Singularity University, a global community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.

In 2016, she spearheaded the successful SingularityU New Zealand Summit, the first in Australasia, with more than 1,400 attendees. She’s a co-founder and Chair of the non-profit Ministry of Awesome; the Curator and Licensee for TEDx Christchurch in New Zealand and TEDxScottBase in Antarctica; Chair of the New York-based Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts; Deputy Chair of CORE Education Ltd; and a Director of ChristchurchNZ.

“Hey lady, you’re scaring me”. Kaila Colbin chuckles as she recalls the comment called out by a member of the audience at a recent presentation to a group of educators.

It’s true; the content of Colbin’s talks may rattle her audiences out of their comfort zone.  She produces a rapid-fire stream of examples of ‘exponentially accelerating technologies’. From the development of self-driving vehicles to synthetic proteins and the increasing ability of artificial intelligence to perform formerly time-consuming professional tasks.

However, not for nothing does Colbin’s email address begin with the words ‘dontpanic’. She reminds her audiences how, with the advent of every major new technology in history, from the steam engine to the sewing machine, people feared these would take away their jobs – but they ultimately led to the creation of more employment.

She also candidly admits that participating in the Singularity University Executive Program, she too had to ‘swallow the red reality pill” in the face of a “tsunami of information’ that has ultimately coloured the way she looks at the world.

The Silicon Valley-based Singularity University (SU) was founded by Ray Kurzweil, a world-leading inventor, thinker and futurist, and Peter Diamandis, who started X-Prize, which develops contests for tech development.

“It’s a faculty full of heavy hitters and the content includes nanotechnology, bioinformatics, future crimes, medicine and neuroscience, the future of work, energy, environmental systems and more,” says Colbin.

“The immersive program is for senior leaders in business, government and non-profit sectors, with a desire to have a positive impact at scale, and who want to create their organisation’s future – and the world’s future – not simply react to it. It examines how key converging technologies will shape our future and explores ethical leadership in a world of rapid change.”

The programme fuelled Colbin’s interest in the ways technology is changing and the impact of that on humanity.

“We all know it is changing very quickly, but most of us don’t have our heads around how rate of change varies over time".

“I talk to audiences about how technology changes in exponential fashion versus linear fashion and the impacts of that on all of us, on society, healthcare, government and many others. Because everything about how we live, work and spend our leisure time is touched by technology and most of us are not prepared for the way it’s going to affect us.”

In particular, says Colbin, it’s important to talk about changes in technology in terms of price performance -  technologies travelling along the price-performance curve at an exponential rate.

“Ray Kurzweil’s main thesis is that once Technology becomes information-enabled – powered by ones and zeroes – the performance doubles on a consistent basis while the price halves. The challenge in our world is to make sure we balance the areas of concern with the opportunities - and it does offer opportunities to make things better.

“For instance, there’s concern in the law sector because repetitive jobs, such as case research, can now be automated with artificial intelligence. There’s no need for someone to go through thousands of documents to pick out the one needed. What will that mean for the young graduates who traditionally performed those roles?

“But look at accountants. They used to do a lot of detailed writing, but then Excel came along. That hasn’t meant we no longer have accountants, but they can now focus on where they offer the most value to clients. The challenge for Law, like Accountancy, will be how to provide that essential experience for newcomers to the sector so they can progress to those senior value-added roles.”

With developments once seen as impossible – like self-driving cars – now a reality, Colbin says it important to look at them as part of the bigger picture of exponential technology. As an example, she cites Moore’s Law – named after INTELCO founder Gordon Moore who, in 1965, observed that the number of transistors that could fit into an integrated circuit was doubling each year and predicted this would continue to happen.

“Thanks to Moore’s Law, we’ve gone from the 128kb of RAM boasted by my first computer, to 8 gigs on the machine I’m currently using. We’ve gone from computers that take up entire buildings, to tablets that fit in a small purse. The computing power of an iPhone X would have cost you $150 trillion in 1957.

“This same exponential improvement curve is applicable to any field that is information-based. Take artificial intelligence.  Not too long ago, it was accepted dogma that computers would never be good at recognising images. But in the past few years, the Deep Learning algorithm has gone from being able to recognise cats (as a toddler can) to numbers (as a five-year-old can) to being able to recognise mitosis or cancer cells - as a trained pathologist can.

“The same insane improvement curve can be found in all the other topic areas. It is what is making driverless cars not only possible but inevitable. It's also what’s making it possible for a single criminal to rob millions of people, or hack a police car, or hack a U.S. military drone. It’s why we can fully expect 47% (or more) of jobs to be automated by 2034.

“Exponential technologies offer exponential promise and exponential threat. They are not science fiction; they are already here. And they will absolutely change both your job and your life much faster than you expect.”

The SingularityU Australia Summit, led by the same team that created last year's successful New Zealand Summit, is happening in Sydney, 19-21 February 2018. Anthony Harper clients can get AUD$1,000 off the full ticket price -- visit the website and use the code SUAH to register at the discounted rate. 

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