Thriving in an Exponential World (and Making a Difference Doing So!)

“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 change that technology brings to our world.

Driven by the exponentially accelerating rate of technological progress, we can now (literally) carry supercomputers in our pockets, sequence genes in our kitchen labs, and print 3D prototypes on our desktops.

Gordon Moore’s fifty-year-old predication that “the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years” (commonly known as Moore’s law) holds up to this day and has long spilled over into other technologies and industries: The aging iPhone 5s has 1,000 times the computational power of a Cray 1 supercomputer from the mid-70s at about 1/50,000th of the cost—a staggering fifty million times price/performance improvement.

Sequencing the human gene took us a decade and $2.7 billion at the beginning of the 21st century. Today it takes us now mere hours and costs less than $1,000. And solar energy reached parity in its price/performance ratio to conventional sources of energy like coal—turning a scarce natural resource into something which 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 ten 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 of this progress, at an ever increasing pace, creates a wealth of new opportunities and disrupts existing markets faster and more forcefully than ever before. Ray Kurzweil formulated this in his “Law of Accelerating Returns”: Once an industry becomes information-enabled, it moves on an exponential curve. Thus, finding industries which 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 by no means is 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 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. Many experts suggest that by the turn of the century the sea levels will rise by as much as two meters. Whole countries such as Bangladesh will be flooded, should we see such a dramatic rise of our oceans. This will result in a mass movement of people as they are fleeing to higher ground. If you want to get a taste of what this looks like, just look at the Syrian and Venezuelan refugee crises.

Or take water: without access to clean drinking water, most other interventions—such as better learning tools and access to electricity or economic opportunities—are moot. And despite 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 of these challenges, and many others, are large-scale, complex, pressing, and often intertwined. And technology, particularly the technologies which move on an exponentially accelerating curve, can and almost certainly will be our best tool to solve these global grand challenges.

Young Tomato Plant Under LED Grow

“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 which affects millions of people, mostly children, worldwide: spoiled vaccines.

Most vaccines require proper cooling and handling on their journey from the 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 which are administered being ineffective.

Nithya, together with a small team, developed an Internet-connected temperature sensor, called ColdTrace, which 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 a cloud-based software platform, Nithya’s device provides, for the first time, real-time insights not only 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 10 countries, saving the lives of 12.5 million 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 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, and 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 on 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?

Learn more about the progress SU’s global innovation ecosystem is making in solving the global grand challenges by downloading a copy of our free report, “The State of the Global Grand Challenges 2019” and be inspired to help create positive change.


A version of this content was originally published on The Heretic.