Mind Altering Substance: Exponential Technology with Salim Ismail

Mind Altering Substance: Exponential Technology with Salim Ismail

It’s not every day that Wellington audiences hear a presentation from a man who can predict the future.

But yesterday, we got pretty darn close, with a visit from Salim Ismail, Founding Director of Singularity University.

As part of a speaking series hosted by Callaghan Innovation, Salim provided a mind-altering peek into the very near futures of driverless cars, artificial intelligence, robotics, global internet connectivity and the disruptive implications of such exponential technologies on societies and organisations. While these technologies may appear to some as little more than fun toys and gadgets, the potential to drastically improve life for billions of people around the world, as is the mission of Singularity University, cannot be denied.

Our mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.
— Singularity University
Salim Ismail, Founder, Singularity University

Salim Ismail, Founder, Singularity University

Everything is changing exponentially

Salim started out by explaining the exponential nature of advances in technology over the past 110 years, Ten years ago, we had half a billion devices connected to the internet. Now, we are up to 12 billion. Shortly after 2100, it is expected that there will be over 1 trillion devices connected to the internet - or indeed, whatever means of global connectivity might supersede the internet, as core to Salim’s message was the fact that we simply don’t know what technology will look like in a few decades.

Understanding exponential advancement: If you were to take 30 large steps in a linear fashion, you will have walked about 30 metres. If you were to take one large step, and then double the length of that stride for each consecutive step, after 30 steps, you will have travelled over 1 billion metres, or more than 27 times around the Earth.

If we are doubling our computing power every 18 months, imagine what will be possible in just a few decades time?

Scarcity will no longer be an issue

When we consider that technology is changing exponentially, we are facing a future of abundance, in ways that we can’t imagine. Core to this theory is the great power of exponential technologies to decentralise production and distribution of goods, the provision of healthcare and even the production of food.

We’re extremely optimistic about the future of the world.
— Salim Ismail

Salim provided a few examples of rates of change at which huge disruptions are occurring:


The first prototype of the sensor technology used in Google’s driverless car was developed at a price tag of about $300,000. Understandably, there was scoffing from commentators that it would never be viable. Two years later, another iteration was produced for $75,000. Better, but still too expensive for the average consumer, right? Two more years of development, and this technology can now be produced for about $1,000.


The implications for the developing world are especially exciting. UAV technology is currently doubling in capacity every nine months. Quadcopter drones currently have the capacity to carry packages of about 4kg. Very soon, that will double to 8kg, and then again to 16kg. Imagine what this could do to help with the provision of aid to remote areas, such as the thousands of villages devastated by the Nepal earthquakes, that are inaccessible by road?


Also of great relevance to the developing world will be widespread internet connectivity in ways previously unimaginable. The Google Loon project, which is testing prototypes right here in New Zealand, aims to put high altitude weather balloons into the atmosphere to deliver broadband internet anywhere in the world. When this project was announced there was huge cries of doubt - not from your average Joe or Jane Bloggs, but from the specialists.

Weather balloon experts explained that balloons could only stay up for about 3 weeks at a time before they freeze and fall apart. Telco providers said that you couldn’t possibly deliver internet from that far up in the atmosphere.

After two years of development, Google Loon’s balloons are staying in the atmosphere for almost 200 days at a time, and delivering broadband internet speeds of 40 Mbps.

What does this mean for organisations?

The core point of Salim’s talk was not to merely paint a picture of things to come, that even five years ago would have been dismissed as science fiction, but to provide a signal to organisations that they need to be prepared. The organisations that can be flexible and adaptive, will be the the ones who can most easily follow the curve.

It is very difficult for most people to think in exponential ways - our brains are hardwired to think in a linear fashion, as this is how everyday life around us has developed for the vast majority of humankind’s time on earth.

It is the same for organisations. We think of competition as those other companies who are producing similar products and services, or at least are in a parallel industry. Salim told the story of an executive of an Italian coffee company panicking upon learning of new research showing how specific kinds of music improves brain activity, helping people focus better.

If people can focus through music, will they continue to buy coffee? The Italian executive never would have expected a few years ago, that a music-streaming service such as Focus At Will, might potentially disrupt his coffee sales.

The best advice that Salim had for organisations is not to attempt to change the direction of the whole company, which for larger organisations would be a cumbersome task at best, and impossible for many. But rather, to transform the mindsets of the C suite leadership, and then to form superstar teams with the most disruptive thinkers and allow them to tinker at the edges in stealth mode. Often the targets of innovation will be in an entirely different industry - Apple is a great example of a company that does this well, moving first from computers to portable music devices, then into mobile devices, and now wearable technology.

Source: Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail

Source: Exponential Organizations, Salim Ismail

The diagram above shows the traits of the adoption of exponential technologies. The good news is, that Salim suggests only four out of these ten traits are required for a company to have a high chance of achieving 10x returns.

And for those who might have doubts that large organisations are able to be agile and flexible enough to embrace exponential technology changes, look no further than the example of Haier, Chinese manufacturers of whiteware. Salim explained how the company reorganised their 80,000 staff into 2,000 autonomous teams, who choose their own team leaders and vote collectively on what new features to work on. The result was a four-fold increase in revenues between 2000 and 2013. Proof that you are never too big to iterate and dramatically disrupt your business.

As a departing note, Salim explained that throughout the last century, large countries have had economic advantages. But in the next century, it will be small, agile countries who can identify trends and quickly change course, that will have the upper hand.

New Zealand stands to gain a lot by paying attention, and being quick to respond.

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