As we enter our third decade in the 21st century, it seems appropriate to reflect on the ways technology developed and note the breakthroughs that were achieved in the last 10 years.
The 2010s saw IBM’s Watson win a game of Jeopardy, ushering in mainstream awareness of machine learning, along with DeepMind’s AlphaGO becoming the world’s Go champion. It was the decade that industrial tools like drones, 3D printers, genetic sequencing, and virtual reality (VR) all became consumer products. And it was a decade in which some alarming trends related to surveillance, targeted misinformation, and deepfakes came online.
For better or worse, the past decade was a breathtaking era in human history in which the idea of exponential growth in information technologies powered by computation became a mainstream concept.
As I did last year for 2018 only, I’ve asked a collection of experts across the Singularity University faculty to help frame the biggest breakthroughs and moments that gave shape to the past 10 years. I asked them what, in their opinion, was the most important breakthrough in their respective fields over the past decade.
My own answer to this question, focused in the space of augmented and virtual reality, would be the stunning announcement in March of 2014 that Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion. Although VR technology had been around for a while, it was at this precise moment that VR arrived as a consumer technology platform. Facebook, largely fueled by the singular interest of CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has funded the development of this industry, keeping alive the hope that consumer VR can become a sustainable business. In the meantime, VR has continued to grow in sophistication and usefulness, though it has yet to truly take off as a mainstream concept. That will hopefully be a development for the 2020s.
Below is a decade in review across the technology areas that are giving shape to our modern world, as described by the SU community of experts.
Dr. Tiffany Vora | Faculty Director and Vice Chair, Digital Biology and Medicine, Singularity University
In my mind, this decade of astounding breakthroughs in the life sciences and medicine rests on the achievement of the $1,000 human genome in 2016. More-than-exponentially falling costs of DNA sequencing have driven advances in medicine, agriculture, ecology, genome editing, synthetic biology, the battle against climate change, and our fundamental understanding of life and its breathtaking connections. The “digital” revolution in DNA constituted an important model for harnessing other types of biological information, from personalized bio data to massive datasets spanning populations and species.
Crucially, by aggressively driving down the cost of such analyses, researchers and entrepreneurs democratized access to the source code of life—with attendant financial, cultural, and ethical consequences. Exciting, but take heed: Veritas Genetics spearheaded a $600 genome in 2019, only to have to shutter USA operations due to a money trail tangled with the trade war with China. Stay tuned through the early 2020s to see the pricing of DNA sequencing fall even further … and to experience the many ways that cheaper, faster harvesting of biological data will enrich your daily life.
Alex Gladstein | Chief Strategy Officer, Human Rights Foundation
The past decade has seen Bitcoin go from just an idea on an obscure online message board to a global financial network carrying more than 100 billion dollars in value. And we’re just getting started. One recent defining moment in the cryptocurrency space has been a stunning trend underway in Venezuela, where today, the daily dollar-denominated value of Bitcoin traded now far exceeds the daily dollar-denominated value traded on the Caracas Stock Exchange. It’s just one country, but it’s a significant country, and a paradigm shift.
Governments and corporations are following Bitcoin’s success too, and are looking to launch their own digital currencies. China will launch its “DC/EP” project in the coming months, and Facebook is trying to kickstart its Libra project. There are technical and regulatory uncertainties for both, but one thing is for certain: the era of digital currency has arrived.
Business Strategy and Entrepreneurship
Pascal Finnette | Chair, Entrepreneurship and Open Innovation, Singularity University
For me, without a doubt, the most interesting and quite possibly ground-shifting development in the fields of entrepreneurship and corporate innovation in the last ten years is the rapid maturing of customer-driven product development frameworks such as Lean Startup, and its subsequent adoption by corporates for their own innovation purposes.
Tools and frameworks like the Business Model Canvas, agile (software) development and the aforementioned Lean Startup methodology fundamentally shifted the way we think and go about building products, services, and companies, with many of these tools bursting onto the startup scene in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
As these tools matured they found mass adoption not only in startups around the world, but incumbent companies who eagerly adopted them to increase their own innovation velocity and success.
Ramez Naam | Co-Chair, Energy and Environment, Singularity University
The 2010s were the decade that saw clean electricity, energy storage, and electric vehicles break through price and performance barriers around the world. Solar, wind, batteries, and EVs started this decade as technologies that had to be subsidized. That was the first phase of their existence. Now they’re entering their third, most disruptive phase, where shifting to clean energy and mobility is cheaper than continuing to use existing coal, gas, or oil infrastructure.
Consider that at the start of 2010, there was no place on earth where building new solar or wind was cheaper than building new coal or gas power generation. By 2015, in some of the sunniest and windiest places on earth, solar and wind had entered their second phase, where they were cost-competitive for new power. And then, in 2018 and 2019, we started to see the edge of the third phase, as building new solar and wind, in some parts of the world, was cheaper than operating existing coal or gas power plants.
Liz Specht, Ph. D | Associate Director of Science & Technology, The Good Food Institute
The arrival of mainstream plant-based meat is easily the food tech advance of the decade. Meat analogs have, of course, been around forever. But only in the last decade have companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods decided to cut animals out of the process and build no-compromise meat directly from plants.
Plant-based meat is already transforming the fast-food industry. For example, the introduction of the Impossible Whopper led Burger King to their most profitable quarter in many years. But the global food industry as a whole is shifting as well. Tyson, JBS, Nestle, Cargill, and many others are all embracing plant-based meat.
Digital Manufacturing and 3D Printing
Andre Wegner | Founder/CEO, Authentise, Chair, Digital Manufacturing, Singularity University
For me, the most important moment occurred in 2015, when HP and then Carbon, announced polymer 3D printing machines that were an order of magnitude faster than their peers three months apart from each other. That was a milestone because it showed that the exponential function holds true for manufacturing. The same has been proven since in many other dimensions. But that first quarter of 2015 really defines the decade for me.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
Jody Medich | CEO, Superhuman-x
The breakthrough moment for augmented and virtual reality came in 2013 when Palmer Lucky took apart an Android smartphone and added optic lenses to make the first version of the Oculus Rift. Prior to that moment, we struggled with miniaturizing the components needed to develop low-latency head-worn devices. But thanks to the smartphone race started in 2006 with the iPhone, we finally had a suite of sensors, chips, displays, and computing power small enough to put on the head.
What will the next 10 years bring? Look for AR/VR to explode in a big way. We are right on the cusp of that tipping point when the tech is finally “good enough” for our linear expectations. Given all it can do today, we can’t even picture what’s possible. Just as today we can’t function without our phones, by 2029 we’ll feel lost without some AR/VR product. It will be the way we interact with computing, smart objects, and AI. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, predicts it will replace all of today’s computing devices. I can’t wait.
Philosophy of Technology
Alix Rübsaam | Faculty Fellow, Singularity University, Philosophy of Technology/Ethics of AI
The last decade has seen a significant shift in our general attitude towards the algorithms that we now know dictate much of our surroundings. Looking back at the beginning of the decade, it seems we were blissfully unaware of how the data we freely and willingly surrendered would feed the algorithms that would come to shape every aspect of our daily lives: the news we consume, the products we purchase, the opinions we hold, etc.
If I were to isolate a single publication that contributed greatly to the shift in public discourse on algorithms, it would have to be Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction from 2016. It remains a comprehensive, readable, and highly informative insight into how algorithms dictate our finances, our jobs, where we go to school, or if we can get health insurance. Its publication represents a pivotal moment when the general public started to question whether we should be OK with outsourcing decision making to these opaque systems.
The ubiquity of ethical guidelines for AI and algorithms published just in the last year (perhaps most comprehensively by the AI Now Institute) fully demonstrates the shift in public opinion of this decade.
Ola Kowalewski | Faculty Fellow, Singularity University, Data Innovation
In the last decade we entered the era of internet and smartphone ubiquity. The number of internet users doubled, with nearly 60 percent of the global population connected online and now over 35 percent of the globe owns a smartphone. With billions of people in a state of constant connectedness and therefore in a state of constant surveillance, the companies that have built the tech infrastructure and information pipelines have dominated the global economy. This shift from tech companies being the underdogs to arguably the world’s major powers sets the landscape we enter for the next decade.
Global Grand Challenges
Darlene Damm | Vice Chair, Faculty, Global Grand Challenges, Singularity University
The biggest breakthrough over the last decade in social impact and technology is that the social impact sector switched from seeing technology as something problematic to avoid, to one of the most effective ways to create social change. We now see people using exponential technologies to solve all sorts of social challenges in areas ranging from disaster response to hunger to shelter.
The world’s leading social organizations, such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme, have launched their own venture funds and accelerators, and the United Nations recently declared that digitization is revolutionizing global development.
Raymond McCauley | Chair, Digital Biology, Singularity University, Co-Founder & Chief Architect, BioCurious; Principal, Exponential Biosciences
CRISPR is bringing about a revolution in genetic engineering. It’s obvious, and it’s huge. What may not be so obvious is the widespread adoption of genetic testing. And this may have an even longer-lasting effect. It’s used to test new babies, to solve medical mysteries, and to catch serial killers. Thanks to holiday ads from 23andMe and Ancestry.com, it’s everywhere. Testing your DNA is now a common over-the-counter product. People are using it to set their diet, to pick drugs, and even for dating (or at least picking healthy mates).
And we’re just in the early stages. Further down the line, doing large-scale studies on more people, with more data, will lead to the use of polygenic risk scores to help us rank our genetic potential for everything from getting cancer to being a genius. Can you imagine what it would be like for parents to pick new babies, GATTACA-style, to get the smartest kids? You don’t have to; it’s already happening.
Neil Jacobstein | Chair, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Singularity University
The convergence of exponentially improved computing power, the deep learning algorithm, and access to massive data resulted in a series of AI breakthroughs over the past decade. These included: vastly improved accuracy in identifying images, making self driving cars practical, beating several world champions in Go, and identifying gender, smoking status, and age from retinal fundus photographs.
Combined, these breakthroughs convinced researchers and investors that after 50+ years of research and development, AI was ready for prime-time applications. Now, virtually every field of human endeavor is being revolutionized by machine learning. We still have a long way to go to achieve human-level intelligence and beyond, but the pace of worldwide improvement is blistering.
Hod Lipson | Professor of Engineering and Data Science, Columbia University
The biggest moment in AI in the past decade (and in its entire history, in my humble opinion) was midnight, Pacific time, September 30, 2012: the moment when machines finally opened their eyes. It was the moment when deep learning took off, breaking stagnant decades of machine blindness, when AI couldn’t reliably tell apart even a cat from a dog. That seemingly trivial accomplishment—a task any one-year-old child can do—has had a ripple effect on AI applications from driverless cars to health diagnostics. And this is just the beginning of what is sure to be a Cambrian explosion of AI.
Divya Chander | Chair, Neuroscience, Singularity University
If the 2000s were the decade of brain mapping, then the 2010s were the decade of brain writing. Optogenetics, a technique for precisely mapping and controlling neurons and neural circuits using genetically-directed light, saw incredible growth in the 2010s.
Also in the last 10 years, neuromodulation, or the ability to rewire the brain using both invasive and non-invasive interfaces and energy, has exploded in use and form. For instance, the Braingate consortium showed us how electrode arrays implanted into the motor cortex could be used by paralyzed people to use their thoughts to direct a robotic arm. These technologies, alone or in combination with robotics, exoskeletons, and flexible, implantable, electronics also make possible a future of human augmentation.