Hyatt Hotels has revenues of $4bn and a market value of $8.4bn. AirBnB has revenues of $250m, 13 staff, pretty much no assets, and a market value of $14bn. It will soon be the world’s largest hotel company.
Über was founded in 2009 and has a market cap of $40bn, despite – again – having pretty much no physical assets. It has taxi drivers up in arms all over the world.
Magic Leap, a virtual reality company, raised $50m in February 2014 and then $550m in October. It persuaded the second set of investors to contribute by showing them a virtual cup of coffee alongside a real one and asking them to pick up the real one.
These are examples of the new kind of company which is disrupting industries all round the world. Disruption of industries is not new, but the digital revolution means it is happening more often, and faster.
Singularity University (SU) exists to alert the rest of us to this development, and to help people discover ways to harness the digital revolution to solve the grand challenges facing humanity – challenges like hunger, poverty, poor healthcare and lack of education.
Peter Diamandis, one of the founders of SU, says the disruptive organisations exhibit the “six Ds”: as well as being Digitised and Disruptive, they are De-materialized, De-monetized, Deceptive, and Democratized. He argues that digitisation is a hugely positive force, leading to abundance where before there was scarcity. When you de-materialise a product or service, you can usually make it free at the margin.
In the three days of the SU Summit in Seville, ten SU faculty members (supported by a handful of alumni) took 1,000 delegates through the drivers and effects of the digital revolution, providing a raft of examples and advice how to start your very own disruptive organisation.
The drivers are threefold. At the root is Moore’s Law, the observation that computer processing power is doubling every eighteen months – an exponential increase. Moore’s Law helps bring the other two drivers into being. The first is the enormous proliferation of sensors, whose price has tumbled from $1,000 each to $2 in recent years, and the other is the dramatic improvement in algorithms that is improving the effectiveness of the artificial intelligence which adds value to all kinds of products and services.
The impact of the new technologies enabled by these factors is hard to over-state. Driverless cars, 3D printing, augmented reality, virtual reality, genetic manipulation, and the ability to convert healthcare from cure to prevention. Each of these changes is a revolution in itself. Together they will make the world virtually unrecognisable in a few years – and then do it all over again, only faster.
The people at SU are not blind to the potential downsides. In particular, the rapid improvement of artificial intelligence makes some people feel profoundly uncomfortable, initially because of the threat that AI will automate many human jobs out of existence, and in the longer term because of the difficulty in controlling an AI which is smarter than humans and has its own goals. The SU faculty have thought deeply about these problems, and continue to do so. They don’t have all the answers, but nobody does.
As someone who has been reading and thinking about these issues for many years, I was very impressed by the sober, thorough, and intelligent approach that SU takes. The summit definitely made me want to attend one of their courses.
The most interesting thing about the summit for me was the way SU seems to “aim off” the more radical ideas associated with its name. The word Exponential cropped up in every presentation, and usually several times. But the notion of the Singularity itself was hardly ever mentioned, and there was no coverage, for instance, of radical life extension. It almost made me think that SU should re-brand itself as the Exponential University.