David Orban is a member of the Faculty of, and Advisor to the Singularity University located on the campus of the NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley. This is an interdisciplinary university whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges. Orban is also the Founder of the Network Society Research, a London based global non-profit, creating a vision and analytical tools to allow individuals, enterprises and the society at large to deal positively with the unstoppable change towards decentralized and distributed technologies disrupting the centralized and hierarchical functions of the Nation State.
A conversation with David Orban on the Exponential Technologies
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Conversation transcription below
Tiziana Casapietra: Thank you for this conversation with me. I’ve read a lot about this concept of exponentially advancing technologies. Would you like to speculate on it for us, please?
David Orban: We’ve been observing for hundreds of years how we can grow better food, how we can expand our cities, how we can increase the quality of the life of the people, and all of these happened through better and better technologies.
If hundreds of years ago the rate of change was imperceptible during the lifetime of a single person, not a lot of new things would happen. For the past couple of hundred years certainly the rate of change had accelerated, whether it is the electrification of the cities or before that the steam engine, or the automobile or the phone.
These were incredibly improving changes. In the second half of the twentieth century, food technologies prevented very negative prophecies from becoming true, because we were indeed able to feed an increasing population all over the planet, billions of people; and actually, famines and malnutrition are becoming rarer and less frequent.
We are potentially on the verge of actually eradicating poverty. So, all of these happened thanks to exponential technologies, our accumulated knowledge through the scientific method and the implementation of that knowledge in our engineering solutions across energy, transportation, manufacturing, food, health and so on.
TC: What is it the role of the individual in a world that it is driven by exponential technologies? Does it mean that technologies will lead our world or does the individual maintain a role within such a society?
DO: Already when the first automated looms in England and in France were being introduced, there was a strong movement to stop them from being adopted and used. The followers of John Locke, the Luddites, wanted to destroy these textile machines because they believed that they would substitute humans and deprive people from the jobs that they needed to feed themselves.
This was a fallacy. Jobs are not a scarce resource, there is not a limited amount of jobs.
We have the capacity of riding the wave of these technologies and to invent new types of occupation that leverage those technologies, and through them become more creative and aspire to be able to implement more complex societies and give individuals more opportunities to educate themselves and their children, to live longer and healthier lives. That is what is also happening today.
Certain professions are definitely going to disappear, it is not a great job to be working in a mine, for example.
So if robots can go into mines instead of people it will be a huge positive rather than negative.
It is the responsibility of both individuals and society at large to make sure that those people who lose their jobs have an opportunity to find jobs elsewhere, to retrain and to aspire to keep contributing to their families, to society and of course to lead meaningful lives.
TC: Yes but these robots will substitute humans, so what kind of jobs will humans be able to do?
DO: The fundamental social contract that drives society today is that you need to work in order to be a recognizably supportive member of society: you work to live.
But this is a false premise and we need to restructure the social contract.
If tomorrow we extend the range of human rights — just as today the universal declaration of human rights includes the right to health, for example — to additional rights that are endowed to individuals just because they exist, then we will be able to have a complete shift of the reference frame of our mind, to realize that new degrees of freedom become available.
And whether those new occupations and new aspirations are going to be telling robots what to do or dreaming and designing completely novel ways of benefitting ourselves and humanity at large, I am absolutely certain that there will be no problem in finding that the human ingenuity and creativity will guarantee that.
TC: A very important issues nowadays is immigration and of course the growing environmental pollution. How do you think exponentially advancing technologies will face these two issues?
DO: Let me start with the second. We are still living in an industrial organization that is based on the technologies of a hundred or even two hundred years ago.
Our carbon-based and petrochemical-based industrial society is now at the end of its life.
The next generation of technologies, which are going to be based on solar photovoltaic energy and renewable energy sources in general, will be able to generate radically new ways of achieving what we are achieving today, without pollution, including the fact that manufacturing through 3D printing, food production through hydroponics, health via wearable sensors and personalized health are also going to be restructured and the technologies that are being developed are digitizing and dematerializing the way the wealth of groups of individuals and societies is generated.
The energy intensity of a unit of output is radically decreasing, because we are learning how to do better what we want and need to do.
As far as migration is concerned, it is very clear to me that every individual has the right to find what is best for him or herself or his/her own family and to seek those geographical locations where that can be achieved, and that any restriction against this fundamental desire is an expression of non-optimal social organization.
So, in Europe, for the past fifty years we’ve constantly increased the freedom of the individuals to move, to work, to live wherever they want within Europe and this has been a great achievement. In the United States or in Asia, at different degrees, the same thing happened.
Today, there is an incredibly important crisis provoked by civil wars in certain regions. We must not forget that the achievement of giving people the opportunity to seek their future lives and the betterment of their lives must not be thrown away because of this crisis.
Actually, we have to use the crisis in order to reaffirm the value of what we have achieved.
There is a lack of political leadership and there is a lack of vision that can put this into words, that can aggregate hundreds of millions of people around it and behind it, but the ideal and the principle must be defended.
TC: I was reading that in ten-twenty years we will be nine billions in the entire World, now we are seven billions and five hundred thousand in terms of numerical population worldwide. How do you see this increase in the world population? How are exponentially advancing technologies — or the vision you have of them – facing the issue of worldwide population growth? Will we be able to feed everybody?
DO: Yes, we will be able to feed everybody. Just as we’ve been able to feed from three billion to five billion, from five billion to seven billion. There is no lack of food, fertilizers, plants and proteins. The problem we have in terms of nutrition is a problem of organization and logistics, it is not a problem of growing but a problem of distributing food.
And in terms of an increasing population, I think that it is wonderful. We need more minds, we need more brains, we need more creativity in order to be able to educate people to aim at facing the challenges of humanity and hopefully to resolve not only today’s problems but tomorrow’s problems as well.
Those societies that want to decrease their population are destined to stagnate and potentially to find themselves at the rear guard of the human endeavour.
So, I am happy that young people in Africa, in Asia, in the Americas, are coming into the human family and I would hope that the same happens in Europe as well.
TC: Ok, what you are saying is very interesting, this positive vision you have is very interesting. I’ve seen from your Facebook page that you are traveling a lot and that you also visit museums, so I’d like you to talk about contemporary art, which is what I am mainly working on. At the moment, contemporary art seems quite nostalgic — if not backward looking or even reactionary — when compared to what you are talking about, to this vision you have of the future. If you go to exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale last year, or many exhibitions I frequently visit, you can see that contemporary art is now mainly dealing with the major issues that we are facing worldwide, which we mentioned earlier on: immigration, environmental pollution. Your vision is undoubtedly much more futuristic and positive than the one transmitted by contemporary art. What do you think the role of contemporary art is, in a world driven by exponential technologies?
DO: Art is a language that we use every day to interpret the world around us.
So those artists that express the anxiety of being unable to interpret the world are actually expressing an important fact. It is not easy to understand what the consequences of these exponential technologies are. That is why it is very important for centres of science and technology to interface with the world of art. There are some wonderful initiatives around this. For example, in California both Nasa and also other institutions like the SETI Institute — the SETI program is the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence — employ artists in residence, people who are tasked with having a very open dialogue with scientists and engineers and translate those dialogues in works of art that can be in a language that a broader number of people understand.
It happens in Europe as well. CERN, for example — the European research centre that produced, designed and built the machine that discovered the Higgs boson and other particles, a Nobel prize-winning endeavour in Geneva, Switzerland — has artists in residence with the same objective. So, this collaboration is extremely important.
At the same time, we are biologically programmed to pay much more attention to dangers than to positive messages.
So, I’m not surprised that Hollywood movies tend to describe the future more in terms of dystopias rather than in terms of utopias, because they sell more tickets.
It is fine, and just because those pictures of the future are frightening, that doesn’t mean that it’s the reality, that it’s going to become our future reality; it is cathartic and a vision of what we should actually avoid. So it’s entertaining, it’s fun and it’s fine.
TC: I would like you tell us something about yourself, your main commitments and also your personal vision of the future.
DO: Sure. I’ve been studying and applying exponential technologies for the past twenty years and more. I’ve created, advised and grown start-ups both in Europe and in the US by the dozens, literally, many of which have become successful.
Through this experience, I really developed a vision that takes exponentials for granted, allowing me to ask myself “What’s next?”; and I see an important shift coming, which leverages exponential technologies in organizations that are distributed and decentralized. Just like we are talking over the Internet between two continents, eliminating the distance between each other, thousands and millions of people are able to collaborate today in this way, whether in energy, manufacturing, food, finance, security, learning, even policy-making. Decentralized networks are giving a competitive advantage, as opposed to centralized and hierarchical ones.
Two years ago, I founded a non-profit called Network Society Research that is analysing this shift.
It is a think-tank now, with representatives in over thirty countries, and now I’m in the process of launching Network Society Ventures, which is an investment fund that invests in start-ups, teams, technologies, ideas that implement these technologies for huge economics upsides.