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Data whining

One of the issues that modern machine learning approaches face is their dependence on large and well-annotated datasets. Since the beginning of this decade, we have known that the most efficient and successful way to approach image recognition is to use a neural network architecture called a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN). Several CNNs, starting from the seminal works by a group of Geoffrey Hinton’s students at Toronto University in 2012, have obtained human parity results in scene classification and object recognition tasks, as measured by The Inclusive Images Competition.

It is well known that CNNs are very capable of generalizing from examples, but even these architectures run into trouble when shown images that are completely outside the scope of their training or when familiar objects appear in unfamiliar ways. Many limitations that arise when using trained networks in real contexts depend on the characteristics of the datasets used for training.

The ImageNet challenge, launched by Google last September, is an effort to expand what we may call the “cultural fluency” of image-recognition software. The problem is that the most popular datasets used to train image recognition networks, such as ImageNet and OpenImages, are US- and Western-centric, because those Western images dominated the Internet when the datasets were compiled. As a result, even the best systems trained on these datasets often fail to precisely classify scenes from other cultures and locales.

Take wedding photos: standard image-recognition systems, trained on open-source data sets, will fail to recognize a bride dressed in a sari from an Indian ceremony, even though it can recognize a bride in a white dress, as per the classic Western tradition.

There is, of course, a straightforward method to solve the problem, that is to create more diverse datasets, that represent the diversity of the world, and Google and others are taking this approach. Google has asked the community to reduce the bias in a computer vision system trained on a culturally biased image dataset, just by tweaking the machine-learning algorithms themselves, without changing the dataset.

The results were presented at the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS), during the 2018 edition in Montreal, one of the AI capitals of the world. The contest showed that, at least for now, models trained on “western images” do not perform well on “different images”.

As Google have put it in their challenge motivation: “Good solutions will help ensure that even when some data sources aren’t fully inclusive, the models developed with them can be”. We can add that reducing bias without adding new data also helps to ensure that the model acquires some notions about the real phenomenon, beyond pattern detection. This, in turn, can help to generalize for future instances, wherein the context has changed, but the phenomenon has remained the same at its core. Given the results, we can say that we do not have, at the moment, a solution capable of being more “inclusive” when learning from imperfect data.

The story above is an excellent example of the challenges that neural networks-based computer vision, even today, at the peak of its success, is still facing. In fact, the problem of understanding images has not really been solved, if you take the standard meaning of “understanding” seriously.

Growing pains

Building Innovation Ecosystems

Indeed, all one can hope to do is create an environment that galvanizes individuals and attracts talent. A garden needs every element: the soil, the water, and the right weather before its flowers bloom.

This is, unfortunately, an oversimplified analogy, as such systems are still very much extraordinary. Out of the major cities around the world, the ratio of cities home to healthy environments for innovation is somewhere around the 10 percent mark. A rising awareness that these ecosystems can be a driving force behind the economy of the future is slowly moving this figure upwards, yet it still remains very much the case, that innovation ecosystems are rare.

If we disregard those instances where the importance of such ecosystem is not accepted, one of the main challenges for those wishing to set up an innovation ecosystem is that they rely on a pre-existing formula to guide them. There are few variables needed for such an ecosystem which I will try to cover briefly.

Education

A highly skilled workforce is critical for a successful ecosystem. Universities, high schools and other institutions of learning form the basis for the continued creation of talent. It is critical that such institutions work in tangent with the needs and demands of the ecosystem.

Thirty years ago, there was no correlation at all between what Computer Science graduates had learned in college and what the market actually required. Despite the quality of their knowledge, the methods on which they focused were incompatible with the jobs on the market.

Over time, these institutions developed their programs to be more immediately relevant to the needs of the industry. Programs focused on innovations and entrepreneurship were designed in lock-step with the market resulting in a continuous stream of trained talent ready to be productive in the ecosystem. It is no wonder that universities as such Stanford, Harvard, and MIT are central to their respective  Innovation Ecosystem hubs.

Of course, Israel has had access to other sources of educated talent. In the 1990’s, a huge wave of highly educated immigrants from the former Soviet Union came to Israel and significantly increased the country’s engineers per capita. Israel’s ecosystem has also benefited from the military’s focus on innovative signals intelligence technology. Every year, the army has an exclusive pick of the best and brightest young Israelis out of a pool of thousands.They are trained to think independently and solve difficult problems. When they are discharged, they enter the market with knowledge and experience and are able to flourish in an innovation ecosystem.

Local Culture

The most important element of an environment that promotes creativity and innovation is the ability to fail. Failure must be culturally accepted. If there is a stigma attached to failure, the chances of folks jumping into the icy waters of entrepreneurship diminish quickly. Individuals must feel empowered to try and fail, until they are successful, without the fear of being shunned by society.

Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, and Thomas Edison all suffered major failures in their lives before hitting success. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the innovators of the past. To name a few, Ev Williams had a failed company prior to Twitter, Travis Kalanick had two failed companies prior to Uber, Reid Hoffman had two failed companies prior to LinkedIn and Sir James Dyson, (5,126 failed prototypes before success). In an Innovation Ecosystem, failure is not an option –  it is a requirement.

Access to Talent

A thriving Innovation Ecosystem lives or dies by its ability to attract talent. Today’s top technology experts are akin to the Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and DaVinci – rare and genius.

As an example, a few years back, I was president of Badoo, the world’s largest online dating app. We wanted to attract the best possible talent. The company had an office in London, but at the time, London was not the greatest source of tech talent. We knew that the best engineers were more likely to be found in ecosystems like Silicon Valley or Israel. This posed a challenge: how can you attract people to move from mature ecosystems to emerging ones? You can get only attract top talent into top opportunities which usually reside in existing ecosystems. It’s challenging to bring them over to budding ecosystems. This is a gradual process that takes time, effort, and expense. You start with mediocre talent, improve the ecosystem to the point where you can attract better talent, and then continue and improve the ecosystem until you can attract the best talent.

Another important element is the diversity of talent. Folks from different backgrounds, heritages, cultures who get together, often come up with amazing & versatile solutions to problems, that are not possible in a more stoic, monochrome environment.

Regulatory Support

A favorable legal and regulatory framework is also critical for an ecosystem. If I found a company which employs ten people, but things don’t work out and I run out of money (a very high likelihood), I will likely have to let my ten employees go. If the regulatory environment makes this is expensive, requiring resources I no longer have, I may have never started the project in the first place. Such a regulatory environment is not conducive to innovation. On the flip side, a regulatory environment that offers favorable tax terms for entrepreneurs and employees in startups (vis-à-vis shares, stock options, etc.) will stimulate entrepreneurship.

There is always a tricky balance between government being overly involved or not involved enough in business. The challenges for most western governments is that building an Innovation Ecosystem is a long term investment. It’s the same as an infrastructure investment. You have to plant the seeds, knowing that a future government (and politicians) will reap what you sow. That is why moonshots are so rare these days. Government programs should support private innovation but not attempt to control them. As an example, in Israel the Chief Scientist has budgets that are used to help fund smaller companies.

In comparison, look at China. China is making amazing long-term investments in technology. In areas like artificial intelligence, aerospace, and others, China is investing huge resources in projects that will take ten, twenty, and even thirty years before they come to fruition. That is an upside of their political system. In China, the centralization of power makes it possible to kick-start innovation, removing barriers and directing funds quickly. The government decides on an area of focus, sets goals, and executes.

Innovation Ecosystems can also start as grassroots projects and rise from the bottom. Individuals who come up with ideas and pursue them on their own create the right environment for future innovators. Smaller countries can have the just as much of a chance to embrace change and succeed as the bigger ones. Estonia, for example, is a country of only million people, has built an ecosystem that fosters innovation, as did both Finland and Sweden. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the education infrastructure focused on STEM degrees, graduating many highly technical students. These students went on to create companies, which then led to the rise of local investment, accelerators, and angels. In other cases, the Innovative Ecosystem is not countrywide but more regional or local. Cities such as London, Berlin, Barcelona and Paris have various attractive elements that have allowed them to build ecosystems locally.

London (at least pre-Brexit) is a great place for innovation as it attracts people from all over the continent. Cities able to attract a critical mass of talent have higher chances to build an Innovative Ecosystem. Berlin is another example. It originally formed an ecosystem mostly because it was cheap. A lot of smart young and innovative folk from Eastern Europe moved to Berlin. Once you get smart, diverse people around, ideas and innovation follow. More recently, Paris has become a very attractive innovation hub, thanks in part to successful entrepreneurs like Xavier Niel, who are reinvesting their time and resources from previous successes. Station F is a perfect example. Backed by both the national government, local administration of Paris, and private individuals, Station F has brought life to startups specializing in everything from mitigating motion sickness in virtual reality to creating quickly deployable chatbots for businesses.

There is also a lot of development in Eastern Europe. Countries like Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania, Ukraine, and Belarus all have developed local ecosystems, each with their own characteristics which make them successful. Originally spun up due to low cost engineering talent, technology companies from countries like Israel, Germany, or the U.S. started opening little offices in cities like Zagreb and Bucharest. Over time, many have developed unique strengths. The small city of Cluj, Romania is home to an important hacking community. These were not the result of governments driven strategies, but rather bottom up phenomena.

Once the spark is ignited, a cyclical process is started: Successful engineers leave to start their own companies, thus making the ecosystem flourish. Innovation can happen anywhere.

Time

Over the past few years, Israel has seen an influx of visitors from all over the world trying to understand the formula that made Israel “The Start-Up Nation.” They come with their small notebooks and eager minds, ready to capture the secret formula. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. Even if you put together all the necessary elements discussed so far in this article, you are still missing a critical piece of the puzzle: time.

Things do not happen overnight. Israel’s GDP per capita grew from $18,000 in 1995 to $40,000 in 2017, mostly due to technology. We tend to forget that all of this “overnight” success came decades after Intel opened its first office in Israel back in 1974. That was 4 decades ago! People need time to experiment, make mistakes, and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Subsequently, one of the most important elements that foster an ecosystem is a history of success stories. Small success stories create a folklore that attracts entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs create more success stories which enables them to reinvest some of their resources back into the ecosystem. This attracts more investments, and more regulatory support, which leads to larger successes, etc.

In Israel, one of the biggest catalysts for the boom of Internet tech era was the success story of 4 young kids who sold their 18 months old company (icq) to AOL for over $400 million dollars. This real fairytale from 1999 helped ignite the boom that made Israel the tech powerhouse it is today.

Today, it is probably not mandatory to wait many decades to achieve a successful ecosystem. Shortcuts are definitely possible, but it cannot happen overnight. Every city or region that embarks today on such a mission, must expect to wait quite a few years before it is rewarded with a flourishing, successful ecosystem in place.

This is because innovation is a rare garden, one that requires care and attention, and, most importantly, time. These ecosystems are achievable anywhere, from the bottom up or top down. Education must play a role, as does government. Ultimately, Innovative Ecosystems will evolve in environments that reward experimentation, risk taking, and the willingness to fail.

What is transhumanism?

Transhumanism is centred around the belief that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.

Although Transhumanism may seem the obvious philosophical product of an era characterized by an unprecedented technological acceleration, it has deep roots that can be found moving backwards in time. How much, it is a disputed question. Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom goes back to 1700 BC, to the time of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and so too did, decades prior, Robert Ettinger (more on him later).

Other authors frequently cited as examples of proto-Transhumanists are Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Oration on the Dignity of Man, 1486), Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620) and, above all, Friedrich Nietzsche who, in Thus Spoke Zaratustra (1883), introduced the concept of Übermensch: “Man shall be overcome… Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end”.

A libraries worth of authors could be mentioned when looking into Transhumansm’s past. The thirst of immortality is, after all, as old as mankind, and for centuries was partially quenched by religion, literary creations and philosophical abstractions. In the twentieth century, however, things changed. The march of modern industrial society meant that a lot of resources became available for research. Science made huge leaps forward, and scientists could now reasonably presume they would be able “to actively interfere in the making” of human beings, forge a new mankind, and elevate it into another dimension. They need not fantasize: they had the tools they were going to use.

The coming of a God-like human being empowered by technology poses infinite ethical, legal and moral questions. This has been clear since the very first embryo of a transhumanist thought was expressed in 1924 by the British biologist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964) in Daedalus; or Science and the Future. Here, he depicts a future in which scientists, through eugenics and ectogenesis (the gestation of fetuses in artificial wombs), will be able to modify and ameliorate genetics to control human evolution. Biologists, Haldane believed, would be at the frontline of this new frontier, even if their solitary mission would appear sacrilegious to most. That was however, the price to be paid for the path to a better future.

The scientific worker of the future will more and more resemble the lonely figure of Daedalus as he becomes conscious of his ghastly mission, and proud of it…The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which had not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.  

But Haldane was aware that an ethical re-birth was needed for the mankind to properly master the gift it was going to receive.

It may be urged that they are only fit to be placed in the hands of a being who has learned to control himself, and that man armed with science is like a baby armed with a box of matches.

The essay was met with success and ignited a rich scientific and philosophical debate, enriched by a book wrote by John Desmond Bernal (1901-1970), Haldane’s friend who was a molecular biologist and a crystallographer. In The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929), he envisioned a future where human brain and cognitive powers have been enhanced through bionic implants and mental improvements deriving from advancements in psychology. In this world, science has succeeded in shaping not only a new society but a brand new species.

We hold the future still timidly, but perceive it for the first time as a function of our own action …But the processes of natural evolution are so much slower than the development of man’s control over environment that we might, in such a developing world, still consider man’s body as constant and unchanging. If it is not to be so then man himself must actively interfere in his own making and interfere in a highly unnatural manner. The eugenics and apostles of healthy life, may, in a very considerable course of time, realize the full potentialities of the species: we may count on beautiful, healthy and long-lived men and women, but they do not touch the alteration of the species. To do this we must alter either the germ plasm or the living structure of the body, or both together.

No one can say what destiny is in store for the humanity, nor does Bernal hazard a guess to any outcome.

Finally, consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light. That may be an end or a beginning, but from here it is out of sight.

This alternation between hope for bright future and quasi-apocalyptic visions shouldn’t surprise us much. These scientists and philosophers were sons of their times. The rise of totalitarian regimes in both Germany and the Soviet Union, eugenics experiments, recent memories of a the First World War and the looming fear of another one contributed to spreading the idea that science could enslave humanity as much as it could set it free.

In fact, movies like Metropolis by Fritz Lang (1927) and books such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) and 1984 by George Orwell (1949) with their dystopian vision were major sources of influence for the future Transhumanist movement, whose real founder was Aldous’ brother.

Julian Huxley is widely considered the father of Transhumanism since this renowned biologist was the first to coin the word Trans-humanism: he did it in 1957, in his book New Bottles for New Wine, in which he advocated the coming of a Fulfillment Society completely committed to the full development of the human potential.

We shall start from new premises. Up till now human life has generally been, as Hobbes described it, ‘nasty, brutish and short’; the great majority of human beings (if they have not already died young) have been afflicted with misery… we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted… The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself — not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.

Such philosophy might perhaps best be called Trans-humanism. It is based on the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and arrive at fuller fruition; it is the realization that both individual and societal developments are processes of self-transformation….

I believe in transhumanism: once there are enough people who can truly say that, the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence, as different from ours as ours is from that of Pekin man. It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny

Huxley expected this philosophy to be a turning point, since it would have eclipsed any other theory or belief.

The truth of the Transhumanist approach and its central conception is larger and more universal than any previous truth, and is bound in the long run to supersede lesser, more partial and more distorted truths, such as Marxism, or Christian theology or liberal individualism, or at any rate to assimilate those of their elements which are relevant to itself.

If Huxley introduced the concept of Transhumanism, another scientist helped to clarify what trans-humanity is. Robert Ettinger, the father of the cryonic movement, to do that in his 1970 book Man Into Superman.

..Now we are on the brink of the can-do era, when the leopard will be able to change his very spots. The transhuman condition is one of life unlimited–no acknowledged boundaries in time, space, or quality….What is happening is a discontinuity in history, with mortality and humanity on one side–on the other immortality and transhumanity. With a little encouragement, many of us can make the transition: that is what this book is about.

Ettinger helped to make clear that the transhumanist movement was not just a club of thinkers but a group of people highly committed and ready to invest important resources in the project.

The ‘tragedy’ of the slow growth of immortalism pertains mostly to them, and perhaps to you – not so much to me or to us, the committed immortalists. We already have made our arrangements for cryostasis after clinical death – signed our contracts with existing organizations and allocated the money. We will have our chance, and with a little bit of luck will ‘taste the wine of centuries unborn’

The mid-Sixties saw the birth of a less optimistic theory, foreshadowing the risks connected to the creation of an Artificial Intelligence which would develop the ability to progress without any human contribution, thus endangering the de facto now redundant mankind. The first to write about such a scenario was Irving John Good, a mathematician and cryptologist, who also served as consultant to Stanley Kubrick in the writing of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Good warned of the dangers of an ‘Intelligence Explosion’.

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. 

Eminent personalities contributed to the evolution of the Singularity Theory, as it is known, scientists such as the computer scientist Marvin Minsky, theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and the futurist, Raymond Kurtzweil. In 2006, he published the bestseller The Singularity is Near. Thirteen years later he is ready the release the follow up The Singularity is Nearer, to remind us that the line between the dream and the nightmare is thin and easy to cross.

 

All well and goods

Technology has been relentless in disrupting companies, business models and jobs. Although this is true for many industries, it has not been too apparent in the more conservative goods transportation industry. But things are changing.

 

Tech on the Move

At Lufthansa Cargo, we started thinking about automating processes in 2000. Until then, we still received booking requests through fax, by telephone or even telex. There was no online booking. It was only then that we offered our capacity on e-marketplaces. Today, we are receiving around 60 to 70 percent of our bookings through online processes via platforms, the Internet, or via direct API. This is a very good starting point to be more efficient in our own processes — but there is always room for improvement. For example, the same automation cannot be seen in the totality of what we are offering across the whole supply chain, mostly because our partners are not at the same technical stage. If you’re talking about a global business, you need a global network. In China, in Africa or in India there is not the same technological standard and everybody wants to develop their own system, so we can be forgiven for still managing things the old-fashioned way when it is what our end clients still need.

Most people don’t know but, due to international law (the so-called 5th freedom) airlines generally just have traffic rights to fly direct routes to and from their home market. It means that European carriers can’t fly from an Asian destination to another or from Asia to the United States for example. To do that, local partners and subsidiaries are needed. For a global network to be built, you have to seal a lot of international and complex contracts. Therefore we are very proud that we ramped up several Joint Ventures with Cathay Pacific, ANA and United Airlines over the last years. Companies such as Time Matters, who make extremely fast deliveries (less than 12 hours) of small items from or to wherever and they are also specialized in the transportation of live organs for transplants.

Challenging Conservatism

All that said, although companies in our industry may be open to new developments, and many of us are, we operate in a very traditional industry, wherein many are still fighting to fully automate their core business in their search for more efficiency. So far, we focused on technologies allowing faster booking processes, faster deliveries and more precision in locating freight in real time.

But at the end of the day, it is just a matter of being sure that your freight arrives to the right place, at the right time, and undamaged. The real difficulty concerns the transportation of extremely different goods: to fill a cargo plane with millions of luck worms for the fishing industry is not the same as filling it with animals, zebras and rhinos, or with semiconductors, food, wood, cars and the aforementioned live organs. Each item requires a particular process and a different priority that implies different challenges and risks.

Digitize It

The hidden hand of the technological revolution is always there, however. Machine Learning is being applied to help us develop the right automated procedures for items we have never dealt with before, but that the algorithms have identified as having similarities with other goods we have handled in the past. Big Data is also playing a very important role in making real-time analysis and predicting emerging trends such as increasing or decreasing the demand of certain products from certain areas, helping us to provide the right answer in a market which is particularly volatile.

Volatile because the goods transport industry is a sort of seismograph of the whole worldwide market and is affected by economic or political shifts sooner than other industries. The same happens when the economy enters a phase of prosperity. We are used to such an amplitude. In fact, two years ago we had our worst financial year for a very long time but the following year we had our second-best ever. Technology will play a key role in safely sailing such tumultuous waters.

In an industry where complex international contracts play a very important role, DLT-based technology, such as Blockchain and Smart Contracts, are becoming increasingly important. As far as now, we don’t have a project the agenda but we’re monitoring it closely. We are deeply interested in the huge project brought on by IBM and Maersk, one of the leading shipping companies. Through Tradelens, an open and neutral platform underpinned by Blockchain technology, the two huge companies are trying to digitize the global supply chain. This could be a game changer, solving many of the problems caused by complex supply chains which combine several means of transport.

Further Down the Road

The delivery of such technologies in our industry may be a little late, but in the next 20 years, big developments are expected. We are already investing in new startups like cargo.one a marketplace for airfreight. And we observe new modes of transport, even sponsoring the Technical University of Munich’s Hyperloop team – who last year won the third annual SpaceX pod competition. And we are also closely monitoring teams – but not investing – working on different solutions, such as the flying drones that are being developed by, for example, a German company called Volocopter.

A consequence of the peculiarities of this industry is that technology has yet to displace many manual processes, as it has in other sectors. We are aware that with automation comes the chance to change but it’s also a challenge to get prepared and to take all employees with you on this digital journey. In any case, automation can only ever reach a certain level because the human look and human touch will still be necessary to ensure that many delicate goods such as semiconductors or insulin are properly loaded and that there are no imbalances in the cargo. So for now, all is well and good in the goods transport sector, and we are fortunate to be on the cusp of incredible developments in the coming decades.

The factory around the corner

No matter where you live, there’s an issue in the manufacturing industry’s supply chains. If you live in the West, most of the products you buy are produced in remote areas of the world in order to cut costs. Unfortunately this model maximizes CO2 emissions to bring down labor costs — to the detriment of the future of our planet. On the other side of the coin, if you live in a developing country, supply chains are often broken — it is incredibly hard to get the necessary parts for your product and then ship it to the end user.

It seems like a hard issue to tackle, but we actually already have in our hands the technology that could solve it: I’m talking about digital fabrication, a fully-automated production process based on digital supply chains and 3D printing. Today, we design a product, have it produced in a remote manufacturing plant and finally distribute it globally. In the near future, we merely send a file to a 3D printer hub on the other side of the world, where the object is built – greatly shortening the distance between production and final users. Now, imagine the disruptive impact this technology will have – and I’m saying “will” because this is already reality : 3D-printed end-use parts are already in widespread use, from medical devices to structural parts of airplanes.

Going forward, Western countries won’t have the products they design produced in (and therefore shipped from) remote countries anymore. By building generic, non-specialized printing factories close to where the end customers are, the supply chain will become more fluid and decentralized; this will enable companies to innovate where their headquarters are, collaborate digitally all over the world, and have their products produced in different places from digital blueprints. For developing countries, this could be even more revolutionary: Moving to a digital supply chain and local production will eliminate a lot of the issues that are currently blocking the Third World from participating in the innovation cycles of the West. Furthermore, digital collaboration across borders allows innovators all over the world to come up with solutions that fit their local environments.

Now, this sounds pretty good already. But there are many more benefits to digital fabrication that go well beyond production and distribution and get back to where it all starts: design. Currently, design is a complex and manual process, delegated to a niche of experts. What designers and engineers do is try to keep objects as simple as possible: every additional feature generates additional time and costs. With additive methods used in digital fabrication, however, the printer doesn’t really care how complex the part is. That’s because the price of a 3D-printed object doesn’t depend on its complexity, but is essentially only determined by the amount and type of material needed.

This technology is going to completely transform how we think about the design of things — as the creation will be performed largely by algorithms: humans will describe the object in more abstract terms and leave the hard work of the actual design to computers. Some fear that automation will cause world-changing unemployment levels, but it will actually empower designers to build more efficient and sustainable products, facilitating interdisciplinary thought in the process. Today, to design a product we need experts with a very narrow focus. The future belongs to interdisciplinary thinkers who have access to tools that allow them to express their knowledge in a broad variety of fields. The time for silos is over.

This groundbreaking shift will happen over the course of the next fifteen years. I don’t expect the transition to be a smooth one, as this paradigm shift touches upon a lot of processes we take as givens: trade of physical goods, the shipping industry, specialization, division of labor, the concept of suppliers of physical goods, the modern factory as centralized logistics hub. Even the idea that a country can start its transition to the First World by providing cheap labor as a starting point. None of these hold true in the new world of Digital Fabrication.

So let’s prepare: Let’s drive the technologies forward that enable this change. Let us be the ones who built the first truly smart factories. Let’s make sure legislation is ready for a world that ships mostly digital goods and collaborates globally on physical objects. And let us train our workforce to think in interdisciplinary terms and not become siloed experts.

 

 

Think micro to change macro

The 24th UN Climate Talks, held in Katowice, left behind the similar mixture of delusion and frustration already felt prior to them. We are now running towards a climate cliff edge even though many technologies we have today could mitigate this march.

Take the microgrid, for example, a localized group of electricity sources, possibly renewable, that can operate connected to a traditional macrogrid (electricity produced by a big power plant and distributed over long distances), but that can also be disconnected in the form of an ‘island mode’ and function autonomously. This latter mode is the game changer.

Imagine a group of neighbors in a village of a developing country with no access to electric power. There are hundreds of million people in the world who simply cannot afford to pay a utility bill for service as vital as electricity, which means no chance of progress nor growth. To them, we must offer smart, clean, efficient and cheap solutions, bypassing traditional utility companies which bear high infrastructure costs just to transport the electricity from the power plant to the end user. An expensive and polluting business.

Put just one $100 300-Watts solar panel on the roof of each of the homes in our hypothetical village, connect them together and add power storage (battery) big enough to deliver electricity at night, and you will have the microgrid in place. It will be able to provide enough energy for hundreds of families living in rural areas.

The cost of solar panels and infrastructure could be funded through a World Bank program, while maintenance costs would be shared by the community. In industrialized countries, the average price for a kWh of electricity is about $00.20, a microgrid produced kWh will be just a few cents. An affordable cost even for people with a very low income. Imagine the potential growth microgrids might ignite in the near future. Microgrids will not only help us decarbonize the planet then, but they will be able to provide low-cost energy throughout developing countries.This is a topic to be discussed at this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

A case for a new company culture

Traditionally, big corporations used to see their employees mainly as the ‘workforce’ responsible for the product. This old, outdated perspective needs to change as soon as possible as expanded access to knowledge and the spread of cross-functional roles, means that employees today are much more than just a production unit – and they know it.

Instead, employees are the first innovation drivers of a company and are the absolute keys to its future success. If you want your company to be successful as much tomorrow as it is today, you have to find ways to retain the talent that is working for you. To achieve this, it is pivotal to create a positive and engaging company culture. You need to inspire your employees continuously. Define new paths and workflows. Get them enthralled by a culture that attracts the vital drive of humans beings. If you create room, where each individual can discover his or her meaning of live and connect it with the companies purpose, you will truly unleash their potential.

Here’ are some tips on how to achieve such a complex, but crucial, transformation.

1 – Think of your employee as your customer. We are used to put most of our effort and budgets in communicating our brand’s values to the final customer; today, we have to improve the way we communicate these values on the inside. Our customers are not the only ones buying into products, but what works for the brand also works for the company. In the future happy employees will make customers happy. Therefore we need to invest. Of course in marketing and efforts to sell our products. But much more into internal activities, events and learning formats which enable our employees to strengthen their emotional tie with the organization. Make them feel a vital part of a movement and support them the to do their best, day after day. Providing inspiration as a service is the new duty for corporations!

2 – Create room for failure and innovation. Establishing a culture that truly supports innovation means to provide the best possible conditions people need to feel and act free, empowered and trusted. Create room for people to fail, and teach them to not always strive for perfection. Help your employees develop an entrepreneurial spirit; let them deal with budgets, development cycles, manage small teams, and give them enough time and resources to work on their own projects. Be a coach, give feedback and accompany as a mentor. You might have an employee with a fantastic idea that goes beyond what’s in his or her job title, but that could turn into a million dollar business in a couple of years. So, why don’t you just give people a weekday off to work on what their brains inspires them to do?

3 – Forge leadership experts. Did you become a leader because you are an expert for leadership? No. Because you are an expert in other fields. Well that’s ok. Most of our current leaders came that way. Leadership is a talent, but also a skill: people can learn it and become very good at it. To me, fostering a leadership culture means providing an ecosystem or set of circumstances for people to achieve their full potential. We need to forge experts for leadership, role models who are able to inspire and empower their colleagues throughout the journey. To have leaders, we need leaders.

4 – Design new learning paths. It’s important to redefine the way employees learn – the way we all learn. Today, learning is often boring and tiring, and it shouldn’t be so. Instead, it should be exciting, mind-opening, stimulating, energizing. We should ask ourselves questions like, “how can we implement new learning formats into the equation to the benefit of employees?”, “how can we inspire them through training and mentoring?”, “how can we make them not feel judged throughout the learning process?”. So let’s go out and make learning a fun thing to do!

5 – Be Bold. Transformation takes time: A caterpillar doesn’t turn into a butterfly overnight. When you need to rework or redesign an existing portfolio, skill or mind set by implementing new stuff be a rebel and always aim for revolutionary ideas. Come up with real moon-shoots, bring leadership perspectives that go beyond your own comfort zone, put employees in contact with different people that work in different companies and fields. Even when you end up with „just“ an evolution – the evolution will be more powerful if you think big right from the start. Don’t be afraid: Being bold is a great way to inspire who’s working with you. And you will need to constantly find ways like this to stay on top of the game.

6 – Get the Board on board. A bottom up approach to transform culture is your key to wonderland. Activating the WeQ of organizations and relying on the collective intelligence of your employees is the answer to a world that is changing exponentially. One thing is for sure. Without top down support from your Board of Management you will make it nowhere. So get your Board on board. A transformation based on authenticity, commitment and involvement, brought to life by real role models is a must have. Besides putting your transformation on victory street, being a true supporter will become the most powerful image campaign for every CEO and every Board of Management. And it will become a turbo boost for your employer brand.

These tips are, of course, not the be all and end all. But they are tenets any leader, employee, company – everybody who is serious about the future should not only keep in mind, but impart throughout their organization going forward. Transforming organizations means working closely with humans by finding new perspectives through a wide and dynamic participation process. So it is about us. We are all drivers of transformation. What a beautiful privilege and challenge at the same time.

Migrating West for money

Competition in the digital era is fierce, and Europe is at serious risk of being left behind by the more advanced technological economies of China and the United States. To stay in the competition, Europe should prioritize scaling startups into large European corporations – something we are failing at today. This is important, not only from a purely economic growth perspective but from a more societal perspective.

There are companies today that are stronger than many nations. Their influence over people, companies and nationhood is a problem which is rapidly increasing. If we, in Europe, want to stay in control of our future, are proud of our values and believe they deserve to be preserved and shared with the rest of the world, we have to ensure that European companies stay and grow in Europe. European companies are one of the most important vehicles to implement, manifest and preserve these values.

If Europe wants to influence the standard for how digital technology will be used in the future, if we want to have a say on it, we cannot do that through regulation only. The best way to do it is by close collaboration between government and industry, defining and implementing a European vision of the future and a common understanding of what constitutes privacy and security in the digital world. A vision that is realized through new services and products that are brought to the market by European companies. But the latter have to be successful and big to have an impact. That’s why economic growth is not the only reason why we need to provide the conditions to scale up in Europe.

A good ecosystem that really supports the growth of businesses and new ideas needs a combination of small, medium-sized and large companies working together. For such an ecosystem to flourish, big companies are fundamental since they serve as platforms for the development for future entrepreneurs, as partners and customers for smaller companies, as magnets for international talents and as a key stakeholder in forming how new ideas are implemented in society.

This is how Silicon Valley was born: an environment strengthened and enriched by capital, ideas and competence freely circulating, with some larger companies fueling growth, providing platforms for others to grow and providing the direction and vision for the future.

So, why do we in Europe keep losing at this game? In part, because of money – dreaming big often comes at a cost – so there will always come times when fast-growing firms must take an important decision. Should they sell themselves to a larger corporation, go public through an IPO or try to bring in more VC capital? Many venture capital funded firms choose the first option, which can make perfect sense from a financial perspective. As long as companies stay and continue to grow in Europe the ownership might be of less importance, but if the new ownership brings a shift of power and relocation of companies, society has a problem.

Acquisition of startups has become the new corporate R&D. That’s the way Silicon Valley has been growing. Big firms are performing the very lowest level of R&D because when they need something, they go out, scan the market and buy a startup which has the technology and data they’re looking for. We should be more aware of these dynamics, and how startups grow, to ensure that we provide them with the right incentives to grow and merge with each other in a way that secures that critical values and competences stay in Europe and continues to contribute to local societal growth and a strong European ecosystem.

However, money-problems do not explain everything. One other important reason behind tech firm migration is that they need to be close to their customers and partners. One reason a company such as Spotify stayed and could grew big in Sweden was because of the special relationship it had with the telecoms company Teliasonera, which helped with the early market access which shaped its early stages.

Many Swedish startups are moving to Silicon Valley because they are building their solutions on platforms owned by Facebook, Google and Apple, so it is beneficial to be close to them and in the same ecosystem. If we had a European ecosystem, with larger corporations and a public sector more open to work with startups, more startups would have less of a reason to migrate, and they could to a larger extent focus their energy on the challenges and opportunities in the local ecosystem. This is not yet the case in Europe. The available business opportunities are still lagging far behind both China and the US. Yet, there is still room for change, especially in the industry segments that are in line to be disrupted such as industrial production. Industry 4.0, for example, is a burgeoning field where Europe could benefit from its history of being a strong industrial region. We have an opportunity to create the next generation of industrial systems and become the Silicon Valley for Industry 4.0. But Europe must work hard to even hope of making this a reality. The key word to achieve this future is collaboration. Collaboration between society and businesses, but also between the traditional industries and the new tech companies.

This is important because the last time European companies joined forces, they gained a dominant role in a particular technological area. When mobile phones first began to become ubiquitous in everyday life, in Europe there were several world leading companies, such as Nokia, Ericsson, Alcatel and Siemens. The strongest companies in the world were European and they began collaborating to set a common standard, each doing their own research and development but sharing their IP rights on a common standard platform called GSM – which would go on to become the dominant worldwide standard. The GSM platform wasn’t owned by just one company but by all of them and worked thanks to an exchange of royalties to compensate the companies that were putting in the greater effort.

Such collaboration is what we must have in mind when approaching the challenge of competing in the digital era. This time, it might not be IP that is most urgent to share, but rather data. Access to data, the oil of the future, is key and there is no way that a single company or country can compete with Chinese and American tech in volumes of data, because they are already too far ahead. Instead, we should collaborate to build larger shared datasets for innovators in the European ecosystem that will in turn give companies the fuel to grow stronger and more competitive in the global market.

The dangers of losing ground in such important areas, are serious. To take a tangible scenario to close on: The next step for Facebook and Chinese giants such as Tencent and Alibaba, is to build open AI-engines for facial recognition, voice recognition, self-driving cars etc. No single European company will be able to compete in this race, and we will soon see critical infrastructure in Europe that relies on AI-engines based on US or Chinese data and algorithms. Do we in Europe want to give away this control? These are real problems, and are reason enough for us all to join together in Europe to strengthen the competitiveness of all our businesses. At least if we want European companies to stay relevant in the future and Europe to stay in control of its own future.

What is smart dust?

Smart dust is a system of many tiny microelectromechanical systems such as sensors, robots, or other devices, that can detect light, temperature, vibration, magnetism, chemicals and other stimuli.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, predicted that the number of components that could fit on a single chip could double every 2 years. His theory, dubbed Moore’s Law, has not only survived the test of time, surviving over half a century in technological advancement, but has also kickstarted a fascination with the miniaturization of technology. A fascination which would go on to transform multiple industries, multiple times over the coming decades.

Which is where Smart Dust comes into the picture. By 1992, the first concepts for Smart Dust had emerged from a workshop at the Research and Development Corporation (RAND), these concepts would soon be followed by a series of studies in the mid-1990s. Interestingly, and as with many other technological advancements, the work was strongly influenced by the science fiction authors Neal Stephenson, Vernor Vinge, and Stanislaw Lem. Lem’s The Invincible (1964), for example, was one of the first books to explore the ideas of micro-robots, artificial swarm intelligence and “necroevolution”, a term suggested by Lem himself for the evolution of non-matter.

The most notable of studies on Smart Dust came in 1997 in the form of a research proposal by Berkeley’s Dr. Kristofer S. J. Pister, Joe Kahn, and Bernhard Boser. The project was soon approved for funding thanks to the proposed potential military applications of the technology – “We are open to collaboration with all branches of military and the commercial sector”, this proposal, which sought to rapidly deploy defense networks onto the battlefield, would secure Dr. Pister as the inventor of this technology.

Fast forward to today and these devices, often smaller than the eye of a needle, can collect data and transmit it back to a base for processing. The ‘dust’ itself is a set of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), more commonly known as motes, which pack an incredible punch considering their limited size. Capable of detecting anything from light to vibrations and temperature, they combine sensing, autonomous power supplies, computing and wireless communication in a space that is typically only a few millimeters in volume.

Which is why they are referred to as Smart Dust. And, just as with their natural cousins, Smart Dust is capable of being suspended in the environment due to its minuscule size. But, unlike their duller ancestors, not only are Smart Dust’s components 3D printed, these mini machines are capable of collecting data on acceleration, stress, pressure, humidity, sound and more with their sensors. This data can then be processes with what amounts to an onboard computer system, as well as stored and communicated to the cloud, a base or others MEMS.

So, other than dominating the battle field, what other applications do MEMS have? The answer is many. Smart Dust can collect information about any environment in incredible detail. In this sense, it is better to think of Smart Dust as the pinnacle of the Internet of Things. It’s IoT, but magnified (or reduced) dramatically, allowing industries to better streamline their data in order to hone their safety, compliance and productivity.

With its ability to measure anything nearly anywhere, Smart Dust is capable of tracking products within supply chains in ever more detail, monitoring crops in unprecedented scales and identifying weaknesses in systems prior to failure. This technology can also be used to track the movement of birds, small animals and insects. In healthcare, Smart Dust can aid with diagnostic procedures and make the entire care process less invasive for the patient, as well as providing new and intuitive interfaces for the disabled.

On top of this, Smart Dust may be deployed over a region to record data for meteorological, geophysical or planetary research. Particularly in cases where measurements are needed in in environments where wired sensors are unusable or lead to measurement errors. Examples include instrumentation of semiconductor processing chambers, rotating machinery, wind tunnels and anechoic chambers.

More recently, researchers at UC Berkeley built the smallest volume, most efficient wireless server simulator, a development on the first, ultrasonic neural dust sensors created in 2016. The device, known as StimDust, short for simulation neural dust, is intended to one day be implanted in the body through minimally invasive procedures to monitor and treat disease in a real-time, patient-specific approach. StimDust is just 6.5 cubic millimeters in volume, about the size of a granule of sand, and is powered wirelessly by ultrasound, which the device then uses to power nerve stimulation at an efficiency of 82 percent.

Rikky Muller, co-lead of the work and assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at Berkeley stated that, “This device represents our vision of having tiny devices that can be implanted in minimally invasive ways to modulate or stimulate the peripheral nervous system, which has been shown to be efficacious in treating a number of diseases.”  It’s Richard Fleischer’s  Fantastic Voyage (1966), but with robots.

But what will power these systems? Thanks to new techniques in lowering the amount of power electronics require – the answer is one day they will hopefully do so themselves. “If we look at it from the power consumption side, the energy efficiency of microelectronics has improved by more than a factor of a trillion from ENIAC [one of the world’s first electronic computers] to today,” stated Joshua R. Smith, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in low-power systems and wireless communication. Passive power generation techniques, such as vibration harvesters, have already been scaled down massively, and their small energy output is well-suited to the equally tiny energy requirements of the Smart Dust.

As with any new technology, the cost to implement a smart dust system that includes the satellites and other elements required for full implementation is high. Until costs come down, it will be technology out of reach for many.

Which is perhaps a good thing, as, almost immediately, the idea of thousands, even millions, of tiny computers floating around in the air we breath is littered with problems. Firstly, privacy. As already explained, Smart Dust is in essence just a bundle of sensors that are capable of detecting almost anything. Basically invisible to the naked eye, Smart Dust has the capability of invading people’s privacies in unlimited ways. If the technology gets into the wrong hands, what would stop them from acting nefariously, especially when they are unlikely to be detected or identified for doing so? Secondly, how can such a swarm be contained in the event containment is necessary? The huge numbers involved in this technology mean that it would be incredibly difficult to retrieve them in such a scenario, leading to health, security and environmental concerns in the process.

However these problems may find solutions once they arise. The first for example, privacy, may not even be seen as a problem: evidence points to younger generations not prioritizing privacy concerns as much as older ones anyway. With the second, containment, it would be reasonable to assume that the military have been working on a counter-technology to this one since it became a viable weaponizable tool over twenty years ago.

In any case, Smart Dust has the potential to completely reinvent how our world works. From war to space exploration, this technology is riding on (and in) the winds of change. After its arrival in our day-to-day lives in the IoT era, it will certainly take some time until the dust is settled.