‘The Singularity’ or technological singularity is a hypothetical point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human evolution and civilisation.
Ray Kurzweil is an American inventor and futurist who predicted that by 2029, Artificial Intelligence will pass the Turing Test and achieve human levels of intelligence. Propelled by Moore’s Law (which is a social fact), he believes the ‘singularity’ will arrive by 2045, once technology is one billion times smarter than the hominid threshold.
Instigated by the exponential rates of progress and change predominantly brought about by developments in machine learning and its methods of innovation through recombination, the point of no return may already be upon us. So what does this mean for the start-up landscape?
First We Shape Our Tools, Then Our Tools Shape Us
The point at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible is arguably already here. Looking backwards to move forwards, we can pin point the start of this trajectory around the time of the Industrial Revolution.
Mass production kicked into gear, stimulating one of the largest booms in wealth creation in human history. This was measured by global increases in GDP, rising life expectancy, falling poverty rates, increased energy efficiency, and the spread of progressive democratic regimes.
Technologies like literacy and commercial law laid the foundations for the Singularity, but the early industrialisation process began with substantial improvements in land transportation costs. Until then, moving goods and people over land was lengthy and expensive.
This meant that economic activity and growth was mostly local and relatively restricted. Even in the early parts of the 20th century, Chinese villages which were only five miles apart spoke in radically different dialects.
While there are many sustainability benefits to more localised production, wider development was largely stagnant as people were unable to trade large distances. In other words, the market opportunity was lacking, which hindered innovation.
The advent of horses, steam engines, and steam-powered railroads generated a series of wealth-creating inflection points. With all these improvements, humans relied on animals and machines instead of their own backs and biceps.
Before the internet, transportation costs were the primary constraint on the size of a market. As they fell, trade flows increased and enabled the wealth-creating division of labor systems first outlined by Adam Smith.
Such improvements bring compounding benefits due to the positive feedback loop that’s created. Falling transportation costs lead to increased innovation, and increased innovation leads to further reductions in transportation costs.
This initiates a virtuous cycle of increased trade and globalisation, which also has the potential to smooth political relations through economically incentivised collaboration. The Industrial Age touched every aspect of the Western world. The forward process in quantifiable living standards kickstarted a Singularity, the evidence of which we see in the evolution of global markets, systems of governance, and the dizzying speed of technological advancement.
Today, we tend to focus on technology over transportation, with some advocates defining progress as ‘more technology’ and automation. Just as the Industrial Revolution swept across the globe, transforming everything within its wake, the technological revolution is already working its own domino effect.
However the full extent of these effects is still under scrutiny. We often develop new technologies before thinking about how exactly they might impact us – the car hits the road before the invention of seatbelts arrives.
At the same time, this focus on technology as the primary vehicle to ‘more’, ‘better’, profit and progress may also have come at the expense of areas such as philosophy, ethics and the arts which are still grossly underfunded by comparison. A STEM-heavy society is an imbalanced society. It is the humanities that harbour some of the timeless wisdom and insights into our very nature, and the unconscious forces propelling such change.
When the nature of life is that every problem has a solution, and every solution creates its own set of problems, there is something to be said for tackling issues as and when they arise, but such an approach must be truly interdisciplinary, giving equal weighting to both quantitative and intangible factors.
We are now at the point where we essentially could not opt out of technology even if we tried. As Marshall McLuhan once said: “First we shape our tools. Then our tools shape us.”
When it comes to start-ups, emerging technologies have a huge impact on business model innovation.
In any given industry, a dominant business model tends to emerge over time. In the absence of market distortions, the model will reflect the most efficient way to allocate and organise resources. Once an industry is mature, most attempts to introduce a new business model fail.
Occasionally one succeeds in overturning the dominant model, usually by leveraging a new technology. Therefore new technologies are the triggers for new business models. So what are some of the emerging technology trends that we might want to take note of? They include:
Sensing And Mobility: 3D sensing cameras, AR cloud, light-cargo delivery and drones, flying autonomous vehicles
Augmented Human: Biochips, personification, augmented intelligence, emotion AI, immersive workspaces, biotech
Post-classical Compute and Comms: 5G, next generation memory, low earth orbit satellite systems, nanoscale 3D printing
Digital Ecosystems: DigitalOps, knowledge graphs, synthetic data, decentralised web, decentralised autonomous organisations
Advanced AI and Analytics: Adaptive machine learning, Edge AI, Edge analytics, Explainable AI, Transfer learning, Generative adversarial networks, graph analytics
The keys to business model innovation involve offering a more personalised product or service, adopting closed-loop processes to remanufacture and recycle, asset sharing such as with Uber or Airbnb, adopting usage-based pricing, creating a more collaborative (co-ordinated) ecosystem, and developing an agile and adaptive organisation.
An activity in a focal firm’s business model can be viewed as the engagement of human, physical or capital resources of any party to the business model (the focal firm, end customers, vendors, etc.) to serve a specific purpose toward the fulfilment of the overall objective.
An activity system is thus a set of interdependent organisational activities centred on a focal firm, including those conducted by the focal firm, its partners, vendors or customers. Therefore all the activities in a supply chain are best deliberately designed, monitored and regulated. Such as with the B Corporation network.
The purposeful weaving together of interdependent activities performed by the firm itself or by its suppliers, partners and/or customers – is the essence of the business model design. Activity system design describes how firms do business, and captures the essence of the business model. Questions about business model design can thus be framed as questions about holistic activity systems.
This is an exciting time for the startup ecosystem, one where we will see changes in the ways businesses operate and how this contributes to the structures of our societies at large. As a recently registered B Corp, companies such as x+why are already taking the first steps towards building the futures and economies we want to see tomorrow, today.
True sustainability and longevity requires starting with baking purpose into every aspect of the value chain – championing people, planet and progress in tandem.
main header image credit @sarashakeel