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February 13, 2012

Thinking Forward: Vivek Wadhwa on Singularity University

Daniel Araya

Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University, an institution that educates a select group of leaders about exponentially growing technologies. He is also a Visiting Scholar, School of Information, UC-Berkeley; Director of Research, Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization, and Exec in Residence, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; Senior Research Associate, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School; Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Halle Institute of Global Learning, Emory University. Outside of academia, Wadhwa is a regular columnist for The Washington Post, Bloomberg, and BusinessWeek, and writes occasionally for several international publications. His work has been cited in more than 2,000 national and international media outlets over the past five years and has garnered the attention of policy makers.

In this interview for HPCwire, conducted by Daniel Araya of the Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Wadhwa describes his thoughts on the culture of Silicon Valley, Singularity University, the rising costs of education, and the rapid evolution of technology.

Daniel Araya: Thanks for sitting down with me Vivek. Could I ask you to describe your background, particularly your current role at Singularity University?

Vivek Wadhwa: I am a tech entrepreneur turned academic. I built two software companies before joining academia in 2005. As Vice President of Information Services for CS First Boston, I spearheaded the technology development of new computer systems that became the product of Seer Technologies. As Seer’s Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, I helped grow the nascent startup into a publicly traded company. Subsequently, I founded Relativity Technologies. At Singularity University, I am Vice President of Academics and Innovation, overseeing faculty and curriculum development and international outreach.

Araya: You’ve recently been described as the most “provocative” voice in Silicon Valley. Why is this? Is Silicon Valley simply too conservative on issues related to race and gender?

Wadhwa: I suspect this is because I have been challenging the powers that be, forcing them to face the harsh realities. The fact is that women, blacks and Hispanics are left out. This should not be.

I am also an outsider who has been looking at the Valley’s strengths and weaknesses from an academic perspective. I used to think Silicon Valley was a model meritocracy. From 1995 to 2005, 52 percent of the Valley’s startups were founded by people born abroad. Immigrants from India had become the dominant company-founding immigrant group. They had achieved this by mastering the Valley’s rules of engagement and building their own mentoring networks.

When I researched the dearth of women, however, I could find no explanation. Women are equally motivated to become entrepreneurs; are equal or more competent at managing businesses; match boys in mathematical achievement; dramatically outnumber men in higher education; and receive more than 50 percent of the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and nearly 50 percent of all doctorates, in the U.S.

One of the most vibrant networking groups for women in Silicon Valley is Women 2.0. Its founder, Shaherose Charania, has been working tirelessly to overcome the lack of gender diversity in the startup world. She learned the power of networking by volunteering with TiE [The Indus Entrepreneurs], a mentoring group founded by Indians, Silicon Valley’s most successful immigrant group.

Araya: Could you tell us something about the story behind Singularity University? How would you describe the mission and goals of Singularity?

Wadhwa: I’ll answer this from a personal perspective. I visited Singularity University about a year ago. I learned that the world of technology is moving much faster than I imagined. That technologies that I thought were still in the realm of science fiction are becoming science fact.

I am not alone. Most people in one field don’t understand advances in another and that is what Singularity University is all about. Advances in fields such as robotics, AI, computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine and nanomaterials are allowing small teams to do what was only once possible by governments and large corporations.

These exponential technologies will allow us to address many of the grand challenges: Education, Water, Food, Shelter, Health and Security. And the next billion dollar businesses will be built at the intersection of these exponential technologies.

I realized, after visiting Singularity University that this is the most innovative period in human history and that in the next 10 to 20 years will be when we solve many of these grand challenges.

Singularity University teaches people about these advances so that we can leverage them to better humanity. Our mission is to assemble, educate, and inspire a new generation of leaders in business, science, finance, and government who strive to understand and utilize exponentially advancing technologies.

Founding Partners include Autodesk, Cisco, Google, the Kauffman Foundation, Nokia, and ePlanet Ventures. Since its founding in 2009, Singularity University has hosted students and industry leaders from 40 countries at its campus at NASA Research Park, Moffett Field, California.

Araya: There is a growing controversy around higher education today. I know that you believe technology has a critical role to play in shaping learning and education in the decades to come. Could you elaborate on this?

Wadhwa: If ever it was time for an education revolution, that time is now. Americans are becoming disenchanted with higher education. They say it lacks relevance and isn’t cost justified and that therefore we should send fewer children to college. They blame universities for skyrocketing education costs. That is what I’ve learned, the hard way, in my effort to defend America’s education system.

This is misguided thinking. The jobs of tomorrow will require this education. The question is what do we do about costs? The answer is that we need to leverage new technologies. The platform for delivering education is the tablet computer. This is becoming ever cheaper and even more powerful. We can teach by taking people into virtual worlds and playing games, for example. Many new techniques will become possible and we need to be constantly asking how we can improve education, not who should receive it.

Araya: How do you see advanced computing influencing the kinds of interdisciplinary research and innovation that can be done?

Wadhwa: As I mentioned before, there are many exponentially advancing technologies that are converging. Now that the genome can be sequenced relatively inexpensively, we can apply computing to medicine for example; we can combine robotics with AI and computing. These interdisciplinary advances will help us solve many of humanity’s greatest challenges.

As my colleague Neil Jacobstein, who co-chairs the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics program at Singularity University explains, there are three exponentially accelerating technologies — artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital manufacturing — that will reshape the competitive landscape for manufacturing. Specifically, these technologies will make manufacturing more creative, less expensive, more local and more personal.

AI is software that makes computers do things that, if humans did them, we would call them intelligent. This is the technology that IBM’s Deep Blue computer used to beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997, and that enabled IBM’s Watson to beat TV-show Jeopardy champions in 2011. AI is what powers the self-driving car that Google is developing and Apple’s Siri voice-recognition software. As a field, AI is now over 50 years old. People thought AI was dead after all the hype it generated in the ‘80s and failed to deliver. But it is fulfilling its potential now.

Araya: When we consider many of the revolutions in high performance computing, one of the major technology trends that comes to mind is cloud computing. You are somewhat skeptical about cloud computing, however. Could you elaborate on your concerns?

Wadhwa:  Cloud computing is the technology of the future, but it is growing faster than our ability to secure it. We have created an “all you can steal buffet” for organized crime and governments.

Araya: You’ve recently written about the potential for computer automation to change the way China’s manufacturing base operates. As you point out, exponential advances in technology may provide new opportunities for young entrepreneurs but they also threaten the very existence of industries and jobs around the world. What steps could you imagine policymakers taking to begin to mitigate the challenges of automation?

Wadhwa: Advances in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital manufacturing are undoubtedly going to revolutionize manufacturing during this decade, enabling us to design and “print” complex products and “manufacture” these in our own homes. Exponentially advancing technologies will provide major new opportunities for entrepreneurs to create world-changing technologies, but they also may threaten jobs around the world.

America has been extremely worried about the loss of manufacturing to China. Seduced by subsidies, cheap labor, lax regulations, and a rigged currency, American industry has made a beeline to China. But the tide may soon turn. New technologies will likely cause the same hollowing out of China’s manufacturing industry over the next two decades that the U.S experienced over the past twenty years. That’s right. America is destined to once again gain its supremacy in manufacturing, and it will soon be China’s turn to worry.

China’s largest hi-tech product manufacturer Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group, made waves last August when it announced plans to install one million robots within three years to do the work that its workers presently do. These robots will perform repetitive, mechanical tasks to produce the circuit boards that go in many of the world’s most popular consumer gadgets. But even these robots and circuit boards will soon be obsolete.

What happens when you combine AI, robotics, and digital manufacturing? A manufacturing revolution, that will enable U.S. entrepreneurs to “set up shop” locally, and create a wide variety of products. As Kinko’s is for 2D digital printing on paper, we will have shared public manufacturing facilities like TechShop where you can print your 3D products. How is China going to compete with that?

Policy makers don’t even understand these advances. It is going to have to be entrepreneurs who create the new opportunities. They have to create new jobs, new solutions, new industries. Then the policy makers can sit back and take the credit.

Araya: What, in your view, are some of the unique public policy issues arising with the exponentially evolving technologies?

Wadhwa: There are many ethical, security, and safety issues. What happens when the bad guys start creating viruses targeted at a specific DNA for example?

Araya: In many Asian countries, governments largely direct technology innovation, seeding industries that are then rapidly commoditized. Do you think the U.S. could benefit from a similar industrial policy, as the Obama administration appears to advocate ?

Wadhwa: Government efforts rarely work. Governments can create manufacturing-type industries. They can’t create innovation. Best to fund basic research and leave entrepreneurs to do their magic.


About the author

Daniel Araya is a Research Fellow in Learning and Innovation with the Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (I-CHASS) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The focus of his research is the confluence of digital technologies and economic globalization on learning and education. He has worked with the Wikimedia Foundation and the Kineo Group in Chicago. In 2011, he received the Hardie Dissertation Award and was selected for the HASTAC Scholars Fellowship. He is currently the co-editor of the Journal of Global Studies in Education. His newest books include: The New Educational Development Paradigm (2012, Peter Lang), Higher Education in the Global Age (2012, Routledge) and Education in the Creative Economy (2010, Peter Lang).

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