Technology’s Better Angels
Today’s advances offer the tools to enrich humanity. Let’s encourage students to use them.
By Vivek Wadhwa
My most disappointing moments after joining Duke’s engineering school in 2004 came in seeing our graduates join investment banks or management consultancies. Instead of solving important engineering problems, they chose to engineer our financial system, which I considered a waste of talent. We teach our students core technologies, but do not give them the vision to change the world. So when Carnegie Mellon’s engineering dean, James Garrett, offered me the opportunity to teach students how to use technology to solve humanity’s grand challenges and build billion-dollar businesses by helping a billion people, I jumped on it.
A decade ago, it would have seemed wishful thinking to say that students could effect change on such a scale. It was only governments and big research labs that could solve grand challenges—and they required big grants and budgets. But that is no longer the case; the cost of building world-changing innovations has fallen so low that motivated graduates can do it.
These young dreamers can build technologies that solve the problems of health, food, energy, and education. They can help take us into a world in which we worry more about sharing prosperity than fighting each other over what little we have. Since they don’t know what isn’t possible, our students have fewer constraints.
Witness the thresholds we have already crossed with Moore’s Law, the observation that the computing power of a chip doubles every couple of years. Our smartphones are many times faster than the supercomputers of yesteryear and, by 2023, will exceed the computing power and storage capacity of a human brain. Faster computers are now being used to design even faster computers and, along with the information technology that they enable, are absorbing other fields. So we are seeing exponential advances in technologies such as sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, and genomics. And their convergence is making amazing things possible.
Cheap sensors and networks, for example, are enabling a web of connected devices we call the Internet of Things. Besides making our homes more energy efficient and tracking our bodies’ rhythms, this web of sensors enables the automation of manufacturing, the creation of smart grids and cities, and a revolution in agriculture.
The same technologies allow us to transform health care. Now that the human genome has been mapped into bits, it has itself become an information technology. We can use artificial intelligence to learn how the environment, food we eat, and medicines we take affect the complex interplay between our genes and our organisms. With CRISPR-Cas 9, which makes it possible to edit genes, we can engineer cures for diseases.
The combination of sensors, artificial intelligence, and computers enables robots to do the work of humans—to assemble electronics, drive cars, and look after the elderly. Digital tutors can take students into virtual-reality worlds and teach them engineering, mathematics, language, and world history.
We have seen technology start-ups such as Facebook, Google, Tesla, and Uber transform industries beyond their own. Facebook has not only changed the way we socialize but has also disrupted telecommunications with its messenger and communications applications. Google, having graduated from search algorithms to home-monitoring devices and personal assistants, is working on providing global Internet services, via balloons, and life extension, via DNA analysis. Tesla is transforming not only transportation but also solar and energy storage. Uber is looking to add delivery services and medical care.
These technologies all have a dark side and can be used in destructive ways. Just as we can edit disease, we can create killer viruses and alter the human germ line. Just as robots can nurse the elderly, they can become killing machines. That is why we need people with good values and ethics leading the way. We need innovators who care about enriching humanity rather than just themselves. We need people who give back to the world and make it a better place. Doesn’t this remind you of the students we teach—who aren’t yet polluted by the corruption of our investment banks and big business? They are our future, and that is why I want to inspire and enable them.
Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering’s Silicon Valley campus. His book, The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future, will be published in April.