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Creating a Star Trek Future with Vivek Wadhwa

Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at the Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; and Faculty and Advisor at Singularity University. He is author of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year, and of Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology, which documents the struggles and triumphs of women. Wadhwa is a leading researcher on exponentially-growing technologies that are soon going to change our world.

Even though this seems hard to believe, we are less than 15 years away from being able to generate 100% of today’s energy needs through solar.

SPEAKING.COM: Unlike many people, you do not believe that “the sun is setting” on U.S. prosperity. What are the “exponential technologies” you believe will reinvent the U.S.?

WADHWA: These technologies range from computing to networks to medicine to synthetic biology to artificial intelligence and robotics. Practically every field is becoming digital and when this transformation occurs, the technologies trend on an exponential curve.

The impact of these technologies is dramatic on industry. Practically every industry will be impacted. Take manufacturing as an example. In 2015, it became cheaper to manufacture in the U.S. than in China because of robotics. The new generation of robots are dexterous enough to thread a needle and do circuit board assembly; they can do practically any physical job that a human can do. Manufacturing will trickle back to the U.S. during this decade and in the next decade, the trickle will become a flood.

There are also advances happening in clean energy. Even though this seems hard to believe, we are less than 15 years away from being able to generate 100% of today’s energy needs through solar. Within 20 years, we will have almost unlimited amounts of clean energy for a cost that is close-to-nothing.

This is all leading to the reinvention of the U.S., because we are creating these technologies and building an amazing future.

SPEAKING.COM: What effects will these technologies have on other major economies?

WADHWA: Many, such as the U.S., Europe, South Asia, Africa, and Latin America will benefit. Others which are dependent on fossil fuels and manufacturing, the Middle East and China in particular, will be severely disadvantaged. People all over the world will benefit from the new technologies but some global economies will suffer.

If we do things right, we can build a Star Trek future…

SPEAKING.COM: How do you think these technologies will affect the widening economic gap we’ve seen domestically?

WADHWA: That is my worry: the techno-elite are getting richer and becoming more powerful while the people whose jobs are being displaced are getting poorer. The income gap is widening and we will need to rethink our social welfare and safety nets to lessen the burden on the have-nots.

If we don’t do this, there will be social unrest. However, if we do things right, we can build a Star Trek future in which the goal of humanity isn’t to get rich and build wealth, but rather uplift itself by seeking knowledge and enlightenment.

SPEAKING.COM: What ethical debates will companies and consumers face as technologies advance?

WADHWA: Policy, law, and ethics simply can’t keep pace with the pace of technological changes. Ethics are a social consensus that is reached — usually over centuries. Laws are codified ethics. When the vast majority of people don’t even understand the technological advances that are happening, how will the social consensus needed to decide on what is right and wrong with technology be reached?

For example, in the recent battle between Apple and the FBI over unlocking the phone of a terrorist, there were national debates about the tradeoffs between security and privacy. We never reached a consensus and the pendulum will continue to swing.

We must start learning about technologies and engaging in a dialogue about how we can use them for the betterment of humanity. That is the key to building the Star Trek future.

A college degree is the equivalent of a high school diploma a century ago: you are nowhere without it.

SPEAKING.COM: There’s been growing concern and even anti-college rhetoric in recent years due to high student debt and unemployment/underemployment of college graduates. What advice would you give to individuals who are deciding whether or not to pursue a college education?

WADHWA: A college education counts more than ever. We have entered a knowledge economy in which the educated have all of the money and power. Yes, you can start a company without a college degree, but to build a successful business, you need to gain the basic social and business skills that college teaches. So whether you are trying to make it in business or start your own, a college degree is a must. A college degree is the equivalent of a high school diploma a century ago: you are nowhere without it.

SPEAKING.COM: What changes do you foresee happening in the U.S. higher education system?

WADHWA: Technology will change the way we learn. Digital tutors will do the job of knowledge transfer while teacher will take on the role of mentor and guide. The teacher will teach us the social skills and guide us on where to find the knowledge we need. Technology will do the grunt work of teaching and imparting basic skills. The best part: anyone anywhere will be able to gain education and knowledge.

I have become concerned with how fast technology is advancing and worry that businesses — and society — are not ready for the dramatic and traumatic changes that lie ahead.

SPEAKING.COM: What is Singularity University and how did you become involved in it?

WADHWA: Singularity University is a think tank started by two of the greatest futurists of our time: Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. It teaches exponential technologies with an emphasis on using them to solve the problems of humanity.

I got involved several years ago when Diamandis asked me to be President of the institution and mentor its faculty. I wasn’t ready to take this role, but did take over as head of faculty and later as head of research.

Over the past year, I have reduced my involvement with Singularity University so that I can research the impact of technology on industries and help develop policies to manage the dark side of technology. Yes, I have become concerned with how fast technology is advancing and worry that businesses — and society — are not ready for the dramatic and traumatic changes that lie ahead. My focus today is to help businesses and policy makers prepare for the future so that we may steer it towards the bright, Star Trek, side.

SPEAKING.COM: Could you tell us about Start-up Chile and what inspired you to help create it?

WADHWA: I have long been researching regional innovation, entrepreneurship, and America’s global advantages. I have published some of the most cited papers in academia on these topics. For those reasons I was invited by the President of Chile to visit there in 2009 and advise them on their innovation systems.

I told them that they were making a mistake by trying to build top-down clusters — which I have likened to “snake oil” because they simply don’t work. Instead, I suggested that they focus on the magic ingredient that fosters innovation: people. The idea was that Chile should import entrepreneurs from all over the world to help locals develop connections and lean from the best of the best. The experiment was so successful that The Economist called it “Chilecon Valley”. It has rapidly become one of the most vibrant innovation systems in the world.

SPEAKING.COM: What have been the results of the Start-up Chile program and what can U.S. federal and state governments learn from those results?

WADHWA: Rather than focusing on building fancy science and technology parks Start-up Chile focuses on teaching, motivating, and supporting entrepreneurs. The focus of innovation must be people, not real estate, industry, or venture capital. It is people who make the magic happen — they are where all resources must be directed.

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  • Vivek Wadhwa Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; and Distinguished Fellow at Singularity University. He has been also a senior research associate at the Labor and Worklife ... more


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