Have you read Abundance? – Part 2

Access to education is a major global problem. We’re millions of teachers short and lack infrastructure – and where it does exist, it’s falling into disrepair. Students fortunate enough to have access to education are following seriously outdated frameworks.

Business leaders agree that the educational system is not providing students with the skills needed to tackle the problems of the twenty-first century, particularly in areas such as critical thinking, creativity and problem solving.

Our current education system was formed during the industrial revolution, which not only influenced which subjects were taught, but how to teach. Industry required students to follow orders and fit in like cogs in a machine, so standardization through rote learning was the order of the day and conformity the desired goal. Society has since moved on, but education has not kept pace with these changes.

When we consider these problems, it seems education is in need of a serious re-think, but is it feasible with such thinly stretched resources? Fortunately, there is evidence to suggest that increased use and access to ICT may offer a solution which can address both issues of quality and delivery.

Further development in such technologies, combined with a widespread push to increase access to the internet and online technology, may offer a cost-effective solution and provide individuals with a first-class, personalized education that delivers the skills today’s society needs.

We are generally uncomfortable with the word failure. There’s a certain stigma attached to it and, because of this, many people go out of their way to avoid it – even if it means not attempting something new. However, failure should not be viewed as the endpoint, but more as part of a longer learning curve and a vital stepping stone towards innovation.

Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the potential benefits of failure, and many of them have developed techniques to make failure more acceptable in order to encourage innovation.

Incentive prizes are a great example – because restrictions encourage innovation rather than constrain it. The prize itself is usually not enough to interest the big players in the industry, so smaller teams on restricted funding are attracted to compete. These restrictions force the teams to innovate and find cheaper solutions to problems.

With this in mind, the Entrepreneurship Center of MIT developed the 5 x 5 x 5 Rapid Innovation method: five teams of five employees work together for five days to develop five different “business experiments” that will cost no more than €5,000 and can be run within a five-week period. These limits force the teams to innovate and try new things. As the author suggests, it’s not so much about thinking outside the box as in the right-sized box.

Consider that today’s low-end laptops can perform around 10 to 11 (1011) calculations per second and the human brain is estimated to perform 10 to 16 (1016) calculations per second. So, if computer processors continue to progress in line with Moore’s law, the average laptop will surpass the speed of the human brain in the next fifteen years. This exponential increase in processing speed will have tremendous implications, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence and robotics.

But, while we’ve managed to develop technology in step with the law to date, there is skepticism that we can continue to do so due to the limitations of the technology. One of the main arguments is the fact that electrical signals require the movement of electrons, which generates heat. And this build-up of heat in microchips is seen as a barrier to achieving much greater processing speeds.

Clearly unfazed by such skepticism, the industry continues to progress and innovate. IBM has recently developed microchips that run on light, removing the potential limitations of electron-based chips. They predict that this technology will increase the speed of supercomputers a thousand-fold over the next eight years.

With such breakthroughs and continued progress, it seems to be a question of when the average laptop will calculate faster than the human brain – not whether it will. From Star Wars to 2001: A Space Odyssey, many a science fiction film has envisioned an age where robots live among us in society, helping or hindering us – depending on the plot, of course. Technology programs have seduced us with the idea of robots helping us around the house but still these promises hardly seem to have been realized today – self-operating vacuum cleaners aside.

Now, however, there are good reasons to believe that the wait for intelligent robots may be coming to an end. Although Moore’s law specifically deals with the increasing performance of computer chips, other essential components are experiencing similar exponential increases in performance with simultaneous drops in price. And as these components are pressed into action and mass produced, prices plummet even deeper.

Three-dimensional laser range finders, for instance, are a key element in allowing a robot to navigate a cluttered room. While they used to cost $5,000 dollars per unit, recent advances in the technology and an increase in their popularity due to their use in X-box Kinect devices has seen that price drop to $150 per unit.

The availability of such advanced hardware is being complemented by huge strides in artificial intelligence. We’re currently developing robots that can recognize individual people and react to movements and facial expressions with appropriate emotional responses. Industry experts already envisage such robots providing care for an increasingly aging population.

Although we may not have the singing, dancing humanoid robots of science fiction just yet, robots of different forms have already been produced to augment services in a number of areas. And, as the technology advances and the price of the components continues to fall, robots are set to take on an increasing role in society and our lives.

Nanotechnology involves building things on an atomic scale. Using atoms as building blocks makes it possible to create unique materials, called nanocomposites, and even tiny programmable assemblers, called nanomachines. These nanomachines can self-replicate and build other nanomaterials, creating greater efficiency in the technology and allowing for fantastic innovation potential.

This technology has allowed us to create materials with interesting properties. For instance, nanocomposites that are considerably stronger than steel and can be produced at a fraction of the cost. Nanoscale components are also being used to improve the efficiency of energy technologies, particularly in solar cells.

Far from limited to improving filters, nanotechnology has the potential to boost progress in any number of areas. As a relatively new technology, we’ve only just begun to realize its potential. Recent advances in the technology have made it possible for current models to print in an exceptional range of materials, such as plastic, glass, steel and even titanium, and also print combinations of materials in intricate patterns, creating materials with interesting functional properties.

But 3D printing is not limited to producing objects: it’s also making waves in medical fields, where cells and tissue can now be printed. Early applications have included printing skin tissue, such as ears, for use in cosmetic surgery, but further research into printing complex organs, such as replacement kidneys for transplants, is underway.

While the innovative potential of 3D printing is creating a lot of excitement, the approaching affordability and availability of the technology to the home user may be the bigger game changer.

Being able to produce and modify your own products whenever you need them minimizes the need for large-scale production of many goods on the market, creating resource savings through reductions in waste and shipping.

Despite this technology being in its infancy, we are already seeing the potential for 3D printing to revolutionize the way we think about and create items and the potential for further innovation grows as the range of applications expands.

Check out my related post: Do you know the science of why? – Part 1

Interesting reads:




5 thoughts on “Have you read Abundance? – Part 2

      1. Well it’s a complicated decision with lots of factors which would be too long winded to explain on here. The part where you write about the education system was formed in the industrial revolution really hit a cord with me. Not all children fit into the perfect mould of sit down quietly and write. A child with dyslexia, for example, could verbally explain answers to questions but in termly tests, which were written, would not be able to explain in writing. Technology is helping and making massive leaps to help engage some children but what about the child with ADHD who can’t sit still and needs to be on the move, or the child with Aspergers who struggles with the noise level of a class of 30 plus children?


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