Throughout human history there are a few people who have increased humanity’s understanding of the world by achieving significant breakthroughs in science and engineering. Galileo’s invention of the telescope brought a changed understanding of the universe and our place in it. The Wright brothers achieving sustained flight and Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web are more modern examples of technologies advancing humanity in a massive way.
This article explores three current people who are advancing technology, and bringing about a better future. I call them Future’s Frontiersmen, because they are standing at the frontier of the future, and the first one is:
Elon Musk is kind of a big deal. In fact he may or may not be one of the most important people in the world today. He might even be one of the most important people in history ever. Let’s break down why.
After having co-founded PayPal, sold it, and walked away with 165$ million dollars, like it was no big deal, he decided to found another two companies, one of which was Tesla.
The Master Plan
Before founding Tesla in 2007 he formulated an outrageously ambitious Master Plan in 2006, the goal of which was to build a sports car for the hip, cool and rich. Low volume, high price. This effort resulted in what we know today as the Tesla Roadster.
The next step in the plan was to use the money from selling The Roadster, to build a more affordable car to compete with the likes of the Mercedes S Class – in other words a more luxurious, family oriented car. Here we’re going for higher volume, and lower price, relative to the Roadster.
The profits from that was then to be rolled in to building a car for the masses, which is to be sold in large volumes and at a lower price. Oh, and during all of this a key part of the goal is to build a grid of electronic charging stations, where Tesla owners could charge their cars for free.
The first part of the master plan is now more or less complete. We still have to wait and see if the Tesla for the masses – Model X – is going to be as successful as Elon (I like to pretend we’re on a first-name basis) is planning, but the odds are pretty good that this is the iPhone of the car-industry.
Master Plan Part Deux
So having upset an entire industry, and made everyone change their minds about electric cars, we now arrive at Master Plan Part Deux where the first goal is to accelerate the advent of a sustainable future – meaning that the goal is for the the world to consume energy produced exclusively from sustainable sources – primarily solar. The reason we must do this, is because if we don’t, then humanity will eventually run out of fossil fuels and civilization will collapse. So, you could say that this step is fairly important. For everyone.
The way this is to be achieved is by creating stunning solar roofs, with integrated battery storage. Meaning that the energy from a roof like this
will be stored in battery like this
The next steps in the plan are to make sure that everyone can drive a Tesla, that all Tesla’s can be self-driving, and that your Tesla can make money for you when you’re not driving it yourself. If the success of the first master plan is anything like the success of the first, then we’re facing a very exciting future.
The integration between Tesla and the company that Tesla recently acquired where Elon Musk is the principal financier – SolarCity – is seamless. It is also astonishing, and makes all the pieces to the puzzle line up very neatly, but that will be the subject of another article, because there is another one of his companies which are even more interesting.
This company, that Elon Musk also happens to run – is the subject of an even more grandiose, seemingly outrageous but extremely important vision of his. SpaceX’ vision is to enable the space flight capabilities necessary to make human life multiplanetary – or more specifically enable a self-sustaining human civilization on Mars, which could initially look something like this
In short, Elon Musk wants to build a colony on Mars, which is able to hold one million people, so that in the event that Earth is no longer inhabitable – due to e.g. temperature increases, Solar Flares, or any other of a number events which can extinguish the planet – we as a race are still able to exist. This is what he calls the back-up plan – SpaceX even made this super-cool video to illustrate exactly what would happen and how.
The essence of the plan is to make space-flight sustainable by making rockets reusable,which means getting them safely in and out of the atmosphere, as well as being able to land them. Which they’ve basically already done – they’ve also landed one on water, so that’s good. This is a huge deal, because no-one has ever done this before.
In case you were wondering what it looks like to land a spaceship on a platform in the middle of the ocean, this is what it looks like.
The next step is to be able to fly people to Mars – around 500 should be enough for the first self-sustaining colony – and then replenish those initial 500 with more and more people, in order to grow the colony to the desired one million people.
In order to get an idea of what this might look like, take a look at this
The reason it has to be one million, is because this is Elon Musk’s estimate of how many people it would take to sustain civilization indefinitely. The interesting thing is, that once we break through the initial barrier of leaving earth, there is nothing holding us back from settling on other planets elsewhere in the solar-system as well. In theory we can expand farther and farther away to new planets as space travel improves, and people’s desire for discovery is lit.
To understand the immense scope of this, let’s look at SpaceX’ achievements so far. Their first major success was launching a rocket to orbit in 2008 as the first privately owned enterprise ever. They have also managed the following list of firsts:
First company to safely return a rocket from orbit in 2010.
First company to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station in 2012.
First company to land a rocket in 2015.
First company to land a rocket on water in April 2016.
So you can say that they’re doing pretty well for themselves.
Accelerating the future
The picture is pretty clear. Elon Musk is achieving what he set out to do, and he is launching humanity head-first in to a new, unprecedentedly exciting era, and he is doing it with not only one company, but two. This is similar to Bill Gates running Microsoft alongside Walmart. It is seemingly impossible. Then take into account that Elon Musk is leading the way, in not only one, but two industries, which have long been stagnant.
So there’s no doubt in my mind that he is one of the Future’s primary Frontiersmen.
Oh. By the way. Alongside this he is also heavily invested – mentally and financially – in projects such as the Hyperloop and OpenAI.
Which leads me to the second person leading leading the way for a better future.
Demis Hassabis is one of the smartest people around. As a kid he was a chess master at the age of 13, and was the second highest rated player in the world under 14. At 16 he started designing games, and at 17 he co-designed and was lead programmer on the game Theme Park, which sold several million copies. Then, after obtaining a Double-first degree in computer science, and deciding that running games companies was too trivial he decided to get his Ph.D. in – you guessed it – neuroscience.
The reason for going back to school in spite of being hugely successful by any standard measure of the word, is because he wanted to go deeper. He wanted to go in to the emerging field of artificial intelligence. In short, he wanted to solve the problem of intelligence, and use it make the world a better place.
In 2010 he founded DeepMind, which was subsequently bought out by Google in early 2014 for $600 million. Demis Hassabis is still running Deepmind, which today employs more than 200 of the foremost researchers in the fields of neuroscience and machine intelligence, and which he likens to the Apollo program, due to the sheer amount of intellect gathered under one roof.
Some of the major milestones for AI are related to challenging and beating human experts at their favorite games. Think Deep Blue beating Garry Kasparov in the game of chess, and Watson beating Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings. When I say beating though, Watson is wiping the floor with the two winningest Jeopardy! players of all time. This is the video, and it’s worth watching it, to get a sense of just how big the difference can be between human intelligence, and machine intelligence.
So naturally, in order for DeepMind to prove its mettle, they had to take on a similar challenge. And what better challenge than solving an unsolvable problem – namely beating a human expert at the ancient chinese game of GO! More complex than Chess, GO! requires players to use their intuition and think in terms of probability. Add to that an with an almost infinite variety of moves and strategic subtleties and you’ll see why it made the perfect proving ground for DeepMind.
DeepMind challenged and beat 18-time world champion Lee Sedol 3-0, before Sedol won one back. There are a few key take-aways here – first and foremost it once again showcases the enormous power of computing, but it is also a tribute to Lee Sedol’s immense skill that he managed to beat such a fierce opponent. However, the most astounding thing about this is not the fact that yet another milestone was reached in machine intelligence, but more so the mechanics behind it.
DeepMind challenged and beat 18-time world champion Lee Sedol 3-0, before Sedol won one back.