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.
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’s mode of learning is through a closed loop feedback mechanism, meaning that it is given a single outcome to optimize, such as maximizing the score in a game, and then only based on the feedback it gets, it must be able to improve. This is also known as reinforcement learning, and Demis Hassabis and his team have taken this to the next level. They have taught the software to play Atari games, such as Space Invaders and Breakout better than any human ever could. Look at how the machine gets better for set of iterations and become better than the best human players pretty fast. It is quite enjoyable to witness.
The thing is though, that these are all minor checkpoints along the way, and what DeepMind is really aiming for is so much bigger than beating world champions of games of their choosing. Hassabis’ vision of the future is machine learning contributing in highly complex areas such as medicine and scientific research.
The key for Demis Hassabis and his team is to teaching the software how to learn, in order to continuously become smarter, and eventually become intelligent in its own right. While the advent of actual artificial intelligence might seem like a long way away and creating a superhuman Atari-player might seem insignificant, the DeepMind team has solved problems that were thought to be unsolvable, and they have made more progress in the last few years, than the entire AI-field has in decades, so there is reason to be excited.
This is one of the key areas in technology, and is helping us gain understanding in a range of fields that we don’t understand that well as it is – such as cognitive neuroscience and how intelligence actually works.
Demis Hassabis and his team are creating massive progress, and contributing to a better future for humanity.
However, there is a problem that we still haven’t addressed, which is one of the most important ones to solve, because it will fundamentally alter the human condition, our civilization, and the way we look at ourselves as a species.
And that is the problem of aging. which the guy I am about to present knows a lot about.
Aubrey de Grey
The last person in our trifecta of people leading the way of the future is the inimitable Aubrey de Grey.
The man sporting this big, weird, formidable beard has published three books – one in 1999 called The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging, one in 2007 called Ending Aging and one in 2016 called Advancing Conversations: Aubrey de Grey – Advocate for an indefinite human lifespan.
Aubrey de Grey is not a lonesome cult-like, weirdo with a Jesus-syndrome. On the contrary, he is a highly decorated scientist, educated at Cambridge, and now Adjunct professor at the University of Moscow.
He is also the chief science officer of the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) research foundation located in Mountain View California, whose purpose is to develop techniques to rejuvenate the human body, and stop aging, as well as the editor-in-chief of Rejuvenation Research – the world’s leading journal focused on intervention in aging.
If you are detecting a theme here, then you are not alone. Aubrey de Grey’s research, books and public appearances are all centred on the theme of ending aging – which makes sense if you think about, seeing as that is the absolute chief killer in human history is degeneration of cells caused by aging.
Just to be clear, what we are talking about is immortality. Or effectively the potential for immortality, as well as reversing aging, meaning that you’d be able to forever live in a body in peak physical condition. Not bad.
The way Aubrey de Grey sees it, there is a 50/50 chance of bringing aging under control in the next 25 years. This means that aging will basically become the same type of disease that the flu is today: quick to cure, easy to get under control and nothing to be afraid of.
This means that people can last 1000 years or more, and forever oscillate in a body that is biologically between 20 and 25. This is because essentially aging is nothing more than the accumulated molecular and cellular damage to the body, which can – in theory – be prevented by the likes of stem-cell therapy.
The key point here is that de Grey is not looking for longevity of life just for the sake of longevity. Instead he is interested in achieving what he calls longevity escape velocity, meaning that people can get younger faster than they get older.
Interestingly Aubrey de Grey points out time and time again, that he is not working on curing death. He is working on improving health – meaning that he views aging as just another disease to be conquered, which then inevitably leads to people living for a longer period of time.
In terms of the actual scientific breakthroughs, stem cells are obviously tremendously important, and a lot of the initial treatments will bear some relation to stem cell technology. So will the CRISPR technology, which is essentially gene editing – de Grey argues that the advent of CRISPR has accelerated the development timeline for ending aging. When asked how much it has sped up the development timeline, he uses the highly scientific term “a lot”.
The idea behind CRISPR is that you cut out unwanted DNA from your DNA-string and replace them with desirable ones, as aptly illustrated in this picture
However, there is still a long way to go before we are anywhere near where Aubrey de Grey argues we could go in the future, but the advances of technology and the vision in this scientific field are hugely enticing and massively promising.
This could potentially be one of the most important fields of discovery in all of human history, and that is why Aubrey de Grey is one Future’s Frontiersmen.
Between the three of them Elon Musk, Demis Hassabis and Aubrey de Grey are paving the way for the future of humanity in Science and Technology, and the fields they’re engaged in are monumental to our future as a species.
In addition the goals they are trying to achieve, and the problems they are trying to solve are immense. Let me list them for good measure
- Bringing sustainable transport to the world – including the advent of self-driving cars
- Making humanity’s energy production sufficient – effectively turning from burning fossil fuels to using Solar Power.
- Making humanity a space-faring and multi-planetary species – meaning that we are not bound to a single planet, and are free to discover the universe as we please
- Solving the problem of intelligence – effectively understanding the brain and the mind – and thus accelerating the advent of superhuman artificial intelligence
- Ending aging – making it biologically possible to live aged 20-25.
These are some pretty intense goals, and Elon Musk, Demis Hassabis and Aubrey de Grey are well on the way to solving these problems, ushering in one of the most exciting times to be alive in all of human history.