Speaker shows the future to chamber event attendees


Technology strategist Salim Ismail addressed the audience at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s 128th annual meeting. Courtesy GRACC

Listening to Salim Ismail talk is like having someone from a Star Trek-like future step out of a time machine, reach out his hand and offer you a ride.

The former vice president of Yahoo! and highly acclaimed technology strategist spoke about preparing for a digital future at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s 128th Annual Meeting, held Jan. 19 at the JW Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids. 

Ismail, the founder of Singularity University and author of the highly praised 2014 book “Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it),” said we are living in a technology age the likes of which has never been seen.

“All the education and training in the world teaches us to think linear. We take our past performance and we project linearly wherever we go. The truth is that … it’s actually exponential. … We’ve been doubling computational power now for more than 100 years,” he said.

“When you take any domain or discipline or technology or industry, and you empower it with information technology, its performance starts doubling. And once it starts doubling, it doesn’t stop.”

“We’re witnessing what we think, today, is the biggest transfer of industry and business we’ve ever seen, driven by all these technologies.”

The first clear sign of this is that almost all communication is now digital, Ismail said, adding today’s smartphones have more computational power than the entire government had in the 1980s. Drones are changing how the world is organized, he added, using the example of how drones are being used to deliver food packages to Third World cities.

Pneumatic robotics and self-driving cars will soon become the norm, he said, which will mean there will be no more need for parking lots or driver’s licenses because the cars will be the drivers.

When information technology is inserted into industries, marginal cost goes exponential, the domain explodes and the problem space shifts, he said.

Technology is also changing social discernment. Ismail said some apps, such as Moodies, can take a 10-second clip of a person’s voice and assess their mood and their attitude about the subject of the conversation. With cameras recording every facial expression and tic, he predicts technology will allow us to assess more clearly how people communicate.

“Try it out on your spouse if you want to have some fun,” he quipped.

“I’ll make a prediction that in about four to five years, it’ll be impossible to lie. So if you’re in marketing, I’d be careful. Our politicians are going to have a tough time.”

But the most dramatic shift Ismail said he’s seen is in solar energy, which he called the future of energy, saying it will have a huge geo-political impact.

“This year solar becomes cheaper than the energy coming off of (fossil fuels),” he said. “We’ll see a huge inflection there. Saudi Arabia is going to figure out that solar is coming, and they’re going to start selling off their oil as fast as they can, so we predict oil prices will not recover.”

A huge issue for society is that, even though technology is giving humanity the chance to build a better world, the current system in place isn’t ready to adapt to the potential changes. Leadership is set up to manage the status quo, he said.

“We are not ready to absorb this pace of change,” Ismail said. “In fact, every mechanism we use to run the world — our politics or civic, our legal, our health care, our intellectual property — you name it, (it’s) all designed for a world of 200 years ago. We actually have to re-architect every fundamental premise and structure that we’ve put on ourselves.”

Regardless of leadership and humanity’s outdated systems, the digitalization of the world will continue. In 2010, there were 1.2 billion people online. In 2015, there were 2.8 billion people online, and in 2020, that number is expected to be 7.5 billion people, Ismail said.

Such changes have had a major impact on business. And if you don’t believe that digital is the future, Ismail left his audience with this fact: “This month Airbnb becomes the biggest hotel chain in the world,” he said. “And they don’t own any hotels.”

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