Conversation

The age of singularity

Meet Dr. Jordan Brandt, Technology Futurist at Autodesk

We flew to California to speak with Jordan Brandt from software company Autodesk to discuss their approach to developing advanced technology, because we feel that at Trinseo, things don’t always move as fast as they could. By “things” we mean our product development and the processes that we follow to grow. Every traditionally structured company keeps an eye on Silicon Valley to see what evolves out of their completely different way of thinking about products and solutions.

In Jordan’s vision, technology will be such an integral part of our lives that our thinking and behavior as a species will fundamentally change.

We believe that the right way forward is to connect with people who are actively participating in a very technology-driven economy. Of course, we are not alone in this, many other companies reach out to California based businesses to discuss partnerships and to learn what makes startups so successful. Talking with Jordan Brandt made sense to us because he co-founded a startup in New York called Horizontal Systems, an early creator of cloud-based applications. In 2011, Autodesk bought Horizontal Systems and Jordan Brandt has been at Autodesk ever since.


We were intrigued by his title, “Technology Futurist”, after we spoke with a more “traditional” futurist in now. 02. The conversation with Carsten Beck, our first futurist, focused on existing structures and how to address economic and environmental issues by suggesting several future-related scenarios. These scenarios are scoped for 5-10 years and depict how a current situation may develop under different circumstances. Carsten spoke with us about political, economic and European matters. We then wanted to explore a different direction and asked Jordan what he thought the future scenarios for technology and product development are going to be. In Jordan’s vision, technology will be such an integral part of our lives that our thinking and behavior as a species will fundamentally change.

Products will very soon be a thing of the past

Companies that will still exist in as little as 5 years will be the ones that have understood the need to change.

One of the biggest changes in product development will be that there won’t be “products” any longer. This has to do with the shift in consumer behavior that has already occurred with the rise of technology. People don’t want to own as many things anymore, and the things they do own they want customized. That means that we won’t be selling products, we will be selling solutions and in our case at Autodesk, we will be guiding people along their way with design support. Design and manufacturing intelligence will become even more important for our future work, and that is a service that we are in the process of developing.

I think that this focus is the best preparation strategy for an unforeseeable future. Let’s face it, technology develops so fast that there is no way we can plan 10 years ahead these days. Companies that will still exist in as little as 5 years will be the ones that have understood the need to change. It makes no sense to scope products for a decade because the product itself will have become obsolete by the time product development is finished. Never before in the history of humankind has this been so acutely the case. People in the future won’t know what it even means to have one solution. Technology will surround them wherever they go and it will interact with them on a constant basis.

Software and real life will continue to intertwine

As consumers, we own a lot of technological objects, but we are heading towards a future where high tech will become invisible. It will be embedded in our bodies and the physical environment around us, and it will no longer be perceived as an external object. It will be literally part of us, as an extension of our being. Just like a leg or an arm. If we still carry around phones and tablets in our pockets in 10 years we will have failed as a species, because the evolution of technology should allow us to dissolve the boundaries between technology and the analogue world, and we should use that to our advantage. There won’t be any physical objects for me to interact with, because technology will have risen to a whole new dimension and become an even more intrinsic part of my life. It will be used for a lot more than mere communication, since it’s going to have to guide me through an increasingly connected future world. For that to become reality, technology, and Artificial Intelligence in particular, must accelerate in its development. While we are sitting here speculating about it, somebody is taking the necessary steps to develop AI further.

Artificial Intelligence is coming, so is the singularity

Self-realization is a trait that at the moment only we, as humans, have.

There are people working on hyper-intelligent AI as we speak. Of course, that comes with certain issues that we need to address. Currently, AI is still very narrow because while it’s very good at knowing things, it is not self- aware, and therefore it does not yet know that it does not know something. In the future, AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) will be able to recognize when an approach to a problem isn’t working, and try something else or ask for help. Self-realization is a trait that at the moment only we, as humans, have. There is this great interview where Ray Kurzweil, who wrote the book “The Singularity Is Near”, talks to Marvin Minsky, one of the fathers of modern AI. Kurzweil predicts that the singularity will occur during our lifetime, whereas Minsky sees a lot of challenges for AGI to reach this level. They suggest that first of all, technology will become as intelligent as we are. Once that stage is reached, AI will quickly surpass the capabilities of our brain. As soon as we are able to scan the brain and really figure out how it works and what role our genes play, the move to a more intelligent technology is inevitable. When AI is able to identify what it doesn’t know, it will work to optimize itself and repeat that process until it is far beyond human comprehension. That moment, when we can’t follow or understand, will certainly arrive, and it may arrive sooner than we think.

The way we think will totally change

We will be surrounded by a swarm of intelligent nanobots or micro-robots that can self-assemble to form a chair for you to sit on or a transportation pod to ride in whenever you need it.

Because AI will be so powerful in the future, we will start thinking differently about our world. When we go about solving our everyday problems, the available tools will be drastically different. One of the big factors in this case will be nanotechnology. Material science and its current application in product development for example, will dissolve. We will be surrounded by a swarm of intelligent nanobots or microrobots that can self-assemble to form a chair for you to sit on or a transportation pod to ride in whenever you need it. If you think about it, a lot of our physical infrastructure is not used at any given time. The future concept of a chair will be highly customized and completely adjusted to my needs. This changes the meaning of material science. There won’t be a need to buy several physical objects anymore, but we are going to need services that focus on guiding people on how to program their nanobots or other technical devices. Once that technology has advanced to the point that it will be able to modify its own behavior, there is no effort on the users’ side to set up the parameters for their devices. We will have to completely reinvent materials science with the manifold new possibilities that are waiting for us.

What is true for materials science also applies to the natural sciences. With nanotechnology, we are close to thoroughly exploring our brain and using the data collected to find out what makes us tick. 3D printing, on the other hand, will enable us to eventually substitute body parts or cells that have somehow been damaged. Biology as we know it now will soon be transcended by technology.

Technology will not imitate nature, it will become nature

If you ask me, nature is pretty inefficient. Or would you call the fact that nature optimizes itself by random mutations efficient?

If you ask me, nature is pretty inefficient. Or would you call the fact that nature optimizes itself by random mutations efficient? There is no doubt that life on our planet is very complex and incredibly well done, but I don’t think we will use technology in the bio-mimicry sense. Instead, I think that technology will learn from nature and then it will continuously improve both our ecosystem and our own biological systems, in order to improve living conditions for us. Computing will excel nature, so to speak. I don’t have a sinister science fiction vision of the future, because it has never been more difficult (and exciting) to predict what is going to happen. I’m just glad that I can be an active part of this huge change that will affect the entire planet. We will be able to reinvent the world with the help of technology, and that is due to achievements in the field of AI and robotics. That is my macro view of the changes that will occur. Of course, there is also the micro view that focuses more on changing our everyday lives and turning our knowledge of the systems that we live in upside down.

Staying on top of things will be the crucial factor to bring about change

One of the keys will be figuring out how to use Big Data effectively. Big Data is still a general problem for us as a society right now, and also particularly at Autodesk. Not the accumulation of data, that works great of course, but we haven’t quite figured out how to index it. The first step must be to aggregate the data, and then we can attempt to put those bite-sized chunks in context. I’m sure that when you think about Big Data, the next question you’re going to ask me is about data security. What is my personal stance on having my data out in the open? The truth is, I don’t really think about it that much, because I think it is inevitable. Doesn’t it make much more sense to figure out how all this data can lead to developing software that will benefit my health, my business and, last but not least, my environment?

I like focusing on the here and now as well as on the future. The present still needs a lot of work, and I try to emulate that when I work with universities. There is a whole new generation waiting to get a shot at shaping the future, and I rather spend time with them, than thinking about negative scenarios.

Stop finding the answers, start asking the right questions

With technology and future supermaterials, I am positive we will all become makers in the long run.

I finally realized that my job at Autodesk is to ask questions, however obvious they may seem. What’s more, I encourage my colleagues and the students that I talk with to do the same. Autodesk has changed in this respect. We were not always open to the public, but we have realized that we benefit from exchanging views with the general public. We also speak with a lot of makers and startups, because the Maker’s Movement provides insight into how independent consumers are becoming. If a company cannot produce the product the makers want or need, they will go and try to create it themselves. With technology and future supermaterials, I am positive we will all become makers in the long run.

At Autodesk, we still need to work on our communication with other companies, but I think that we’re on the right track. This is a sincere invitation to anyone reading this: Please stop by and meet us, we are always open for a good conversation.

Our conclusion

Leaving the interview with our minds full of new ideas, we noticed that the approach we have been developing in the last couple of years, which is to focus on our design expertise, has been the right step towards the future. It made us aware of the fragility of the term “product”. If Jordan is right, we will have to consider in which direction our company is headed. The conversation also showed us how important speaking with businesses of different industries is, because we have to figure out together how to deal with this fast approaching new economy. We are sure of one thing: There won’t be just one direction for us, and just like Jordan, we are more excited than scared.

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