AI, robotics, biosensors 'exploding onto the scene,' set to transform care

'The only constant is change, and the rate of change is increasing'
By Mike Miliard
10:41 AM
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Peter Diamandis, speaking at the CHIME 2014 Fall CIO Forum

"We're in for a rocket ride these next 10 years," says Peter Diamandis.

An innovator and futurist, Diamandis is is the kind of guy who went to both MIT (bachelor's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering) and Harvard (MD). A pilot, his X PRIZE Foundation has helped pioneer private spaceflight and now puts on huge global competitions to help find envelope-pushing solutions to other pressing "market failures."

He's also the co-founder of Human Longevity Inc., a genomics company focused on extending the human lifespan, and of Singularity University, a graduate-level program focused on transforming various industries – healthcare not the least of them – through the the application of exponentially-evolving technologies.

In an animated speech this past fall at the CHIME 2014 Fall CIO Forum in San Antonio, Diamandis said "extraordinary change and opportunities are on the near-term horizon" for healthcare.

The way technology evolves on the world stage has changed in the past few decades, he said, from the "local and linear" of old to the "global and exponential" of today.

"We are in a massive period of growth," said Diamandis, and these exponential technologies are set to disrupt and improve all sorts of industries – especially healthcare.

"I'm someone who believes we're heading toward a world of extraordinary healthcare abundance. a world in which every man, women and child is going to have access to healthcare at a level that is democratized and de-monetized around the world."

Singularity University takes its name from co-founder Ray Kurzweil's 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, which predicts that, by 2045, the law of accelerating returns in genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will lead humanity to a point where it is fundamentally and irreversibly transformed.

[See also: Robot, MD: Will machines replace docs?]

Based in Silicon Valley, the school says its "mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges."

"We challenge our students: Start a company that has potential to impact a billion people in 10 years," says Diamandis. "That's our metric for success, because that's the world we're living in today."

And today is an "extraordinary time to be alive," he said. From AI to robotics to nano-sensors, "these technologies are exploding onto the scene right now" and are set to transform care delivery in ways we can scarcely imagine.

Don't believe it? Diamandis asks us to consider the case of Kodak. Forty years ago, the camera and film colossus was near the peak of its powers, accounting for nearly 90 percent of U.S. film sales and 85 percent of camera sales.

Around that time, in 1975, a Kodak engineer, Steve Sasson, invented the first digital camera. It was just .01 megapixels, but weighed eight pounds.

"They invented the technology that would enable the future," said Diamandis.

"What happened, though, was that the leadership didn't realize what they had," he said. "They didn't realize the rate of growth this exponential technology would take. They said, 'That's not us! We make beautiful, high-resolution images. And besides, we're in the paper and chemicals business. What is this thing?'"

Kodak kept selling cameras and film for the next two decades as the digital camera quietly and slowly evolved. By 1996, the company was at its apex, with revenues peaking at around $16 billion.

But then the digital camera started to evolve much more quickly. And by 2012, Kodak filed had for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection: "disrupted by the very technology they had invented."

To put things in some perspective, that same year, another company in the digital imaging business, Instagram, was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion.

Diamandis called it "the new Kodak moment." He also made a bold prediction: "In the next 10 years, 40 percent of today's Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist," he said.

"If you started a company in the 1920s, your average time on the S&P 500 was 60 years. You could sit back and relax and enjoy the ride. The rate of change was slow enough that you weren't disrupted. Today, if you start a company, you've got 15 years."

Similar disruption is coming to medicine, he said. "There's going to be tremendous change ahead in the healthcare industry."

Every time you throw your old iPhone in a drawer, you're throwing away a supercomputer the government would've killed for just a few decades prior, he said. That exponential growth of computational power over time is just starting to be felt in palpable ways across the industry.

We're going to see "an explosion of biometric sensors," said Diamandis, who notes that, despite the recent popularity (fad?) of wearable trackers, "our refrigerator is better wired than we are."

That's going to change, "and change drastically," this next decade, in our hospitals and our homes, he said. "Every major device company coming out with biometric sensors."

Robots, too, are on the rise. "We're going to start seeing robots in every aspect of our world, and in no place more so than in the biomedical space," said Diamandis.

"Something interesting happened last year," he added. "Google bought eight robot companies." Considering that the mammoth of Mountain View has never been a company to look to the past, it's a safe bet that robots will figure heavily in our future.

Synthetic biology and genomics are also set to transform care in the coming decade or so. "We're about to have the most massive explosion of data ever," said Diamandis, who, alongside human genome sequencer Craig Venter and neurosurgeon/entrepreneur Robert Hariri, MD, recently launched Human Longevity Inc., a genomics and cell therapy company focused on extending the human life span.

HLI is building what it touts as the world's largest genotype/phenotype database, "sequencing 40,000 Human Genomes each year, along with microbiome, metabolome and other clinical data.

"The only constant is change, and the rate of change is increasing," said Diamandis. "We've seen just 1 percent of the innovation we'll see over the next 10 years."

[See also: Watson dives into genomics data]

After all, any industry that becomes digitized – whether it's healthcare, manufacturing, biology or finance – goes through what he calls the "The 6 Ds of Exponentials."After digitization comes a period of deceptive growth, before it suddenly emerges do disrupt the field. (See Sasson's digital camera, which in 2015 is "a billion times better on a cost/performance ratio" than it was in 1975, says Diamandis.)

Once that happens, there's a pattern of dematerialization, de-monetization and democratization, he said: Things that were big an unwieldy now fit in your pocket; things that were rigidly priced and controlled by old-guard corporations are disrupted; things that were unique are now easy to download, copy, change and disseminate.

That's happening to healthcare, in ways large and small, even though it may be hard to notice it. Diamandis rattles off a list: "infinite computing, sensors, networks, robotics, 3D printing, synthetic biology, digital medicine, nano materials, AI."

All of these are "riding on top of that computational power curve and getting more powerful." Once upon a time, IBM's Watson was a room filled with 3,000 core processors, said Diamandis with a wry laugh. "That was so two years ago."

And "it doesn't stop there," he said. "All these things are accelerating – reducing exponentially in cost, increasing in capabilities. And no place more than in healthcare."