The AI revolution is here. Generative AI products across audio, video, image, and text are being developed at an astonishing pace. The current AI revolution marks an important milestone in humanity’s unrelenting march in the digital realm. First came the Internet, then the smartphone, and now AI. I am convinced that developing an Artificial General Intelligence that has human-like cognitive abilities to perform a wide range of tasks across different domains is only a matter of time.
We’ve had AI and machine-learning-based tools in our software products for some time, but the current set of AI tools feel radically different. These AI tools such as ChatGPT are so intelligent, contextual, and advanced that simple text-based prompts can output complex code, original poems, and captivating stories. These tools can also comprehend intricate text, skillfully combine different concepts, and produce ingenious ideas. No wonder that ChatGPT has become the fastest and the most widely adopted product in a record time. Many sectors— education, health, research, academia, and government — are ripe for disruption. The possibilities from here on are endless.
When was the last time such a breakthrough innovation happened in the physical realm?
I recently came across a social media post that showed a giant poster wrapped around an unfinished building. The ad sarcastically quips, “Hey ChatGPT, finish this building…” pointing to the inadequacy of ChatGPT to do physical tasks.
It made me wonder as to why the pace and scale of innovation in infrastructure and industry is nowhere near the speed of digital innovation?
Consider cement concrete, one of the foundational pillars of modern civilization. Cement concrete is a mixture of Portland cement, water, sand, and gravel. It is durable, sturdy, can withstand wide temperature and pressure fluctuations. It is also incredibly resistant to wind and water erosion. Because of these advantages, concrete is used everywhere: bridges, dams, houses, hospitals, roads, and all the towering skyscrapers.
However, for all of its advantages, constructing buildings and paving roads with concrete is tedious. Concrete is not good at tensile stress, so it must be reinforced with iron bars, which warrants huge labour. And then, you need to let concrete settle for a considerable time to strengthen. It may be sturdy, but it takes a ridiculous amount of time to build anything with concrete.
So it’s unbelievable to think that despite being invented over 2000 years ago, the basic formula and process for making concrete remain unchanged, with few truly disruptive improvements. The majority of the global infrastructure is built on cement concrete, which is known to have a significant environmental footprint, accounting for around 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Innovations have been made to reduce this environmental impact, such as “green” or “sustainable” concrete, but these are not yet in widespread use and do not essentially change the nature of concrete itself. The fundamental use and production of concrete remain similar to what it was hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
Why haven’t we discovered an alternative to cement concrete that’s cheaper, more durable, and far easier to operate? Why isn’t there a disruptive innovation in infrastructure?
Prefabricated building technology was one improvisation that significantly reduced the time to build a structure. But we don’t see it around us because the technology is prohibitively expensive. And the far-fetched idea of printing buildings on site at scale is still a fantasy. In the age of digital acceleration, we are living a tale of physical stagnation.
Even roads too. The Covid pandemic proved that we can only go so far with remote work. People have a fundamental need to travel, and we need to pave thousands and thousands of kilometres of roads to sustain our growing population. How are we going to do it with asphalt and concrete? They are getting expensive by the day and just aren’t good enough for a 21st-century world. Why isn’t there a cheaper and faster way to lay roads and fix our potholes?
Even for our energy needs, we rely heavily on fossil fuels. It will be many decades before we reduce our dependence on coal, oil and natural gas. Why haven’t we solved nuclear fusion that can provide abundant energy for thousands of years to come? Even with nuclear fission, all the world’s nuclear reactors use designs that were created decades ago. More advance technologies such as Dyson spheres and space travel are still confined to sci-fi novels.
We live in a world where smartphones replace libraries, where artificial intelligence redefines work, and where the Internet connects us in an instant. Yet, we also live in a world where cement is still cement, engines still spit out smoke, and electricity is generated as it was generations ago.
We need to innovate and radically improve these processes. To ensure sufficient food for everyone, solve climate change, fix our energy security, and construct roads and buildings rapidly, we need disruptive innovation across these sectors too.
Despite the technological progress in software and smartphones, we have stagnated in the physical realm. We are able to manipulate binary bits, not physical atoms.
It’s not just about a lack of innovation. Even with existing processes, over time, you expect efficiencies to come in and things to become cheaper. But the costs of building things in the physical world are becoming expensive, hindering rapid progress.
So it’s not enough to discover new materials and new processes; we need to make them cheap for them to be deployed on a mass scale. Like how ChatGPT upended workflows across every conceivable sector, we need innovation that makes paving roads, buildings, and high-speed rails cheaper, faster and lasts a long time.
Undoubtedly, these tasks present significant challenges; otherwise, we would have already accomplished them. But what’s worrying is we have stagnated so much that there is not much progress in these sectors. Our best minds are going for computer science engineering. We need them to work on industrial engineering, too.
Some hard problems in the physical realm that we need to urgently solve:
1. How can we build mega infrastructure projects at a rapid speed and scale?
2. How can we make trees grow 10x as fast without disrupting the ecological balance?
3. How do we harness Nuclear fusion to create abundant energy from atoms?
4. Can we discover a cheaper, faster, more durable alternative to concrete and asphalt?
5. Flying cars and personal aircrafts?
Now these are not forbidden by any laws of physics. So it’s a matter of us developing the knowledge and capability to make it possible.
Of course, there is hope! When the Covid pandemic shook the world, our science & tech community developed vaccines at a breathtaking pace. mRNA vaccines, which used to be confined to esoteric academic journals, became a reality. We built all these vaccines and delivered them at scale. That’s a truly disruptive innovation in the health sector. With the arrival of ChatGPT, we now have the intelligence to help us in the physical realm. Maybe it will help us speed up our physical innovation trajectory.
The world doesn’t need our best minds building another SaaS app that gets us hooked onto short, addictive videos. We need true disruptive innovations in the physical world and it shouldn’t take a pandemic to wake us out of our stagnation.