Rebuild, Accelerate, Thrive: Tech Moonshots for Society

Technology Policy Science & Innovation

Rebuild, Accelerate, Thrive: Tech Moonshots for Society

Paper
Posted on: 9th March 2022
By Multiple Authors
Benedict Macon-Cooney
Deputy Executive Director, Technology and Public Policy
Jess Northend
Policy Lead, Science and Innovation Unit

Groundbreaking, ambitious and radical: our “moonshots” project was launched in 2021 to shine a spotlight on the visionary ideas of world-leading tech thinkers, entrepreneurs and practitioners in transformative areas of health, energy, space, food and more.

Since then, science and technology has delivered astonishing advances, for instance, in the exploding field of biotech where the fast tracking of alternative cancer treatments, with several trials already underway, has built on the success of Covid-19 mRNA vaccine technology. There’s been a new speed record of just over five hours for ultra-rapid genomic sequencing in a clinical-care setting, while DeepMind continues with its goal of publishing the structures of more than 100 million proteins on its database – having already solved the long-standing protein-folding challenge.

No less impressive, climate-tech advances include the successful testing of the world’s strongest high-temperature superconducting magnet – moving us further down the path towards clean, commercial fusion energy – and game-changing energy-density improvements for solid-state batteries. Companies in this sector have been attracting more funding than ever before as investment megadeals boost innovations from fusion energy through to electric-mobility startups.

More broadly across tech, leading research lab OpenAI is pushing forward with the evolution of its language models, Web 3.0 is seeing new forms of community building and 3D printing is revolutionising the cost of building – both at home and in space.

Many of these technologies were named in our moonshots last year: notably, Vijay Pande heralded the novel age of engineered biological solutions we describe above, highlighting that revolutionary new capabilities in design and prediction mean we no longer need to wait for a miracle to solve biological crises. This is a theme that TrialSpark’s Benjamine Liu picks up below, looking at how we can speed up and lower the cost of clinical trials and drug development to improve health.

In 2021, Bob Mumgaard of Commonwealth Fusion Systems wrote about the potential of fusion, describing “the process that powers the stars.” This year’s contributors include Engine’s Katie Rae, who underlines the need to scale “tough tech” (or frontier tech) for our energy transition, and Planet’s Will Marshall, who discusses how satellites and AI can together be “humanity’s mission control”.

With the prospect of eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft raised last year by Lilium’s Daniel Wiegand, Alex Kendall of Wayve is today considering the opportunity for autonomous vehicles and AI in the physical world. Also reflecting on the promise of AI, Graphcore’s Nigel Toon writes about the concept of “ultra intelligence” and how increased computing power can identify “patterns and correlations at levels of depth imperceptible to humans”, therefore helping us to find answers to some of the great “unknown unknowns” of scientific exploration.

Some new themes do emerge for 2022. Set against the background of cryptocurrency’s rising prominence, leading voice Balaji Srinivasan highlights the potential that digital autonomous organisations have for community in the 21st century. Politicians such as Estonia’s Chief Information Officer Luukas Ilves, US Congressman Ro Khanna and Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang all set out how the internet and technology can be harnessed to improve the lives of citizens.

Drawing some of these ideas together, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson shares his concept for an abundance agenda, something we have written about before. As countries around the world have struggled to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, his is a timely call: we must increase our technological infrastructure and capabilities to build solutions to the biggest challenges we face, not least in global health.

The ideas above are a selection of those that we should be looking to pursue to improve the health of people and the planet. But as X’s Sarah Hunter also rightly point outs, making moonshots happen can be as hard – even harder – than identifying the problem in the first place. This is a subject we will be exploring in more depth as we seek to improve the ways in which governments not only pursue high-risk, high-reward research, but also turn their visions into reality.

Moonshots

“DAOs rebuild community and rekindle ambition”

Balaji Srinivasan
Angel Investor and Entrepreneur

A digital autonomous organisation (DAO) is not very autonomous. The name has stuck around for historical reasons. It’s best thought of as an online forum crossed with a cryptocurrency. This might sound small, but it’s very big. Here’s why: in 2000, Robert Putnam famously observed that people in the US had begun “Bowling Alone” and the community organisations that characterised the West by mid-century had since dwindled away… that people literally went bowling by themselves. His observations presaged the current era of anomie we find ourselves in. But while local and national bonds have been steadily fraying over the past 20 years, online bonds have been growing. People know each other through social networks and messaging apps, even if they don’t know their next-door neighbours. DAOs take that to the next level. They are the new small towns, or even small cities. They are research groups such as VitaDAO and think-tanks. They are facilitating crypto crowdfunders and cultural kick-starters, like the community that arose around The Infinite Garden film on Ethereum. And they could herald a rebirth of the small-town community and blue-sky ambition that once made the West great.

“The time to accelerate the tough-tech movement is here”

Katie Rae, CEO and Managing Partner
The Engine

The solutions to our greatest challenges often emerge from institutions that continuously push the boundaries of technology. Around the world, innovators in academic, national and independent research labs are developing solutions that will: (1) transition our energy systems to low-carbon resources; (2) decrease the environmental impact of our industrial manufacturing processes; (3) increase access to curative and preventive health care; (4) ensure global food security; and (5) create more robust supply chains and transportation systems.

The rate of technological development and the scale of global adoption are reaching levels that have never been seen before. Funding for tough tech broke new records in 2021, with more than $130 billion in venture capital invested across 6,300 deals – a 50 per cent year-on-year increase in investor dollars compared to 2020. This record-setting venture environment has been made possible by breakthrough technical advances and growing adoption and expansion of business applications, as well as macroeconomic factors such as government policies and shifting regulations.

Yet many tough-tech companies are still at the beginning of their capital funding journeys. Some have proof of concept and are moving into pilot-deployment phase while others are still deep in the initial stages of research and development. These founders need access to both capital and partnerships to be able to scale and maintain their momentum. The next decade will see founders, investors and industry working as part of an unprecedented, concerted effort to accelerate the commercialisation of tough-tech breakthroughs.

“Satellite data is indispensable to sustainability, global peace and security”

Will Marshall, Co-Founder and CEO
Planet Labs PBC

Here on Earth, we are in a planetary emergency that satellite data is fundamental to resolving. Every country must reduce its emissions and protect its precious ecosystems; every company must meet its sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

Meanwhile, beyond Earth, there’s a renaissance happening in space technology. It’s not the rockets or billionaire space tourists. It’s actually something different, and concretely relevant to Earth. This renaissance is enabling more people to access what was once only the province of global superpowers. Moreover, it is producing dramatic new capabilities, such as daily imaging of the whole earth or high-bandwidth communications in rural regions. The true upshot from the space renaissance is radical new datasets.

Sustainability and space are connected because the first step for companies and countries on their journey to achieving their goals is measurement – understanding where they are now and how they’re tracking those goals. As former Intel CEO Andy Grove said: “You manage what you measure.” Satellite data is the natural starting point that enables full accountability.

Satellite imagery can help to illuminate world events, bringing about a global transparency that can advance security because historically when actors know what the other is doing, peace endures whereas when this is left to speculation, tensions escalate.

Satellite technology along with AI offer an exciting future: making the earth “queryable” – much like a search engine queries the internet. Ultimately, the vision is that satellite data will serve as humanity’s mission-control centre for spaceship Earth, enabling us to steward it more effectively for a secure and sustainable future.

“There’s no playbook for moonshots”

Sarah Hunter, Director, Public Policy
X (founded by Google)

With so many urgent problems facing the world, there’s no shortage of opportunities for “moonshot-taking”. From activists and policymakers to scientists and entrepreneurs, there’s a renewed energy around tackling big, intractable problems. At X, we’re especially passionate about finding radically creative ways to tackle the climate crisis — whether it’s building a more sustainable food system or helping governments to transition their electricity grids to more renewable energy. The list of possibilities is long.


Identifying the problem is easy. Solving it is harder. There’s no playbook for taking moonshots but you need to start by acknowledging that it requires a different approach to business as usual. You need to bring together expertise from different fields, share perspective and insights, and – crucially – run experiments to help you learn as rapidly as possible. That experimental mindset is at the heart of good moonshot-taking. We have projects around the world in which we are learning, iterating and discovering every day, for example on how we might make the electricity grid cleaner in Michigan or how bicycles with selfie sticks are a great tool for farming innovation. This may not be what you imagine moonshots to look like, but it’s this daily experimentation and discovery we all need to be doing if we’re going to find new and better paths to the moon.

“Building a better digital world”

Luukas Ilves, Chief Information Officer
Estonia

At its advent, many hailed the world wide web as a positive force – a new global commons, allowing collaboration across geographic, ideological, social and economic divides. Lately, this vision has deteriorated into a dystopian reality of filter bubbles, online censors, national firewalls and ransomware, with dictatorships and monopolies often setting the pace.

A wide-ranging group is pulling back in the other direction: entrepreneurs and cryptographers building protocols for open and distributed web applications, collectively known as Web 3.0; journalists and activists using crowdsourcing and AI to identify corrupt money flows as well as covert and illegal military operations in foreign countries; and even governments.

The Estonian government, for instance, is launching an ethical virtual assistant that works on behalf of its citizens, proactively identifying and communicating public entitlements or services they would benefit from while providing them with controls and transparency on the use of their personal data. We are sharing the code that our digital government is built on, contributing alongside others to a global repository of reusable components for equally transparent and secure digital government.

What this group has in common is a belief that the best antidote to digital dystopia is not regulation or protest, but building a better alternative. Let 2022 be the year that we start to come together to build a better digital world.

“Ultra intelligence will bring a new age of scientific discovery”

Nigel Toon, CEO
Graphcore

“Ultra intelligence” refers to a concept put forward by mathematician and Bletchley Park codebreaker Irving John “Jack” Good in 1965. He predicted thinking machines that would surpass the “intellectual activities of any man”.

Today, we are only a few years from achieving this. That doesn’t mean computers will have human-level cognition but they will, in key respects, have superior computational power.

At Graphcore, we are working on a machine – named The Good Computer – that is capable of running AI models with more than 500 trillion parameters, well beyond the estimated 100 trillion synapses found in a human brain, their nearest parallel.

Machines with such power – which don’t rely on notoriously imprecise human memory, but can draw on the entirety of digitised knowledge with infinitely more precision – will help us unlock the great unknown unknowns.

Scientific exploration typically begins with a hypothesis. We need some sense of what we’re hoping to find before we go searching. Ultra-intelligence machines will look at the raw data of human life – from genomics to physics, pharmacology to meteorology – and find patterns and correlations at levels of depth that are imperceptible to humans, but which hold the key to living longer, healthier lives, hopefully in a cleaner, greener world.

“AI in the physical world”

Alex Kendall, Co-Founder and CEO
Wayve

Machines provide us with extraordinary leverage in our lives – cars, vacuum cleaners and computers are great examples – allowing us to accomplish much more than we would otherwise. We can create these tools because of our human intelligence. Now artificial intelligence (AI) is completely redefining the way we think about tools, resulting in an inflection point of economic growth and unparalleled technological benefits. A prominent example is online search, which has vastly increased our access to knowledge. But so far, AI has resided in the domain of software. The next step is to unlock the opportunities of AI embodied in the physical world.

Giving intelligent machines a physical interface to the world is a huge moment in the advancement of technology. The first example at scale will be autonomous vehicles, like the ones being pioneered at Wayve with the onboard intelligence to see and act. These vehicles will not be stop-start robots following rigid routes. Instead, they will be integrated into people’s urban lives, tasked to provide more safe, sustainable and accessible mobility. This requires extraordinary levels of proven trust, but ultimately could offer substantially more leverage in our lives so we can focus greater amounts of our time on what fulfils us.

“Over the next decades, we’ll see a step change in our ability to bring treatments to patients”

Benjamine Liu, Co-Founder and CEO
TrialSpark

There are thousands of known human diseases, yet we only have treatments for about 500 of them. Despite sweeping technological transformations to medicine and our societies at large, the process of bringing a new drug to market still typically lasts longer than ten years and costs billions of dollars. What’s more, the time and costs are actually increasing, contributing to rising drug prices, inflated health-care costs and, ultimately, decreased access to treatments for patients.

Despite this, I’m optimistic that over the next decades, there will be a step change in our ability to bring new treatments to patients faster than ever before. We believe that a technology-first approach – marrying software and data across a single operational layer – will significantly decrease trial timelines.

Clinical trials are a complex logistical puzzle, requiring a delicate orchestration of procedures, people and parts defined by a detailed research protocol. By adding automation and operational efficiency, we can simplify the logistics and create a faster, more cost-effective trial process without sacrificing quality. When combined with innovative trial design, TrialSpark’s tech platform is poised to significantly lower the cost of clinical trials and drug development – potentially by an order of magnitude – resulting in expanded access, lower costs and a fundamental change in the throughput of new drugs development.

“Creating two million tech jobs beyond the coasts”

Ro Khanna, Congressman
United States

The technology revolution has created historic wealth generation in my congressional district of Silicon Valley but has exacerbated income inequality and left many Americans behind. Those who have been lucky enough to secure a tech job have typically left their hometowns and moved to the coasts. My moonshot is that any American will be able to have a well-paid tech job without having to leave their community. To accomplish this, President Biden should convene the top 20 tech CEOs, including Tim Cook and Satya Nadella, to announce a public-private partnership that enables one million African Americans and Hispanic Americans, and one million rural Americans, to secure well-paid tech jobs by 2025. I recently helped facilitate an 18-month virtual programme with Google, which will offer technology-skills training, including costs and mentorship, to community and undergraduate colleges in places left behind. These are the types of partnership that Silicon Valley companies and the US Government must create to ensure millions of left-behind Americans can participate in the tech economy – without leaving home.

“This is the abundance agenda”

Derek Thompson, Staff Writer
The Atlantic*

Throughout the pandemic, the US has dealt with crises of scarcity. We were told to not wear masks in early 2020 because there weren’t enough. We were told not to get booster shots because there weren’t enough. We were told not to waste rapid tests because there weren’t enough. Scarcity is the story of the decade. We don’t have enough housing, immigration, semiconductor chips or clean-energy deployment.

Manufactured scarcity is the story of the modern world. The revolution in communications technology has made it easier than ever for ordinary people to loudly identify the problems they see in the world. But this age of bits-enabled protest has coincided with a slowdown in atoms-related progress.

We need an anti-scarcity agenda that tries to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, the fixation of libertarians on bad rules that stand in the way of the common good and even the right’s fixation on national greatness. The goal is to identify the levers of human progress and do everything we can to push them forward. This includes passing pandemic-preparedness legislation that would accelerate vaccine production for the next virus, building more housing where people want to live, welcoming more immigrants and purposefully deploying clean technology. This is the abundance agenda.

“Internet-era government will enable us to thrive”

Audrey Tang, Digital Minister
Taiwan**


During Covid-19, we’ve seen signs of democracy backsliding as authoritarian regimes justify human-rights violations in the name of public health and the greater good. In Taiwan, we have tackled the pandemic with no lockdowns and the “infodemic” with no takedowns.

Taiwan’s mask-map app showed people where masks were available in shops early on in the pandemic. Meanwhile, SMS-based contact tracing and online vaccination-appointment systems resulted from collaborations that incorporated open data from social-sector platforms, government departments and private-sector companies.

Drawing on the rise of civic infrastructure on the internet, civic technologists can seek to unify differing opinions throughout society and transform them into a motivating force for creative and responsive policies. This will become even more important as we acknowledge the need for social, political and economic strategies to adapt frequently in response to mutating viruses.

In Taiwan this year, we maintain our focus on “swift and safe” technologies to bring about broad participation among our citizens. While cyberattacks and disinformation will continue to threaten democracies worldwide, Taiwan will continue to share its experiences of adopting “fast, fair and fun” tactics to increase this citizen participation. Allies of the same mind will step up and work together to build a resilient global neighbourhood.

*Derek Thompson’s contribution is an edited excerpt from an article that first appeared in The Atlantic.

**This extract is from an article previously published in The WIRED World in 2022, the annual trends report from WIRED, which can be read in full here. The WIRED World in 2022 is available in print edition at all good news outlets, and in digital download on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Lead Image: Planet

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