The Boston Bruins didn’t make it to the Stanley Cup play-offs this year, but hockey sticks were the buzz in Beantown this week. These were figurative hockey sticks — the ones with rapidly rising curves that signal momentous change.
Some 500 inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs and investors followed futurist and Google engineering director Ray Kurzweil and innovation guru Peter Diamandis to Boston’s Waterfront district for the first Exponential Manufacturing summit. They have been talking about how artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 3D printing, “atom hacking” and other technologies are upending how we make things. The event was organized by Singularity University, the future-facing think tank/startup incubator that Kurzweil and Diamandis co-founded in 2008. GE, which is already 3D-printing jet engine and gas turbine parts and connecting factories to the Internet, is one of the main sponsors.
“This decade is the most extraordinary time in human history,” Diamandis said. “We are linear thinkers, but the world we are building is exponential. Moore’s law, the doubling of computing power every two years, leads to unexpected results.” He pointed out that the power of computer chips has increased 100 billion times since Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby built the first one in 1958. “We are in a period when extraordinary things are starting to happen,” Diamandis said. “You have to surf on top of the tsunami of change or you will be crushed by it.”
Everyone present has been trying to figure out how. The first day focused on the latest developments in fields like robotics, AI, big data, augmented reality, additive manufacturing and their convergence. “3D printing is a 30-year-old technology, but it is now hitting the knee of a curve and becoming disruptive,” Diamandis said. “Manufacturing is a trillion-dollar industry that will be reinvented over the next few years.”
Andre Wegner, founder and CEO of the 3D-printing strategy firm Authentise, offered some insights. He has been studying the convergence of additive manufacturing with sensors, data and software and the emergence of what’s being called the digital thread: a digital birth certificate that will allow companies to monitor products at every stage of their life, from birth to death. Wegner says parts will soon come equipped with sensors that will report back to the design system when the component breaks. The system will use the data to generate insights, redesign the microstructure of the material the part was made from, and send it to the factory floor for manufacturing. “We’ve gone from an environment that required multiple steps to a process that is almost entirely digital in some parts,” he said.
Robots have been also playing a starring part at the conference. They were often mentioned in the same breath with AI. “Robotics is a combination of programming and motion,” said Hod Lipson, professor of engineering at Columbia University and co-author of “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.” “The explosive combination of data and algorithms is opening new doors. We’ve always had data, but we didn’t have the algorithms to make sense of it. AI is allowing robots to see and understand what’s happening.”
Lipson said that robots were learning to adapt and showed an example of a machine endowed with software that allowed it to build its own self-image. In the near future, he said, an entire manufacturing plant could create “an image of itself, adapt and become a giant robot that can recover from malfunction in a very interesting and creative way. Can you imagine?”
Many people may not be able to. That’s why Diamandis decided to hold the summit in the first place. “We can’t think exponentially,” he said. “Our brains aren’t wired that way. We have to support our linear thinking with regular exponential updates.”