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September 30, 2013updated 22 Sep 2016 3:29pm

Russell Buckley’s countdown to the singularity

The robots might enslave us in the end, but at least we’ll get to watch telly on our contact lenses in the meantime.

By Joe Curtis

Russell Buckley is remarkably chipper for a man who predicts humankind will be cowed by a hyper-intelligent robotic super race in 32 years’ time.

But then, he has good reason to be – Buckley was the MD of AdMob when Google bought it for $750m in 2009 and now works for the British government, attracting overseas investment for UK startups.

That’s enough money and friends in high places to be okay when the robots do eventually revolt.

For the rest of us, well, Buckley thinks we’ll have a few fancy technological developments to enjoy before the singularity hits – this being the point where robots become too smart for our own good.

Here is his countdown to the singularity – as told to the audience of Croydon Tech City’s autumn launch, where he was guest speaker earlier this month.

3D printing

A few years

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3D printer

Okay, the revolution in the manufacturing industry is on the horizon already, with 3D printers available in the high street and startups setting up communities to link designers with printers in their own cities.

But Buckley thinks once it becomes commonplace to own a printer, households will completely change the nature of the business.

"If everyone has one of these things it changes the face of manufacturing completely," he reckons. "It’s clearly an exponential change – in two or three years’ time we’ll be using them to produce useful stuff."

A mobile device the size of a red blood cell


Red blood cells

Nine years before the singularity, your mobile will be the size of a red blood cell. Imagine trying to find that when you’re leaving home in a hurry.

Hopefully you won’t have to, because it will actually be inside your body. Buckley reckons it’ll be multiple times more powerful than our chunky phablets are today, too.

"That’s by working out where we were 25 years ago and looking 25 years in the future," he says. "That’s a straight, linear approach not even taking into account exponential growth [Moore’s law that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years]."

Augmented reality

Five years

Google Glass

Just as geek chic really gets its day with Google Glass leading the new wave of wearable tech, all us bespectacled beauties will be out of fashion again just as soon as scientists figure out how to make contact lenses do the same things, but even better.

"I can tell you that the next generation is contact lenses," confirms Buckley, like he’s passing on a memo from a meeting with Brin, Page, et al. "Well, that’s my theory, anyway," he clarifies – but by now the entrepreneur could tell us BlackBerry’s going to make a shock comeback and hog the smartphone market and we’d believe him.

"The really interesting thing is augmented reality, where there’s a completely real world and a digital world where we can see the names above your heads and your net worth, and what company you work for, basically anything you want displayed," he tells us.

"My bet is that will spell the end of television. We will just watch a big screen produced by our lenses to fill our field of vision."


A few years


"Chances are in a few years’ time disabled people will be able to walk around in an able-bodied fashion," states Buckley. While regrowable limbs and flesh prosthetics continue (mostly) to reside in the realm of science fiction, developments in robotic engineering will mean disabled people can continue to function in an able-bodied way.

But Buckley thinks the development has more legs (sorry) than that. "The Paralympics last year were as cool as the real thing," he says, "and by 2020 all the really interesting stuff will be happening in the Paralympics." As a rough guide, think superhuman strength, speed and jumping ability if the Olympic organisers have any sense of fun.

Additionally, our army could go electronic, becoming remote-controlled behemoths battling it out like they’re characters in a Japanese mecha anime. "It turns out playing loads of videogames as a kid equips you for the military much better than people who grew up marching up and down in the garden," Buckley adds. "All these people in the army now will have dead skills."

Mobile’s cannibalisation of, well, a lot of things, really

A few years

"Mobile is the great cannibal of other industries," Buckley says, and he’s absolutely right. The smartphone has killed off calculators, alarm clocks, PDAs and digital cameras just to name a few devices. But the government advisor predicts there’ll be more victims yet.

These include sat navs, video cameras, and handheld gaming consoles. Also at risk is the skill of knowing another language, which is no great loss to most Brits, to be fair. Mobiles will soon be able to translate a conversation in real-time between people who otherwise would have as much chance of understanding each other as a Londoner and anyone north of the M25.

"We’re teaching our mobiles to get better and better all the time," Buckley says. "We’ll be able to have real-time conversations with anybody in the world."

Not only that, but our mobiles will look after us, too. In a few years time they might be running diagnostics on us, alerting healthcare professionals and the emergency services if something goes wrong.

"Rather than waiting for someone to have a heart attack and rushing out to them, there will be an ambulance waiting outside someone’s house," predicts Buckley. "That’s a dramatic example, but mobiles will be able to alert your doctor if something is wrong with you."


The singularity


I, Robot

The merging of man and machine, with our miniscule mobile devices and contact lenses, is one way the singularity might be ushered in, believes Buckley. And he sides with futurist Ray Kurzweil on the exact year when "the computers take over".

"2045 to most people sounds pretty scary but you to have to remember the exponential bit, how quickly things happen," he explains. "We can give ourselves superpowers and be part man part machine."

A more worrisome prospect is that computers might design themselves into consciousness. "We just have to invent computers which help us design the next generation of computers and the generation even quicker," Buckley admits.

"The process could go from three to five months to three to five minutes and eventually we have a super being who says, ‘you know what? I’m going to take over from here’."

But what could be the outcome of being ruled by a super intelligent race of robots?

"They could take charge and there might be no war, no famine, no work, no capitalism. Intriguingly there could be no death," he posits.

Now that is interesting – and not something we would necessarily want, either, Buckley believes, contrary to the desire of every fantasy villain ever

"Death is a driver," he says. "There’s an argument that we do things because we know we only have a limited amount of time."

So a world without death might see us as a species stagnate, both physically and intellectually, growing fat off the land, as it were, while letting the computers handle everything.

On the other hand…

"Just because we’ve built something that doesn’t mean they have to be nice to us," Buckley helpfully points out – flicking the projector to a slide on battery hens to remind us of our treatment of what we deem to be inferior beings. There’s worse slides he could have shown.

"They might look at what we’ve done and decide we deserve to be treated likewise," Buckley says.

A harrowing thought. One that makes tofu and vegan butter suddenly sound rather appealing.

The Tricorder, two centuries early

10-15 years

Tricorder Star Trek

Avid Trekkies will be sad to learn their 23rd-century space adventurers have been using an antique. The tricorder, the device which Kirk et al used to diagnose diseases and inspect plantlife, will be here in just a decade-and-a-half, according to Buckley.

That means that not just Spock’s spandex costume looks anachronistic – the Starfleet’s use of the gadget is the equivalent of me ditching my email to wire a message via electrical telegraph.

Buckley believes it will be a revolutionary invention, saying: "We’ll be diagnosing someone by waving a machine at them. Imagine being a doctor or GP whose job is to triage people. We will see a massive change."

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