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Software is finally eating the physical world, and that may save us

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In 2011, Mosaic browser inventor Marc Andreessen predicted that software was eating the world. He was correct, except that software mostly ate the “digital” world. Now we are seeing it start to eat the physical world, shifting from bits to atoms. We are starting to solve much harder problems.

We’re at a historic inflection point where compute becomes nearly unconstrained. Just as cloud revolutionized delivery of software services in the digital world, so will cloud transform our physical world. We can create digital twins of the most complex physical things, like our planet and our bodies, and change them for the better.

Imagine a world where a model of the Earth allows us to quickly address extinction-level threats like climate change. Imagine a world of medicine where drug development costs are so low that we can receive truly personalized treatments, with therapies targeted to our specific health problem and our individual DNA.

Innovation at the speed of light

Today the pace of innovation advances at the rate of computation. Unconstrained compute promises benefits that we can’t yet even imagine. In the physical world, compute was so expensive historically that it required government-level spending and very long-term plans to try and overcome the challenges – like putting a man on the moon.

Now is the time to raise the scope of our ambitions and think much bigger. Human ingenuity has risen to the needs of the moment in the past, and innovation has the potential to solve the technological challenges ahead of us.

What if we pointed unconstrained compute at our planet and our own bodies? What might we accomplish? The concept of digital twins takes us to this future.

We’ve come a long way in computing

Back in 1964 when the CDC 6600 was the one and only leader in supercomputing, it was humbly equipped with a single processor capable of completing 3 million calculations per second. While this may sound impressive, the modern smartphone is at least a million times faster. Even leading into the 1990s, high-performance computers dished out slower processing speeds than the latest iPhone today.

The cloud changes that. By pooling vast computing resources, researchers are able to reproduce the physical world in limited and costly ways inside data centers in a manner we called “high performance computing.”

Digital twins: A way to discover and test solutions digitally

As we create digital copies of our physical selves and our planet, we can begin building potential solutions to problems faster while testing them on our digital twins first. This will have profound implications in the quality of our lives – far beyond the changes wrought by software eating the digital world and giving us social media, “likes,” simpler travel and easier banking.

An NFT of a bored digital ape can’t begin to compare to creating new ways to lower CO2 emissions to cool a warming planet.

Today’s climate models currently rely on statistical workarounds that can assess the climate at a global scale but make it hard to understand local effects. Increasing the resolution of models will be crucial for predicting the regional impacts of climate change and address them directly.

Healthcare shows even more promise.

AI predictions might help us get ahead of health problems

AI can now predict the shape of proteins in the human genome and other organisms when they fold. Predicting protein folding could help researchers more quickly develop drugs, raising hopes that AI will revolutionize healthcare.

Researchers are only beginning to understand how deep learning could accelerate drug discovery, and the interest is so high that a cottage industry of startups specializing in AI-powered drug discovery has emerged.

Digital twins show tremendous promise in making it easier to customize medical treatments to individuals based on their unique genetic makeup, anatomy, behavior, and other factors. The Alan Turing Institute recently called on the medical community to collaborate on shared scaling digital twins.

One of the often-misunderstood facts in software is that marginal costs eventually go to almost zero. People want to live. So drug discovery will be one of the most exciting markets disrupted in this new world. Since it costs on average $2 billion to $4 billion today to bring a new drug to market, large employers like an Amazon or Walmart could go into the pharma business to cut healthcare spending, one of their largest expense line items.

With all this promise, we should also remain vigilant. Who should have this technology?

Technology is neutral. In the end, we’re just loosely organized humans. As we enter a world without computing restraints, we’re going to have to figure out ways to respond as best we can to take advantage of this new power.

Joris Poort is CEO at Rescale.

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