David Mattin: the merger of the physical and digital will fuel innovation for decades

A confluence of technologies is blurring the line between the physical and the digital, between the real and the representational. David Mattin introduces the next epoch of humanity…

David Mattin founded New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society. David’s business, innovation and trends journalism has appeared everywhere from Fast Company to the Guardian to Google Think Quarterly.

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What is the new world we’re building? In 2023, it feels like we’re on the cusp of something, as new exponential technologies emerge. AI, robotics, green energy, blockchains, virtual worlds… Could they deliver a wave of changes like we’ve never seen? We’re in the death throes of the old, pre-internet world, and the birth pangs of a new one.

It’s best understood as the unified digital-physical field. It’s about the deep merging of the digital world with the world of atoms and stuff around us. We’re weaving the digital into everything around us. That’s not new — but it’s reaching an inflection point.

In this new world, AI is becoming something akin to a form of energy. It becomes infrastructure. Intelligence is what creates useful things, and AI can fuel that. Today’s AI is based on transformer, large language and diffusion models. Engineers are hooking up LLMs to robots and machine vision. They could allow robots to understand speech, so you can ask a robot to clear up your spilled cola.

AI is moving into the physical world. It’s transitioning from bits to atoms.

AI and energy in symbiosis

Energy transfers underlie everything in our civilisation. We’re in the midst of a tectonic shift in our use of energy. Our demand for fossil fuel energy is about to peak. We’re decoupling economic growth from fossil fuels, as renewable energy is on an exponential tear, driven by a decline in prices.

Global generation of energy will go from 30% renewables now to 95% by 2050, at the current pace. There are challenges – lack of sun or wind – driving a need for intelligent management of storage. AI can do that. Human beings can’t.

Energy and AI are driving each other in a symbiotic relationship. AI lets us produce more energy, which allows us to further develop AI, which is energy-intensive…

This may be the most important technology symbiosis ever. There are three major dimensions of the physical/digital merger:

1. The Supernetwork

We’re weaving a data layer into everything, by adding sensors everywhere. Autonomous cars are just rolling supercomputers. We’re carrying sensors in wearable devices. Everything talks to everything else. The empty supermarket shelf can call the autonomous truck and ask for new toothpaste – and the truck can ask the manufacturing robots to produce it.

This network is the thread that connects everything, and it generates unimaginable amounts of data about the physical world. We’ll be able to build incredible situations from that data. Tesla is using Unreal Engine 5 to build a one-to-one simulation of San Fransisco, to test their car machine vision.

2. The Mirrorworld

NVIDIA’s Omniverse is a vision of this future. It’s a simulation platform that allows users to create remarkable recreations of physical space. Building a car is a fiendishly complex process, involving many. Many hams and robots. Every new model requires reconfiguration of the factory. And that costs production time. BMW is simulating the reconfiguration in Omniverse first, to bring the downtime down to hours not days.

This points us towards a Mirrorworld, a digital recreation of the physical world, in astounding depth and complexity.

3. Mixed Reality

We’re deep in a Metaverse winter right now, but the fundamentals of what made the idea are still interesting. We’re moving towards a world where we can add digital items into the world around us. Apple has announced its play for this space, and it will add a digital layer to the space around us.

Over time, the boundaries of the physical and the informational will start to blur towards meaninglessness. We are representation-building creatures. Those representations are becoming part of the world. That’s a huge shift.

The next innovation platform

Over the coming decades, this big shift will lead to innovations. We’re only at the start of it. Intelligence is what does useful work information. As that information becomes about the physical world, the potential of AI grows.

What does that mean for us?

If you make products, ask how they change in this super-network world. How can you simulate those products in virtual space? Who would like access to them?

How can digital services change in a world where representation and reality are merging? What can you do with abundant intelligence? You have to decouple conciseness and intelligence: they’re different and will be decoupled. We will have non-conscious beings with intelligence: AIs. It will be endless and on-tap. What can we do with it?

It took us years to figure out what to do with the internet. It will be the same with the unified physical-digital field. Referring back to this idea allows you to make sense of the apparently chaotic change we are going through.