Ep. 75: Michael Cushman on materials science, synthetic biology, and AI-powered education.

Watch our interview with Michael Cushman on Youtube.

Michael Cushman is the former president of Engaging Change, head of strategy at the Garlic Media Group, and the managing director of the consulting arm of the Da Vinci Institute, as well as a noted expert on the future of education, the future of real estate, and myriad other topics.


Show notes

  • Michael is a noted expert on the future of education, the future of real estate and myriad other topics. He is also a longtime partner and associate of the Da Vinci Institute, where he heads up the consulting branch.
  • Michael has a very interesting background, and part of the reason he became a futurist is because his dad was one.
  • His dad wouldn't have called himself a futurist, but his job was being a long-term planner for AT&T, which involved a lot of the same work a futurist would do.
  • Growing up constantly thinking about major trends and their likely implications meant that it was natural for Michael to end up doing that kind of work on behalf of corporate clients. At a certain point he struck out on his own, and the rest is history.
  • Michael has an MBA and began his career as a futurist by doing strategy for corporate clients. He believes that this game has changed pretty significantly and the old approaches won't work any longer.
  • As taught in business school, strategy revolves around considering the market forces shaping an industry and its near-term future, making a profile of competition in the space, etc. These days, disruptions are much more likely to come from outside the industry altogether and may not even involve direct competitors.
  • Thomas asks Michael what three technologies he thinks are likely to be most disruptive in the future. Michael doesn't have a clean list of three technologies, but he notes that some of the biggest transformations will come from technologies that allow us to digitally clone ourselves or our environment.
  • For one thing, such technologies would allow us to essentially create and augment a metaverse out of the buildings and people that currently exist, which could have innumerable applications in creating smart cities or buildings which minimize pollution and waste, making the world more accessible for the vision impaired, and other things.
  • For another, it would furnish a truly gigantic dataset from which AI could learn to navigate obstacles, design structures, and perform similar sorts of tasks.
  • Trent asks what trends are driving this move towards quantifying and mapping the physical world.
  • One thing is a greater interest in making building smart. The real estate sector has been looking at making building smarter for a long time, and this only became more urgent with COVID19 and the need to track air quality and the presence of pathogens.
  • More generally there are people looking at building better sensors to measure water quality, stress and strain on the building, even the mental states of people entering and leaving.
  • As sensor technology gets ever cheaper and more ubiquitous, it creates an endless stream of data which can be analyzed.
  • In 2008 Michael worked on a project to create digital replicas of famous sites which might be the target of terrorist attacks (i.e. the Capital Building), with a view towards giving law enforcement a way of training for such scenarios.
  • Eventually Michael thinks we'll have a super charged version of Google Earth able to zoom in on specific details of individual buildings and even see below the ground's surface.
  • A world blanketed in these sensors would be much better able to track the spread of a serious disease or alert authorities when a major fire was in the process of breaking out.
  • Materials science is another area that has Michael excited. Many of the recent advances in the field have been driven by AI.
  • Michael describes an experiment in which an AI was taught chemistry and then fed thousands of physics papers before being asked to predict a new material.
  • These predictions ended up being valid, and a new material was discovered.
  • Graphene in particular is truly remarkable. Today there are experiments doping it with different elements, changing how it's structured, and discovering that under the right conditions graphene can act as a conductor, a resistor, or a capacitor.
  • A sensor based on graphene might be just a few atoms thick, and be capable of detecting absolutely minuscule amounts of dangerous chemicals or pathogens.
  • Michael thinks that quantum computing will change the game in materials science, synthetic biology, and organic chemistry.
  • This and much more in our interview with Michael Cushman, Trent Fowler, and futurist speaker Thomas Frey!
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