Good day everyone, and thanks for joining us once again. This is Ed Maguire, Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, with another one of our Edge Podcasts.
Today we’ve got a very special guest, Vivek Wadwa, who has an extraordinarily accomplished resume. We’re going to be talking about a couple of his recent books, he’s a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School, and Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering at Silicon Valley. He’s author of, ‘Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain--And How to Fight Back’, which we’ll be talking about. He’s also the author of, ‘Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future’, as well as, ‘The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent’, and of ‘Innovative Women: The Changing Face of Technology’. He’s been a global syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, and held appointments at Duke University, Stanford Law School, Emory University, and Singularity University.
Professor Wadwa is based in Silicon Valley, researched exponential advancing technologies that are going to change the world, and fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, computing, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine, and nanomaterials which were making it possible for small teams to do what was once only possible for governments and large corporations to do, which is to solve the grand challenges of education, water, food, shelter, health and security.
In 2012 the US government awarded Wadwa distinguished recognition as an Outstanding American by Choice for his commitment to this country, and the common civic values that unites us as Americans; he was also named one of the World’s Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine that year. In June 2013 he was on Time Magazine’s list of Tech 40, one of 40 of the most influential minds of tech, and in September 2015 he was second on a list of 10 Men Worth Emulating, in the Financial Times.
So needless to say, with that introduction, Vivek I’m thrilled that you’ve made time to speak with us today.
Great to be talking to you. I’m a big fan of yours as well.
Well, I really appreciate that! We’d like to talk about your two most recent books, but I think what would be helpful would be to share a bit of your background, what had brought you to technology ultimately, and share a bit of the journey that’s brought you to focus on writing books that are very much topical, and essential thinking today.
I started off as a technology executive, I founded two companies, took one public, then had a massive heart attack and said, ‘Uh oh, time to do something different’, so I became an academic and I started researching everything from US competitiveness, engineering education, to immigration, to the role of women in technology, to why Silicon Valley has become the most innovative place on this planet. Long story, but eventually I realized that the United States is in serious trouble, that its falling behind in many areas. I had written a lot about how China and India are going to eat America’s lunch, especially if we didn’t get immigration sorted out, and this is beginning to happen.
I was also becoming very pessimistic about the world in general, about the fact that we have over-population, shortage of energy, global warming, all of these things happening at the same time. I started writing along the way, if you’ve read my writing from the late-nineties I was getting pessimistic, and concerned. And then if you read my writing from about four or five years ago, I was talking about how does the most amazing period in human history, when we can literally solve the grand challenges of humanity, and have unlimited energy, unlimited food, housing, you name it, that we could create the future of Star Trek. And now you see a hybrid Vivek Wadwa, someone who is really worried and cloudy at the same time, because I realized that the same technologies that can uplift humanity, can also tear society apart. But I talk about the choice between Star Trek and Mad Max, the darkness of dystopia, which is also possible.
If you look at the United States, whether you’re on the left or the right, you’re seeing extremism rising, you’re seeing both sides getting very, very angry, this is the beginning of Mad Max. At the same time, we had amazing advances, we’re looking at cars taking over our roads that will drive themselves. We’re actually looking at finally having flying cars, transporters, all these amazing things happening, at the same time as all the scary things happening. So, now I’m in-between, and this is what my two books are about. ‘Driver in the Driverless Car,’ talks about what’s possible and the choices it must make. ‘Your Happiness was Hacked’, looks at one of these technologies, in particular social media and technology itself, and how it’s making us miserable at a personal level. So, let’s talk about it!
That’s great, and I think what really comes across in your work is, you’re very even-handed and concerned about not being just a blind techno-optimist, but also again you do have a sense of possibility that’s doesn’t put you into the camp of dystopians. I think your passion comes across quite a bit, so I think it would be helpful to chat a bit starting from first principles, and maybe for some of the listeners that don’t have as much of a background in exponential technologies. Could you talk about some of the lens that you used in ‘Driver in the Driverless Car’, you looked at several different areas of emerging technologies. We can get to a couple of the questions that you’ve asked, but could you talk about what has been special about the impact of exponential technologies, and the dimensions of exponential forces that create different dynamics than we may have seen historically?
Absolutely, to start with, look in your hands, I’ll bet you almost everyone has a smartphone in their hands, or they’ve got it on their bodies, we’re all carrying these smartphone. That device you have in your pocket has more computing power than by my calculations about 40 crates of supercomputers. You know the supercomputers in the seventies has expert controls on them, they used to cost about $17 and $20 million? You’ve got 40 of those in your hands right now, and on top of it you have sensors that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and weighed a couple of hundred pounds, just a few years ago. This is what you have in your hand, supercomputers and the most advanced sensors known to mankind. In fact, that device in your hand has more accurate GPS and accelerometer capabilities than what’s in the US nukes. You remember those nuclear missiles that gave America an advantage through the Cold War and so on? What you have in your pocket is more precise, more accurate than those nukes had been. This is what we take for granted.
What we don’t realise is, that technology in your smartphone is now powering advances in every other field you can think of, starting with Artificial Intelligence - exponential, robotics – exponential, synthetic biology – exponential. I can go on, technology after technology after technology, but all of these now are on an exponential curve. Ray Kurzweil the famous futurist has a saying, what he says is, ‘As any technology becomes information-based, it starts advancing exponentially’, that is what is happening to technology after technology after technology. What’s really relevant for your listeners in particular is, what does this mean for industry, what does this mean for business? These are business people we’re talking to.
What it means is, when you have multiple technologies converging, they disrupt entire industries. Every industry I look at is about to be disrupted, so the way the investors, the financial planners, the way companies, the way governments do their forecasting is to look backwards, you draw a line 5, 10, 15 years back, and this is what you do also my friend; you draw a line backwards, then you extrapolate forward. So, on a linear scale its consistent and predictable, however technology is not on a linear scale, it’s on an exponential scale, so when you look backwards on an exponential curve at the inflection point you see nothing, so therefore you can’t predict that way anyway, you can’t do a forecast in the way you’ve done it before. Advancing exponential technologies that converge, disrupt entire industries, so every industry whether it be agriculture, whether it be medicine, whether it be transportation, you’re going to see more change over the next decade than you’ve seen in the last 100 years.
It’s really almost beyond comprehension the amount of disruption ahead of us, and I think many of us are struggling with this. I find what’s unique about your approach is, that you ask questions that really apply a much broader lens to the implications. I was just going to highlight that you’ve thought about how to apply questions to different technologies; one, does the technology have the potential to benefit everyone equally? Second, what are the risk and rewards? And third, does the technology strongly promote autonomy or dependence? Each one of these questions has incredibly deep implications, but we’d love to start with that as the foundational lens that really was the spark behind ‘Driver in the Driverless Car’ and talk through some of the implications as you see it for certain technologies, and we look at some that are foundational, one is Artificial Intelligence, and that’s a technology and a topic that’s certainly seen quite a lot of extreme views, but would love to get your thoughts on just starting with AI, what the implications are.
Let’s put a focus and AI and talk about what it means. What is AI? We’ve been hearing about AI since we were kids, had professors at Carnegie Mellon in 1958 predicting that, ‘Within a decade computers will be as smart as human beings are, they’ll be able to defeat Japanese players’, we’ve been watching science-fiction in which we had all of these humanoid robots and so on, and so on, since we were kids. Nothing happened. In fact, in the nineties we thought Japan would win the race, we were terrified about Japan becoming an AI superpower, nothing happened, it imploded. In fact, it was what was called the AI winter, it was like the nuclear winter except there was a dark cloud cast over AI, we thought AI was dead. AI isn’t dead, AI is now everywhere.
Well, what is AI exactly? Let’s be precise here because when we talk about AI we talk about the stuff out of science fiction, the craziness that Elon Musk has been warning about, Stephen Hawkins has been warning about, and we talk about business purposes. What AI today is, is really quantitative analysis on steroids! Excel spreadsheets on steroids! It’s the ability to analyse information using these supercomputers in a way that they seem to act intelligent. Accountants and all of us, we live and use excel for the last two decades or so, you give it data and it analyses it very fast, and it helps your productivity. That’s what AI is, except the difference is that AI remembers what you gave it, so it recognizes patterns, you basically tell it patterns, it recognizes those patterns and then it comes up with a model with the weightings, which lets it make determinations based on what you give it, as to how to make decisions.
I’m simplifying a lot of it here, but essentially its pattern recognition, supercomputing, and excel spreadsheets, all in one, on steroids, that’s what AI is today. It has amazing applications in business, and everywhere you analyse information you can be using AI to help you do it better, so it’s great stuff. I talked before about converging technology, is about multiple technologies, when you combine AI with answers, and with battery technologies, and then go to the transportation field, you now have the ability to build self-driving cars. Literally with the self-driving cars this is why you had Google, Tesla and all these companies getting their cars out, because they’re gathering data, they’re basically now doing the pattern recognition so that the car can seemingly drive itself. It’s not driving itself, it’s really using algorithms and formulas to compute the best way of navigating, that’s what these things are doing. You get self-driving cars, you get robotic AI-based physicians, soon in the next 5 or 10 years in almost every field of medicine an AI tool will be able to analyse the information better than a human doctor can. AI will be better at prescribing medications than almost any human being is, that’s in the next 5 or 10 years. So, go to field after field, after field, but AI is going to lead to amazing capabilities and discoveries, and enhance human beings designated making capabilities. So, this is AI.
Where does it get crazy? Well, I talk about how computers are advancing exponentially, you know something? By 2023 you’re smartphone in your pocket will have the same computing power that your brain does. I’m not saying your brain to point out if you’re smart or you’re dumb, I’m just saying that of a human brain! The same computing power as a human brain is what these devices will have, a year and a half later it will be twice as smart, four times as smart, sixteen times as smart. By 2015 these advances continue, that device will have the same computing power as any human being on this planet, so the exponential advance continues. So, now you add to that AI, you have these supercomputers that are more complicatedly powerful than 1,000 human beings, you get craziness, this is where the fear factor comes is, people believe that we may be able to create new algorithms, they’re able to make their own decisions, and that exceeds capabilities of human beings in every way, and now we’re runaway super-intelligence.
Coming back to the three questions we were talking about. Is AI good or bad? Does it have the potential to benefit everyone equally? When you look at self-driving cars, absolutely, because right now you have people who are disabled, who are partially blind, you have old people, you have poor people who can’t get from point A to point B because they don’t have the ability to see, or do, or they can’t afford the cars, or whatever, they don’t have transportation. Self-driving cars, we can talk about this separately, electric self-driving cars, the cost of transportation will drop dramatically to the point that everyone can afford it.
Smartphones can be bought for 20 or 30 dollars in the developing world now, in India and China for 20 to 30 buck you can buy something that was better than the iPhone 3 and the iPhone 4 were. Imagine having on it apps that can monitor you 24/7, your doctor, your coach, your adviser, and it won’t just be us rich people who have it, it will be the poorest of the poor who have that. So, does AI have the potential to benefit everyone equally? You bet it does, because it runs on computers that are becoming very cheap, and everyone benefits from it.
The next question, does the rewards outweigh the risks? Well for the moment they do for sure, being able to make better decision-making. But then move forward 5 or 10 years, I talked about how these AI systems learn, imagine if you’re in the insurance industry, an actuarial who analyses risk, imagine training up on AI, and then AI learning for maybe the actuarial in the company, so now that AI is better than a human being is at calculating risk. In addition to that, that AI actuarial has information about climate change, about weather data, it has information about economic patterns, it has information about global wars and so on, so that AI is better than any human being in North West Mutual, or AIG in a decade from now.
Imagine every large insurance company you have an AI that’s better than any human that does risk analysis, what happens to the human beings? They become unemployed. What happens when we become dependent on these AI’s? It becomes risky, so you have AI doctors making life or death decisions. You have an AI making decisions about what’s risky and what’s not risky, who to give loans to. Then you’ll have AI taking away jobs in almost every other field. You’re talking about elimination of the vast majority of jobs that are currently done by human beings, in about 15 years or so. That could lead to dystopia, so do the rewards outweigh the risks? Frankly I don’t know.
And then you talk about the superintelligence that Musk and Hawking, and even Gates have alluded to, now you’ve got the craziness, you’ve got the stuff out of science fiction, the horror movies we saw; that could be 20-30 years away. So, again do the rewards outweigh the risks? You tell me.
I think right now it’s certainly an open debate, and you’ve got these asilomar principles, at least guide/development around an ethical foundation which is certainly a start. We are on the precipice of some foundational change, and I thought what was interesting is you had some different takes on the benefits vs risks of different technologies, and driverless cars and energy you were very-very optimistic. Could you share some of your thoughts about how the driverless electric vehicles, and the rise of solar have great potential ahead of us?
Yes, let’s talk about energy because this is something that people don’t seem to realize, we’re obsessed with the procuring economy with fossil fuels, and investment firms are always speculating on the price of oil and the impact on the economy. What we seem to miss is the exponential advances in wind and solar in particular, the cost of solar has dropped about 99 percent over the past 30-40 years, literally 99 percent. At the rate at which solar is advancing we’re only about six doublings away, six doubling means about a dozen years away, 12 years away from being in an era of unlimited clean and almost free energy. What I just said sounds bizarre to people, ‘Free energy? Ha-ha, this guy’s an idiot!’ No, this guy is not an idiot, the cost of solar has been dropping at such a fast pace, before it used to be 10 or 12 percent every year, I’m talking about solar panels and so on.
The levelized cost of energy has been dropping 15, 18, 20 percent for the last four or five years, and it seems to be accelerating. If you look at the cost of some of these new projects that are being installed, the mega projects, the prices are ridiculously low, people could never imagine that the price could drop so low. So, open your mind and think exponential, but the fact is that these exponential technologies will continue, Swanson’s Law – that with every doubling in insultations, the price drops 20 percent, and with the price drop of 20 percent these equations double. So, this is the curve that solar is on, a decade from now your talking about having the ability to generate almost all of the energy needs to solar, and the price of it being dirt cheap.
I wrote a piece for the Washington Post which said exactly that in 2014, I was heavily criticized by the energy industry, because I predicted that the utilities would start going bankrupt, and they would do everything they could to stop it. Their argument was the sun doesn’t shine when it’s not sunny, the wind doesn’t blow when it’s not windy. Duh! I know that! The cost of battery storage is also dropping exponentially, we’ve had short sellers having a field day with Tesla because to start with, when the Roadster came out we were talking about $700-$800 a kWh for storage. Now, by all indications Tesla is down to about $100 a kWh, maybe its $140 a kWh but its within that range, it could go down to $70-$80 over the next five years or so.
That is a transformational thing because, it’s not only Tesla that’s doing Gigafactories, you have them coming up all over the world now, in fact China may lead the world in Gigafactories within the next five years or so and make the US capabilities look miniscule. Which means we’ve lost control over it, even if Tesla goes bankrupt, which I don’t believe it will, but the fact is that there’ll be a dozen, two dozen, 100 other companies that are developing Gigafactories and these technologies, and the price of batteries will drop exponentially. So, now move to 2025; 2025, I’m talking about seven years from now, 2025 it should be that we can build self-driving electric cars that go about 100 miles, for about $15,000. I’m not exaggerating here.
In the developing world in India and China in particular, 100 kms is more than enough for almost all the driving that they need, those cars should cost about $5,000-$7,000. It’s very possible that both countries starting with China, ban internal combustion engines by 2025, 2026, 2027, at that timeframe will essentially ban them. That lights a fire under the US industry and suddenly we’re now moving to an all-electric industry as well. So, by 2025 if we now start having electric cars being the only cars they produce, it’s going to wreak havoc on the transportation industry worldwide, and the self-driving which there surely will be, Tesla’s still crashing, they’re still fumbling and so-on, But, again, think exponential, don’t think linearly, think exponential that two or three doublings away and voila! You have cars that can do 98 percent of the driving we do, without human supervision.
You already have carpool lanes for people with two or more drivers, imagine those carpool lanes being replaced by self-driving car lanes, and imagine the highways being replaced by self-driving cars in the late 2020’s. This is an amazing future we’re talking about because it will be dirt cheap, it will be affordable, everyone can get to where they have to be, distance will no longer be a barrier, we don’t have to worry about accidents because these cars won’t crash into each other, we can now live outside cities, with the cost of energy being so low we will start converting entire neighbourhoods, and then entire townships into clean energy only areas in the late 2020’s, far faster than anyone ever imagined.
It’s really remarkable how fast these changes can happen, and Vivek when you were writing about this in 2014, as you look at the cost curves, and people like Ramez Naam and Tony Seba track these closely it’s really remarkable how the actual cost has tracked the forecast to the T, if not even more impressive declines in cost.
Ramez is a good friend of mine, and I’ve been beating him up for being too conservative, he’s afraid of going out on a limb and being as bold as I am, and saying we’re talking about 100 percent by 2030, that’s what I wrote in the Washington Post! He didn’t yell at me because I ran it by him, but he says, ‘Vivek, you’re very bold in your forecasts’, but when you look at his predictions he has to keep revising them, Bloomberg New Energy Finance they’re the optimists here, they have to keep revising their forecasts, they dare not say what I’m saying, which is so obvious to me.
It’s amazing, and I think anybody that looks at the data and takes a good hard look at it, has to be convinced that this is going to come bigger than I think anybody could have even conceived just a few years ago.
Look at all the forecasts that these people have been making, and you’ll find that they were wrong, because they were too conservative, they missed the boat, things happened faster than expected!
The bigger challenges are moving people and government, and education of course, anything that’s got a human component to it is always a bit more complex.
That’s the Mad Max part of it, that’s where I worry because technology is advancing exponentially, humanity is not. This is why I keep coming back to my fears that we’re not ready for this technology, it’s happening faster than we understand because even the experts, we mentioned Ramez, Tony, and so-on, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, these experts probably can’t see, but they don’t seem to be able to call out the obvious, ‘Hey, this is going to happen 5, 7, 10, 20 years faster than anyone expects’.
And we need to be ready for it, but…
No doubt, though before we move onto your newer book, I did want to ask about a couple of areas in technology where I think your forecast is maybe a bit more mixed. One, is particularly around the convergence of computer science in genetics, and I know you had done some writing around the CRISPR editing technology, but I’d love to get your thoughts on some of the advantages and then some of the risks, when we start applying information technology to our own biology.
CRISPR is absolutely amazing, the fact that you can edit human life itself, the fact that you can edit plants, the fact that you can now engineer new organisms, the fact that we can accelerate the progress and create plants that grow in the desert, the fact that we can edit out disease, all of these things are happening right now. Major experiments are going on worldwide to do all of this, we’re talking about genetic engineering, literally out of science fiction. This is what CRISPR has made possible, it’s wonderful, amazing, great stuff, however; the dark side of it is we could engineer killer viruses, Bill Gates is talking about editing mosquitos, it’s one of his pet project to edit out malaria. We’re talking about gene drives, imagine now editing species and having the wrong effect, and creating monsters out of it. Then human beings, a decade from now, 15 years from now, its very likely we’ll develop the ability to edit embryos, so children before they are born, to edit out disease, and to include a few extra features. But what if you could add IQ?
Right now, a lot of research is being done on this, it seems like its very complex, one gene for IQ, there could be hundreds of genes, but with the supercomputers and with gene editing imagine if you could edit those hundreds of genes simultaneously, thousands of genes simultaneously, and now add IQ points. So, the choice you have is, you’re about to have a granddaughter, or you’re about to have a daughter, or a son, ‘By the way, you can enhance the IQ of the child. Do you want 10 extra IQ points, 20 IQ points, 50 IQ points?’ The question is, where do you draw the line? When do you go from creating humans to creating monsters? This is all in the next 5, 10, 15 years, so I’m excited and I’m terrified at the same time.
I’m more terrified about CRISPR than anything else because America has lost control of this, the country that’s leading the research in CRISPR is China, they’re experimenting with monkeys, with beagles, with human beings, with everything under the sun, because China is determined to get ahead at all costs in science. It doesn’t want to lose this race, and its moral values, its ethical values are different than ours are, so they consider it fair game to edit genes on this scale. Whatever you’re going to see in the next 5 or 10 years, your guess is as good as mine. I’m scared of this technology.
It’s amazing because here is this incredible downside of risk to the technology that has so much promise to extend our lifespans, and address diseases, and really improve health for so many billions of people around the world. The challenge here, I almost like to say the question, ‘What could possibly go wrong, right?’
Exactly. This is what ‘Driver in the Driverless Car’, goes into great detail about, a whole range of technologies and the implications. It’s written from the human side, its written so that Grandma can read it as well as Junior, it’s written so anyone and everyone can read the book and understand it. It doesn’t get technical at all, and it explains these things so that you understand the implications, and we can come together as humanity and figure out how to drive these technology in the right direction and build Star Trek in the next 30 or 40 years. Star Trek 30 or 40 years from now is what is possible, not 300 years as you saw on the TV series, I’m talking about 30 or 40 year now where we get to this era of amazing things. That is possible.
The one thing that’s different about Star Trek is that in the series you didn’t have people looking at their communicators all the time!
On that point, the communicators we have are more advanced than what Captain Kirk had! His communicator didn’t do emails, it didn’t play music, it didn’t…
It was a flip-phone!
Exactly, what we have is more advanced than what they had. If they had the smartphones, the iPhones, I’m sure you would have had them looking at it 24/7 as well, just like we do.
It would be almost the environment of the people sitting around in the spaceship drinking giant sodas, I think that’s the risk! But it does lead to the bigger question I think, behind your newer book which came out just last month, ‘Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain, and How to Fight Back’; technology is changing us as humans, and I’d love to get a bit of a sense of what led you to write the book, and how did you go about looking to define the problem?
You can you can call ‘Happiness Was Hacked’, the first sequel from, ‘Driver in the Driverless Car’! Because in ‘Driver in the Driverless Car’, it speculated on the fact that we could create the darkness, the fact the same technologies that could be used for good, could be used for evil. If you go back to the beginning of time, the first technology was fire; fire could be used to keep us warm, to cook food, or to burn down houses and to kill, that’s how it’s been with every technology since then. In particular if you look at social media, if you look at smartphones, if you look at our TV sets, everything with the sensors, and computing, and connectivity features, you’ll find that they’re making us addicted. The tech industry figures out that they could give us everything for free, and then learn everything they could about us to market us information. This is what Facebook and Google are doing; you’ve seen the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, that’s the tip of the iceberg.
The same technologies that should have been bringing humanity together, should have been making the world a better place; social media are now being used to rip apart society, they’re being used to adversely impact our thinking, to give us misinformation, to make us angry, to make us jealous, and its all for sale. So, these tech companies that I love, I also hate because they’ve lost their souls, they’re so obsessed with making money, they’re so obsessed with using these technologies to monetise this information that they’ve lost their moral compass. They’re now being used to make us miserable, almost every data point you look at shows that instead of becoming happier, we’re becoming more miserable than ever, teen suicide rates are up, depression, anxiety, people are sleeping less than ever, almost every data point you look at says something has gone wrong over the last 10 to 15 years. The technologies that should have been bringing us together are doing us a lot of damage now.
That’s what this book is about, the book isn’t negative, I have to explain all these things to the readers, so they understand what’s going on here. It’s like being addicted to alcohol or to drugs, you have to understand what those things do to you, and what it is. Then the question is, how do you live a more balanced life? Alcohol in moderation is good, in California and many other states now they’re legalising marijuana, so in moderation you can get away with a lot, its okay. With technology, you have to have it, we can’t run away from technology, but its overuse is what’s doing all this damage, and that’s what we have to reign-in, we have to control it, we have to limit the amount of time we spend on social media, the number of times we check our smartphones, we have to limit the number of reruns we watch on Netflix. What the book does is explains all of these and walks you through the choices we must make, and how we can get a grasp on these things and live a better technology life.
I thought it was helpful that you provided an overview of some of the aspects of technology to become so addictive; Professor BJ Fogg at Stanford who was teaching a class on persuasive technologies, and Nir Eyal who wrote the book ‘Hooked’. I think what many people don’t necessarily realize is, that these red notification buttons and other design characteristics of social media are absolutely engineered to manipulate people.
The fact that we’re checking our emails a hundred times every hour is a technique that was developed by a psychologist, BF Skinner, in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s; he put rats into a cage and put a lever there that they could hit to get a pellet of food. What he found was, he could train the rats and also pigeons to hit the lever to get fed, it was great that you could train these creatures.
But then what he did was, he changed the experiment, he gave them food only some of the time, and sometimes he gave them twice as much or three times as much food. What he found was that the pigeons in particular went crazy, they couldn’t stop pecking, they were always afraid that they wouldn’t get another pellet of food, so they kept pecking and they became obese. That’s how we are, when we check our smartphones the reward is an email, ‘A-ha! I’ve got an email’, or the reward is a ‘like’ on Facebook. The reward is a share on Twitter, or Instagram, these are the rewards, and this is why we keep checking it over and over again, because we want another reward. We are essentially the rats in the cage.
What I also thought was really interesting in the book is how you’ve looked at the impact of technology on different aspects of our society, one is love which is this idea that living in the era of Tinder and other online dating apps, this is the way people meet each other these days, but it really has fundamentally changed a societal relationship around love.
You look at love, essentially it started off with dating websites, so you had Match, E-Harmony and so-on, they were good because they allowed you to get enough information about people, and then you could start up a chat, they used to be quite good. But now you have the Tinder generation, I’ll bet you most of the people on this call haven’t used Tinder, it’s the young that are using it more than old are. In Tinder it’s a swipe right or swipe left, its transactional, and what’s more Tinder wants you to keep coming back for more, so just like Facebook, Google and all those companies, they want people coming back to their technology day in and day out. They have worked to engineer love into transactions, its literally one-night-stands that you swipe right and if he gets lucky, you get laid! Then you come back for another one, so it’s how the system was engineered to keep you coming back for more. What’s happened is, love has become transactional, because these companies want us to keep coming back to their apps, so they can keep making more money. That’s the sad thing over here.
It’s also impacted our ability to concentrate; Nick Carr had written ‘The Shallows’ about a decade ago talking about this lack of ability to concentrate. You talk quite a bit about how these technologies are creating this constant series of interruptions, that are impacting the ability of people to focus.
Exactly, every time you get an email and you get distracted from what you were doing, it takes a few minutes to get your mind back into gear, and to continue what you’re doing. But the way it works at work now, is the companies have Slack for example, and Slack has desktop notifications, so you keep getting messages a hundred times an hour and you keep getting distracted by them. These company wants you to keep being notified and stop what your doing and responding to it, so we can’t focus anymore, we can’t turn off anymore. One of the recommendations I made in the book was, maybe we turn off, maybe the companies want to make it that emails get delivered every hour or so, we turn off the desktop notifications, it will increase productivity.
That’s a great point, and then of course the way we look at how even the social lives of kids are being impacted. How do you see the way to combat how technology is shaping, and undermining in a way an entire generation is relating to each other?
You can’t help with the generation level, it’s a personal thing; everyone has their own way of using technology, its really a very-very personal thing. What I’ve tried to do in the book is to teach people the basics about it, so they can make their own prescriptions, it’s not like a diet, you eat less calories you lose weight; everyone has different needs, everyone has different relationships. So, you’ve got to understand what’s going on here and then reflect and try different things out to see what leads up to that balance. It’s not one-size fits all here, one is the answer and you’ve got it, you have to understand and do what’s right for you and your family.
Do you have some tips or thoughts about how people can evaluate if they have an issue with technology? What are some steps that we could take to ensure that we’re less impacted in a negative way?
In the book, Alexander and I created a checklist, six things to do. Essentially what you do is, write down each app you use, each technology used, then go through it and ask, ‘Will I be better-off if I don’t use it at all? Will I be better-off using it less often? Will it make the people around me better-off?’ and so-on. Essentially you have to go through each technology and evaluate how you’re using it, and why you you’re using it, and seeing the effects on you and the people around you, and then make a decisions as to do you really have to have Facebook on your smartphone, do you really need to have Twitter on your smartphone, do you need to be checking emails as often as you do?
Then advice such as leave the smartphone off after 9 o’clock, put it on ‘Do not disturb’, things like that, go through a whole range of things. I don’t want to do one prescription and say, ‘Here’s what you do’, I want people to read the book, understand the issues, and then to personalize.
That’s great advice, and I think it will be well worth the readers time. I was reading the book partly on my phone! I was traveling, which is amazingly convenient, right? That’s the advantage, but on the other hand we’re all constantly fighting this. Certainly, when it comes back to work, industry, and applying all of these amazing forces of change that are ahead of us, I think we all want to make sure our faces aren’t stuck in our phones, that we can look up and see what’s actually going on.
The last question I ask is for broader recommendations, we’ll definitely include the links to your books in the show notes, but are there any books or other resources which you find particularly inspiring that you would recommend to people if they’re trying to get a bit smarter about what’s coming up ahead?
There’s so many sources. Books – even ‘Driver in the Driverless Car’, it was published last year, and until the last second, I had to keep updating it because things kept changing. What you should do is, read the books to understand the bigger trends, but then go online and read up on what’s happening. Today even the mainstream newspapers, the New York Times, Washington Post, have technology sections that give you a broad range of technologies. Then, the specialized publications, everything from Wired, MIT Technology Review, there’s so many different sources of information. Go to the latest publications, email alerts – the daily things that they send you, scan through them and keep up-to-date on it, because everything changes so fast. So, books aren’t the source of information anymore, things are moving much too fast to wait for a book to come out and read it.
Your books are very well annotated too. We have effectively an embarrassment of riches of information that we all benefit from.
This is great Vivek, I’m always inspired and educated, and really grateful to hear your thoughts on so many topics. I would like to thank you again for taking the time, we’ll include the links in our show notes to your most recent books as well as your prior books.
Again, this is Ed Maguire of Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, and I want to thank you Vivek for taking the time.
Ah my friend, thank you.