Feb 20, 2019
| 3 min read

Podcast #22

How Community Can Bridge Tech and Society as the Era of AI Approaches – by Charlie Oliver

Charlie Oliver is the CEO and founder of ServedFresh Media and founder of Tech2025, a leading technology-focused community based in the New York City area. Our conversation covered the emergence of online communities in the late 2000s and the genesis of Tech2025 in late 2016. She discusses the divide that exists between people that work in the tech industry and average citizens, and the potential value that emerges from putting people together from different backgrounds. Charlie shares her observations of the changing views of AI and tech companies by the public, and the need to have collaborative conversations to avert further backlash against the tech industry. Charlie is an experienced podcaster and communicator, and this conversation highlights the challenges and opportunities that emerge from curated communities. 

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Hello and welcome everyone to the Momenta Edge podcast. This is Ed Maguire, Insights partner. With us today we have a very special guest, we have Charlie Oliver who is founder and CEO of Served Fresh Media, the founder of Tech2025, and a good friend of mine, as well as a podcast partner. Charlie has got an amazing background, an enormous array of experiences and skills that she brings to building community around technology. First of all, welcome to the podcast Charlie. 

Thank you, Ed. Thank you for having me. 

 

Last year we did 8 episodes of the Tech2025 podcasts which we were co-hosting, and of course Charlie did all the work! 

You showed up… it was a lot of fun! 

 

It was. We explored a lot of different technologies in the podcasts. But I think what’s going to be a lot of fun in our conversation today is really to talk about what’s made your unique perspective on technology be so impactful.  

Just as a prologue to our discussion, I first met Charlie early 2017, when I saw one of the events that she was putting on. What was so unique to me the first time I went to one of Charlies events; people do meet-ups, presentations, and events in New York all the time, I’d been to so many of these events where you will have a speaker get up, give a presentation, then there’ll be Q&A; Charlies workshops forced people to engage with their neighbors, to come up with solutions to problems.  

Charlie would organise, curate and moderate these events, and at the end everybody comes away not with just a whole bunch of new perspectives that they hadn’t thought about, but also building new connections with people that they might have been too shy to speak to at the events before. This concept of building community had a big impact on me, I was so impressed by the work you were doing Charlie. We’ve become fast friends since, she’s one of my favorite people to talk to, and that’s why I wanted to bring you onto the podcast. Let’s talk about your background and what brought you to do what you’ve been doing in New York, which is so impactful and so different? 

I feel I’m a little in the hot seat! Because last year when we did our podcasts, I was the one asking you a lot of questions, and I love learning from you, your experience, your background and your perspective on things has always helped enlighten me. I’ve benefitted from your guidance, and your unique way of seeing things in the community. And I as someone who runs a community, I look for that, I need that, so you have helped us to grow this community.  

Having said that, it’s interesting when people ask me this question because I never really know how to answer it exactly, because you never really know how people are seeing what you’re doing, until you hear from people. Tech2025, I like to say it came out of the culmination of obviously years of experience of doing things, I had companies contacting me last year asking, ‘How did you build this community so quickly? It’s only been a few months and you already have a lot of people’. I said, ‘Well no, I’ve been doing events for almost 10-years’, this I think is the culmination of what I’ve learnt in life, what draws me, and what makes me tick. So, with Tech2025, this is an off-shoot of Served Fresh Media, and Served Fresh Media is the second start-up that I had, my first start-up was Art of Talk TV, that was in 2007, a web video platform that failed spectacularly!  

I had come into tech from traditional media as we used to say, TV and film, and I was working in corporate law for a few years, when I came into tech in New York City it was a very different scene. YouTube could have only been up and going for 2-years, I think Facebook had been around for 2-years, it was a very different time, and it was exciting, so we just did everything that we wanted to do because it was all there to be done. There was very little judgement, we were just able to experiment with our ideas on this new thing, it was still new to us, the Internet, the modern Internet, it was 2007. So, after I’d failed with Art of Talk TV, that was when the market crashed, it was devastating to everyone, especially in tech, because in New York City we’d been having a ball, enjoying a moment of freedom in tech that I don’t think a lot of people talk about, but it certainly was the case. We were having a ball, Mashable I think had about five employees at the time, we were all just getting high off the idea of living our ideas, if that makes sense? 

 

There was a lot of media going on too. New York is the media capital, there was a lot of focus on Internet advertising, online ads and that sort of thing. 

Absolutely. And you must remember at that time people had not yet acquired YouTube, which is insane to think of! You think wow it’s always been there, but at that time YouTube was YouTube, and there were other web-video platforms that eclipsed YouTube, far eclipsed YouTube, and they’re not around anymore. But at that time there was a lot of money being thrown at the web video platforms, and so I’d launched mine, it was called Art of Talk TV, it was a platform again about building communities around content. The content was talk shows, online talk shows, that weren’t being done obviously at that time because it was so new. So, I did that. 

The idea was to reflect and report the news on TV talk shows, to bring the TV talk show medium online, which hadn’t really been done yet because those big media companies, the big broadcasting companies had not yet begun to bring their content online. So, I thought I’ll do that, I’ll report on it, we’ll have that platform, and on top of that we’ll give D-list, and C-list celebrities a place to come and do their own talk show. So, that was the whole idea behind it, and the first C-list celebrity was Rod Blagojevich, go figure, don’t ask! And here’s a funny thing, I snapped him up just before Trump signed him for The Apprentice! It was all happening at the same time, and we were just having a ball about the fact that I got him before Trump, which I don’t know if that’s a good thing! 

 

Those were heavy times, but you got a chance to see this technology emerging, video on YouTube on the internet, and live through this massive change. 

And, the communities which is more important going back to your point, I listed that earlier of the social communities that were being born and developed online at that time, and so that was a really huge impact on me, because I came from traditional media where I worked in TV and film for years, I worked in sitcoms on TV shows with writers and producers in the writer zone for years. I worked in Indie Film for years, I did a lot with regards to working in TV and films, to me this was exciting, and it was new that you could build communities around this type of thing. The thing that made me launch that platform was, I did a project with Catherine Bevel Jones who is now a legend in live streaming, she is I would say one of the first people to do live streaming online, to make it viable and to push it as a medium that everybody needs to be a part of. 

During the Obama and McCain election cycle, Catherine Bevel Jones came to me and said, ‘Let’s do a live webathon online for 24-hours, or for however long, and lets record these women and actors talking about the election, it was a big thing, and we called it, ‘Women Respond to Sarah Palin’, and that was the first time I actually said, ‘Wow, this is incredible’, because what we did was, we took all these letters, 24,000 letters that came in, in response to a question that was asked about Sarah Palin, there were a lot of women at that time which did not feel that she represented them. So, what we did was, we took some of those letters, we went online, we went on a livestream platform, I think it was Ustream at that time, and we started reading the letters of these women across the country who felt a certain way. It started to trend on Twitter, and then it started getting a lot of notice from the media, and that’s when I said, ‘Okay, this is big’, and there’s something incredible about building communities around a topic, and around an idea.  

So, after that I did my startup and it failed because the market crashed, a lot of other start-ups got washed away. Then I moved onto Served Fresh Media, and realized, ‘Oh okay, social media, the communities, this is how it’s going to evolve, this is awesome. That’s for eight years, successfully. 

 

In the interim of course we’ve seen Facebook, Twitter of course become enormous businesses and global communities, and have GO political impact in many cases. I thought coming back to the genesis of the Tech2025 idea, I found it so interesting that we both have a sense of similar background because neither of us are engineers, we’re not technologists, but we’re fascinated in technology. Can you talk about what was your initial vision, or your aspirations in setting up Tech2025 originally, what did you see that was missing in the environment? 

That’s a great question. I will say that in early 2016 I began to hear from my clients, my Served Fresh media clients, which are typically innovation teams, C-Suite executives, we do presentations for innovation teams helping them to figure out the technologies that we’re going to use. We do branding and marketing and all that good stuff, but I had already begun to hear the concern about AI, coming from my clients, ‘What is this?’ ‘What are we going to do?’ It was a substantive concern, I would say that I was hearing fear as early as 2016 about these technologies. So, whenever someone expresses a fear to me, my usual response is to ask a question that helps me to understand the basis of the fear, or to reframe the fear that they’re expressing.  So, my question to them was always, ‘Well, let me ask you a question, if you are concerned about this to this extent, and you feel like this time, this innovation, these technologies that you’re going to be dealing with, that you have to content with and prepare your organizations for, if you feel like this time it’s different, and that’s scary for you, then what is the rest of your organization thinking and feeling about this? What are the rest of the employees in the company feeling about this? Like who is talking to them, because if you’re feeling this way, and people are now going to be hearing about AI a lot, who’s talking to mid-level management and below?’  

I say the thing about fear is that it is palpable, and when it comes from the top, I think there’s a tendency for us to think that we can either hide it, mask it or over-compensate for it in some other way, and I just think people are a lot smarter than that. There’s something about fear that penetrates all of us in a way, and so my question to my clients was, ‘Well, how are you dealing with this with your organization? That will actually tell you more. And I state to this day that how you deal with fear tells you more about the outcome than anything else. So that started me on the path of thinking about why aren’t we talking about these technologies to the public, with the public. Why aren’t ordinary people being brought into these discussions, and asked what their opinions are? 

I saw an article that was written, co-authored by Sebastian Brown, and Craig Schmidt, it was in the Forbes and was in response to Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking, they sit squarely on opposite sides of the AI topic, or debate. Craig Schmidt is very utopian about it, and Elon Musk is very dystopian, we get that. The article was basically in response to them, but I’ll never forget the anger that I felt, it actually made me angry reading this article actually, because it was so dismissive of the possibility that we might be doing something that could hurt a lot of people, and that we should probably either think more about this, or slow down or even question it. In the article, both were saying, ‘Ah, forget about it, this is great, it’s going to be wonderful, we’re going to have heaven’, you know what I mean. I was surprised at how angry that made me, because I really felt like they don’t get it. 

 

So, there was a disconnect, right? 

Oh a huge disconnect! 

 

You’re seeing a disconnect with the people that you’re talking to, and then hearing these tech leaders and luminaries just dismissing it, being completely disconnected. 

Yes, and they’re waxing poetic about it, and they’re so utopian about it. And not only that, it goes further, there was an arrogance there where it was almost completely dismissive of the idea of us even questioning them, and that’s when I said to myself, okay, that’s when we fail. That’s when we automatically begin to fail, whether we see or feel the repercussions of their failure right away, that to me is the beginning of failure. So, that was an emotional response, and I said to myself, ‘Okay, there’s something going on here’, and then later in the fall, the day after Trump won the election I headed out to San Francisco, I was at Half Moon Bay at Techonomy, which is a conference, it’s done twice a year by, as you know, Techonomy the magazine, and I’m sitting in a room full of C-Suite executives, it’s one of those conferences, everyone’s there, and everyone in the room was shell-shocked, everyone was stunned that Trump had just won! 

Mark Zuckerberg sat a few seats in front of me, that’s where he made the statement that he could not believe that anyone would think that Facebook could ever be responsible. It was the same level of air of arrogance, and I don’t mean that in a way to judge him in a horrible way, because when I saw him speak I think he really believed that there was no way possible, I think he was just in a level of denial going on with him there with him and his organization, that they just didn’t want to see it, or couldn’t see it. But it was still wrapped in an arrogance that I said, it’s probably going to be damaging to us in implementing these technologies moving forward, and that’s when I decided at that point, okay I think other people should have a voice in this, and if these technologies are going to be this disruptive, this absolutely disruptive to our society in the way that we think, and the way that we define ourselves, then hell you’d better want to get ordinary people to talk about this and to share what they’re thinking, and how they’re feeling. 

I just happen to believe that there’s no way we can do this without having everybody participate in having a voice in it. And to be honest with you Ed, I almost feel a sense that there’s a narrow window of opportunity for ordinary people who may have missed the 2.0 error, who may have missed the social error, who didn’t get in on that. There’s a very narrow window of opportunity right now for us to get this right, and for us to change the dynamic of what we’ve created, the imbalance, I think there’s an opportunity for us to create more balance with how people are either compensated, or how they live their lives, or how they define their happiness. My fear is, that window is closing more and more as time goes on, and as these technologies accelerate, if we don’t begin to ask people questions that make them think and do things differently. 

 

Yes. Your timing was prescient because of course here we are a good 18-20 months later, we’ve had the Cambridge Analytica scandals, we’ve had all sorts of controversies about the use of data, and of course the conversations have progressed quite a bit. Interestingly, today, we’re speaking on a day after both Twitter and Facebook are experiencing huge stock declines because of disappointing metrics, and Facebook was even talking about how GDPR privacy regulations have impacted its business. We talked about a lot of these issues early-on, but there was more theoretical. 

What I thought was so interesting about how you would curate your think tanks, and your workshops, could you talk a bit about when you’ve put together some of the event that have been very-very well received, I’ve been to a number of them; how do you think about topics and speakers, and could you talk about some of the impact of some of the people who have come to some of the events, and the feedback that you get? We both know one of the pillars of the community was so inspired by your work that she got education in data science and is now climbing and moving, the fabulous Ann Griffin. She’s done amazingly well, she’s a case-study of somebody who says, ‘Wow, this is important’, she applied this to her life, she took on new skills and she used her new knowledge to improve her career and her life, it’s been amazing. She’s one example that jumps to mind, because I’m so excited about her. 

She’s the best example, and she inspires me. 

 

Talk a little bit about your process when you’re putting together events, what you look to provide to the community, and how you’ve seen the community evolve from the interactions that come out of the work that you do. 

Well, you know better than anyone, it is a struggle, it’s not easy. 

 

It is, it’s hard work. 

It is hard work. There’s a couple of things, I get asked this a lot, I get asked this not just by people in corporate who look at what I do, and they go, ‘My God, you’re events are run so well, they’re so great’, I get asked by other event organizers, ‘How do you do your events?’ So, firstly, I think it’s only fair to say, I’ve been doing events for years, so I do have that experience which I can pull from. Having said that, there’s a big difference between doing events on a topic that is well established, for an audience that you know very well; and doing events about a topic that no-one knows anything about, to an audience that you have no idea who is out there, what they are or who they are. That’s what I started with, with Tech2025, because when you think about it it’s one of those things that would be a true entrepreneurial thing, where I said, ‘Look, I’m just going to start doing this, what else is there? Let’s just start having these conversations, I know how to put together an event, get some people in the room. 

I did start with certain criteria that I decided early-on would be the foundation of whatever it was I was building. I know now I think after having two startups and having failed enough in my life, I understand enough to know that no matter what I start, I know it will take on its own life and I must be open to what it needs to be. I don’t want to control it so much, especially a community. So, I was very aware of the fact that the events that I had been going to, like you, we go to events for a living, so many of them are not edifying; you go in, you sit down, someone speaks, you’ve got a panel, you’ve got a Q&A, there’s always some guy who asks a question that goes on-and-on! You’re lucky if you make any kind of a real connection, any real information, and what I mean by that is, if I can look it up online…!  

Most of us are going to events to I think be inspired and informed in a way that moves us to action. So, I decided early-on that no matter what, I would not have people sitting in a room just listening to a professional who is an expert. I think part of what I was seeing back then which has come to fruition as time has gone on is, the idea of the expert needs to be re-evaluated. Part of the problem with people not understanding technologies is that they’re constantly told that they can’t understand it. So, the first event that we did I literally was very much throwing something at a bullseye and hitting it in the center, I kid you not, because I didn’t know who would be interested in AI, it wasn’t that popular back then, remember this was January 2017. So, I’m like, ‘Okay, I don’t know anyone who’s talking about AI right now, but let’s see what we can do’. However, I did myself found the community in the chatbot community, I myself was interested in that, and I listened to how the chatbot community was excited. When I say the community, these are developers, and people who are developing the technology. 

I was very much involved in the community at that time, meaning I was in the Facebook groups, talking to people on Twitter, reading as much as I could about all the development, so I said, at the very least with regards to the technologies that we are going to be covering at Tech2025, which is what AI, machine learning, robotics, VR/AR, drones, chatbots, I knew I could at least get people who were interested in chatbots to come and hear what’s happening. To my surprise the event sold out in a day or two, it literally sold out, and the room itself, I made it an open call, because I made a point of saying in the event… and again this goes down to the foundation of creating an event that’s creating a community that you’re trying to define, because at that time I didn’t know what the community was, I knew I wanted it to be all-inclusive, I knew I wanted it to be inclusive, I didn’t want to say no to anyone, I didn’t want anyone as resulted in the case of a lot of tech events, to walk into this event and feel like they aren’t smart enough to keep up, they’re not technical enough to have this conversation. And I didn’t want the technologists to walk into this event, my software developers, my engineers, these are people who I had in my network too; I didn’t want them to walk in and feel like, ‘Ah, this conversation is too basic… it’s too this… it’s too that’. 

So, that is the constant balance that I need to strike, but with this first event, I think when you see the people coming into the room, it tells you a lot about the success of how you can engage the community. Turns out, we had everyone in that room from 20-year old’s to literally 75-year old’s, and it was an incredible thing, because back to your point with regards to people telling us what the community is, and me learning how its impacting people, we had two gentlemen in there who are chatbot developers, they came to me after the event and said, ‘Wow Charlie, oh my God, we did our exercise in a group with a lot of different people, and one of them was this baby-boomer who was about 65 years old, and we learned so much from him’. The exercise was for them to develop a Valentine’s Day chatbot, and to create the conversational flow. Now, only 25 percent of the people in that room even knew what a chatbot was, so for the most part most of the people in that room didn’t even know anything about a chatbot, but the exercise was to create one and create a conversational flow for it. 

So, what they told us was, ‘We develop chatbots for agencies, we have a start-up, we do this for a living. We learnt that we were creating the conversational flows for chatbots far too narrowly, we got so excited because we realized that we weren’t doing it right, but we learnt that from somebody who was 65-year-old!’ So they went back and re-did some of their conversational flows, and they said it really changed how they think about developing the technology. That’s the best-case scenario, right? That’s people learning from each other outside of their usual comfort zone and doing something different to reach other people. That was the very first event, and that is I think the most important thing, because that even is where Ann showed up, she came to the event and said herself that she was looking for a different type of event to go to. When she came, she didn’t know what to expect, and so many people come into that room not knowing what to expect.  

I tell people, if you’re building a community and you are launching events or doing events, the best thing they can do is have people walk into a room not knowing what to expect, because the curiosity is the thing that will help you to engage them, in the best way possible. That is when they are the most open to anything that you have to say, if they come in knowing and feeling, ‘Oh, it’s this, it’s that’, then that’s one thing, but if they come in with complete open eyes, and complete curiosity it’s great. So, that’s what happened at that first event, and that was the benchmark moving forward, was that we have people in there from different walks of life, you make them engage with each other, and that’s hard because listen, I’m an introvert right? So, when I go to an event, I’m one of these people, I sit in a corner by myself… but I refuse to do that, because I feel that we don’t talk to each other online, and then when we do it’s not exactly the best discourse. I felt it was very important because these technologies are so exotic, there’s nothing like AI, there’s nothing like blockchain, nothing like this has been in our possession in the past, and when I say in our possession, I mean the general public. So, it’s very important that we look each other in the eyes and ask each other the hard questions and talk to each other. 

One of the things I learnt in watching people do this is, at every event I tell the audience 

  1. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you don’t know about these technologies, you do know, you’ve been carrying around a smartphone for the past at least 8-years, you know more than you think you do.  
  2. The only reason why you think you don’t know, is not just because people are telling you that you don’t, but because you’re not being asked? If you ask people to think about this stuff and to talk about it, you’ll be shocked by what you hear. 

So, that is the other thing that began to happen, and that is what we began to hear from our guest speakers who came in, giving up their time to present the latest in these technologies, almost all my speakers said to me, ‘My God Charlie, I did not know people were thinking about these technologies like this. They seem to be more advanced than we think they are. So, moving forward, it has been difficult putting together events since then, only because again I don’t know what people are really going to gravitate towards, and sometimes it surprises me what hits, and it surprises me what misses.  

But here’s what’s happening, people are changing, and no-one is talking about this fact. One of the things I’m seeing that’s shocking me and my staff more than anything is, how quickly people’s attitudes are changing about technology. They are far savvier, and far more cynical now than they were just six-months ago, the things we’re hearing at our events, there’s a little more anger, there’s a little more cynicism there, and rightfully so because there’s a lot of other things playing into that. People I think are just fed-up with a lot of things! But you have to process that, you need to know that when you build the community, you’re building a community about a particular topic, but that touches on a lot of other things in that person’s life, and they bring that to the community. 

 

You touched on a couple of points that jumped out at me, one is the idea that when you open up an innovation process, even in an exercise, to people who are outside of the four walls of an organization, you go back to that Bill Joy comment about the smartest people exist outside of your company, or the best collaborators. But this idea that many tech companies, conversely a lot of the development of technologies, and the attitudes and mindsets of people in these technology companies that have become very sheltered to some extent, because the people who are in them live in a very disconnected fashion from many of their users. Part of that is just a natural outgrowth as corporate cultures get strong, and people end up spending all their time in their bubbles. But I think you highlight the importance of maintaining that connection with your users, and communities. 

Just on that point, that’s part of the struggle because remember, the people who aren’t getting to come in to speak, they are experts in their field. So, they are used to talking about this stuff in a particular way, and what I think most people don’t know is, I work a lot with my speakers to get them to discuss these technologies, and to think about their work outside of the way that they usually do. In other words, I push my speakers, I challenge them, and I’ve been told that by my speakers, ‘Oh my God, Charlie!’ I make them send me their presentations, ‘Let’s talk about this…’ because we all have to be pushed out of our comfort zone, myself included. Speakers come to me and think they can give their usual presentation and blow through it in five to ten minutes, and I go, ‘No, we don’t need that. That’s not going to work here, let’s do something else’. 

 

Then the importance of making people think about technologies and having none-intimidated regular folks being able to interact with people who have deeper knowledge, we’ve seen a lot of shifts, and we’ve covered a lot of different technologies. You’ve put on a lot of events, and we’ve talked about for instance autonomous cars, which maybe in the last 16-months we’ve seen them become much more accepted. I think there may be quite a bit less skepticism about the idea than there was initially, right? 

Yeah, absolutely. 

 

Another area of course has been security, IT security and people concerned about hackers and malicious actors. One of the big areas where you’ve spent a lot of time has been AI, and you’ve done a lot of deep work, you’re rightly getting recognized for the substance of your work, in that Fleishman Hillard study, Artificial Intelligence & Communications, Fads, Fears, The Future, it’s a big report and we’ll link to it in the show notes and your interviewed. I’d love to get your views on how the community view, the non-industry view of AI, what is it? What do we need to be worried about? How that’s changed, and how some of your experiences have helped, and what you’ve heard from the community has helped shape the way you view the emergence of AI technologies? 

That’s a big question Ed! Okay, that’s a great question because when it came to content I knew that I wanted to cover the nine big emerging technologies that are happening, and what I didn’t mention was, the reason I named this Tech2025, and what really-really made me go, ‘Wow, okay, this is insane, we’ve got to do something now’, a real sense of urgency in my soul was the idea that all I kept hearing in 2016 from the leaders who were developing these 9 different technologies, I read like you do, I read everything, and all I kept hearing about this new technology was, ‘Er, you know, it’s the early days, it’s the early days. This technology will be ready by about 2025, in the next 5 to 8 years we’ll begin to see mass adoption of it. It will be ready to roll’. I thought to myself, now wait a minute, these are about 8 or 9 different technologies here, they’re all developing very rapidly, they’re all extremely disruptive, if they deliver on half of what they promise, they will still disrupt who and what we are in ways that we could not have imagined years ago. But if two of them even develop by the time 2025 gets here, fully let’s say AI and VR/AR, that’s a massive change, we’re looking at 8 or 9 different technologies. 

First, that timeframe 2025 I found it to be fascinating, and if you look at some of the predictions about that time frame and the technologies that are expected to be ready, it’s a fascinating thing, but it’s also scary, because then that means that we have a lot of work to do between now and then. If you look at that, I don’t think there’s too many people would disagree that we are falling behind in that area, in a lot of ways; legislatively, education, upskilling, companies know that they’re falling behind, I’ve been to so many events in the past year where all I hear from executives is, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to retain talent? How are we going to get the talent to implement these technologies?’ There’s a lot going on with that. 

I learned very quickly that as says, AI is the electricity that’s powering a lot of this. I happen to be of the mindset that the implementation of AI as they are promising it will be, is not a foregone conclusion. I’m one of the people who thinks it very well could happen that way, it very well might just come in and change our world, or not… or not. I think there’s a lot that’s being taken for granted right now, including the attitude of the general public. I’ve learned, and my staff learned first-hand this past year when we saw the tremendous change in our communities’ attitudes towards AI.  

By the end of the year we did something called the 23 Asilomar Principles, that’s a document that was produced by The Future of Life Institute, they have a conference every year, I think it’s about three years old now, its called the Asilomar Conference, and it’s in Asilomar California, with 100 of the leading thinkers and developers of AI technologies. They go and have a pow-wow for a week, they think about these things, they come up with solutions, or whatever they do, it also includes a lot of the tech leaders in the world like Elon Musk, and Larry Page, they go often. They produced this document in February last year called the 23 Asilomar Principles, where they decided to come up with a set of guidelines to help people think about how we should be implementing AI. They weren’t saying this is exactly how it should be, but rather these are some of the key issues we should be thinking about when we’re developing AI and should be seriously consider implementing. A lot of them had to do with morals and ethics, safety, privacy, that type of thing. 

That document which was signed by those 100 researchers and Elon Musk, and eventually was signed by 1500 world leading scientists and technologists, I was absolutely stunned that that document which was supposed to serve as a loose guideline for developing and implementing AI, it basically petered out in the media. It was announced in a few tech publications, I know the New York times covered it, and then it just petered out, I thought to myself, shouldn’t this be picked up and talked about a lot more? If these were the people developing the technology, shouldn’t we be having a more robust discussion? I’m willing to bet that the average person knows nothing about this. 

 

I think you’re right, yeah. 

To me I feel like maybe I’m going crazy, because I’m thinking, what is going on? This is insane, now is the time for us to be having these discussions, and having a robust debate about this, so I said, ‘Well screw it, I’ll do an event on it’. So, a lot of times, the events that I do are just based on the fact that things are happening, and they’re happening so quickly; as you know, the new cycle is insane, we can’t get a break, Trump tweets one day and it washes out every bit of news that we should have been talking about, and Trump posts a tweet and it’s a whole new news cycle! So, I decided I wanted to do an event on that, and I wanted to get people’s feedback on what they thought about what these leading scientists and researchers felt or said about AI. I felt like it was a viable thing for us to do.  

We did it in early Spring 2017, we had a nice crowd, I got Dr. Seth Baum who is the executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, he’s a researcher who also specializes in AI, he was supposed to be at that event in Asilomar, but he couldn’t make it because his wife was having a baby! We did this, we presented the community with this document of 23 principles and we said, ‘Here’s what each principle is, without putting our spin on it. These are the researcher’s.’ I always want to give respect to the researchers, I think it’s amazing that we don’t know who these people are who are developing the technologies that are going to change the world. I happen to think that is a strange thing that we don’t, we really should know who they are, just to understand more about who’s developing these things. So, I made a point of saying, these are some of the researchers who are developing these technologies, working on AI, machine learning, and that type of thing, and here are the principles. 

I must tell you, when we gave them the exercise, the exercise was… 

  1. Choose the principle that you think is so problematic that it should be deleted from this list. 
  1. Create the 24th principle that should be on this list that they missed. 

It turned out to be a robust discussion, and I must tell you, even Dr. Seth Baum who does this for a living, he was shocked at some of their feedback, he couldn’t believe some of the groups were coming up with ideas that he didn’t even think of. But suffice to say, a lot of them were very unimpressed with the idea that these researchers and scientists were daring to suggest that we should have AI developed with any kind of a moral or ethical code, it really worried them. 

Now, fast-forward another six-months and in the fall, we did the same event again, this group was very angry, they were much more vocal, some of them were disgusted. That shocked us! We had not experienced that level of negativity up until then, and that’s when I started to see from our events moving forward a change in tone and attitude about how people feel about the technologies, and how they feel about the promise of what the technology is supposed to deliver. There’s a lot more questions for our speakers along the lines of, ‘Well why do we need this?’ ‘What do I have to give up?’ Which is good, I think that’s good, its healthy, but that’s the thing that these tech companies don’t want to face, no-one wants to face that criticism! 

 

It’s like the good friends who tell you the things you don’t want to hear, but you need to hear. It’s amazing in terms of the role that community can play in shaping how the industry is going to develop, the impact of technological unemployment. That’s an ongoing debate, you and I have seen arguments on the extremes on both sides, and everywhere in the middle, I don’t think anybody knows where things are going. 

No, they don’t. We’ve seen that at events too, even at the one we did on blockchain, blockchain as you know is one of those technologies that elicits a lot of emotions, because I think people are not sure what it is, and they don’t trust it. The first blockchain event that we did was shocking to us. It was shocking to myself and also to Rebecca Quinn who you know is my author-media coordinator, we were surprised at how cynical people were in that room, they were so not really… and this was Sybil, the new blockchain media company that was co-founded by Daniel Sieberg who was the founder of Google Media Lab, or Google News Lab, he came in and they were excited; again we get people who are developing these technologies, I don’t care where they come from, they want an audience.  

They want to come in and they want to share, and this is what entrepreneurials do, I get it, and I tell that to my speaker, I’m an entrepreneur too, I know what it means to have a baby that you want to share with the world, and you just want to get high… like I’m there with you. However, however, I’m here to challenge you on that, I’m here to be the facilitator of the audience if they want to challenge you on that. I think it’s going to make you better and make us better’. So I give them that little bit of a warning, and at the end I say, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to give you a hug, it will be okay’. But when he came in to present, I said its best to present something like blockchain, and there are topics that I refuse to share or to present to our community, simply because if I don’t feel like I can do it in a responsible way, I won’t touch it; cryptocurrency, I have not touched that yet. I will but I have to be careful. 

 

You and I talked about that last year when we saw the absolute insanity that was emerging around blockchain, which is probably on one hand the most social industry, or sociable industry I’ve seen, I guess you could compare it to 2006-07 the beginning of social media time, and even the Internet bubble, but there’s an extra layer of crazy that’s come out of it too. 

Exactly. At the end of the day I have never once taken for granted, or forgotten that people are putting their trust in me, and that at the end of the day when they come to an event, I never forget the fact that people are coming at the end of a long day, they’re tired, they’re giving you two hours of their life, they want to hear something, and I try to remember these are people searching for something. We’re all searching for something, and if you put that at the forefront of building a community, you will usually not fail them. There have been times that I have failed, and that’s important for me and for the growth of the community, but if I do that then it allows me to feel confident about saying no. I’ve been approached by a lot of people to do cryptocurrency events, and to partner on things, and I’ve said no more than I’ve said yes. I’ve actually said no to big brands, some of the biggest brands in the world that have reached out to me and said, ‘Hey Charlie, can we partner with you? Can you come in and do these events inhouse in our company for a full day, name your price?’ and I’ve said no, because I’m very careful about making sure this is the voice of the people, I don’t want to sound corny when I say the voice of the people, it’s the community. I want to be careful about making it seem as if I’m using this for a purpose that doesn’t benefit the community.  

So, that being said, when I did introduce blockchain to the community with Daniel Sieberg who is amazing, he’s from Google, he came in and the first thing I said to him was, ‘If you’re going to introduce a concept to them about this stuff…’ and keep in mind, I had journalists in there, my network is Fresh Media’s network, which is the media people, tech people, Fintech people, and retirees and students, and entrepreneurs; I said, ‘If you’re going to introduce this technology, by all means you have to do it through a narrative’. I gave him a narrative and said, ‘You might want to try to use this narrative or that narrative’, and that always helps a lot, but if you don’t and you just give them the technology, and just talk about the technology, you tend to lose people, because they don’t see why they should care.  

And so particularly in that room, we were shocked by just how many people stood up and said, what is this? Why should I care? And a couple of journalists in the audience, local bloggers who have very successful blogs which have been going in the city for years, they said, ‘Look, I have advertisers who are paying my bills. You’re telling me you’re going to come along and cut out the middle man? Should I cut out my advertisers who’s paying my rent? That’s when it gets real. 

 

No doubt. Now, are there some technologies or topics that you’re optimistic about, or some areas that you’re hoping to cover in the future? 

I’ve not done anything with regards to space tech or anything like that, I have not been crypto currency, I’ve not dealt into other things like 3D-printing and stuff like that, as much as I would have liked. I’m operating on a limited budget, in other words I must be very careful about what I introduce and how I introduce it. So, I’m looking at delving more into the research aspect of this, because what I’ve learnt from people, which is why we launched Mission AI, one of the things we’ve learnt is that when people come to us after these events and they talk to us, and a lot of them will send emails, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, I did this, I started a business, I did that. I didn’t even know I felt this way about this topic. Two things became clear to me, businesses, governments, entrepreneurs, people who are developing these technologies, they need to hear how people are thinking about these things. So, we want to begin to do research about these topics at the events, which will be a lot of fun. To present this research not only to the community but to the stakeholders, researchers who I think would benefit from understanding what people are thinking about, and what they’re thinking about in their research, just like with the 23-Asilomar principles. We were able to get word back to the Future of Life institute about those events, and they were surprised, they were surprised at the feedback people had. 

So, I want to be able to facilitate that discussion and bring the general public more into the research that we produce which shares their sentiment about this stuff, and to also get them up to speed on research and the power of research. You don’t have to have a PhD to keep up with researchers to understand it, and to get involved in it, or to develop the next great technology if you understand how to use resources that are available to you. If we can get people to become interested, not just become interested, I think they naturally will be, I just think there are tools out there that people aren’t necessarily clear on, or don’t know about.  

But Mission AI I think is one of the most important things for us right now, because it’s the basis of getting people literate with regards to the research, and if there’s billions of dollars being thrown at AI research globally, I think people should probably learn a little more about that. Especially businesses, I talk to a lot of executives who are saying, ‘How do I talk to our employees about this stuff? What kind of events should we be doing, what kind of conversations should we be having?’ That’s one of the things we’re excited about. I’m also excited more about blockchain, I want to do a lot more blockchain events, and I’m being asked to do that. But again, I’m being very careful about how I do that, there’s a million and one blockchain events that no-one is talking about, which I think is funny. I’ve been doing events for about 10-years, in 2017 there was literally this Cambrian explosion of events around these emerging technologies. When you think about it, no one was doing events about AI and blockchain, and 3D-printing, not to the extent that they are today. So, the event space is saturated with so many events. 

 

It’s true.  

It’s a bit much, and people tell me that all the time when they come to my events. 

You’ve just got to let quality filter to the top, as it does over time.  

Well, this has been an amazing conversation, it’s always a wonderful journey talking with you Charlie. The last question, do you have any recommendations that you could share for anybody who wants to get a bit smarter about technologies, or anything that you’d like to share? 

 

Two things, the first I would say is, ironically, listen to podcasts! Starting with this one! 

But seriously, I’ve always been a podcaster and I love podcasts, but I think my listening has quadrupled over the past year. It is I think one of the best ways to get information, it’s not just about getting information, it’s about listening to the conversations that happen around these technologies, which ultimately is what you want. Information is one thing but hearing how people are thinking and talking about these things, I think it’s a completely different ballgame, I’ve come up with great ideas just listening to podcasts. Within that, I would say if you do decide to pick up some podcasts, I myself will be listing podcasts that I like on our site and posting in our newsletter. 

Here’s something that you can do, instead of just listening to the typical tech podcasts, which you can do, it’s very informative; I would say listen to podcasts like Conspiratainment, which is conspiracy entertainment podcasts. I suggest this to people when they say, ‘What should I listen to?’ trust me when I tell you, if you listen to conspiracy podcasts you’ll begin to think differently. People say to me, ‘How do you come up with these ideas?’ I think part of the problem that we have with these technologies is, we don’t know how to think outside of what we usually think. We don’t know how to think differently, people are used to thinking regimentally about things. So, Conspiratainment is the best way 

 

I’m definitely going to subscribe! 

Subscribe and listen to it. You want to know why? Because, again, these people are used to thinking very differently, they go against the grain. But also, this is a unique time for them too, but there was a time when they were considered to be crazy, conspiracists are like whoo! Left-of-center. Well, now that everything is topsy-turvy in the world, Trump is President, and up is down, right is left, if you listen to the top conspiracy podcasts, they are voicing absolute shock at the fact that they don’t sound so crazy all of a sudden! If you wait long enough, those crazy ideas start to sound sane! 

 

Yeah, truth is stranger than fiction. 

The other thing is, you mentioned the book. I don’t know if anyone out there is into Sci-Fi, and I know a lot of people are, I read a short story about a year and a half ago, it blew my mind with regards to how it talks about technologies, specifically AI. I remember when I finished it, I was so blown away that I wished I could go back and read it again, with an entirely new mind, I just wanted to experience that again. The name of it is, ‘The Soul of a New Machine’, published in 2000, by Tracy Kidder. It’s an unbelievable Sci-Fi short story. 

 

Fantastic, we’ll find it and link to it. This has been an amazingly fun conversation. Thank you so much Charlie for doing this. 

Ed I can’t thank you enough. Seriously, when I think of people who have helped me the most in this community, who have helped to build it, you come in, and when you come to these events, I kid you not, I’ve never seen anyone with so much talkative energy. 

 

It’s nothing but fun, and for all the listeners to the podcast, again this has been Ed Maguire, Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, interviewing Charlie Oliver, the founder and CEO of Served Fresh Media, and founder of Tech2025. 

 

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