How to Prepare for Our Rapidly Approaching Science Fiction Future

This is a repost of an article I wrote back in 2012 after I was invited to spend a few days at the Singularity University Executive Program. What I did not know when I wrote this article was that a little more than two years later I would graduate from the program and, soon thereafter, take over the reins of not only the EP but all of our Open Enrollment programs. It is interesting to be able to look back in time and see that, while some of the specific technologies have moved forward, answers to many of the bigger questions like, “How will we govern ourselves?” have not. While many things in the world continue to get better everyday, there is undoubtedly a lot of work left to do. I’m thoroughly appreciative of the opportunity to work alongside an amazing team that brings these programs to life and provides a forum for leaders to engage in creating the future, together.

I had the privilege of spending the last two days as a guest at Singularity University’s Executive Program in Silicon Valley. And, after listening to a variety of experts in fields as diverse as computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology and neuroscience, I can safely say that the science fiction writers got it right. Really, really right. We already have Star Trek Communicators in the form of the iPhones and Android phones that we carry around in our pockets 24 hours a day, though there is an argument to be made that these devices are much more than that.

Given that most of us can’t be more than 10 feet away from our smart phones at anytime, are they really the beginning of the widespread integration of man and machine? The fact that we use our fingers and voices to control them rather than electrical impulses from the brain is an “arbitrary distinction”, as I heard multiple times this week. If the idea that you are already part cyborg has you feeling uneasy, its probably best for you to stop reading now.

The term “singularity” is a reference to the theory that humankind is rapidly approaching a point where technological intelligence will be greater than human intelligence. And after listening to the assembled speakers at the SU campus, it sounds like its coming quickly. The exponential growth and convergence of capabilities in genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence is pushing us towards a future which could be startling, and is unpredictable. What happens when robots become smarter than we are? What happens when robots can build themselves (read: reproduce)? What happens when advances in technology allow us to live forever? Will we want to? What will there be for us to do in a world where robots and machines are smarter and better at doing just about everything?

And that is where the excitement starts to build for me. If we take for granted that we are going to achieve this future of singularity in the coming generations, and after what I’ve seen the last few days it sure seems like we will, then we as humans are going to have a lot of work to do in building what will amount to an entirely new kind of social model. How will we govern ourselves? How will sentient robots integrate into society? How do we keep technology in the hands of those who wish to do good instead of evil? There will be a lot of complex issues for us to answer, and though it might fly in the face of everything else I’ve written here, I’m putting my money on humans playing the critical role in solving these kinds of issues instead of machines. To do so, however, we’ll need to find a spirit of cooperative problem-solving that is in desperately short supply in many of our institutions today. To be honest, that might be the biggest challenge we face. But the reward is massive.

I think it sounds a lot more fun to shape the future than to let the future shape us, so the best advice I can give anyone who is interested in learning more is to go to Singularity University’s homepage, check out their faculty, and then go to their YouTube channel to find videos of their speeches and presentations (like the inspiring one above). Then find a few hours and a quiet place to sit, allow your mind to be blown and allow your creativity to run wild.

There is a future to be created and fortunes to be made as industries will be fundamentally reshaped by countless technologies originally envisioned by those frighteningly accurate science fiction writers many years ago.

  • Are 3D printers from Cubify all that different from Star Trek’s transporters when you can print a physical object on the other side of the world with a touch of a button?
  • Has Gattaca come to life with personal genetics testing from 23andMe?
  • Are HAL 9000 and Alex Trebek’s friend IBM Watson just computer brothers from another mother? How about George Jetson’s car and Google’s driverless car? The Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin, and South African Sprinter Oscar Pistorious?

If they aren’t exact matches, they are certainly very close. So, what’s the science fiction that you want to create? There’s never been a time in human history when creating anything has been more possible.

This post originally appeared on Medium on July 13, 2018.

How Does Your Organization Murder Innovation?

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Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

If there is one common thread that weaves together my experience in the field of innovation over the last decade, it is how frustrated people are about how their organizations kill innovation.

Innovation murder doesn’t happen on purpose. Typically the perpetrators believe they are helping innovation, not hindering it. They are innocent in spirit, if not in action.

The three most common methods I see are:

  1. Starvation, which happens when good ideas are put on hold until the organization is ready for them, (read: never);
  2. Strangulation, which occurs when good ideas are subjected to greater and greater levels of scrutiny that gradually squeezes all of the life out of them. Strangulation is often referred to by a more friendly name like “Stage Gate” or the “Innovation Funnel”; and
  3. Siblicide, which occurs when an older, more mature idea takes all of the attention away from a new idea which eventually dies of neglect. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that are sitting on billion dollar ideas that never make it to market because all of their time and energy is dedicated to serving another idea whose biggest virtue is that it is further down the path.

So ask yourself…have you helped to murder innovation? You have. We all have. It’s okay to admit it. You didn’t mean to. It was an accident. And I’m not going to stand on a soapbox and tell you have to stop doing it, but I am going to suggest that you acknowledge that you are doing it and not just pretend that it’s not happening because you’re just blindly following your organization’s adopted innovation or budgetary process.

No one has to be an innovation murderer, but it often requires an “innovation world” mindset of courage, belief and determination to break the “operational world” cycle that many of our innovation or budgetary processes introduce. These aren’t always the qualities that an organization rewards in the short term, but they are required for those who want to create real change in the world and shift toward a better future for their organizations and themselves.

This post originally appeared on Medium on July 10, 2018.

The Best Digital Transformation Advice I’ve Ever Heard

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Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Last week at our Singularity University Executive Program, I was moderating a discussion with our Co-Founder, Peter Diamandis when the topic turned to how large companies can achieve a true digital transformation. His advice was clear and straightforward — don’t start a full-scale digital transformation until you know what your organization’s long term (think 20 years) goal is. Otherwise you run the risk of investing large sums of money to digitize an organization that is optimized for the business of today rather than the business of tomorrow.

This immediately reminded me of the classic Harvard Business Review article, “Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate”, from all the way back in 1990. Back then, the business world was tackling automation and how it could speed processes, however the very real risk was that we would simply recreate outdated processes in software that would become too expensive to ever modify or update, forever shackling the organization to an inefficient or ineffective way of working. The advice was to find senior management with real vision to completely reimagine the way the organization works as the critical factor. Information technology could then be leveraged to bring their bold ambitions, such as reducing turnaround time by 90%, to life.

Today’s companies also require senior leaders with real vision, however the challenge is different. Given the speed of technology and changing market dynamics, the vision needed today is the ability to completely reimagine an organization’s purpose or reason to exist and why it should expect to be in business in 20 years before thinking about anything else. Without that vision, organizations may be digitally transforming businesses they don’t really want to be in, or that may not even exist in a few years. In most large organizations that I’ve worked with, this kind of long-term, strategic thinking is rare. It’s not because people can’t do it, but because the near-term performance pressures are too great for them to be able to think that far into the future.

It is hard to imagine an organization that is not going to commit to a digital transformation of their business if they have not already started down that path. I think what will separate the successful companies from those that fail in the process is whether they are using their investments in artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, etc. to truly create a vision of the future and a business that will thrive in it, or merely a futuristic version of their current business. Increasingly it feels like those leaders that are approaching digital transformation starting from a broad vision of the future will be best prepared to not only succeed in the short term, but also to ensure the longevity of their organization. And likely their own legacy.

This post originally appeared on Medium on June 25, 2018.

What You Can Learn From Lowe’s Experiment to Employ Robots in Their Stores

The Lowebot is the latest incarnation of the relationship between Lowe’s Home Improvement and Fellow Robots, one of the many envelope-pushing startups we have at Singularity University. This collaboration, which also spawned the OSHbot which has now been in service in an Orchard Supply Hardware (a Lowe’s subsidiary) in the Bay Area for two years now, is an example that I always point out to the boards and executive teams that come through Singularity University. It represents two things that most Fortune 500 companies are not doing, namely:

  1. Being bold.
  2. Doing so publicly.
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Image: Fellow Robots

While the Lowebot is certainly earning media mentions and could easily be mistaken for a media gimmick, the most valuable opportunity I see with the Lowebot is the opportunity to learn. Not just to see what robots can do in a retail store environment, but the opportunity to learn how humans use and interact with them and to leverage that information to evolve not only the next version of the Lowebot, but the entire field of robotic assistants. If robotic assistants are our future, then Lowe’s is quickly discovering more about that future, in a real-world environment, than anyone else and that has implications well beyond home improvement.

My advice to CEOs is to do something as bold as what Lowe’s is doing with the Lowebot. Do it to learn. Do it to stake a claim in a new or developing industry. And if you can’t figure out what to do, then look for progressive and forward-thinking talent and partners who can help you find something bold to do. Because in today’s business environment if you aren’t boldly leading into the future, you’re probably falling behind.

This post originally appeared on Medium on September 19, 2016.

Being In Permanent Beta

While reading Wired on a flight to Boston, I came across an article about Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn. As I read about the advice he gives in his book, The Start-Up of You, one of his main points just leapt off the page at me. He urges people to be in a state of “Permanent Beta.” For those of you who are not familiar with the software industry, “beta” refers to the final stage of software development just before the product is launched to the marketplace. In this stage, the product is typically highly functional and is being used by a community of “beta users” to test it out and provide feedback before the product is finalized. In recent years, because of the ease of distribution that the Internet provides, the line between beta and final product has blurred.

Today, products like Gmail exist in beta for years in widespread use by millions of customers, with the development team making constant tweaks to functionality and appearance based on how they see the users interact with the product.

In a fast-moving world, the rules of work are constantly evolving, and today’s highly valuable skills are tomorrow’s minimum requirements. If you “craft iterative, flexible plans,” as Mr. Hoffman suggests, you’ll be more marketable and, presumably, successful as marketplace conditions change.

I believe always being in beta applies successfully not only to software and career planning, but also the realm of ideas in general.

I found a deep connection to the Synectics concept of Best Current Thinking (BCT).

Much like being in a state of beta, we use BCT to represent the current state of someone’s thinking about an idea they have. It could be about a new product concept, a new path in life they are considering, how they plan to approach a difficult conversation…anything really.

In practice, I find the idea of acting in a BCT mindset to be a particularly powerful tool for several reasons. From a personal standpoint, it keeps us loose, avoiding the trap of becoming too anchored in our existing thinking. It also recognizes that there is always new information to be learned—it creates openness and a pathway to incorporating the new information into our current point of view. Perhaps most importantly, it allows us to keep making forward progress without shutting out the feedback that we are hearing from the outside or waiting until our idea is “perfect” to begin working on it.

A BCT is also a wonderfully inviting way to share a new idea with someone. It reflects that my own thinking is not complete, and signals openness to hearing another’s builds and ideas to further my thinking. By inviting someone else to think with me, it short-circuits the feeling of a “sell-job.” We’ve all experienced the sell-job. Those conversations start off with “tell me what you think about this idea….” This phrase is typically code for “I have an idea and I’m either going to convince you to like it or get angry when you don’t.” In my experience, no one likes a sell-job. Most people, however, like to be part of thinking about a new idea. It’s an important difference.

Whether we call it being in beta or BCT, the idea of considering our ideas and ourselves a work in progress is a wonderfully liberating way of thinking. It is a definite shift in mindset compared to how most of us were taught to think as young people—taking action quickly and avoiding over-thinking options feels like a winning move in today’s fast-moving business world, but the inherent flexibility that a BCT mindset provides allows us to do just that.

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.