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Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think

ISIS! Ebola!

Fear sells—it’s an evolutionary selection bias we all have and probably for good reason—better to be safe and all.

But the fact is that the world is safer and more prosperous today than it has ever been. Violence per capita is falling, income per capita is on the rise globally. In 10 years, it will be better; in 50, even better. There have been world wars and pandemics, to be sure, but if you step back and look at the trends, they all continue climbing up and to the right with only small dips for what we perceive to be large events. This will continue as we are more connected, more dependent, and hopefully, more empathetic.

Abundance, written by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, outlines these biases and trends and gives us a peak into what our future may look like. Diamandis runs the X-Prize Foundation, which grants cash awards for scientific achievement, such as private space flight and cleaning up oil spills.

The book is the best summary of the not-too-distant technological future I’ve come across. It covers genetics, healthcare, robotics, driverless cars, and myriad other technologies that will be here sooner than we think. It’s an uplifting summary of our future, or better yet, the adjacent possible.

The book can be found here, and the website for Abundance here.

Who and What I Read — Recommended Reading

I’ve started including a recommended reading list with our offer letters to potential hires and thought I’d post it here as well. The list includes blogs and books and is arranged alphabetically by author within each section and will be occasionally updated.

General & Organizational

Ben Horowitz: The Hard Thing About Hard Things
Ray Dalio: Bridgewater Principles
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson: Remote and Rework
Tim O’Reilly: Work on Stuff that Matters
Steve Jobs: Stanford Commencement Speech
Eric Ries: The Lean Startup
Seth Godin: Tribes and Linchpin
Peter Drucker: Managing Oneself

Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital

Peter Thiel: CS 183 Stanford and What Happened to the Future?
Fred Wilson: A VC
Brad Feld: Feld.com
Paul Graham: Essays
Steve Jurvetson: Flickr stream
Mark Suster: Both Sides of the Table
Seth Godin: sethgodin.typepad.com
Vinod Khosla: Gene Pool Engineering
Ray Kurzweil: Law of Accelerating Returns

Science & Technology

Anything and everything by

  • E.O. Wilson
  • Stewart Brand
  • Kevin Kelly
  • Freeman J. Dyson
  • Richard Feynman
  • R. Buckminster Fuller
  • Vaclav Smil
Energy & Resources

Rusty Braziel: RBN Blog
Robert Rapier: R-Squared
Armory Lovins: Reinventing Fire
Gregor MacDonald: TerraJoule.US

Love the Machine — Cognitive Augmentation and Connection

Love the machine; hate the factory. —Steam Punk Magazine

I don’t memorize things anymore, at least not facts, and why should I? They are a Google away. I don’t know anyone’s phone number, and I don’t have to: I just tap on their face in my contacts list. I don’t write down directions; I just type the address in my phone, or better yet, Google Now tells me when to leave and how to get there. If I need to do math or unit conversion, a simple search returns the answer. In a sense, cognitive augmentation is already here.

I also consume streams of information digitally. For me, there are three major ones — e-mail, RSS, and Twitter — the most prevalent being e-mail, an overlay to my social and professional lives. I don’t use Facebook much, but for many it serves as an adjunct to or, at times, a replacement for their social lives. My understanding of what happens in the world each day comes through a self-curated RSS feed — comments on breaking news, art, editorials. It’s my newspaper in a digital format. Lastly, I use Twitter situationally — watching the Oscars, on election night, or at an event watching comments in real time. These streams act as a digital addendum to the physical world. I almost said “real world” there, but that’s not quite right. These streams are a form of digital connection, in pseudo-real time, to the Internet.

The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them. —Antoine de St. Exupery

Google and similar tools are a form of cognitive augmentation that multiplies our capacity — this gives us depth. Twitter and other social tools are a form of connection that adds a new dimension, extending our presence — and this gives us breadth. We’re at the early stage of science fiction, plugging into Gibson’s cyberspace or the Matrix.

These are kludgy solutions, not physically integrated…yet. But I do feel integrated. When not online, I feel like I’m missing a piece of my mind (I say this in all seriousness). I have urges to look things up, to be “plugged into” the streams. My mind is accustomed to having access to the Internet. For me, it feels physical on some level, and as we strap Fitbits to our wrists and wear Google Glass, the boundary will blur more.

Setting aside the inevitability of it all, is this a good or bad thing? In hindsight, I think we’d all agree that replacing humans (as an implement of labor) with horses and then tractors (machines) was a good idea for farming. Why is this different? Why memorize states and capitals and presidents and multiplication tables? Does this make us better thinkers or problem solvers? Certainly, we should learn the theory — how to do math, interpret statistics, even derive equations, but why learn facts? Why not work on unique, complicated problems or design something or learn through experience? Why not replace the mental labor of math or facts with augmentation? It frees us up to work on bigger, more interesting, more complicated, more creative problems.

I’m not quite ready to put an internet jack in my head, but I am incredibly excited about our access to increasingly powerful tools of cognition. Just because Big Blue can beat us in chess doesn’t mean it will turn into Hal. Logic is basic by definition: it’s breaking down a concept to a set of rules. It’s the big questions that are interesting.

The future belongs to those who can harness the machines.

But the reason is not that the computer will “take over” the decision. The reason is that with the computer’s taking over computation, people all the way down the line in the organization will have to learn to be executives and to make effective business decisions. —Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, 1967

We Shall Not Cease from Exploration — Science, Engineering, Design, and Art

Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems. —Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline

Science defines the rules of the world — it’s our textbook of life. It tells us what happens when we add X to Y or when we heat a liquid to Z degrees. Science is the sum of all knowledge of the natural world, formed by thought and confirmed by observation. It consists of asking questions — often big questions — and forming and testing hypotheses. It’s pure in the sense that it is governed by facts — it must be observed to be true. And while we’re surrounded by its properties at all times, science seems to largely exist on paper and in labs, making it seem perhaps complicated, esoteric, or unapproachable. Research is out of the purview of the average person as it is performed inside labs in large companies and universities and is often incredibly expensive — the Hadron collider cost $4.75 billion. It has no initial economic utility other than the acquisition of knowledge, which may be the most important pursuit. But science does connect ideas and even people. Indeed, scientific facts can be viewed as a growing web — a series of findings linking to each other, building on previous work, constantly peer reviewed. It gives us “links” quite literally — for example, the physics community created the original World Wide Web to connect people and research papers.

Engineering is the application of science to solve problems and, in the process, to invent technology. Engineering makes science practical — it gives us toilets that flush, light bulbs, cars, and computers. Simply put, engineers build things — sometimes very big things, like power plants or the Burj Dubai; sometimes very small things like an integrated circuit or an iPhone. As technology scales, it creates commerce and industry. Industries — whether the energy, software, or agricultural industries — are thus scaled versions of engineering. Engineers are governed by science, by rules, and are deeply practical, often maximizing utility at the expense of beauty. One utility of engineering is the creation of wealth, sometimes massive wealth, as in the case of Bill Gates and Microsoft, the quintessential engineering firm. And while engineering is usually conducted by private companies, we interact with it each day as we drive over bridges, type on our keyboards, and talk on the phone. In this way, engineering is accessible to all of us through experience, much more so than the more amorphous concept of “science.”

Now let’s cross the boundary from science to the humanities. At the University of Illinois, the engineers were all “north of Green Street” — that was their world. Now we’re heading “south of Green Street” into something different, into the world of design. Design is the application of technology to humanity, and in this process, designers invents products — often beautiful products — for our use. The iPhone, through design, transforms technology, produced by engineers that were governed by science, into something different — a product. To get to us, these products move through identifiable stages: from the lab (science) to clunky technology (engineering) to beautiful products (design). The designer plans and creates, whether it be user interfaces (graphic design that users interact with), everyday products like tea kettles (little banalities raised, through design, some would say to the level of art, but we’ll come back to that later), and buildings and homes (architects, after all, are designers as well, albeit on a grand scale). If engineers build, designers create — they apply art, they seek beauty, and they say things like “good fit” or that a product “has strong lines.” Design is the elegant and original use of engineering to create beautiful products, and in this sense, Apple is a design firm. Consumers identify with Apple products; many believe they are beautiful.

And now we’ve introduced the concept of beauty, moving closer to art and away from cold fact. The introduction of beauty often (but not always) leads to less utility — there can be a trade-off. While beautiful, Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses were not that practical — they notoriously leaked. And while scientific research is performed in the lab, and engineering is often performed in typical office spaces, design is performed in boutiques or studios by the creative class. Even if it looks like an office, it’s a studio (style matters, especially to designers). And if design is the injection of art into engineering, then the studio element is even more appropriate. So is the art metaphor a step too far? I would argue it is not. The iPod (a beautiful piece of design) is in MoMA, after all — Windows 95 (a feat of software engineering) is not.

So now we finally get to art. Asking “what is art” is in itself a loaded question. Art is often beautiful, but it’s more than that. Art in itself is a question, as Duchamp taught us. It can be beautiful, but it also encompasses a thought and provokes a question. The best art, in my opinion, does both — it is a beautiful thought. Art is pure in the sense that it (unlike science, which encompasses a different kind of purity) does not rely on facts — it’s emotional, it wants to make you feel. We use words like imagination, beauty, and originality to describe art and how it expresses ideas and feelings, and in this way, art is subjective, it cannot be “proven.” But like science, there is an element of peer review to art — the auctions, the owners, the provenance, the museums, all linking to each other. Also a form of linking, artists build upon each other’s work, sometimes approaching what some may deem as copying or theft. But in the art world, it is called “appropriation,” though perhaps it’s merely a matter of semantics; after all, as Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” In any event, like science, art thus exists as a web, created by individuals in coffee shops and studios, linking and relinking across geography and time.

Art is not a product — it has no utility in our everyday world — it stands on its own without a “use.” In fact, many artists claim that making functional or commercial products is in fact selling out. Yet it has value, both aesthetically and monetarily. Indeed, the best art sells for far more than any individually designed product or any piece of technology. Most months, hundreds of millions of dollars of art exchange hands through auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

And while it may seem that we’ve traveled far from science to get to art, we’ve ended up back at the beginning. We’ve traveled a circle, not a line, converging at both scientist and artist. The best science is beautiful (not in appearance but in meaning, in purpose, in its very exploration), and the best art tells us something about the world around us. They ask the same question — what makes us human — they just use different tools. The scientist’s approach is quite literal — atoms, molecules, and the big bang — while the artist invokes in us wonder and curiosity and gives us a sense of our commonality. While these may at first seem fundamentally different, we’re learning that much of art, in seeking to answer the question of what makes us human, can be explained by evolution.

We live each day surrounded by engineering and design, by products and buildings that we can see and touch, but we don’t contemplate or explore science or art nearly enough. We may visit museums occasionally but not often; we rarely encounter/recognize hard science in our daily lives. This, to me, is unfortunate, because the big, interesting questions are at the beginning and the end; the incremental is in the middle:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. —T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

The New Frontier — Invention, Innovation, and Imagination

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.    — Founders Fund

I’ve always been interested in space. I grew up reading books about planets, stars, and asteroids. The Earthrise photo hangs framed in my office — the first photograph of Earth, taken by the crew of Apollo 8. I remember watching Carl Sagan documentaries (he of the famous “billions and billions”) and rolling out that strip of paper with a google and a googleplex on it. And when my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said an astronaut or a cowboy. I was awed by space and gravitated towards frontiers.

When I transitioned out of finance a few years ago, I started a company to hold the investments I planned to make. I wasn’t entirely sure what they were going to be, but I knew that ultimately I wanted to start and invest in companies. I had read Kennedy’s speech where he talked about the “New Frontier,” and the name resonated, so I formed NewFrontier Holdings.

For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won — and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier…a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils — a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats…. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric…. But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision.   — 1960 Kennedy Acceptance Speech

That quote seems as appropriate today as it must have to people in the 1960s. Certainly peace and war and ignorance and prejudice still exist (in abundance). The question of poverty and surplus is front and center as we come out of the Great Recession with little to no gains in real wages for the vast majority of people.

We live in a world of fewer physical frontiers, with the last being space or possibly the depths of the oceans, although we’re making progress there too. There’s a sense that technology hasn’t delivered, that we’ve stagnated and that basic things like our kitchens have hardly changed in 50 years.

But there are new frontiers left:

Resources

There’s the frontier of the environment — how to maximize food, energy, and water while minimizing impact and externalities in a world moving from 6 to 11 billion people over the next fifty years.

Science

There’s the frontier of biology — genetics and sequencing are advancing at an astonishing rate, leading to personalized medicine and insights into how to treat and cure diseases like cancer and to create synthetic life.

Space

There’s still the frontier of space — there has been a revitalization and interest in space with everyone from Bezos to Branson to Musk competing for market share. Mars is going to be this generation’s Moon.

Impact

There’s the frontier of impact investing — learning how to address poverty and surplus, at the intersection of capital markets and philanthropy, is being pioneered by firms like Acumen.

The idea that there are no more new frontiers could not be further from the truth; they are there, and we need invention, innovation, and imagination now more than ever if we are to succeed at crossing them.

Further Reading & References

Full Kennedy Speech
The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen
The Kitchen Test, Paul Krugman
What Happened to the Future?, Founders Fund

iOS vs. Android—Hello, Moto

I’ve been a long-time user of Apple products. I have a MacBook air, an iPhone 5, and an AppleTV (to say nothing of Kris’s iPad Mini, iPhone 5, Mac desktop, and MacBook Air and the plethora of older Apple products lying around at home, waiting to be sold). But while I use Apple devices, Google runs my life — I live in Gmail and use Google’s calendar, Google Drive (in addition to Dropbox), and Chrome. A couple years ago, I had received the original Nexus as a gift, which I played with for about a day and then sold on eBay. It seemed clunky, complicated, and nowhere as good as an iPhone. However, lately I’ve wanted to try Android again and specifically was curious about the MotoX — the new Google marketing is that good. I liked the overall design of the phone, so I went ahead and bought one while keeping my iPhone to fall back on.

Screen Size

The first thing that’s obvious is that the screen is bigger. I don’t use an iPad anymore but have found the iPhone screen to be a bit small. The extra screen size on the MotoX is noticeable and a huge improvement — you can set the font a little smaller, and with the bigger screen, it’s more readable, in my opinion.

Form Factor

As for the overall form factor, you can customize the MotoX’s back panel, choosing one of about 22 colors; the accents, choosing from one of seven colors; and the front panel, choosing from black or white. I chose a chalk back and white front with yellow buttons. I was disappointed in the colors; the whites are too dissimilar, and the yellow is really a metallic gold. (The matching whites are available only through a different carrier, which says something about design though I’m not sure what.) There is an awkward seam around the phone, which creates a ridge. It is bumpy and obvious. You can’t imagine an Apple phone ever looking like this. It feels cheaper than an iPhone for sure — you can tell the difference that Gorilla glass makes, and the phone itself lacks heft. That being said, the curved back feels much more natural in your hand than the brick shape of the iPhone.

Camera

I just started to use the camera. The auto-backup of photos is a nice feature, although I need to decide how to manage this and what to keep online. I use Flickr for all of my processed photos, and at some point, I would like to integrate. The phone comes with a 10.5-megapixel camera, and the photos seems to have a sharpened resolution compared to the iPhone’s photos (not surprisingly since the iPhone’s camera has 8 megapixels). I still need to download some photo-editing apps and play around with them. My guess is that the camera is going to be a wash with a slight nod to the MotoX due to improved resolution. The camera is better placed and seems better protected on the back of the phone as it is inset from the back plane a bit; however, I find myself putting my finger in the divot when I talk on the phone, which can’t be great for the lens.

Google Integration

The phone is deeply integrated with Google. In Chrome, all my passwords are saved. And I am beginning to really appreciate the functionality of Google Now (it told me the other day when I needed to leave to make sure I was on time for my flight). You can see where this is headed — a semi-autonomous personal assistant — and I can’t wait for them to get there. The integration with Google is sharp. For example, I was looking for a scanning application and Googled (note the verb usage) “best scanning apps” only to find that the installed Google Drive app has a scan function. You pull up the app, click scan, take the photo, and save, and it’s immediately in the cloud in your Google Drive. These little discoveries are what make the phone great.

Apps & iOS

In general, Android has more depth and options, is deeply configurable, and will take awhile to optimize. The apps are largely the same, and it was nice to start from a clean slate: I started with next to nothing on the MotoX and added apps only as I needed them. To date, I have found just a few iOS apps that do not have an Android equivalent. Moving out of iTunes and losing my music is probably the biggest loss. I’ve set up Rhapsody (which I’ve used for a long time), Spotify, and Pandora and plan to try streaming as an alternative.

Usability/Misc.

Battery life seems better, maybe 1.5x what the iPhone was getting. The keyboard is about the same, although it’s taking some time to get used to it as it’s slightly larger. The autocorrect and suggested-word functions are helpful, although I’m so hardwired to type that I often dismiss the suggestions before I realize that I am doing so. Small things like the way alerts are shown, the text app, and the phone app are different, but after about a week, you settle into the new commands and locations. The back/return button is confusing: at times it takes you to the home screen, but in some apps it takes you back a page, and because of this, you often back out of apps.

Coverage and Plan

With the MotoX, I switched to a T-mobile unlimited monthly plan (including unlimited data) for $70/month, cutting my AT&T bill in half. AT&T seems to have had better data coverage though. I routinely don’t have data access, which is annoying but also liberating at times. The talk quality seems comparable.

It’s clear that the technology race is between Google and Apple. Google’s design has been upgraded in a major way — from their commercials to their hardware (via the Motorola acquisition and apparently now sale to Lenovo). I’m going to continue to evaluate the two, but at this point, I don’t see why I’d go back. The Android phone just feels smarter. You can see how and why open platforms win — there is more utility when there is more choice. As Kevin Kelly articulated in What Technology Wants, the tie always goes in favor of choice — the Android phone, by nature of being open, has more options, and in a world of evolving technology, it wins.

Technology is a Tool—Not If But How

The cab drivers of Paris, like the weavers of England before them, rose up against technology recently, slashing the tires and breaking the windshields of drivers working for the car-sharing service Uber.

We are in the midst of a global conversation about the role of technology in our lives and its effect on everything from labor to societal engagement. This dialogue about technology is front and center—it’s in the movies (Her), it’s on the best-seller list (The Circle), and it can make us uncomfortable. Take the juxtaposition of these two videos:

I Forgot My Phone

iPad Air Commercial

In the first, technology renders us self-absorbed and disconnected; it makes us miss out on the (real) life going on around us. In the second, technology is about creation, participation, and sharing; it makes us better people. It’s a provocative commentary, and the struggle between the two conceptions is evident.

It’s important to remember that our phones and our laptops are tools—no different than a hammer. We can use a hammer to build a house, to create art, or to hit someone over the head. A mobile phone is just that, a tool; it’s not the cause—it merely implements or executes our choices. The disconnect, the stress, the potential harm (after all, recent crashes and bubbles have been, in broad strokes, the result of focusing on process, on new tools/strategies, but not the impact on real people in real time) come when the tools become the ends in and of themselves, when people venerate the tool above function and result, causing us to lose our sight of our goals and ideals.

And while we may struggle with how much technology we want in our lives, there is no choice on the direction. Technology, like the arrow of time, moves in one direction; standing in the way won’t stop it and choosing . You can choose not to participate, but the world will pass you by. The choice then is not in using it but in how you use it.

And because Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching, I thought that this was particularly apt: