During a tour of a gothic church in Brooklyn I recall a statement our guide made regarding why the ceilings were so tall and grand:
...To inspire people to look up to the heavens. To be awed. To imagine something more, something bigger...
This statement encapsulates the role of art. To stir emotions. To make you wonder. To get you to look in awe and imagine something more. The artist's work may trigger your emotions in a way that nothing else can.
The societal impact of any piece of art is difficult to quantify. And yet how much indirect impact has art had in shaping our world? How many people have been inspired by a song, painting, poem, or a book? How much of that inspiration contributed to them creating something that otherwise wouldn't exist?
How much has art helped people pull through the self-doubt and struggle commonly felt when building something? How many more projects have been created as a result of Steven Pressfield's "The War Of Art"? I would have stopped this blog (and had never written this post) had I not read that book.
On a macro level our world is a global community. Every person has a role or "job". The role could be child, student, parent, lawyer, manager, politician, artist, entrepreneur, engineer and many more.
The creator role, such as an entrepreneur, scientist, or engineer can be a lonely one. It's a role plagued by failure, procrastination, self-doubt, and struggle. How often does a startup go out of business, or a research lab shut down due to failed studies and lack of funding? And yet when people in such roles succeed, they propel our global community forward.
In order to succeed these people need inspiration. They need motivation so that they can persevere. They need to be pulled out of the darkness so that they can create. They need to be awed, to dream, and imagine something more.
They need art.
Tuesday night, a long workday has passed and you have an hour before bed. You try to muster up the energy to work on your personal project but it doesn't happen. You put it off - I'll have time and energy on the weekend you say to yourself.
The weekend arrives and you've slept in. You have brunch plans. You go for a walk after. You have to buy groceries. You go out Saturday night. Sunday is laundry and gym day. You clean the house and meal prep for the week. Game of Thrones starts in an hour. That project from Tuesday night? You'll have Monday night to catch up on it.
For those working full time jobs, the weekend is a sacred bucket where all procrastinations from the week go. We imagine the bucket will be easier to empty on the days we've labeled Saturday and Sunday. It's as if the bucket feels twice as heavy on a Tuesday compared to a Saturday.
The problem with this approach is it becomes an endless cycle. Life and social priorities come up and those uninterrupted chunks of time during the weekend dissipate. Your tasks go back into the procrastination bucket and on and on it goes.
I strive not to separate a weekday from a weekend. They are all just days. Some have more free time than others. I visualize time as blocks on a calendar. What's the difference between Wednesday and Saturday? On Wednesday I'm in the office between 9 AM - 6 PM. On Saturday I have that block of time open.
So technically the only difference is I have fewer open blocks of time on Wednesday. And thus if I schedule personal project time from 8-9 PM on Wednesday, it feels no different than if I scheduled that time from 12 - 1 PM on Saturday.
The other aspect is the perception of time. I used to perceive that a weekend minute was different from a weekday minute. Weekend minutes were more flexible and productive. More appropriate for personal projects. And yet to procrastination, a weekday minute is no different from a weekend minute. It's just a minute.
If you start viewing your time as blocks of time, it wont matter which day of the week you assign them to. Instead of routinely procrastinating projects to weekends, assign them to the earliest block of time you can commit to. You'll then get in a habit of being focused and getting to work during your block of time. The day of the week wont matter. A day is just a day. A minute is just a minute.
And you'll find that once the weekend does come, the only difference is you just have more blocks of time to work with.
During my grade school years summers felt endless. June to September, 3 full months! I was unbound by the reigns of responsibility and school. I could do anything I wanted. A project, a trip, or just nothing. If I didn't get to something today, I could do it tomorrow. Time felt limitless.
For 16 years of adolescence I lived on a schedule dictated by the school year. 9 months in school, 3 months summer break. It was predictable. Summer was always there for me to pursue my interests. And if I didn't get something done this summer, I could always do it next summer.
Yet in my early twenties my perception of time was no longer based on a predictable school year schedule.
I was in the workforce equipped with 5 sick days and 10 vacation days. No summer break. Summer months were indistinguishable from other months. Time became based on work project deadlines and quarters. Start a project in January, launch it in May. Start planning in June for a project that will launch the following year. And the cycle continues.
The pause, created by the bookend between the school year and summer was gone. The warm feeling of unlimited potential that appeared at the start of every summer break dissipated.
I had fallen into a rhythm where one year flowed into the next. No bookends. If I wished to pursue a project outside of work, I had to make time for it. I needed to manufacture my own bookend.
I could no longer find comfort in doing it next summer. Next summer was no more. And so next summer became this evening. This weekend.
Next summer became today.
Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" is a collection of short stories about robots whose existence is governed by the Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
Asimov first introduced the three laws in his 1942 short story "Runaround" (story #2 in "I, Robot").
With artificial intelligence (AI) becoming prevalent in mainstream society, I've found Asimov's laws to be quite pertinent. In particular around the fears and doomsday scenarios emanating from AI. The fear is that humans will give birth to a new species that through recursive self-improvement will grow beyond our control as it becomes far more intelligent than we imagine.
Tim Urban, in his two part AI series gives an example of AI reaching a level of intelligence that is equivalent to the gap between a human and an ant:
A machine on the second-to-highest step on that staircase would be to us as we are to ants—it could try for years to teach us the simplest inkling of what it knows and the endeavor would be hopeless.
Imagine trying to explain your name to an ant. Or to an organism that has no concept of language or words. An organism so primitive compared to humans that we feel virtually no remorse when squishing one. Now imagine AI communicating with us in a form we have no concept of. What happens if it perceives us in the same way that we perceive ants?
Elon Musk is a proponent for developing AI in a responsible and safe way. He encapsulates his fear in a possible outcome from tasking AI with getting rid of spam email:
(The AI) concludes that the best way to get rid of spam is to get rid of humans.
To combat an AI overlord Musk co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit research company whose mission is to:
Discover and enact the path to safe artificial general intelligence.
So are Asimov's three laws science fiction? Or is humanity on a trajectory to a society where some iteration of these three laws exist? Will OpenAI produce some equivalent of the three laws? Who will be responsible for implementing and regulating them? How will we ensure that every AI that is created abides by them? The established laws will be meaningless if one country abides by them but another does not.
In Asimov's last story of "I, Robot", "The Evitable Conflict" robot psychologist Susan Calvin and World Co-ordinator (leader) Stephen Byerley share a discussion on the purpose of machines (AI) and the anti-machine movement.
"But you are telling me, Susan, that the ‘Society for Humanity’ is right; and that Mankind has lost its own say in its future."
"It never had any, really. It was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand—at the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war. Now the Machines understand them; and no one can stop them, since the Machines will deal with them as they are dealing with the Society,—having, as they do, the greatest of weapons at their disposal, the absolute control of our economy."
“Perhaps how wonderful! Think, that for all time, all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable!”
In this discussion the "Society for Humanity" (anti-machine movement) believes that machines are controlling the future of humanity. Yet Susan Calvin states that humanity was never in control. Prior to machines we were controlled by economic and sociological forces we didn't understand. This resulted in wars, economic depressions. But machines learned and understood these forces at a level humanity did not. The machines now controlled these forces. And because of the three laws, they controlled them in such a way where the outcomes would result in no harm to humans.
So it appears that Asimov provided us with a warning: regulate the machines before they regulate us.
A few weeks ago I attended a fireside chat with professional futurist Amy Webb. A futurist is someone who identifies and connects emerging tech trends in order to predict their impact on society.
Amy shared insights from her recent book "The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream". The book outlines her futurist methodology and how to systematically think through a trend and it's possible impact.
It's a methodology that has many practical applications such as:
- An entrepreneur evaluating a business idea
- An investor seeking new investment opportunities
- A job seeker considering what industry to work in
For me the application is idea discovery. My goal is to start a startup around a "problem" that I'm interested in solving. My challenge is identifying a real problem I'm interested in pursuing, and how to recognize trends versus what is trendy within that problem.
For example if I want to analyze the future of education in K-12 schools, would computer assisted learning (CAL) and mobile apps fall into the trends or trendy buckets? Will the majority of kids in the US school system have Google accounts and use Google classroom? Is the number of people pursuing teaching degrees trending up or down?
Once you hone in on a trend, Amy presents questions to consider:
- What technology is on the horizon?
- How will it impact our customers or constituents?
- How will our competitors harness the trend?
- Where does the trend create potential new partnerships or collaborators for us?
- How does this trend impact our industry and all of its parts?
- Who are the drivers of change in this trend?
- How will the wants, needs, and expectations of our customers change as a result of this trend?
Your goal is to project a set of possible, probable, and preferred scenarios around six time zones:
- Now (within next 12 months)
- Near-term (1 - 5 years)
- Mid-range (5 - 10 years)
- Long-range (10 - 20 years)
- Far-range (20 - 30 years)
- Distant ( > 30 years)
To make projections, Amy presents a six step methodology. These are covered in much greater detail in her book.
First, find the Fringe.
Cast a wide enough net to harness information from the fringe. This involves creating a map showing nodes and the relationships between them, and rounding up what you will later refer to as “the unusual suspects.”
Who has been working directly and indirectly in this space?
Who has been funding or otherwise encouraging experimentation in this space?
Who might be directly impacted by this development?
Who might be incentivized to work against this kind of change, either because they stand to gain something or because they might lose something?
Who might see this idea as a starting point for something bigger and better?
Second, use CIPHER to find patterns.
Uncover hidden patterns by categorizing data from the fringe. Patterns indicate a trend, so you’ll do an exhaustive search for Contradictions, Inflections, Practices, Hacks, Extremes, and Rarities.
Third, identify the trends.
Ask the Right Questions: Determine whether a pattern really is a trend. You will be tempted to stop looking once you’ve spotted a pattern, but you will soon learn that creating counterarguments is an essential part of the forecasting process, even though most forecasters never force themselves to poke holes into every single assumption and assertion they make.
Fourth, calculate the ETA.
Interpret the trend and ensure that the timing is right. This isn’t just about finding a typical S-curve and the point of inflection. As technology trends move along their trajectory, there are two forces in play—internal developments within tech companies, and external developments within the government, adjacent businesses, and the like—and both must be calculated.
Fifth, create scenarios and strategies.
Build scenarios to create probable, plausible, and possible futures and accompanying strategies. This step requires thinking about both the timeline of a technology’s development and your emotional reactions to all of the outcomes. You’ll give each scenario a score, and based on your analysis, you will create a corresponding strategy for taking action.
Sixth, pressure-test your actions.
But what if the action you choose to take on a trend is the wrong one? In this final step, you must make sure the strategy you take on a trend will deliver the desired outcome, and that requires asking difficult questions about both the present and the future.
After completing the six steps you'll have a picture of what the future of "X" may bring. From an entrepreneurial perspective you can choose to focus in on a particular segment and pursue an idea you are confident will be a relevant trend in the future.