Coming up with an original business idea is tough. It’s far easier to create a variation of something that already exists – but we all know the easiest path isn’t the most valuable.
This week, I sit down with Byron Reese of Knowingly. Byron is an an entrepreneur, futurist, and author known for his big ideas. During our discussion, we dive headfirst into what the future will be like and how you can take advantage of it to develop original business ideas.
If you want to come up with innovative business ideas, do yourself a favor and listen to this interview.
Have comments, questions, ideas, or feedback? I want to hear it. Tweet me at william_griggs.
Topics Covered In This Episode
- How does being a futurist change how you build companies?
- How does it change how you think about business?
- What major technological trends do you see having a huge impact on the world in the next 10, 25, and 50 years?
- What leads you to believe this?
- What areas of are going to be the most impacted?
- How should our audience be thinking about these trends/changes?
- What’s an example?
- How should our audience be thinking about these trends/changes?
- What piece does passion play in being successful?
- How can one find what they are passionate about?
- How can we encourage our kids to find what they are passionate about?
- If our audience wants to dig into more on the future of the world, what would you recommend?
Byron Reese: Oh, I’m so happy to be here. I’ve been looking forward to this.
William Griggs: Very cool. Really appreciate your time. So we know, I mean the audience knows from the introduction that you’re a futurist, you’re a founder, you’re an advisor, you’re a consultant, you do a lot of different things, and I think that puts you in a powerful and unique position to help our audience. So let’s, before we dig in, let’s get the audience up to speed with what you’re doing, your background, what you’re doing currently with Knowingly. Could you give us a little bit of overview?
Byron Reese: Yes. Let’s see. I’m CEO of a company called Knowingly right now. It’s an Angel backed startup in Austin with, I guess, eight folks right now, and it’s really trying to solve, I guess, the hardest problem on the internet, I think, which is you don’t really know what to believe, you don’t really know when something is good quality or bad quality. I want to be in the quality business. The internet is getting very good at separating high quality stuff from low-quality stuff, and I want to be out there helping people make higher and higher quality content. Before that, I ran innovation for Demand Media. I was chief innovation officer for Demand Media. We were a large scale internet publisher. And before that I had another startup that I sold and, you know, you started off by saying I did all of these things. It could also be interpreted that I can’t really hold a job very long. But taking it in the most favorable light, and then on the side, nobody does just one thing in this world. On the side I write, I have a book about the future out, I have an article in this month’s National Geographic, or half page. So I write as much as I can, because it’s very interesting to me, and I speak a lot. I travel around and talk to different audiences about different topics that – If you’re going to be at South Bike, I’m going to talk about the possibility of human immortality, where maybe if you live another 25 years you face the possibility that you’ll never die.
I homeschool four children with my wife, and that’s a lot of fun. And then – You know, I think, had I been a kid today, they would have medicated me. And I know that maybe sounds like a line, but I actually think so. I can’t do just one thing for very long, and so I always wake up and say, “What am I most excited about doing right now?” And I work on that, so I’m always working on something I’m really excited about, and then I move to something else. And it works for me. That isn’t, like, advice for everyone, just what works for – Oh, and I also try to start a new non-profit every other year. I have two I’m working on right now. One is a very ambitious one, and one is a very modest one. And so I’ve got those going. So that’s me. That’s me.
William Griggs: Very cool. So I had originally met you with a local startup here in Austin, and then I had actually seen your presentation at TED X here, I believe in Austin, and also checked out the book a little bit. So we want to dig in. Sounds like you have a lot on your plate. You’re going, you know, 1,000 miles an hour, but one of the themes, it seems like, is innovation. It’s the future, and we want to dig into that in this episode. So if we could, just starting off, how does being a futurist and thinking about the future change how you build companies?
BRL Well, I assume everybody that starts a company is, to some measure, a futurist. I’m a little uncomfortable with that word, because it doesn’t have a lot of definition around it, but one has a thought about what the future is going to be like, and then figures out a business way to exploit that. In a sense, the future is kind of a new invention. People always knew there would be a tomorrow. The Romans didn’t build rods that lasted 1,000 years because they didn’t – But the idea that the future is going to be different is a pretty new idea. It basically came about with the scientific method. And so I think you have to start by asking yourself, is the future knowable? And I think it is. I think there are things you will know about that are knowable. And then you kind of separate those from things that aren’t knowable. And for instance, just as an example, we know computers are going to get faster. We know bandwidth is going to get cheaper. We know storage is going to get cheaper. We know ubiquitous sensors are going to be super inexpensive. We know the internet of things; everything will be – You know, it’s funny. I’m already, like, I’m already so ready for the internet of, the so-called internet of things.
I just kind of walk around my house annoyed at all the things that aren’t online. Like why didn’t the cat’s food dish text me when it was low on food? Why didn’t my sprinkler system tell me the yard is dry? I mean everything, everything is going to be connected, so when you start having a view of the future that stays in these very safe areas, like nothing that I just said is absent the stray comment that could happen before we finish this conversation, absent that stray comment, there’s a lot we know about. So then you only have to ask yourself, “Well, what good things can I do?” You know, I’ve done this a couple of times. Before there was an internet, or before there was a YouTube, I got really interested in online video. I said, “That’s going to be big. You know how I know it’s going to be big? Because I know that bandwidth is going to get cheap, and everybody’s going to have broadband in the future, and we’re not going to all have dialup, and people would rather watch things than read them.” And I know that because more people watch TV than read the newspaper. And so I started making videos.
I started making 3,000 how-to videos a month. I used these freelance filmmakers. And I just made and made and made videos, before YouTube even existed. Because it was just obvious to me. And my YouTube channel now has, the one that I started now, has over three billion views.
William Griggs: Oh wow.
Byron Reese: Yeah, I know. Justin Bieber only has four billion, and he’s going to peak at some point. And my stuff – And then I got really interested in mobile video. I got an iPhone. At the same time, I had my fourth child. And an iPhone was one G. It was none of this fancy 3G business. Like, you couldn’t stream video on it. And I started thinking, “People are going to want to watch video on this. Like, look at this screen. The only thing that’s keep people from watching video is bandwidth, and they’re going to solve for bandwidth.” And so I started thinking to myself, “What would be a great video, the kinds of video people would want to watch on their cell phone?” And it occurred to me that the ultimate video to watch on your cell phone is how to deliver a baby in the backseat of a taxi cab, because that’s when you probably need it. And I made that video using the midwife that delivered our child, and it’s had ¾ of a million views. Go to YouTube and look it up. But the funniest thing is two years after I made it, I woke up and there was BBC headline, “Man looks up online how to deliver a baby in the backseat of a taxicab as he’s delivering this baby,” and there’s a screenshot right from my video.
And so it’s like that. I think just ask yourself, what are things that you just know are going to be true in the future, that are different about now? And then I don’t want to just use the cliché, but then you know, skate to the puck. Go ahead and start building for that tomorrow. And what’s interesting is the amount of resources you have speaks to how far into the future you can afford to skate to, right? If you’re Google, you can skate to driverless cars. You can skate to Google Glass and all of that. You can have visions of products that you know people are going to need in 10 years. I’ve never, obviously, had those sorts of resources, so I skate to a more modest puck that’s much closer. So I just try to think about, “What’s going to be different about next year or the year after that I can start building today?”
William Griggs: Yeah, does it start with kind of seeing those trends? Like you talked about the microprocessors getting smaller, bandwidth getting cheaper, that good stuff. Thinking about those trends, kind of extrapolating out and thinking, “What the heck would be different if this was 10x cheaper, 10x smaller, 10x faster?”
S2: That is exactly it. And then always factor in, there are some things that will never change. Like, human nature doesn’t ever change, and so that’s also useful to know. But that’s exactly right. I remember, I went to this place. It took me a year to get a permit to go. It’s way off in the middle of Greece, it’s up in the mountains, it’s a monastery, the date is different there because they still use the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar. Time is reckoned different there. They live just like they lived 500 years ago, except some people have a flashlight or a portable radio. That’s it. And I got to this place and I noticed this little, everything looks like 500 years ago, and I notice this old bag, and I said, “What’s in that bag?” Because I saw somebody drop something. And they said, “Oh, that is, whenever we have a flashlight or a radio and the batteries go dead, you put them in that bag, and then when one of the monks has to twice a year go into the city, they take that and they recycle it.” And I thought to myself, “You know, if that idea, green, sustainable living, made it to this place, then it’s probably something very permanent, something that’s here to say.” So I just started thinking, “Hm.”
And, you know, other things don’t change either. People love beautiful products, you know? People love the way an iPhone looks. You like the way the box looks for goodness sake, right? So that goes back as far as we go back, right? We love beautiful things. So think about, “Can I make this beautiful, that people would want to hold and touch and own?” So I think you do those two things you say. There are things that aren’t going to change. I can bank on those. They never change. And then there are things that are going to change that I have an enormously high degree of confidence how they’re going to change. I mean, there is virtually no question. And you don’t even have to get into more problematic things about the future. You know, you don’t have to even – To get business ideas, I don’t think you have to travel beyond what you could probably intuit in an afternoon of reflection.
William Griggs: Right. Yeah, so we talked a little bit about microprocessors and bandwidth and energy and a bunch of different good stuff. What are some of the other major technological trends that people can think about and kind of extrapolate on?
Byron Reese: Well, there’s a whole class of – The internet is still a very new thing, right? I mean, it’s common to say that, but it actually also has the benefit of being true. And there were a lot of things on the internet that weren’t actually surprises. Like, you could have guessed that there would be an EBay, because there were garage sales. You didn’t know who would win that, but you knew, “Okay, people are going to be able to sell stuff online.” You could guess there was going to be a PayPal because there was Western Union. You could guess there was going to be a Skype. There are all these things that are online corollaries of things in the offline world. So I think you can assume that that’s going to continue. And there are still all kinds of things that you can’t do online that in theory you can. And then, there are all these things that nobody predicted, right? Like nobody predicted Twitter. It doesn’t have an offline corollary. There was no 140 character, maybe a post-it on the refrigerator or something. I don’t know. But there was no offline corollary, so that’s something completely new. And those can be very interesting. Nobody on the face of the earth, that I know of, predicted the open source movement. Yeah, people are going to code stuff, day and night work really hard on it and they will share it with everyone else for free.
Nobody predicted Creative Commons. Nobody predicted Wikipedia which, by the way, Wikipedia, you don’t just not get paid for it, nobody even knows who you are. You toil for free in anonymity, and I think it’s really fascinating that you invent something called blogs, and 100 million people log on. You make it easy to register a dot com, 100 million people do. You make YouTube and everybody all of the sudden takes video and uploads it.
You make iTunes, and new bands emerge everywhere. And what it tells us is, you used to think, “Oh,” you know, you let people comment on products and all of the sudden, everyone comments on products. They post in forums. And it used to be, you would have thought that most people aren’t creative, because 50 years ago, people didn’t do those things. You knew you had artists and writers and all of that, but these were these tiny portion of society. And now it turns out everybody wants to create. Everybody wants to leave their mark. What is the stat? More photos are taken every three minutes now than were taken in the 19th century. You know, it turns out we all want to create. And so that’s a huge hyper trend. Everybody wants to build. Everybody wants to make, even though they don’t necessarily see it in those terms. You can, you know, the cost of collecting data is going to go to zero. I mentioned sensors earlier, but you can think that through, right? Like, why doesn’t my skillet remember everything I cooked in it? Why doesn’t my fork calculate the nutritional content in every bite I take?
Why isn’t there a camera above my front door that every time somebody comes to the door it scans their face and looks it up in a database to see if they’re a criminal? So you just have to say, “What if I could record everything? What if I could record all data? What would I do with that? What could I build with that?” We know that all of the sudden social, wow. Facebook, 1.3 billion users. Who would have ever imagined that? Who would have even thought that was possible? And what it tells us is that people have this amazing desire to connect with each other. It’s interesting. If you go into the developing world and you go to somebody and, this is a hypothetical somebody, and you give them a platter of technologies and say, “You can pick any one of these. You can have a scooter, you can have an air conditioner, you can have a Gameboy, you can have a video camera, you can have a cell,” you can’t even say, “Cell phone,” before they’ve grabbed it. Everybody on the earth has a cell phone. There are more people with cell phones than there are people who have ever used a flush toilet in their life. So they are grabbing the cell phone before that. And so what does that tell us? It’s like, wow, people have this enormous desire to connect with each other, that hitherto, technology couldn’t live up to their expectations.
And now it does. A world of 7 billion people, you have 6 billion cell phone accounts. Wow, what do you do with that? So if you can get through all of that, and nothing I’ve said is even remotely science fiction, if you can get through all of that and innovate, it’s like, we live in a world that changes more in a year. Like just imagine if you were a sewer pipe maker in the 19th century, or you were a farmer in the 19th century or if you were a metal worker, nobody was talking about, “Wow, in three years, we’re going to be doing this all differently.” You could learn everything you needed in your – That’s why we had this whole educational model of, “Yeah, you go to school for 20 years and then you’re good for the next 50. You can go work for 50 years. You’re cool. You know the basics, so, nothing’s really going to change, so go earn,” and now of course that would be a laughable thing. Probably the most important skill to have, well one of I would say three, is the ability to self-teach, because that’s what we all do, right? Oh my gosh, something new. Sit down, google it, read it, learn about it, click around, and so –
William Griggs: Well what would the other two be?
Byron Reese: So, you live in this world of everything changing, everything. Can you imagine? Because of the rate of change, because of the power of Moore’s Law, because so many of these technologies are doubling on a predictable basis, it means it took us 4,000 years to get from the abacus to the iPad, and in 20 years, 25 years, you’re going to have something as far ahead of the iPad as it is ahead of the abacus. So that’s a world of enormous, exciting, earth-shattering, fortune creating opportunity. That’s why we’re minting billionaires every whatever. I like to say we are minting them, like I’m helping mint these billionaires. But no, billionaires are being minted at this amazing rate. Why? Because all of the sudden you can build something and a billion people use it, and even 10 million people use it. I mean all of the sudden it just spreads like wildfire. It is – My only piece of advice, and I seldom give advice, but my only piece of advice is don’t ever take a breather. The minute you check out for three months, you come back and everything will be different. So it’s a relentless game to stay current on what’s going on in the world.
William Griggs: Yea, it’s very interesting. You hit on a lot of the trends that are on top of people’s minds. You talked about the maker movement, you talked about the internet of things, thinking about the digitization of a lot of offline activities to real world activities, the thought process of kind of thinking through the most fundamental elements of being human around connection and education and food, a bunch of different stuff, and then we think overarchingly about this technological trend of data storage being cheaper, sensors being everywhere, microprocessors going down, battery life is going up, bandwidth is getting cheaper, we’re hearing stories of Google X and Facebook coming up with these blimps so they can get the whole continent of Africa, or kites or whatever, to get the whole continent of Africa online, and then thinking through how whole countries are skipping a lot of the steps that we’ve actually taken in America, right? So we started with landlines, we had people that were connecting the phone lines sitting in rooms.
Then we have landlines that automatically connect, and then we started to get some car phones and some really big cell phones, and now we have cell phones that can be as small as you want them. And now countries that are coming online are going straight to that smartphone, kind of leapfrogging and opening up a whole new economy and a whole new set of opportunities, and then it sounds like all of that goes back to how does the education system support that? We used to have the process where we would, like you were saying, create these people that fit into a system to where we needed them to check a certain number of boxes to make the system work, and now with, you shared the first skill of being able to self-teach or teach yourself stuff, seems like even the education system, you see with Coursera, Udacity, and Khan Academy, that’s getting flipped on its head. One of the other pieces that I wanted to dive into is you mentioned self-teaching as one of the three elements. Do you have the other two? Would you mind sharing those?
Byron Reese: I think that the ability to communicate is all of the sudden of paramount importance, right? Because hardly any of us work alone. We work in teams, we work with other people, we interact with other people. One of the basic aspects of the network is the number of nodes that are touching each other. So an ability to communicate and express yourself, work with other people, I think that that is something. And I would actually split the difference on the other two. One of them I wouldn’t really count because in theory we’re teaching it now, but clearly problem solving is the ultimate skill. But what I was going to say for the third one is in a world where you have this enormous – Like, I know all these people that do jobs that didn’t exist last week. Or these people who do jobs that they’ve just invented. They’ve made it. Like, they figured out a way to add value somewhere. They look at some system and they say, “I’m going to data mine this and make a report and sell it to oil companies,” or whatever. So we live in a world where if you grew up 1,000 years ago and you grew up on a farm, you were going to be a farmer, right? You were going to be a farmer.
And, which we grew up in a world where even 100 years ago, most of your life choices were made for you before you were born. They related to your economic circumstances you were born into, they related to your nationality, your gender, your ethnicity, your religion, they, you know, it was all kind of decided for you, and you could decide whether to wear the striped tie or the spotted tie, and that was kind of it. Well now you live in a world where all doors are open. You get to decide who you are. You’re not told who you are anymore, you get to decide. You invent yourself. You decide what you’re going to do. You invent it, and you create it. You decide who you are and what you’re going to be and where you’re going to live, right? Used to be you were born, you grew up, and you probably died in the town you grew up in. Now you get to decide where you’re going to live. So I think a real skill that people haven’t been conscious about is how do you find happiness? How do you find meaning and purpose? How do you find your passion?
I guess that’s how I would say it. I mean all the most successful, happiest people I know, are doing something they really love that they’re passionate about. How do you figure out what it is you’re passionate about? You see, you know, I talked about these non-profits. I used to sit around and think about what does the world need? And I don’t think about that anymore, because there’s no end to that. Now I think about what makes me excited? Because the one thing I know the world needs is more people excited about solving a problem. And so I think that’s really the great skill, which is find your passion and figure out a way to do it. And congratulations. That used to be something that almost nobody could aspire to, and now it’s certainly within reach of a third of the planet, and it will be in reach of everyone before I depart this sphere.
William Griggs: Yeah, it seems like as the world has developed, especially us here in America, as we’ve developed, it’s become less about covering your bases. I mean for a lot of people it is still that food, shelter mentality, but for a lot of people it’s getting out of that. And like you said, it seems like a lot of people are focused on that piece that’s missing. It’s like, “Yeah, I could buy another car. Is that going to make me happier? I could do this. Is that going to make me happier?” Versus trying to really hone in on that passion. Do you have any advice for people on how to find that passion? Is it the common question around, “What did you love to do as a child?” or, “What would you do if you weren’t getting paid?” Do you have any thoughts around that?
Byron Reese: Well I do, and of course I think about it because my kids get interested in stuff. And if they – And what I try to do is if somebody comes to me and says, “Wow, I’m really excited about photography,” is I give them a camera and maybe find a photographer for them to talk to, and then one day they’re not interested in photography, and you go, “That’s okay.” And so I think, though, the big skill to have is kind of giving yourself permission to do it. I had the really silly thing I do. I mean, I hate to even say this because it’s not, again, it’s not something I’m suggesting for other people, but maybe if you imagined, like, the proverbial cocktail party. I’ve never been to a cocktail party. I love that it’s always used as the ubiquitous social event, right? So you’re at a cocktail party, and somebody comes up to you and says, “What do you do?” What would you dream about answering that question? And not to impress somebody. What would be the most exciting thing in the world for you to do?
Because I don’t know if that particular one you could do, but that’s how you start. You say, you would love to say, “Oh, I’m a writer.” “Oh, I design hot air balloons.” “Oh, I build video games.” What is it that you want to tell people? Not what do you want to tell people. It’s a mental exercise. What is it that you would just love to do? And then start by figuring out a way to do it. Again most people, here’s the interested thing. When they catch a baby elephant in the wild, I have heard this, never personally done it, the way they kind of train the elephant, they tie it to a tree. Just not, you know, they put a leash on it and they tie it to a tree. And the baby elephant doesn’t really want to be tied to a tree. He pulls and he pulls and he pulls and he pulls, and he can’t get away. And what he learns is, “I can’t get away from this tree.” Then what happens is when the elephant grows up, they put a leash on him or whatever you would call it, and they just tie it to any stick or any piece of fence or that, and the elephant could just pull it away without even hardly an effort.
But they’ve learned that they can’t, and so they never do. And I’m afraid that’s kind of what we do. If you are living in the place you were born doing something that you decided to do a long time ago, all of these things, if you – Then maybe, we haven’t given ourselves a choice, the kind of permission to say, “No, I’m going to decide who I want to be, and by golly I’m going to go figure out how to be that person. I’m going to live where I want to live and do the thing I want to do, and be the person I want to be.” And so I guess making the decision you’re willing to do that, that you give yourself permission. And of course, the standard thing is most people are afraid of failing. I fail at almost everything I do, or at least the great majority of it, and I don’t say that, there’s not a, “But,” after that. It’s just, that’s it. I fail at many more things than I succeed at, and I’m good with that. The trick is make sure you’re doing a lot of things, and then some of them work. And so it’s like, give yourself permission to do it, no, you’re, you know.
William Griggs: Yeah, it’s very interesting. So it seems like we’re kind of having the conversation in reverse. It seems like maybe you start with the passion, the cause, what you’re excited about, what you want to go after, what you want to tackle, and then bringing back in the innovative solutions, the futuristic extrapolations on trends, to kind of bring both worlds together, right? Because if you just start by saying, “Oh, I see this potential opportunity where I could make,” like, for example, your camera above a door that could maybe match up facial recognition patterns for criminals, right? But if that’s not something you really give a crap about, right, you’re probably not going to, or you’re definitely not going to be that successful about it, and if you are successful, you’re still not going to be happy about it. Do you feel the same way?
Byron Reese: Yeah, and I don’t want to come across as sounding like something like a rah rah motivational speaker. There are a lot of people in the world who don’t actually have all the freedom that I just talked about, right? Like there is a pencil factory in town, that’s the only employer, I’m grateful to even have a job at the pencil factory. There is a whole lot of people that don’t have this kind of freedom, and I mean the freedom, not political freedom, just who don’t have those choices. And then there’s a lot of people in our country that don’t. But if you’re listening and you are one of the few people, well relatively large now, who actually do have that kind of opportunity, then by golly, do it. Do it. If you’re not, it will come in time. But –
William Griggs: Yeah, and it seems like as those people do it, they’re going to create additional opportunities for the others and additional ways for those other people to get similar opportunities, wouldn’t you say?
Byron Reese: I would.
William Griggs: Yeah. Very interesting. So it seems like that’s kind of the approach. It seems like starting with the passion, thinking through the passion, because it’s going to lead to more effort. As far as, you know, and if you don’t feel comfortable sharing this this is fine, but it’d be interesting to get your perspective. You know, you talked about how you home school your kids. How do you help, if you’re willing to share this, how do you help them with this same thought process of finding a passion, being willing to fail, that type of stuff?
Byron Reese: Well, I think people naturally, you know, Sir Ken Robinson gave probably the most famous TED talk of all about education. He made a comment in an article, or maybe in that talk, where he said that if you ask second graders, go into a second grade class and say, “Hey, who here can draw?” Everybody will raise their hand. And you go into a 12th grade class and you say, “Hey, who here can draw?” Two people raise their hand. And so what is it about that audacity of the second grader that they kind of, “Yeah, I can draw, sure.” And somehow we kind of beat that out of people, or not beat it, but somehow we lose that. And so I think people are actually born wanting to do something that’s very interesting to them, and then they’re kind of broken by life to believe they’re not allowed to or they can’t or they’re not good enough or something like that. And so I think the trick is like what I do with my children, like you said, is, they’re interested in something. See, the interesting thing about kids is they are capable of learning, absorbing huge amounts of knowledge, if they are motivated to do so. Like, if they get interested in astronomy or dinosaurs or whatever, you can just pile dinosaur books on them and they will become the world’s leading authority on dinosaurs. I remember my daughter went through this phase, she was very young, eight or nine, and dinosaurs were her thing.
And you would ask her a question, like, “How long did dinosaurs live?” And she would always say, “We believe,” right? Like she was part of the – Right? Like the scientific community, “We believe that they did this.” And so I think kids are naturally like that, and the trick is not squashing it but encouraging it. I mean, I remember my daughter got interested in gardening, and I went and rented from home depot the tiller. I tilled up my back yard because I thought, “Why in the world do I have a back yard if I’m not,” you know? “Oh, I don’t want the grass to be ruined.” It’s like, “Why do I even have a back yard if I’m not willing to till it up?” So I till a big chunk of the back yard up, and gardening is fun in theory, but weeding is not nearly as – So that kind of went the wayside pretty quickly. And the thing is is you know, you just don’t say anything about it. It’s like, “Oh well, what’s next to try?” And eventually I hit something, or at least the theory goes, my children are young. Maybe I should have put one in regular school like a control kid, you know?
And then I could say, “Yeah, this works in this tested environment.”
William Griggs: Right. Yeah, that’s really interesting. It seems like people can kind of tap into that kind of childish feeling and a childish excitement just by giving them – A lot of people talk about this, whether it’s James Altucher with Choose Yourself or Seth Goode and lots of people talk about the fact that they can give themselves permission to do that, right? So even if you’ve been that elephant tied up to the tree you’ve learned, or you’ve been burned, right? In the past by doing something, and maybe you got your hand slapped, or maybe you touched the fire and you found out it was hot, right? But it seems like you could give yourself another set of permissions to explore that passion, and you don’t have to have – It seems like a lot of people as well that get that kind of analysis paralysis of like, “Oh, is this something I want to do?” Right? And they’ll think about it and they won’t actually do it, right? So they won’t go down that path to figure out, “Is this the right thing for me?” They’ll just say, “I’m at this intersection, I’m not sure which direction to go, so I’m not actually going to go anyway.” I’ve definitely worked with lots of entrepreneurs and lots of friends that are kind of in that moment.
And it seems like, at least in my experience, it’s been take the path, choose the path, realize that you can do a U-turn if it’s a dead end, come back to the intersection, and go down another path.
Byron Reese: Absolutely. Absolutely.
William Griggs: Very cool. So we covered a lot of good stuff in this interview. We talked a lot about the innovation, the future, how you think through, kind of thinking through the trends, extrapolating on them, and we talked a lot about different types of trends. We talked about even going back in time and thinking through kind of your passion and realizing it’s never too late to think about that, and the fact that having that passion is going to propel you a lot further and a lot faster than just doing what you’re being told to do and just doing things just to do them, kind of combining that is definitely gasoline on the proverbial fire. Are there any things that were missing? I mean, we’ve covered a lot, there’s a lot to cover. What’s maybe one more thing or a couple of more things that we should really drive home for the audience today?
Byron Reese: Well, back to this innovation question, I think it would be really – I talked about what are all the things that are really obvious? I would just love to say, for a couple of minutes, the things that are just a little bit further out. Because I think they are also very noble as well, and I think that they are very exciting, and they might already have gone beyond the short term. You know, I mentioned Moore’s Law earlier, and Gordon Moore figured out that computers essentially doubled in power every couple of years, and he said, this was in the ‘60s, he said, “It’s been going on a while. It’s going to keep going on a little while.” And then Ray Kerswhile comes along and says, “You know, it’s actually been going on for a couple of hundred years.” Even though computers have gone from mechanical to tubes to transistors to microprocessors, the underlying technology has changed, it’s never looked back. Moore’s Law has always – And then other people came along and they said, “Wow, it looks like that multi-cellular life itself doubles in complexity every N-100 years.” And they go backwards and they say, “Wow, it looks like based on our complexity life began 7 billion years ago. Very fascinating number since the Earth is only 4 billion years old.” It has implications. So we don’t think exponentially. We don’t think about things that double, and we’re in this world where all these technologies are doing that.
They’re doubling, doubling, doubling, doubling, doubling, and it dwarfs us. We can’t even imagine what we’re going to be able to do. All technology really does is it multiplies human ability. More people hear you with the bullhorn than if you yell. You can write more with the ball point pen than you can with a quill. You can move more bricks with the forklift than on your back. So what we’re about to do is exponentially multiply what we can do, and what does that look like? Well I think what it means is that all technical problems are going to be solved, all technological problems will be solved. Now a lot of things aren’t technological problems. There are a lot of those, but there are very real ones that we’re going to solve, like disease. That’s just a technical problem. So I think you’re going to live to see the end of disease much quicker than you might imagine. Hunger is just a technical problem. There’s no reason there have to be hungry people. It’s just a technical problem. Scarcity. The underlying assumption of all economic theory is, “Hey, there’s only so much stuff and there’s not enough for everybody.” That is just a technical problem. I mean energy, energy is one of the most abundant things in the universe.
How do you harvest it is just a technical problem. And as I alluded to at the beginning, I think mortality itself is probably just a technical problem. There’s no reason you have to die, there’s no reason you can’t repair and replace you as needed. And so I think we’re going to live to see a world fundamentally very different than the entire recorded human history. In fact, that’s how I started writing about the future, is I read a Gene Rodenberry quote. He started Star Trek, and he said that, “In the future there will be no hunger and there will be no greed and all the children will know how to read.” And I really wanted to know if that was true, if that was possible, or if it just kind of rhymed. Like, “Oh, that rhymes. I’ll say that.” And so I do believe that’s the future that is in front of us. So when you see something that seems like a big hurtle, just ask, “Is it at its core, technological?” And if so, just wait. If it took us 10,000 years to get the computing power we have, two years we’ll have doubled that. Two years, we’ll double it again. Two years, we’ll double it again.
It gets out of hand very quickly.
William Griggs: And as far as the technological angle of it, are you thinking the resolution or the way to solve it, for instance, you know, disease might be, “Hey, we don’t know enough about it. We’re not capturing enough, we’re not able to analyze enough, the computer processing power is not strong enough to figure out all the different patterns or all the different chemical solutions that would arise to cure cancer.” Is that how you’re thinking of it as a technological challenge?
Byron Reese: Well I think you have to start by saying the worst disease ever, Smallpox, in its last 100 years of existence, it killed 500 million people. It killed more people than had ever died in every war in history put together. We eliminated it. We made a vaccine for it. Again the “we”. I take some credit for that. But we made a vaccine for it. In the 1700s, before Louis Pasteur, who created germ theory, was born. The second worst disease ever, Polio, I would say, is now eliminated in the US and is as rare worldwide as getting struck by lightning. You know, he did that, Jonas Salk did that, he didn’t have a computer. Well, he sort of. He couldn’t sequence a genome. So what can we do now? We can take a pathological foe, we can sequence its genome, we can see how it works, like we can look into its soul and see exactly how it works. We can then model that in a computer, and then we can try 50,000 different cures a minute. And all of the sudden, everything is going to vanish. We’re just going to solve for everything. I know it sounds preposterous. I mean, there are a lot of things technology can’t do. Technology doesn’t make us better people, right? There are all kinds of things it can’t do. But give it credit. There was a man who calculated pi to, like, 31 digits in the 1700s, and it took him his whole life. And it’s on his gravestone. That 31 digits is on his gravestone. And now, of course, it can compute – Computers can do it to billions of places in, like, the amount of time it takes me to eat a sandwich or something.
And so you say, give machines their due. There’s a narrow group of things that they can do, and they do it exceptionally well. And so all of these technical problems, we are about to build machines that will solve them. And we’re going to build robots that will take over a lot of the work that humans are doing, and this is a great thing. If there’s any job that can be done by a machine, if you make a human do it, it’s literally dehumanizing, right? Because the machine can do it. Doesn’t require anything about you that makes you human. So we’re going to have machines doing all the jobs that machines can do, freeing up people to do the things that only people can do. It’s, “Oh brave new world that has such wonders in it.”
William Griggs: Yeah, so it sounds like an exciting time. Tell us a little bit about your book, and then maybe recommend it and a few other TED talks or other books that people could dive into if they want to learn more about the future.
Byron Reese: Well I’ve written a book called Infinite Progress and it’s available in bookstores everywhere, as they say, but most likely at Amazon.com. And it’s about this. It’s written with a lot of passion and I care deeply about these issues and I hope it’s not a dry, technological read. I hope not. And it’s funny, I love serendipity. I love – I would probably plug Reddit of all things, because it is a window into the universe. I mean, I never know what I’m going to find there, and I hesitate to recommend it to your listeners because I think workplace productivity will plummet, but –
William Griggs: Right, any specific sub-Reddits?
Byron Reese: Oh golly, I have to say, I think the most profound one are Shower Thoughts. They’re these thoughts that come to you, these kind of earth shattering – They’re oftentimes very comical, like, “I’m surprised members of the Mafia don’t all use remote starts on their car.”
William Griggs: That’s a good one, yeah.
Byron Reese: Yeah, so things like that, but a lot of them are actually very insightful. All kinds of people do Ask Me Anythings. Bill Gates did one yesterday, where he said he’s afraid of AI, like Elan Musk and Stephen Hawking, and then of course the chief technologist in Microsoft says, “I wouldn’t worry about it.” I’m kind of in the don’t worry about it camp too, but there are much smarter people than me who have more rights to have an opinion in that. But I don’t believe in our robot overlords. I don’t think machines will ever become conscious, even if they are able to duplicate by a million the power of our brain, I don’t think that makes you conscious. I don’t know what consciousness is, but I don’t believe my iPhone 2703 will become conscious, will become self-aware. And of course, like I said, most of the big brain people would disagree with me, so who knows, right? It’s the great mystery.
William Griggs: Yeah, there are lots of people on either side of the fence who will live to see what happens.
Byron Reese: Well we’ll know for certain if one of them is right, but not the other one.
William Griggs: Yeah, so we talked about Infinite Progress. I’ll link that up in the show notes below the video. Earlier you talked about TED with Kim Robinson. I’ll also link that up. You talked about Reddit, Shower Thoughts, I’ll link that up. What other – Are there any other resources that I should link up below the interview in the show notes?
Byron Reese: No those are wonderful.
William Griggs: Perfect. So this has been an awesome time. Definitely learned a lot. Really appreciate your time today. If people want to connect with you, learn more about the book, how can they do that online?
Byron Reese: I’m the easiest person to find. I’m ByronReese at about anything. ByronReese@gmail gets straight to me. And I want to take a moment and just say thank you, thank you, thank you so much. It is such a great honor – Like I said, I’ve really been looking forward to doing this, and it’s a great honor to even be invited, and thank you so much for having me.
William Griggs: Yeah, glad you could make it. Glad we could fit it in your busy schedule.
Byron Reese: I had kids coming in here and I was having to shush them the whole time, so I think I’ve got to go play a game of chess or something with somebody.
William Griggs: Sounds like a plan. Really appreciate your time. Byron, thanks for coming on the show today.
Byron Reese: Thank you.
Byron Reese’s Bio
Byron has been building and running Internet and software companies for twenty years. Of the five companies he either started or joined early, two went public, two were sold, and one resulted in a merger. In addition to serving in a wide range of senior management roles, from CEO to VP of Marketing to Chief Innovation Officer, Byron has produced diverse body of patentable work, authored an award-winning book about the future of technology, and given dozens of talks to both technical and non-technical audiences around the world.
Bloomberg Businessweek credits Byron with having “quietly pioneered a new breed of media company.” Wired Magazine describes him as “a tall Texan who serves as Demand’s chief innovation officer and who created the idea-spawning algorithm that lies at the heart of Demand’s process.” The Financial Times of London reported that he “is typical of the new wave of internet entrepreneurs out to turn the economics of the media industry on its head.” And Business Insider concluded that Byron “seems like a kooky – and awesome guy… We’d love to buy him a beer.”
In addition, Byron and his work has been featured in hundreds of news outlets, including New York Times, Washington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, Reader’s Digest, NPR, and the LA Times Magazine. Byron released a book in 2013 called “Infinite Progress: How the Internet and technology will end ignorance, disease, poverty, hunger and war.” When he is not busy working, Byron can be found traveling to places like North Korea and Cuba, or off giving speeches or sequestered in a hotel room writing. He and his wife Sharon homeschool their four young children. He can be found at http://www.byronreese.com. He can be found at “byronreese” on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Gmail, and pretty much everywhere else.
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