Notes from Silicon Valley

It is 06:45 on Monday morning and I’m at Donut Wheel, Cupertino, in the heart of Silicon Valley. I’m told that the authorities once tried to close this 60-year-old institution. 

Donuts at Donut Wheel, Cupertino

They were planning a new highway that would run right through the land on which it stood. In the end, a local campaign led to a climb-down. Not only that, but the city had to move Donut Wheel to land at the side of the new road, and build them a brand new building – for free. I’m learning that Silicon Valley is very proud of its heritage and guards it with a passion. In fact, this is part of the reason I’m clutching a donut in one hand and a 250,000 year old stone tool in the other as Jonathan Knowles (Valley veteran and Apple and Adobe alumnus) guides us through the Silicon Valley story, connecting ancient tools to the technological innovations that the area is famous for today.

This is the second day of the Singularity University(SU) Executive Programme – an immersive week of talks and debates attended by 85 people from 29 countries across the world, representing industries from fintech to healthcare, marketing to FMCG. So far, we’ve been treated to a passionate talk by neuroscientist Divya Chander, in which she explained how an electrical implant in the brain of a world-class violinist stopped the tremors that had threatened to end his career. SU Labs’ Director of Design (and total polymath), Jody Medich, wowed us with the amazing future offered by virtual and augmented reality (more on that later).

Journey to SU

In the immortal words of David Byrne, ‘how did I get here?’. Truth is, I’ve wanted to be here for quite some time. 

SU classroom

Six years to be exact – ever since I stumbled across an online talk by SU founder Peter Diamandis that inspired me to read Abundance, the book that Diamandis co-authored with Steven Kotler. I felt such an affinity for the concepts and ideas described in the book that earlier this year, having decided I would never really have enough time or money to do the course, I applied and was accepted.

Since 2012, the notion of ‘singularity’ – that the world’s greatest challenges will be solved not by one innovation or technology but by a confluence of many – has informed the work of Thwaites Communications. In fact the positive message shared with the group by Diamandis himself is that “the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself”. Coincidentally, it is similar to a view expressed by my client, Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt in an interview this week with The Guardian where he asserts that “Killer robots will only exist if we are stupid enough to let them”!

The tension between our desire to harness technology for good, and the (perceived) existential threat posed by AI and robotics (as well as a whole host of other technologies) is at the forefront of participants’ minds on this week’s course. Yet the message from many of the speakers is that we have agency over our destiny and that it is up to us to shape the future. As AI expert and advisor to DARPA, NASA, the US Army and Air Force (amongst many others), Neil Jacobstein told the group: “[We should] build the future boldly and do it responsibly.”

So, two days in, here are some of my ‘wow moments’ from the past 48 hours (with more to come later in the week):

  1. The idea that we could all benefit from learning to be a bit more comfortable with ambiguity, resist ‘right vs wrong’ debates and embrace “yes and” (as distinct from “yes but”) in our exploration of ideas. What this means, explained Stanford professor, Dan Klein is that if we accept rather than challenge others’ ideas (“yes and”) and in turn, see our own ideas getting accepted, we contribute more to the creative pool and are more likely to generate breakthroughs.
  2. A brilliant illustration of how ‘pharma VR’ has the potential to be far more effective than pharmaceuticals in treating chronic conditions. In her talk, Jody Medich explained how burns victims suffering from excruciating pain experienced a reduction in their discomfort from watching a VR game set in an icy context. In time, the same patients learned to recreate that game (and its effects) without the VR headsets – using their brain power alone. The message (also championed by Divya Chander) is that technology can help to increase the natural plasticity of the brain.
  3. Strong advice to “pay attention to the slow”. In his thought-provoking talk, technology forecaster, Paul Saffo talked us through Stewart Brand’s ‘Order of civilisation’ where “the fast layers innovate; the slow layers stabilize”. He warned us to ignore ‘the slow’ at our peril, citing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as an example of steady change being overlooked and subsequently having a massive, catastrophic impact.
  4. A mind-blowing anecdote from Columbia University Professor, Hod Lipson, that children in high school today are doing computer science that would have earned them a PHD just five years ago. I think this is a great illustration of the idea that as fast as we think things are changing, they’ll never change as slowly again!
  5. A thought inspired on a tour of the Moffett Field site, guided by futurist Paul SaffoTo most people, the concepts and ideas we are exploring this week are as hidden and mysterious as the UFOs allegedly studied in the labs and hangers of the NASA research facility here. This means that attending this programme is both a privilege and a responsibility. It’s up to the 85 of us attending to do what we can to unravel the complexity of what we’re hearing, and become the enablers of wider understanding. 

Hangar One, Moffett Field – home to the USS Macon (US Navy airship, 1933 – 1935)

In conclusion, and going back briefly to that 250k-year-old rock/tool for a minute.

250k year-old rock tool

This morning, I excitedly sent the photo I had taken of said rock to my children alongside a message explaining the nature and age of the object. My daughter quickly texted back: “Where did you find that?”. I laughed out loud and explained that I hadn’t personally unearthed it. But what I should have said is this: “I found it in Silicon Valley 250, 000 years after it was made. And like the individuals who used it, I’m here looking for tools that will help turn scarcity into abundance”.