Conversation with Charlie Oliver
Hello and welcome everyone to the Momenta Edge podcast. This is Ed Maguire,
Thank you, Ed. Thank you for having me.
Last year we did 8 episodes of the Tech2025 podcasts which we were co-hosting, and of
You showed up… it was a lot of fun!
It was. We explored a lot of different technologies in the podcasts. But I think what’s going to be a lot of fun in our conversation today is really to talk about what’s made your unique perspective on technology be so impactful.
Just as a prologue to our discussion, I first met Charlie early 2017, when I saw one of the events that she was putting on. What was so unique to me the first time I went to one of Charlie’s events; people do meet-ups, presentations, and events in New York all the time, I’d been to so many of these events where you will have a speaker get up, give a presentation, then there’ll be Q&A; Charlie’s workshops forced people to engage with their neighbors, to come up with solutions to problems.
I feel I’m a little in the hot seat! Because last year when we did our podcasts, I was the one asking you a lot of questions, and I love learning from you, your experience, your background and your perspective on things
Having said that, it’s interesting when people ask me this question because I never really know how to answer it
I had come into tech from traditional media as we used to say, TV and film, and I was working in corporate law for a few years, when I came into tech in New York City it was a very different scene. YouTube could have only been up and going for 2-years, I think Facebook had been around for 2-years, it was a very different time, and it was exciting, so we just did everything that we wanted to do because it was all there to be done. There was very little
There was a lot of media going on too. New York is the media capital, there was a lot of focus on Internet advertising, online ads and that sort of thing.
Absolutely. And you must remember at that time people had not yet acquired YouTube, which is insane to think of! You think wow it’s always been there, but at that time YouTube was YouTube, and there were other web-video platforms that eclipsed YouTube, far eclipsed YouTube, and they’re not around anymore. But at that time there was a lot of money being thrown at the web video platforms, and so I’d launched mine, it was called Art of Talk TV, it was a platform again about building communities around content. The content was talk shows, online talk shows, that weren’t being done obviously at that time because it was so new. So, I did that.
The idea was to reflect and report the news on TV talk shows, to bring the TV talk show medium online, which hadn’t really been done yet because those big media companies, the big broadcasting companies had not yet begun to bring their content online. So, I thought I’ll do that, I’ll report on it, we’ll have that platform, and on top of that we’ll give D-list, and C-list celebrities a place to come and do their own talk show. So, that was the whole idea behind it, and the first C-list celebrity was Rod Blagojevich, go figure, don’t ask! And here’s a funny thing, I snapped him up just before Trump signed him for The Apprentice! It was all happening at the same time, and we were just having a ball about the fact that I got him before Trump, which I don’t know if that’s a good thing!
And, the communities which is more important going back to your point, I listed that earlier of the social communities that were being born and developed online at that time, and so that was a really huge impact on me, because I came from traditional media where I worked in TV and film for years, I worked in sitcoms on TV shows with writers and producers in the writer zone for years. I worked in Indie Film for years, I did a lot with regards to working in TV and films, to me this was exciting, and it was new that you could build communities around this type of thing. The thing that made me launch that platform was, I did a project with Catherine Bevel Jones who is now a legend in live streaming, she is I would say one of the first people to do live streaming online, to make it viable and to push it as a medium that everybody needs to be a part of.
During the Obama and McCain election cycle, Catherine Bevel Jones came to me and said, ‘Let’s do a live webathon online for 24-hours, or for however long, and let’s record these women and actors talking about the election, it was a big thing, and we called it, ‘Women Respond to Sarah Palin’, and that was the first time I actually said, ‘Wow, this is incredible’, because what we did was, we took all these letters, 24,000 letters that came in, in response to a question that was asked about Sarah Palin, there were a lot of women at that time which did not feel that she represented them. So, what we did was, we took some of those letters, we went online, we went on a
In the interim
That’s a great question. I will say that in early 2016 I began to hear from my clients, my Served Fresh media clients, which are typically innovation teams, C-Suite executives, we do presentations for innovation teams helping them to figure out the technologies that we’re going to use. We do branding and marketing and all that good stuff, but I had already begun to hear the concern about AI, coming from my clients, ‘What is this?’ ‘What are we going to do?’ It was a substantive concern, I would say that I was hearing fear as early as 2016 about these technologies. So, whenever someone expresses a fear to me, my usual response is to ask a question that helps me to understand the basis of the
I say the thing about fear is that it is palpable, and when it comes from the top, I think there’s a tendency for us to think that we can either hide it, mask it or over-compensate for it in some other way, and I just think people are a lot smarter than that. There’s something about fear that penetrates all of us in a way, and so my question to my clients was, ‘Well, how are you dealing with this with your organization?’ That will actually tell you more. And I state to this day that how you deal with fear tells you more about the outcome than anything else. So that started me on the path of thinking about why aren’t we talking about these technologies to the public, with the public. Why aren’t ordinary people being brought into these discussions, and asked what their opinions are?
I saw an article that was written, co-authored by Sebastian Brown, and Craig Schmidt, it was in the Forbes and was in response to Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking, they sit squarely on opposite sides of the AI topic, or debate. Craig Schmidt is very utopian about it, and Elon Musk is very dystopian, we get that. The article was basically in response to them, but I’ll never forget the anger that I felt, it actually made me angry reading this article actually, because it was so dismissive of the possibility that we might be doing something that could hurt a lot of people, and that we should probably either think more about this, or slow down or even question it. In the article, both were saying, ‘Ah, forget about it, this is great, it’s going to be wonderful, we’re going to have heaven’, you know what I mean. I was surprised at how angry that made
So, there was a disconnect, right?
You’re seeing a disconnect with the people that you’re talking to, and then hearing these tech leaders and luminaries just dismissing it, being completely disconnected.
Yes, and they’re waxing poetic about it, and they’re so utopian about it. And not only that, it goes further, there was an arrogance there where it was almost completely dismissive of the idea of us even questioning them, and that’s when I said to myself, okay, that’s when we fail. That’s when we automatically begin to fail, whether we see or feel the repercussions of their failure right away, that to me is the beginning of failure. So, that was an emotional response, and I said to myself, ‘Okay, there’s something going on here’, and then later in the fall, the day after Trump won the election I headed out to San Francisco, I was at Half Moon Bay at Techonomy, which is a conference, it’s done twice a year by, as you know, Techonomy the magazine, and I’m sitting in a room full of C-Suite executives, it’s one of those conferences, everyone’s there, and everyone in the room was shell-shocked, everyone was stunned that Trump had just won!
Mark Zuckerberg sat a few seats in front of me, that’s where he made the statement that he could not believe that anyone would think that Facebook could ever be responsible. It was the same level of air of arrogance, and I don’t mean that in a way to judge him in a horrible way, because when I saw him speak I think he really believed that there was no way possible, I think he was just in a level of denial going on with him there with him and his organization, that they just didn’t want to see it, or couldn’t see it. But it was still wrapped in an arrogance that I said, it’s probably going to be damaging to us in implementing these technologies moving forward, and that’s when I decided at that point, okay I think other people should have a voice in this, and if these technologies are going to be this disruptive, this absolutely disruptive to our society in the way that we think, and the way that we define ourselves, then hell you’d better want to get ordinary people to talk about this and to share what they’re thinking, and how they’re feeling.
I just happen to believe that there’s no way we can do this without having everybody participate in having a voice in it. And to be honest with you Ed, I almost feel a sense that there’s a narrow window of opportunity for ordinary people who may have missed the 2.0 error, who may have missed the social error, who didn’t get in on that. There’s a very narrow window of opportunity right now for us to get this right, and for us to change the dynamic of what we’ve created, the imbalance, I think there’s an opportunity for us to create more balance with how people are either compensated, or how they live their lives, or how they define their happiness. My fear is, that window is closing more and more as time goes on, and as these technologies accelerate, if we don’t begin to ask people questions that make them think and do things differently.
Yes. Your timing was prescient because of course here we are a good 18-20 months later, we’ve had the Cambridge Analytica scandals, we’ve had all sorts of controversies about the use of data, and of
What I thought was so interesting about how you would curate your think tanks, and your workshops, could you talk a bit about when you’ve put together some of the
She’s the best example, and she inspires me.
Talk a little bit about your process when you’re putting together events, what you look to provide to the community, and how you’ve seen the community evolve from the interactions that come out of the work that you do.
Well, you know better than anyone, it is a struggle, it’s not easy.
It is, it’s hard work.
It is hard work. There’s a couple of things, I get asked this a lot, I get asked this not just by people in corporate who look at what I do, and they go, ‘My God, you’re events are run so well, they’re so great’, I get asked by other event organizers, ‘How do you do your events?’ So, firstly, I think it’s only fair to say, I’ve been doing events for years, so I do have that experience which I can pull from. Having said that, there’s a big difference between doing events on a topic that is well established, for an audience that you know very well; and doing events about a topic that no-one knows anything about, to an audience that you have no idea who is out there, what they are or who they are. That’s what I started with, with Tech2025, because when you think about it it’s one of those things that would be a true entrepreneurial thing, where I said, ‘Look, I’m just going to start doing this, what else is there? Let’s just start having these conversations, I know how to put together an event, get some people in the room.
I did start with certain criteria that I decided early-on would be the foundation of whatever it was I was building. I know now I think after having two startups and having failed enough in my life, I understand enough to know that no matter what I start, I know it will take on its own life and I must be open to what it needs to be. I don’t want to control it so much, especially a community. So, I was very aware of the fact that the events that I had been going to, like you, we go to events for a living, so many of them are not edifying; you go in, you sit down, someone speaks, you’ve got a panel, you’ve got a Q&A, there’s always some guy who asks a question that goes on-and-on! You’re lucky if you make any kind of a real connection, any real information, and what I mean by that is, if I can look it up online…!
Most of us are going to events to I
I was very much involved in the community at that time, meaning I was in the Facebook groups, talking to people on Twitter, reading as much as I could about all the development, so I said, at the very least with regards to the technologies that we are going to be covering at Tech2025, which is what AI, machine learning, robotics, VR/AR, drones, chatbots, I knew I could at least get people who were interested in chatbots to come and hear what’s happening. To my surprise the event sold out in a day or two, it literally sold out, and the room itself, I made it an open call, because I made a point of saying in the event… and again this goes down to the foundation of creating an event that’s creating a community that you’re trying to define, because at that time I didn’t know what the community was, I knew I wanted it to be all-inclusive, I knew I wanted it to be inclusive, I didn’t want to say no to anyone, I didn’t want anyone as resulted in the case of a lot of tech events, to walk into this event and feel like they aren’t smart enough to keep up, they’re not technical enough to have this conversation. And I didn’t want the technologists to walk into this event, my software developers, my engineers, these are people
So, that is the constant balance that I need to strike, but with this first event, I think when you see the people coming into the room, it tells you a lot about the success of how you can engage the community. Turns out, we had everyone in that room from 20-year old’s to literally 75-year old’s, and it was an incredible thing, because back to your point with regards to people telling us what the community is, and me learning how its impacting people, we had two gentlemen in there who are chatbot developers, they came to me after the event and said, ‘Wow Charlie, oh my God, we did our exercise in a group with a lot of different people, and one of them was this baby-boomer who was about 65 years old, and we learned so much from him’. The exercise was for them to develop
So, what they told us was, ‘We develop chatbots for agencies, we have a start-up, we do this for a living. We
One of the things I
- Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you don’t know about these technologies, you do know, you’ve been carrying around a smartphone for the past at least 8-years, you know more than you think you do.
- The only reason why you think you don’t know, is not just because people are telling you that you don’t, but because you’re not being asked? If you ask people to think about this stuff and to talk about it, you’ll be shocked by what you hear.
So, that is the other thing that began to happen, and that is what we began to hear from our guest speakers who came in, giving up their time to present the latest in these technologies, almost all my speakers said to me, ‘My God Charlie, I did not know people were thinking about these technologies like this. They seem to be more advanced than we think they are’. So, moving forward, it has been difficult putting together events since then, only because again I don’t know what people are really going to gravitate towards, and sometimes it surprises me what hits, and it surprises me what misses.
But here’s what’s happening, people are changing, and no-one is talking about this fact. One of the things I’m seeing that’s shocking me and my staff more than anything is, how quickly people’s attitudes are changing about technology. They are far savvier, and far more cynical now than they were just
You touched on a couple of points that jumped out at me, one is the idea that when you open up an innovation process, even in an exercise, to people who are outside of the four walls of an organization, you go back to that Bill Joy comment about the smartest people exist outside of your
Just on that point, that’s part of the struggle because remember, the people who aren’t getting to come in to speak, they are experts in their field. So, they are used to talking about this stuff in a particular way, and what I think most people don’t know is, I work a lot with my speakers to get them to discuss these technologies, and to think about their work outside of the way that they usually do. In other words, I push my speakers, I challenge them, and I’ve been told that by my speakers, ‘Oh my God, Charlie!’ I make them send me their presentations, ‘Let’s talk about this…’ because we all have to be pushed out of our comfort zone, myself included. Speakers come to me and think they can give their usual presentation and blow through it in five to ten minutes, and I go, ‘No, we don’t need that. That’s not going to work here, let’s do something else’.
Then the importance of making people think about technologies and having none-intimidated regular folks being able to interact with people who have
That’s a big question
First, that timeframe 2025 I found it to be fascinating, and if you look at some of the predictions about that time frame and the technologies that are expected to be ready, it’s a fascinating thing, but it’s also scary, because then that means that we have a lot of work to do between now and then. If you look at that, I don’t think
I learned very quickly that
By the end of the year we did something called the 23 Asilomar Principles, that’s a document that was produced by The Future of Life Institute, they have a conference every year, I think it’s about three years old now, it’s called the Asilomar Conference, and it’s in Asilomar California, with 100 of the leading thinkers and developers of AI technologies. They go and have a pow-wow for a week, they think about these things, they come up with solutions, or whatever they do, it also includes a lot of the tech leaders in the world like Elon Musk, and Larry Page, they go often. They produced this document in February last year called the 23 Asilomar Principles, where they decided to come up with a set of guidelines to help people think about how we should be implementing AI. They weren’t saying this is exactly how it should be, but rather these are some of the key issues we should be thinking about when we’re developing AI and should
That document which was signed by those 100 researchers and Elon Musk, and eventually was signed by 1500
I think you’re right, yeah.
We did it in early Spring 2017, we had a nice crowd, I got Dr. Seth Baum who is the executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, he’s a researcher who also specializes in AI, he was supposed to be at that event in Asilomar, but he couldn’t make it because his wife was having a baby! We did this, we presented the community with this document of 23 principles and we said, ‘Here’s what each principle is, without putting our spin on it. These are the researcher’s.’ I always want to give respect to the researchers, I think it’s amazing that we don’t know who these people are who are developing the technologies that are going to change the world. I happen to think that is a strange thing that we don’t, we really should know who they are, just to understand more about
I must tell
- Choose the principle that you think is so problematic that it should be deleted from this list.
- Create the 24th principle that should be on this list that they missed.
It turned out to be a robust discussion, and I must tell you, even Dr. Seth Baum who does this for a living, he was shocked at some of their feedback, he couldn’t believe some of the groups were coming up with ideas that he didn’t even think of. But suffice to say, a lot of them were very unimpressed with the idea that these researchers and scientists were daring to suggest that we should have AI developed with any kind of a moral or ethical code, it really worried them.
Now, fast-forward another
It’s like the good friends who tell you the things you don’t want to hear, but you need to hear. It’s amazing in terms of the role that community can play in shaping how the industry is going to develop, the impact of technological unemployment. That’s an ongoing debate, you and I have seen arguments on the extremes on both sides, and everywhere in the middle, I don’t think anybody knows where things are going.
No, they don’t. We’ve seen that at events too, even at the one we did on
They want to come in and they want to share, and this is what
You and I talked about that last year when we saw the absolute insanity that was emerging around blockchain, which is probably
Exactly. At the end of the day I have never once taken for granted, or forgotten that people are putting their trust in
So, that being said, when I did introduce blockchain to the community with Daniel Sieberg who is amazing, he’s from Google, he came in and the first thing I said to him was, ‘If you’re going to introduce a concept to them about this stuff…’ and keep in mind, I had journalists in there, my network is Fresh Media’s network, which is the media people, tech people, Fintech people, and retirees and students, and entrepreneurs; I said, ‘If you’re going to introduce this technology, by all
And so particularly in that room, we were shocked by just how many people stood up and said, what is this? Why should I care? And a couple of journalists in the audience, local bloggers who have very successful blogs which have been going in the city for years, they said, ‘Look, I have advertisers who are paying my bills. You’re telling me you’re going to come along and cut out the middle man? Should I cut out my advertisers
No doubt. Now, are there some technologies or topics that you’re optimistic about, or some areas that you’re hoping to cover in the future?
I’ve not done anything with regards to space tech or anything like that, I have not been
So, I want to be able to facilitate that discussion and bring the general public more into the research that we produce which shares their sentiment about this
But Mission AI I think is one of the most important things for us right now, because it’s the basis of getting people literate with regards to the research, and if
It’s a bit much, and people tell me that all the time when they come to my events.
You’ve just got to let quality filter to the top, as it does over time.
Well, this has been an amazing conversation, it’s always a wonderful journey talking with you Charlie. The last question, do you have any recommendations that you could share for anybody who wants to get a bit smarter about technologies, or anything that you’d like to share?
Two things, the first I would say is, ironically, listen to podcasts! Starting with this one!
But seriously, I’ve always been a podcaster and I love podcasts, but I think my listening has quadrupled over the past year. It is I think one of the best ways to get information, it’s not just about getting information, it’s about listening to the conversations that happen around these technologies, which ultimately is what you want. Information is one thing but hearing how people are thinking and talking about these things, I think it’s a completely different ballgame, I’ve come up with great ideas just listening to podcasts. Within that, I would say if you do decide to pick up some podcasts, I myself will be listing podcasts that I like on our site and posting in our newsletter.
Here’s something that you can do, instead of just listening to the typical tech podcasts, which you can do, it’s very informative; I would say listen to podcasts like ‘Conspiratainment’, which is conspiracy entertainment podcasts. I suggest this to people when they say, ‘What should I listen to?’ trust me when I tell you, if you listen to conspiracy podcasts you’ll begin to think differently. People say to me, ‘How do you come up with these ideas?’ I think part of the problem that we have with these technologies is, we don’t know how to think outside of what we usually think. We don’t know how to think differently, people are used to thinking regimentally about things. So, Conspiratainment is the best way
I’m definitely going to subscribe!
Subscribe and listen to it. You want to know why? Because, again, these people are used to thinking very differently, they go against the grain. But also, this is a unique time for them too, but there was a time when they were considered to be crazy, conspiracists are like whoo! Left-of-center. Well, now that everything is topsy-turvy in the world, Trump is President, and up is down, right is left, if you listen to the top conspiracy podcasts, they are voicing absolute shock at the fact that they don’t sound so crazy all of a sudden! If you wait long enough, those crazy ideas start to sound sane!
The other thing is, you mentioned the book. I don’t know if anyone out there is into Sci-Fi, and I know a lot of people are, I read a short story about a year and a half ago, it blew my mind with regards to how it talks about technologies, specifically AI. I remember when I finished it, I was so blown away that I wished I could go back and read it again, with an entirely new mind, I just wanted to experience that again. The name of it is, ‘The Soul of a New Machine’, published in 2000, by Tracy Kidder. It’s an unbelievable Sci-Fi short story.
Fantastic, we’ll find it and link to it. This has been an amazingly fun conversation. Thank you so much
It’s nothing but fun, and for all the listeners to the podcast, again this has been Ed Maguire, Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, interviewing Charlie Oliver, the founder