You have advised startups to invest in deep science. What are some of the exciting recent developments in deep science, which are worth investing in?
There are several. Many of them have to do with artificial intelligence and machine learning. Today, machines can make us better workers. We have this one company called Outreach – they study every e-mail of every salesperson in every company. The software knows what kind of words get the best e-mail response rates, helping sales people write better e-mails. I think of it as machine-assisted workers.
Are you afraid about what the future of work will look like? Do you have a positive or a negative outlook on the issue?
The nature of technology is to make things more efficient and to automate. By nature it eliminates jobs, especially common, routine or repeat activity. At the same time, it is up to us – the founders, the startups, the investors, the innovators to create new kinds of work, so that with every job that technology takes away, we create new kinds of jobs. As an example, there is now a need for more data scientists than there were before. There are not enough specialists in the field of AI and machine learning – the need for those kinds of jobs is more than ever. The key question is – is there enough training for the new jobs that we need vs the jobs that are being taken away? One big example – in the US, the most common job is truck driver. Truck drivers are going to be one of the first to be removed by technology, such as self-driving trucks. The question is – how do we find new kinds of work for these former truck drivers? Is it realistic that they would become data scientists? I am not sure. There will be a very painful transition period.
You often talk about mindfulness. Could you share some of the ways in which you hack your brain?
For me, a lot of it is just trying to be more self-aware. Every day we are battling our biology, because from an evolutionary standpoint, our brains were wired to survive in scarce environment – where there is not enough food, where there are dangerous animals trying to kill us. Our brains are wired to look for high-calorie foods, we are looking to procreate very quickly. In many ways, the human brain is like a short-cut machine, it is looking for patterns. The problem is that we now live in an abundance society. Now we are battling our nature at all times. For example, the reason why we love sweet foods is because our tongues and taste buds are calibered to look for high-calorie foods, so we don’t starve. But while we are surrounded by high-calorie foods, our brain still thinks we might starve, this is why we become addicted to things like sugar, processed foods, alcohol.
When it comes to nutrition, this is a thing that I have to think about every day. The only way to conquer that is to be more aware and mindful of our biology and what those impulses are. This applies to things like money, sex, food, where our biology is usually in charge, but now we are trying to be more aware and incorporate our minds into the decision-making process. `
I have lot of faith in the younger generation. They seem to be very actively involved in mindfulness, veganism is the fastest growing lifestyle. Millennials value experience over possessions or just blind consumption. That makes a lot of sense to me – in a post-abundance economy you don’t need to buy stuff, it is always available. You don’t need car – you have BlaBla Car and Uber. You don’t need to buy a flat – you can rent one on Airbnb. The children of the middle-class are no longer interested in the middle-class lifestyle. They have adapted to the abundance reality.
Does that make you an optimist about the world’s future?
I see it as a race between two concepts. One of them is the scarcity mindset. To me, Donald Trump represents that – the fear of immigrants, technology, change, new things. This is the side, which is worried, which doesn’t want to listen to facts. The other side has an abundance mindset and I can see the two of as being competing, which are racing against each other. I believe that this represents the race in our heads – the prefrontal cortex is the part moving towards the abundance mindset, while our old brain, the reptile one, is wired for scarcity. The later still exhibits fear, ego, insecurity – all part of the scarcity mindset. Those two forces are always competing with each other, but maybe that is the nature of the human struggle.
Are you interested in investing in smart drugs, designed to boost cognitive ability?
Yes, it’s part of my work in quantified self or body hacking. It started with measuring things like steps, heart rate, physical activity. Now I am interested in how we use data technology to optimize our minds, focus, emotions, thoughts, spirit and consciousness. Smart drugs are a very interesting area, whether it is natural ones, like herbs, e.g. ginkgo biloba. In addition, there are the more aggressive chemical ones, which have more therapeutic properties. Then, there are traditional medicines. It is interesting now that cannabis is becoming more legalized, we may see more therapeutic and clinical applications to that.
What do you look for in hardware startups that you consider investing in?
I look for the business model, which is service-oriented. What I mean by that is just selling a consumer hardware gadget is a very tough business, because it means that you have to put on a new version every Christmas, it has to be a hype product all of the time. Most consumer hardware products people stop using after three months. What we are looking for are startups, where the hardware leads to a subscription or a recurring purchase, which people really want. A good test is to ask if the service is so good that people would be willing to sign up for an annual subscription. Also, is the hardware part useless without the service? When I invest in startups I want to make sure that the hardware is secondary and the service is more valuable. Service first, device second.
What hardware trends have caught your eye recently?
New platforms – all of the AR, VR, mixed-reality technologies; driverless vehicles, which can move themselves, using computer vision, etc. I am also a big believer in smart home, e.g. Alexa. I am a big believer that everything in the home is going to become smart and connected. We are entering a new generation of wearables – it’s no longer just measuring the pulse, but also tracking blood sugar levels, hormones, etc. We are probably going to have new types of platforms – I call them hearables. Imagine headphones, which you wear at all times, so your digital personal assistant can talk to you at all times. It is kind of like the movie “Her”. There will even be ingestibles – things you swallow, which will give you continuous monitoring of your insides and even do tasks like drug and hormone delivery.
Sound a lot like the British Netflix show “Black Mirror”. Did you ever see it?
Yes, I really liked this show. It is scary because of how close it comes to reality. My favourite episode is Season 3, Episode 1, in which people’s social media popularity score controlled their access to various public services. China has recently introduced a similar law, called the Citizens Score. The Chinese government now can measure the citizens loyalty to the communist party and penalize them. The score controls various things, such as the prices, at which you can buy train tickets or your access to hospitals and government services. Black Mirror terrifies me, because it is so close to reality.
If you could give one piece of advice to the founders of a startup, who are just beginning their journey, what would it be?
Be working with a lot of passion and commitment, but don’t be too attached to the outcome. Sometimes we get to fixated on our belief that our solution is the best, but the date may not prove that. Always be curious as a scientist. I love scientists because they have a hypothesis, but they are never married to it, they are only looking for data to prove or disprove it. Startups should never fall in love with a hypothesis. I would advise them to keep a scientific mindset, trust the data and listen to your users. Don’t fall in love with your product or your technology. The best founders always have that take on business.
You have praised the work of science fiction novelist Eliot Peper on many occasions. What inspires you about the links between the sci-fi and tech worlds?
I have met many scientists who have chosen the scientific field because of science-fiction they have read when they were young. At the same time, science-fiction authors are always talking to scientists about what new findings are going to affect the fiction they write. The two are very related. It is funny, but it is almost like art imitates life and life imitates art. It’s a lovely relationship. I am very much looking forward to someone organizing a conference, which combines the worlds of science-fiction and science – imagine leading science-fiction writers meeting with leading scientists. That would be a wonderful conference.