Evans Mehew: Hello everyone, this is Evans Mehew with FastFulcrum and I’m very, very grateful that Joe Toscano, author of “Automating Humanity” and founder of BEACON is with me here today to talk about what he’s been up to, talk about his path and where he’s headed. So Joe, what’s your origin story?
Joe Toscano: Okay, yeah, thanks for having me. Origin story, that’s a … that’s a deep intro. Yeah, so I got into all this stuff, especially writing about “Automating Humanity” and the work I’m doing now because I was a consultant at Google out in Mountain View, California. I was working for a company called RGA. So, Google was my main client. I worked on that work four, five days a week, and then I had other internal clients at RGA that I work more remotely on. I took all of those insights and I realized there’s market opportunities to help improve the consumer experience when it comes to privacy and security opportunities, and that’s what I’ve been doing since then. I wrote the book because of the practices that I saw in the Valley. These things that I was concerned about, especially with privacy and data literacy issues that most consumers are not quite even thinking about because it’s such a new age knowledge. You know, privacy has been around forever. It’s been an issue forever. We have privacy in our banking, we have privacy in our medical documents, we have privacy rights in our homes and in other spaces. But this is a whole new digital world, a new digital space that hasn’t been fully thought through yet. And so the book itself, “Automating Humanity”, is about what is happening out in Silicon Valley. How did we get in this position? What’s going well? (‘Cause we also need to talk about what’s going well) and how do we regulate it both formally and informally to move it forward? And then BEACON is a, I guess a child out of that where I saw these insights and I wrote a book about it and then I said, okay, now I’m going to start to bring some of these ideas to life. So, BEACON is the Better Ethics and Consumer Outcomes Network and it is focused on helping take these ethical dilemmas and translate them into better consumer outcomes through business language, which is a huge key.
Evans: Nice! Well, I have to say I was hanging out in the Barnes & Noble here in Colorado Springs which, unfortunately, I spend way too much time in bookstores. Just ask my wife. I came across your book and one for one thing I want to say, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s one of those books where I’m to a point of maximum saturation on reading materials, so I only buy something that’s like a treasure and I have to say, reading it, it really reminded me (I think I mentioned to you in one of our earlier discussions) of Omni magazine back in the 80s. Some of the graphics that you have in here, it definitely helps to strike a very, a very … let’s say it’s “gravitas”. It’s a very heavy tone that it strikes, but it should, when you consider the nature of what you’re discussing in the text, absolutely fantastic and very, very well written. Love it. There’s a lot of really cool stuff in there. Did you have any big takeaways or revalatory moments while you were doing the research for “Automating Humanity”?
Joe: I don’t know that I had a ton. I mean, there are definitely things that opened my eyes even in research, but actually this book has a lot of stuff that I already knew about from working in the Valley and I just compiled, I mean I wrote that and produced it like, design and everything, within eight months. So yes, there was some research that needed to be done, but it was a lot of just like, okay, I know this story needs to be put together. I know where everything is: mostly, how do I jam it into the most appropriate story? And then I did the research on top of that as well. But I don’t know. I mean, I think some of the bigger insights that I got were just from talking to people around the globe as I traveled and gave talks about these issues. And I think also in terms of my research, the biggest insight came when I read Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s PhD paper from ’98 and just seeing their opinions then versus what it is now and how it was very concerning. It was just interesting how you could see in that writing their tone of voice as students as very noble PhD students who wanted to make something better for the world, and now you can see where it’s at and how it’s progressed. It’s interesting to see that tone back then and knowing how it’s progressed since then. It’s like, wow, they predicted everything that they could do, and they actually mentioned it in their PhD about how these are the dangers and the threats of this search engine. Now, 20 years later, all of those threats that they presumed might happen have come to life, and it happens to be from their company, which was just kind of like, jaw-dropping. I don’t know, I mean you would think if you did the research and you saw that back then you would try to focus and keep away from that, you know, but, it’s definitely gone straight into everything they said not to do. And it’s all written proof.
Evans: In one of your YouTube videos that I was looking at, you were doing a dry run for your TEDx talk … and that was fun. And that’s another thing … so, you had a TEDx talk that was in Lincoln, right? And that was June 13th … you’re expecting that to drop here pretty quickly and to be available.
Joe: It should be here in the next week or two probably. Hopefully. Maybe even by the time this is launched, who knows?
Evans: Fantastic. In your dry run … maybe you can elaborate because you brought up Google, you were talking about, “Hey, you ever want to work for Google? Guess what? You already do.” Do you want to elaborate a bit on that and talk about some of some of the details there?
Joe: That is the title of the talk: “Want to work for Google? You already do.” And the purpose of it is, I didn’t leave the Valley because my concerns with ads. I do have concerns with ads, but ultimately the ad game has been around forever and microtargeting has been around since the 60s presidential campaigns. It’s just progressed over time and now it’s so accurate that it feels creepy, but it’s really all the same game, just more data. You think about the phone book was paid for through ads, like our newspaper was subsidized through ads, all these things. So I see in my vision of this that ads can play a role without being harmful. We just need to figure out how, but my bigger concern actually is that we’re all creating data that is considered proprietary to these companies and is being leveraged to automate work and life at large. And so my talk was helping people see what data really is because I think so much of the time people get caught up in: “oh, data is a one and a zero; data is a picture of me on Facebook”. But it doesn’t really do much. But think about the depth of what that picture gives us. It’s your face, it’s who you interact with. It’s where you’ve been. It’s the color of the sky. It’s all these things that we don’t think about. Like the example I brought it in on is do you remember the first time you fell off your bike and everyone, and this is why I brought this in, right? If I learned anything at Google, it’s how to connect with a very large audience. Everyone has fallen off a bike or at least, you know, probably 90 plus percent of the world is falling off a bike at some point or another. So we can all kind of visualize that and bring it in and say what we don’t really think about in that moment is that that moment we fall off a bike, we create data and the whole crowd, I could just see the whole crowd’s face kinda crinkle up and their head turned sideways a little bit. Like, “what is he talking about? I made data?” There’s the speed of the bike. There’s a number of times you wobble back and forth. There’s the pain you felt when you hit the ground. All these things, we don’t generally think of them that way, but they are data. To humans, we call data life experience, right? And for machines it basically does the same thing. Data is the lifeblood of a machine’s artificial intelligence. You know, it’s all the same thing. It’s just a matter of how it’s translated. And I wanted to bridge that gap for the listeners because I was in Lincoln, which Nebraska is my home state. And the big thing for me is to increase data literacy there. So that’s why I actually had the opportunity to go out to New York and had people trying to get me into TEDx and Boulder. And I said, I’m going to do it in Nebraska because while it might not be the influential crowd that I might hit in those bigger cities, it’s where I need to be having this message set out, so that’s what I did. And then it (the TEDx talk) walks through how are we actually making Google maps? How do we train Tesla? How are doctors training these robots that they’re operating with and, and how ultimately this is all going to automate jobs away. You know, it’s not just the burger flippers or the warehouse workers and bricklayers … we’re all at risk to one extent or another some more on some less. But ultimately we need to consider that it’s going to happen. And it’s going to be our fault. And the crowd goes, what? You could feel them go, “what the fuck, man … my fault?” Because we consented to it, you know?
Evans: Absolutely. We’ve definitely created the environment in which we find ourselves right now. I think it’s very ironic, but I think a lot of people don’t, a lot of people also don’t realize the magnitude of what we’re potentially looking at down the road. You really got into the Fry and Osborne research; there’s a fantastic section in “Automating Humanity” where you break down the Fry and Osborne research and you talk about the percentage of probability of these given professions being fully automated by, what was it, 2032? That’s just around the corner … that came out of the Oxford research that they did back in 2013. I don’t know if you knew, but Carl Benedikt Fry wrote a follow up that just got that just dropped this summer. It was, like, June.
Joe: I was going to say that’s got to be pretty recently. Those numbers have probably changed and probably increased a little bit, too. Things are moving faster than expected.
Evans: In the text in “Automating Humanity”, you reference the McKinsey research which made things pretty vast when you look at 800 professions or occupations and then 2000 tasks that cut across those occupations … there’s a great many of them. And you start to look at how likely they are to be automated with existing technology. This isn’t a projection. Things are going to be very impactful because what you’re running into is it’s unlikely that the AI or automation Panzer is going to roll in and just decimate jobs all at once. But obviously there’s obviously, barriers or impediments to implementing full automation in a given environment. There’s always things you have to get through. There’s costs, there’s maintenance, there’s cultural fit. But when it comes down to them being implemented, then I think you’re looking at these tasks are going to be automated, and then what that will result in is reorganizations, and those reorganizations will be constantly shifting because the automation solutions that are implemented will be getting better. So this is an ongoing thing … I always think of the old – have you ever seen the, I believe it’s Japanese, it’s a vertical pinball machine – they call it “Pachinko”. You shoot the balls up and it bounces and it comes down. So I was picturing it like, all right, you’re going to have these reorgs happening where people are just going to start tumbling out the bottom as a result of these reorganizations and restructuring … then what do those people do to pivot back into the workplace? You’ve got a great chapter in here talking about education. I want to touch on that in a second, but one of the things that I thought was fun was going back through the occupations that Fry and Osborne were saying would be impacted and trying to find the ones that were extremely low probability. I found one was ‘clergyman’ and then I found one that was what amounts to a therapist. But you jump forward just six years from when that research was published and there is a $1 million, AI-powered robot that’s being put into a thousand-year-old temple in Japan and it’s interacting with people and supposedly providing spiritual guidance and wisdom, etc. It was absolutely astounding to me that they were saying, well, you know, if the Buddha can be reincarnated in any form, why not a robot?
Joe: Tupac was reincarnated at Coachella.
Evans: Yeah, as a hologram.
Joe: I think of it like a cancer or a noxious gas. It’s infecting us in ways that most people aren’t capable of seeing right now, and it’s something where most people aren’t going to see it or care until it’s too late, you know? That’s what concerns me, because a lot of this stuff’s going to happen behind enterprise doors. It’s B to B work. It’s not like the consumer facing side, although you have like McDonald’s is now rolling out its self-serve, and their claim, which is not false, but their claim is that now their employees can focus on customer service: picking up trays, handing/bringing your food, doing these things, which is not wrong, but when does that get automated? It’s all just a matter of time and breaking down resources. But it’s coming and it’s not necessarily going to automate all the jobs, either. You’re going to have jobs that are augmented. You’re going to have jobs like a bus driver maybe doesn’t need to drive the bus anymore at a certain point, but you need to take care of the kids. I’ve had these discussions with academics and I think there’s also a big gap between people who have been in enterprise and people who are academic studying this from the outside. That’s why I wrote the book because it’s an inside opinion. It’s someone who’s consulted and seeing this company from a very 10,000-foot view in many different areas of the company versus an academic like Scott Galloway for example. I love his writing, the guy’s brilliant and his work is great. But he is from the outside looking in. So this is just a different perspective. Some of the academics – and this is not including Scott, I have not actually met Scott – but some academics I’ve spoken to about this stuff, they say, well, if a company can augment your job and you as an individual can do the work of a hundred people, then that should theoretically increase your value to the company, so you should get paid more because you’re doing so much more work. They go … they won’t need as many employees, but the people who are there will get paid more. And the thing is, in theory that’s very noble to think that way. If you can do more work, you should get paid more. But if you’re actually in the industry, what you realize is that actually all those jobs will get cut down and then the people who are there will get paid less because they have less work to do.
Evans: Yes. Agreed, agreed.
Joe: And so, not all jobs are going to get cut out. You’re also going to have a large chunk of jobs just get deprioritized a bit. But if you’re, say a specialist, lawyer for example, who specializes in one (area) of law and now we have a machine that can focus on the specializations and just allow you to be a generalist lawyer. If you were making $250 an hour as a specialist lawyer and you become a generalist and your value is maybe only worth $100 an hour at that point, that’s going to significantly change your life and in many cases, you may as well have just eliminated a job from these people. A lawyer is one case you can live off $100 an hour, but on some jobs maybe even you’re paid $30 or $40 an hour and then that drops down to $15. Maybe those people have families they have to pay for and take care of them. You can’t pay for the cost of living for a family on $15 an hour. So there’s a certain point where even the augmentation of jobs is going to … you might as well just eliminate those jobs. And yeah, education is going to be a piece of it. I do mention the Fry & Osbourne and then I have the McKinsey, which are both saying there’s going to be a lot of jobs automated. And I have other research in there. It says maybe we won’t have so many jobs and, and that’s fair. We don’t know. But the point I want driven home is that we don’t know, and the only thing we do know is that the best way to adapt is to augment our education so that kids can be more prepared in the future. I think digital literacy, knowing how to write code and speak in computer and communicate with these tools is the minimum we can ask for in improving people’s curriculum. You know, focusing on creativity, non-routine tasks and things that aren’t just rote behaviors, it’s going to be huge because that’s the stuff computers aren’t good at and it won’t be good at for quite some time. So, it’s giving kids … although it’s not stability, right? It’s not like the traditional, “Okay, I’m gonna go get a job and work for 25 years.” We don’t do that anymore.
Evans: Nope, no gold watch.
Joe: How do you give them the tools to be at least somewhat stable in a very unstable market? You know? I’ve figured out a lifestyle for myself through this … I’m not some millionaire by any means. I don’t make shit off this book. That’s not the point in writing the book. It’s to inform people. I will make my money elsewhere running contracts or whatnot. But the reason I can do that, I’m picking up a job where I’m writing copy for one group. I’m picking up a job where I’m designing for another, coding for my company. Like I have this mixture of talents that I’m good at and that enables me to be flexible in a very unstable market. Yeah, if I was just good at copy, I would have to rely on the fact that I’m going to get enough copy jobs for the rest of my life … and we don’t know. We just don’t know what’s going to be automated, so we need people that are multitalented, flexible and able to just kind of span this unstable market.
Evans: Yeah. You know, my thing is about education. I was an adjunct professor for almost 17 years. One of the things that really hit me in the face towards the end of my working in that role was that – you touch on this in “Automating Humanity” – was the very traditional, factory-esque approach to education, and that makes perfect sense when you consider the context of modern education, where it came from, turning people into “cogs” and then feeding them into an industrial society. Got It. But that’s not work for us anymore, especially with the nature of automation, changing the terrain so quickly. So that’s my deal … my first class is “Remain Relevant”. I take the Japanese methodology of Ikigai, which helps you to identify all the things with which you’re good. And I plugged them into … I used to work in competitive intelligence pretty extensively, so I plugged that knowledge into the strategic foresight that you get from competitive intelligence methodologies. But what you’re describing when you’re talking about the things that you’re good at, doing the coding, doing the copy work, doing the design work and some of your design work is out there on YouTube, I think. But that’s where I think we should be moving with education to talk about creativity. How do you leverage curiosity? How do you break down the silos of belief that we’ve had with regard to education and then retool a different path forward? It’s really cool to hear that you’re doing just that. That’s really awesome.
Joe: It’s not an easy thing. It’s going to take us a long time, but it’s gotta start somewhere. In terms of having a breadth of talents, I’m not out there to claim that I’m an expert in all those talent fields, but I have the ability to make enough money from each of the talents to have some stability, and then I do have a specialization which is design and experience design. So that’s the big thing, we can still focus on making people who have one particular specialty, but they need to have a breadth of talent that is not just standardized. Like, “Oh, you need to go get your credentials in biology, because that’s just part of what it takes to graduate college.” I’m not going to be anywhere near the biology field for the rest of my life … why do I need to take your stupid credentials that I’m going to just pay for because you want the money?
Evans: Well, it’s a whole tradition, right? I mean, “this is the way we’ve always done it; ergo, this is the way we should continue to do it.” You look at where things are at right now and – to echo off what you’re saying – my son is in college studying to go into paleontology., and we talked about this and said, all right, unless you want to be the dude who’s cleaning the picks at the dig site, you’re pretty much on a PhD path. That’s just the way it is. My other son is much more entrepreneurial and is very much an active learner, he’s always working with his hands. He’s doing wood-turning, he’s doing all kinds of stuff. So, you’ve got different paths and different approaches, I think. But to your point, I think that we need to have a way to have a bespoke solution. To help somebody to understand what it is that they’re good at, what are their aptitudes, what are their interests and passions, and then help them to form an education. There you come down to what you were talking about your specialization being design. One of the texts I used in one of my classes, it’s called MetaSkills by Marty Neumeier and he talks about an “I-Shaped” person versus a “T-Shaped” person. I think that originally came out of IBM and one of their presentations, I’m not entirely sure, who knows, but the “I-Shaped” person is narrow but extremely deep, extremely good in one thing. The “T-Shaped” person, you take that construct and they’ve got depth, but they also had the capability of coming up to the top of the T-bar and then moving laterally. And I think that you used the word “generalist” earlier … I think that we have to have a lot of generalist capabilities so that we can pivot if and when we’re hit. The other thing is if you’re extremely specialized, it’s that easier to automate you out of a job.
Joe: Right, right, exactly. I’m seeing it more and more, and maybe this is just because that’s who I surround myself with and like pages I like on the Internet and all these things, it just pushes more towards me. But I’m seeing a lot of the younger generation, you know, 35 and below saying, I’m going to have this job that’s going to pay me “x” salary per year and then I’m going to start something on the side that – even if you make an extra 500 bucks a month, that’s 500 bucks you didn’t have, you know? And that’s kind of like big picture. What I see happening is that as we go into this gig economy, people are losing the mindset. I’m going to have stability for 25 years. And ironically, they’re starting to build a lifestyle that fits very much along the way of what like billionaires do to make their money. There’s no billionaire that became a billionaire off of a salary. They all have various streams of income and that increases stability over time. And if you do it well, it accumulates into a very large sum. I’m seeing a lot of people that like that, like I said, 35 and younger who are just saying, “I’m just gonna make some trickle streams of income. Even they don’t make me a lot. Maybe in 10 years this one is making $500 is then paying my bills, and that’s my stability and I can get away from this job that I have that I don’t really enjoy.” That’s kind of what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years and now I’m starting my own company and, and I am by no means super stable right now. I have a lot of different things coming in, in different directions at me. And that’s what happens when you take a leap and commit to starting a company full time.
Evans: Keep you sharp.
Joe: Yeah. But the thing is, I will have started something with this that I think within the next year or so is going to be a stable income for me, and then that enables me to keep that going for the rest of my life or as long as it runs. And I can have different side projects from that, and then I don’t have to rely on a “job” ‘cause I’ve kind of just created my lifestyle and whether that makes me a millionaire or billionaire or it makes me $100,000 a year, doesn’t matter to me personally. And (it’s) the same with my partner, and I think that’s why we work well together. We’ve been in big corporate situations, we’ve made a lot of money doing that way and we learned a lot from it. But we also learned that that’s not what we want long-term. We would rather sacrifice sitting on a huge – what do you call it – “nest egg” or whatever, guaranteed. ‘Cause it’s not guaranteed … but you know, that mindset. We’d rather sacrifice that and starve a little bit and have more comfort in – I have a ton of flexibility in my life right now. I may have a little bit of chaos – more than someone who has a nine to five – but I have a lot of flexibility as well. It’s the trade-offs you want, you know, what are you willing to give up and what do you want long-term? So it’s just a mindset change.
Evans: You and I had a had a breakfast chat earlier this summer and something you said really stuck with me, which I like because I’ve definitely been in this situation where you get laid off and maybe you get severance, maybe you don’t. It was interesting because you and I were talking about that and you were saying at least with this lifestyle, you know when you’re going to be out of money.
Joe: I do say that a lot and it really gets people to flip their mind because with any kind of salary job nowadays, almost all of them says, “this can be terminated within two weeks’ notice”. That means the difference between you and your salary gig and me and my contract gig is that I signed a contract for three months and I know for sure at the end of that three months I’m done. You signed a salary gig, you’re comfy sitting in your Luxe chair and then you don’t know when that two week notice is coming. You have to work really hard to ensure that it doesn’t happen. But even then, you’re not guaranteed. So it’s a bit cynical, I suppose, to some people because there are some people that have and have had stability for a long time. But from my experience in the industry where today the only way you move up or increase your salary is jumping company to company. I don’t see it as much of a cynical op.
Evans: I don’t think it’s cynical, at all. I think it’s realistic. I mean, of course, a lot of people say that when you say you’re “just being a realist” and you’re “not being cynical” that this is just putting a nice coat of paint on it. But look, I think it’s very realistic. And you also have to look at the fact that coming back to the idea – you were talking about some of the academics and their take on automation and the potential impacts and “Oh, this might be rosy”. When you look at the way companies actually work and they intend to increase market share, they intend to increase shareholder value, they want to increase the stock price … and one of the ways to do that is to control costs. And guess what? Humans are expensive and messy and unpredictable and they get into trouble at office Christmas parties and create liability. If you automate out a lot of the unpredictable mess, then long-term you’re looking at savings. And so, no, they’re not going to pay somebody more if they’re augmenting that person’s position with automation. Why would they pay them more? It doesn’t really hold true to me. And so then I sit and I look at that: is that cynical? No, I think it’s realistic.
Another thing I wanted to touch on real quickly is in the book you were talking about “trustworthy news sources”, and we’re looking at this new phenomenon of deepfakes. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Joe: I have some … I’m not a deepfake researcher, I can’t tell you the extent of how those things are made, but my opinion on it is that I’m pretty terrified of them. I’m more scared of deepfakes than I am of nuclear warfare at this point – because deepfakes could spur nuclear warfare. The thing is, we only activate as communities when we can trust the source of information that we’re being fed, and we’re reaching an era – we are in an era right now already, but it’s just going to get extremely worse – where what I’m concerned about is we won’t be able to trust anything unless it’s right in front of our face. And what happens then? You don’t have nations. Nations can’t activate together, they can’t actively participate if they can’t trust the information they’re being fed from the outside world. Are we going to regress into villages? You know, personally, I’m not concerned about going back to a smaller community of people that I’ve surrounded myself with. I kind of live that way. I live that way globally. You know, I travel, I have people around me all the time but, I am concerned about that bigger potential there and what it would do to the rest of the population who is not prepared to adapt to that kind of a cultural change, and I just see a lot of instability coming out of it. If we don’t figure out a way to censor them or … and I don’t want to say censor because also that’s a tough topic, right? Like, what is a deepfake and what is not, what is a parody, what is creative portrayal versus what is a deepfake … we’ve had these parodies, we’ve had this stuff for a long time, but in previous generations we knew that was a parody. Or we knew that was intentionally meant to be like a comedic thing or just to jest at someone. Now we have heads of states being recreated and fully manipulated and we have these very powerful organizations and it’s not with the intent to entertain, it is with the intent to change entire populations’ minds. That’s what concerns me is: how do you bring that in and how do you reel it in in a way that is not going to just obliterate free of speech? You know, I’m real concerned about that, but we’re going to have to approach those topics. That’s something I mentioned. There is like a lot of these things that I bring up, especially if you’re not in the tech field or have never heard of things like this before, it’s going to raise some hairs on your arms and it’s gonna really freak you out. But it’s stuff we have to talk about, otherwise it’s going to get put on us one way or the other, you know? And like you said, there’s a lot of artwork in there. That’s why I brought the artwork in: because so much of this is intangible. It’s so hard to see, and unless you’re in the field, you don’t really fully understand the concepts. It’s just information moving around, it’s not like a wood panel that you can see and touch and manipulate. It’s very fluid and it’s weird. So, the image is bringing that to life. Like, I’m reading right here on the table with us, it’s “Future Crimes” by Martin Goodman. It’s a great book. The guy is clearly an expert, he’s spent time in government and the FBI and the NSA and he knows his shit. I’m reading the book and I get it, but this is a 400-plus, almost 500-page textbook. Right? And if you don’t understand the fundamentals of how data moves around, you’re not even gonna get close to understanding a security book, the things that they’re talking about. So, if this would have been added with photos, it’s a lot more accessible to a general population. That’s obviously not his goal and that’s fine. But I’m hoping that my book also pushes the balance of media … I’m trying to set a new paradigm for what books become.
Evans: Well, it’s fantastic. The images are very, very visceral. It tells a story without you reading a word. If you read the chapter heading and you see the picture, you’ve got a good idea of where things are going to go.
Joe: And that’s the design … I’m a designer, I design technologies out in the Valley. That’s what we learned to do. I took all the principles of the best design principles of building a world class product in the Valley and I’d put them into a book, you know, and what does that look like? Well, you should buy the book, check it out. But that’s the point. It’s, it’s built to be picked up and skimmed because that’s how we read nowadays. It’s visually aided. It is made with digestible content. None of the chapters are more than 10 pages; a lot of them are five or six. So it’s like, “Oh, you got a 10 minutes in between a meeting here, read a chapter, satisfy the achievement goal, you know … that’s how it’s built out. And so, yeah, it’s all very intentionally made.
Evans: To go a little tangential … have you ever read “Godel, Escher and Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter?
Evans: A lot of people say it’s like one of the “bibles of artificial intelligence” because it gets into …
Joe: Did he write or co-write “Surfaces and Essences”?
Evans: Yes! The book on analogies.
Joe: Okay. I’m about half-way through it. It’s pretty heady shit.
Evans: Oh, yeah! Well, Hofstadter’s stuff is pretty lofty. So (“Godel, Escher & Bach”) looks at the mathematics of Kurt Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, he goes over and looks at Bach and the nature of Bach’s compositions, and then he looks at MC Escher and the nature of his pictures. And he’s trying to illustrate emergence and what comes out of complex structures. Again, fantastic book, but when you’re talking about the work that you put into “Automating Humanity”, Hofstadter did the same thing. The release, almost like a director’s cut a few years back where he gave an introduction and he was talking about all the work that he had to do by hand to be able to set the type and to be able to put in the images. That thing was like a labor of love. So I thought you might be interested in that … plus that ties into AI.
Joe: Yeah, no, tell me about it. That’s exactly what it was. I knew that if I wanted to make this the right way, I had to do the design because ultimately the design – and this is why I do design – I love it. Design is just an expression … it’s communication. Writing the words is one thing, but a picture’s worth a thousand words. How do I take this 250-page book and shrink it into a hundred and visually aid it so that it says the same thing in half the words? Just compressing this was one of the hardest things that are done in my life. That realistically should be a 500-plus page book. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that too.
Evans: I can see where you could blow it out.
Joe: Yeah. And, trust me, I wrote out 800 pages and it has … through the editing processes, it is now about 120 pages of writing, the other 200 or 110 pages is images and infographics and white space and design.
Evans: It’s a beauty.
Joe: Yeah, it was a lot of work though, for sure. It was a lot of work.
Evans: Are you going to do a follow up … put out a director’s cut, the 800-page version?
Joe: I should put out a book about how to write a book.
Evans: You should, actually, especially from the design perspective.
Joe: No, I should … I don’t know if I’ll ever write a book again though, to be honest with you. It was so painful. And I also mentioned my goal with this is to bridge the gap in media from just plain old textbook into digital literacy or like visual literacy and stuff. What I wanted to do with that book – and this is what I will do in the future if I make things around that same space – I’m not going to write a book, I will … make a chatbot, like an audio book that you can listen to and speak to, and it would be just like I was there. If you want to you could just listen to the whole thing all the way through, but if you’re sitting there and you read like certain stats or something like that, you could ask a question of the book (if you want to call it that) and then it would respond back and you can have a full-on conversation with me, with the experience. I wanted to do that, but I knew at the time I just needed to get this out faster and that would take too much time to technically develop and whatnot. But, that’s what I’m hoping to do with the research that we’re doing with BEACON. Some of this stuff that we’re going to be coming out with in the next two or three years. We’re going to get some pretty serious research partnerships right now. I would love to talk about that. Maybe we can have a follow up when I actually have this stuff signed. But we have a lot going on right now with different universities where we are running some fundamental research into data literacy, privacy issues, things like that, that probably won’t be released for another year or two. We’ll have that data very early. What I really want to get into long-term is real-time interactive storytelling. Google Maps is an example, right? Google Maps is all real-time data that tells a story that you don’t have to read it … you click and you engage. That’s where we’re headed with information. I want to take some of the world’s biggest issues, take these huge bays of information. Instead of telling the public, go read this, and if you don’t understand why climate change is a problem, then you’re an idiot, I want to translate this into a experience, right? And I’m an experience designer. I want to change it into an experience. So it’s real-time interactive data stories.
Evans: Well, that’s how humans see the world. We see it in the form of a narrative. At the end of a day, you don’t come home, and “how was your day?” – you don’t spew data. You weave everything into a narrative. The narrative is reflective of data … but yeah, that’s, that’s fantastic. So you want to tap into the storytelling nature of humanity to be able to elicit change.
Joe: Consider this … I’ll tell you this and I can say this … this never got put into production, so it’s not a big deal. During my work at Google, I was working with a certain team. I can’t say the teams, but we were working with a team internally and an idea I pitched to help the public understand Google’s ability to impact climate change and green initiatives: there’s all this information about climate change – why do people need to go read it? We have VR headsets and we have all this computing power and … Google has satellite imagery from 1980 up ‘til now. Why don’t we just create a VR experience, a full-on immersive experience where people can put on a VR headset, see the world in like, 1980, have a slider in there to go from 1980 to 2020 … allow them to visually see it change in the motion of a finger? Don’t have to read anything and on top of that, you can put them in a temperature controlled room and people are like, “oh, that’s so much money”. A sauna is a temperature controlled room. You could connect that full experience. So not only do they see the world change, they feel that two three, four percent degree differences. And people can literally experience climate change in a click and drag. That’s what I want to build. And that’s what my next “book” will be. Experiences. We will take information and allow people to experience it instead of having to read because I think that’s where we’re headed. So I hope I never write another book, but yeah, that’s my answer.
Evans: What’s next for you, for BEACON? What do you have on the near horizon?
Joe: I don’t know if I even mentioned it, but yeah … BEACON: Better Ethics Consumer Outcomes Network. Our big focus right now is redesigning end user legal agreements, the most broken part of the Internet, where you give consent. We have a product that’s launching here at the end of September, early October, with a big partner that we just have to wait to announce, but it’s coming out here and (there’s) a very large scale reach with the partnership and hopefully we will start to set the fundamentals of what it actually means to engage in and reasonable consent with companies. And yeah, it’s gonna be a really fun few months … I think next few years can be really interesting for us. So yeah, I wish all this stuff was signed. I could talk to you a bit more about it. That’s where we’re focused right now and expanding out beyond there, long term.
Evans: You’re in Colorado off and on. Let me know once you get everything signed and we’ll definitely grab some more time.
Joe: Yeah, for sure, man. I appreciate it.
Evans: Hey, thanks so much for coming. I really appreciate it.
Joe: Yeah, thanks for having me. Hopefully, everyone enjoys this, so thanks. And, if you do want to reach out or anything, you can go to beacontrustnetwork.com or find me on the Internet anywhere @realjoet, and if you can’t find me on that platform, that means it’s not a worthwhile platform, but yeah, everywhere.
If you are interested in Joe’s amazing book “Automating Humanity”, you can buy it here.
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