With Steve Brown, Futurist, Author and previous Evangelist at Intel
*This episode was recorded on 27th May 2021
Setting the scene
Via his fathers job as a Physics lecturer, Steve was introduced to science and technology at a very early age - and that sense of magic has never left him. After studying how to make a computer, he went on to have a fascinating career with the one and only Intel, avoiding the well trodden traditional career trajectory, opting instead to move through marketing, events, planning and labs, before finally becoming an Intel Futurist. This inspired Steve to become an independent Futurist, helping companies and organisations think through the digital challenges they were facing, and how new and emerging technologies could influence their own futures. As a well respected speakers and author, it’s fascinating to hear Steve talk through the technologies he sees making an impact, use cases from companies using them and how emerging technologies could be very disruptive. Now, as a Portland native, he talks through the local investing scene, and what he likes to see in a company before he considers investing. A great listen for those thinking about where to go next in their company and personal journeys.
Where my fascination for tech started
I was fascinated by science and technology when I was a kid, because my dad was a physics lecturer, and he hung around with interesting people. One of his good friends was Nick Phillips, who was one of the ‘Fathers of Holography’. Dad would bring lasers home and glass holograms, and take me into his labs as he poured liquid nitrogen on the floor and made it look like something from Top of the Pops. It was really magical for me! He would bring computers home from work, so I got to play on these computers in ‘77. I knew that I wanted to be part of it, and that they were going to change the world- even when I was 10!
I went to university and studied microelectronics, because I thought to participate I had to build computers. I learned how to build them, then went to Intel and I was an engineer for a number of years. Then, I realised there were other ways to show up and be part of that world. I followed this odyssey of a career that took me through the worlds of marketing and events; I ran Intel's worldwide events programme for a number of years, which was aimed at developers. That took me all over the world, which was really fun! I really liked to dabble and build different skills. I didn't want to be on a career trajectory, where you're a junior salesperson, then you’re a salesman, then you're a district sales manager- I didn't want that linear path, I wanted something a bit more eclectic. I ended up in strategic planning, and then moved into Intel Labs as one of Intel's two futurists. I was looking at what the world would be like to live in 7-13 years out, and the entrance of the funnel of the research investments that Intel was making, and modelling the world and how technology might help solve people's problems in that timeframe. I left Intel in 2016, and I'm an independent futurist. I help companies big and small to figure out what technology will make possible in the future of their businesses and how they can embrace digital transformation to be able to slay the competition and create new value propositions for customers, for their employees, and so on.
The energy at Intel was infectious
It really felt amazing to work at Intel in the 90s when it felt like the world's innovators, researchers and artists were standing on our shoulders. It was just this amazing time of change, and it felt really good to be part of that. There was a buzz at Intel and the culture was vibrant. The world runs on Intel, you’re just not as aware of it because it's all in the services that we use when we use the internet. It’s still a very important company, but it just lost that feeling of vibrancy, I suppose. If anyone can bring the vibrancy back to Intel, it’s Pal Gelsinger, the new CEO, who I know really well.
My first job at Intel was building custom systems. They bought this company called Action Media, and I was building custom systems that could handle full screen video. It wasn’t very high resolution, but it was full screen video on a PC, and it required a dual set of $3,000 boards that you plugged into a PC. When I saw a video on a PC for the first time, I just thought it was incredible. Before, it had been just all text and really lame graphics, it was probably the biggest breakthrough moment. Then, I suppose when I first saw video running in a window with software, it was the collision of, what at the time, was separate technologies, to see those two come together was pretty amazing. The AI era also fascinates me, being able to speak to computers, machine vision, cars that can drive themselves, is pretty stunning technology. Even 10 years ago, there were very credible computer scientists who would tell you that cars would never be able to drive themselves and yet here we are!
Adapting models based on who you are talking to
I don't know if I have a mental model, but I have to be very careful and I have to assess an audience's ability to hear what I'm saying. I could be talking to a C Suite and the board, or I'm speaking to an open public gathering, and a big event with a few thousand people in the audience. You have to be always thinking about their willingness to hear what you’re saying, and you have to ask them a bunch of questions ahead of time to figure that out. Sometimes they're just not ready to hear it, and you have to give them the baby steps. I met with Pier 1 Imports (they’re out of business now) and met with their board and management team, and I could tell that the things I was saying to them were just so mind blowing, they couldn't get their heads around it.
You have to make that assessment, and then I walk them through and if I think they can take it, then I'll take them to the next level. So, this is table stakes in the next three to five years. Then these are the things that will be differentiators in the next three to five years. Beyond that, they'll become table stakes in around 5-10 years. Then, with the stuff that's 10 years out, let me model what that might look like for you: what would be the business capabilities that they would give you? And how could you accelerate those and bring those in to give you a competitive advantage? That’s the way I've looked at it, but it's all based on a client's ability to process what I'm going to tell them.
The way I talk them through that story is to say--and there's no disagreement when I tell a story this way--is that there has always been a gap between companies that invested in technology, and companies that were laggards with technology. They all nod their heads and recognise that. Then, I will point out that as these technologies become exponentially more powerful in the 2020s, and I walk them through what those technologies are, that that gap is going to widen significantly. Therefore, what they need to do is to create what I call a ‘digital first culture’. So, when they're looking at solving business problems, they need to think about a digital solution first, and not as an afterthought, or a side project. Innovation that embraces digital transformation technologies, is now the job of everybody in the company. It is not the job of the CTO, the R&D department and the IT people, it is everybody's job, which means that the whole business needs to get educated on how transformational these technologies are and what's possible. They don’t need to know how AI works, or how distributed ledgers work, they just need to know what kind of business problems they can solve with them, so they can ask the right questions of their suppliers and their IT departments.
The future of work: Emergence of the hybrid model
From all the research that I have seen, and from all of the customers and clients that I have talked to, I think we're going back to a generally hybrid model. It's very situational. If a company is a heavy manufacturing company, or a meatpacking company, you need people to be physically on site. If you're more towards the knowledge side, then you have much more flexibility to have remote employees and are most likely to adopt a hybrid model. Within that, there are companies that will have some teams that can be distributed, and some that will benefit from being closer together for brainstorming sessions, because the tools that we have are still limited. Zoom is fantastic, as are all those types of tools, but they're still not the same as being in a physical space together. You'll see a hybrid model emerge, where rather than the default being that you go into the office and you stay home by exception, you'll stay home by default and you'll go into the office by exception; when you need to strengthen your connections with coworkers, when you need to work on a creative brainstorming session, when you need to meet with a client. Face to face still has it’s value and it’s not going away, but people are finding that they're pretty productive when they're at home and like that flexibility. I think we're moving from a world of work-life balance to a world of work-life fusion, where the two merge and blend together in a way that works best for the employee. I fully expect that if companies start to demand that their employees come back to work, you're going to see a ton of turnover. Again, there's a lot of research that supports that that could be up to 30% of people who, if they're forced to go back into the office, are going to wave their middle finger and go find a job somewhere else. Flexibility is going to become a key differentiator for people who want to get the best talent.
What’s out there in terms of the next waves?
I'm not looking at it in terms of high level systems, corporate architecture, I'm looking more at: what are the business capabilities that digital transformation gives you? Then, what are the underpinning technologies that support those? When it comes to digital transformation, there are lots of benefits that can bring you. For example, there are companies working on the ability to transform a COVID diagnostic. Instead of jamming something up your nose, and then sticking it in a tube, which is a very chemical, biological physical process, being able to listen to the sound of your voice and diagnose COVID based on vocal biomarkers in your voice. There are a couple of companies working on digitising a process that was formerly a very physical process.
Increasingly, I'm seeing a shift in focus not just purely on automation, which is about replacing human labour, but to augmentation, where you are elevating the human labour that you have. If you think about people working in a Ford Plant, they're using exoskeletons to get underneath the cars and put bolts in. Or, more likely, mental augmentation, using AI to help people with their creativity, to boost their intuition, to improve their decision making skills or judgement. There are AIs that are helping movie moguls to decide which projects to greenlight. They just ingest the script, they look at the metadata about what the talent is that's currently attached to the project. Then, they predict what the opening box office weekend of that movie is going to be. They call it way more accurately than Hollywood movie moguls have done based on historical data. Augmenting human talent is a big trend that we're going to see. There is also the continuation of industry 4.0 and 5.0. Industry 4.0 tried to get the human out of the equation and really drive automation and cyber physical systems into factories. Industry 5.0 brings the human back into that, both by embracing mass customization and personalization, and also bringing the human back into the manufacturing flow. By using augmentation technologies to be able to add a level of artisan craftsmanship at the end of the process.
The final one that I think is going to be a huge force in business, supported by digital transformation technology, is transparency. Businesses are driven by needs to become more efficient, but also driven by consumer demands for more information about the products they buy, to provide more information, and to have more transparency in their supply chains. That's something I'm passionate about. I'm a co-founder of a startup that's working in that area. Aside from all of that, even if I wasn't involved, that is a major trend I'm seeing that is supported by distributed ledger technologies being able to help us understand what is happening in complex supply chains.
What else is on the horizon for the future of tech?
Think of it like a stack. There's digital transformation, which is the business transformation that I just walked you through. Then, there are the digital capabilities that support those transformations, and underneath that are the core technologies. These core technologies are the ones I wrote about in my book last year, the technologies are:
If you start to glue those technologies together in interesting ways, you get all sorts of interesting new capabilities. I'm keeping my eye on generative design- using AI to enhance creative talents and capabilities, whether they're an engineer, an architect, or someone that's creating engineering models. That's where that technology lies today, but that's going to expand into other fields.
Natural Language Processing is starting to get much more capable. If you saw Google IO recently, and looked at the demos that they showed with Lambda, for example, and the stuff that's coming out of open AI with GPT-3. Not just being able to speak to a computer, but having a conversation with a computer and having language models that allow us to start doing things like summarising a complex technical research paper to create a summary that an average normal human being could understand.
Another one that I'm watching closely is this idea of super sensing; using a sensor and turbocharging it with AI, to enable us to lift the veil on the world and see things that we can't see alone with our five senses. There's some work going on at MIT, where they're using a radio frequency sensor on a wall that sprays out radio frequency waves. Those waves tend to go through walls, but bounce back off people. They’re looking at the reflected rays, and from that information, they're able to train the AI so that it can not only tell if you're standing, sitting, walking, or have fallen over, but it’s so sensitive that it can pick up heartbeat, sleep state and breathing rate wirelessly. Imagine this for assisted living facilities to keep an eye on patients without using a camera, which would invade their privacy. This system is important because if somebody has disruption in their R.E.M. sleep, and they have repetitive patterns of motion around a room, that can be an indicator of early onset Alzheimer's, or if they have disruptions in their deep sleep, that's anxiety and depression. Suddenly, with an AI-turbocharged wireless sensor on the wall, now I can see all of these healthcare conditions and have interventions as a result.
IoT will continue it’s roll out
To some extent, IoT needs some supporting technologies to make it happen at scale.You need to be able to create sensors at very low costs, compute and connectivity at low cost and small physical sizes. As we're getting down to the three nanometre space, that becomes pretty viable to start thinking about computing as an ingredient that you can stir into everything, whether it's a connected product, or a piece of connected infrastructure. Infrastructure takes a long time to roll out, so it is going to be a lengthy process. We've seen some failures with smart city efforts, but that doesn't mean that it's the wrong direction, it just means that we learn something on the way. I fully anticipate that IoT is going to continue its rollout. 5G is a massive enabler of that, because you have to have the ability to connect all this stuff. 5G is the first cellular platform that is designed for things other than cell phones, and that's one of the things people haven't really clocked. 4G and before was really aimed at meeting the needs of cell phones and cell phones only. We've rigged it to make other things work on it. But 5G is specifically designed for the scale and the low power needs that IoT has. In the next five years, we're gonna see some interesting stuff rollout.
The growing startup scene in Portland
The startup scene in Portland had not been known for being a startup scene traditionally, but it's growing to be a hub of creative types. There's a tonne of marketing agencies that are focused on the tech world that are based here. You're starting to see a number of these startups come here, and they tend to be Silicon focused. Intel's main facility is here in Portland, people think of it as a Silicon Valley company, but there's probably 20,000 Intel people up here in Portland, Oregon. This is known as the Silicon Forest up here in Pacific Northwest. It’s getting there, but it's not nearly as vibrant as Silicon Valley yet.
Aligning supply chain behaviour with human and consumer values
It's predicated on the idea that people have the right to know about the products that they buy, use and consume; to help them make a better buying decision. I wrote a blog on this a couple of months ago, and it basically said consumers are the problem, but it's not our fault. What I meant by that is that if you think about all of the things that we see on TV news, that we think are awful i.e. climate change, pollution, deforestation, child labour, forced labour, there's one thing that unifies all of that, and it's consumer behaviour. It's the decisions that we make day in, day out. When I have two t-shirts in front of me, and I decide which white t-shirt do I buy? Is it this one for £10 or £12? They look the same to me, I'll buy the £10 one and save myself a couple of quid. Or maybe you could look at the data, the provenance of those, and find that the £12 one is guaranteed not made by tiny fingers in a Vietnamese factory, and guaranteed not made from cotton picked by forced labour in China. Now, as a consumer, I'm empowered to make a decision; is it worth £2 to me to feel good about my purchase? For me? Yes, it would be. If people are able to afford to make that decision, now you're empowering them with information. It gives you the ability to start to slowly align supply chain behaviours against human values. And as you expose that information, brands love it. If you're a brand manager, your biggest nightmare is opening the newspaper and seeing your brand's name in it, associated with some awful thing that happened somewhere back down their supply chain; something that they have no control over. These are very complex supply chains, so they can't inspect everything all the time, and yet there was child labour in a factory and now I'm on the front page. Brand managers want this capability to ensure that they can keep their promises to consumers, but also because it gives an operational efficiency so they can start to put more requirements and get more compliance from their suppliers throughout the supply chain. For consumers, you have to be able to empower them at the point of purchase to decide: is this product consistent with my values? Can I guarantee that this product is safe for my family? If it helps us to move the world towards a better climate, less pollution, reducing child labour and forced labour, that's what makes me want to do this every day.
The components to a great company’s mission
Companies that have a passion for a clear and inspiring purpose inspire me; a company that I think is doing something that I consider to be worthwhile. That's how I judge when I'm making my investments:
Also, companies that have a diverse talent, and a culture, a foundation of trust and mutual respect, so that that talent can work well together. When I say diverse, I'm not talking just about race and gender and the things that get tracked, what I'm talking about is this: The world's most intractable problems are only going to be solved by people with very diverse backgrounds, experience and knowledge coming together and collaborating. You're going to create a self-driving car by having artificial intelligence people, philosophers and ethnographers, and car mechanics all coming together. We're going to have breakthroughs in healthcare diagnostics by having doctors and artificial intelligence experts work well together. To have people at the intersection of these things, you have to have a culture of respect and trust. I watched it at Intel, with social scientists trying to work with engineers that didn't speak the same language. It took a number of years to build respect for each other's craft and knowledge but once they figured out how to speak to each other, and that they actually brought value, it created magic.
Then companies that have a willingness to turn the status quo on its head. They're not asked the question, ‘how could we incrementally change something?’ But, they ask this positive question of ‘how could we…’ and then a bold declarative statement, and then they break it down bit by bit. For example, Elon Musk: ‘how could we save humanity from an asteroid hitting us?’ Well, we have to become a multiplanetary species. Therefore, I have to create a rocket. How do I do that? I have to make it reusable. People who break problems down like that really inspire me because otherwise we wouldn't get anywhere.