Deep learning; geek nostalgia; Google’s Pixel phone; and why seeking ‘uncomfortably exciting’ opportunities can bring success.
Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues sat down with Google’s Dave Burke, an Irishman, who has risen quickly through the ranks. He leads the Android team, with responsibility for the device and developer ecosystem; and Google’s Pixel phone. How did he succeed so fast, and what qualities does he seek when hiring for his growing team?
I interviewed Burke this month for a BBC World Service report exploring Irish identity and success in Silicon Valley. We had a lively and wide ranging conversation full of insights for tech geeks and entrepreneurs alike, so I’m posting the uncut interview for your listening pleasure.
Listen to the uncut interview:
“It’s his ability to intuit a bold vision for the future, and then be comfortable in the abstract and yet push tenaciously forward over multiple years. Successful mathematicians need a similar personality – they have an intuition that a solution exists but initially have no concrete certainty on how to prove it and have to persist, sometimes over decades. Einstein’s story of deriving his theory of general relativity is a good example. This personality trait attracts other smart people… For Elon, the ‘contagious confidence’ extends out to his customers, i.e. many are willing to pay a high premium for a Tesla car and don’t seem to worry about the future viability of this fledgling startup, simply because have confidence in the founder.” Dave Burke, Google
Here’s are some highlights of our conversation:
On the secrets of Burke’s success @00:20
“Seek out challenges that are uncomfortably exciting…there’s always a risk of failure, but if you succeed, you could make a huge impact.”
Why he’s so excited about deep learning @19:23
“The big hot area is deep learning, using neural networks….applying lots of data. You can make machines do incredible things…The potential for deep learning and for AI to make our lives easier is very exciting.”
On Google’s Pixel phone @27:15
“Software pushes the hardware and hardware pushes the software. To advance the operating system, you need to have them working really closely together. It allows Google to have its own product. If you’re a Google user, this is the ideal phone for you.”
On rumors of a new Pixel phone this year @27:54
“I can neither confirm nor deny rumors. Technology moves very fast, the cadence…Typically every year, you try to do something new and exciting…we are very busy, working on a lot of stuff… The reviews have been great…but I see the potential for so much more, in terms of innovation, product quality.”
We also discussed Burke’s “geek nostalgia” for the BBC Micro computer by Acorn (the precursor to ARM); the gravitational pull of Silicon Valley; the three questions you need to ask to discover if someone is “really Irish”; and flying robotic lemonade stands!
Look out for more “Fresh Dialogues Uncut” featuring Elon Musk, Arianna Huffington, Charlie Rose and Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard.
Check out dozens more Fresh Dialogues podcasts on iTunes.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
It’s day four of the Donald Trump presidency and he’s already infuriated women’s rights campaigners, the environmental movement and free trade advocates by signing controversial executive orders. Tech mastermind, Steven Levy put it best in his latest tech report: God help us all.
Millions around the world took to the streets within hours of Trump’s inauguration, in anticipation of these actions and more to come. The San Jose Women’s March took place here in Silicon Valley on Saturday, and in my twenty years in the South Bay, I’ve never witnessed such an outpouring of alarm, dismay and rage. One 70-year old educator I interviewed said that this was the first time in her life, she’s ever felt the need to stand up and take to the streets: not for women’s rights, not for civil rights, but to protest Trump’s presidency. And she was fired up. Today, my report aired on the BBC World Service.
One protester had this message for Silicon Valley tech leaders:
“Lead with faith, lead with truth, and lead with a kind of human dignity that is absent in a lot of our daily conversations…They gotta get rid of the fake news, people are being led down a kind of primrose path, thinking that by being angry and violent they’re going to create a better world for the future…that’s not the path, the truth, the reality that everyone can see here today,” Patrick Adams, science teacher at Bellarmine College Preparatory School in San Jose
Listen to my report and the discussion at the BBC World Service (from 2:40 in the podcast)
Gareth Mitchell: The President Elect became President on Friday….the crowds were back on the streets on Saturday, this time in protest at the new administration. The marches around the world were led by women, but in Silicon Valley, the tech people, male and female were venting their concerns too, along with scientists, and entrepreneurs, all of them worried by Trump’s stance on trade, innovation, science and the climate. It comes in an era of disquiet about Facebook and fake news, of post truth and cyber threats. To gauge the sentiment, our reporter in Silicon Valley, Alison van Diggelen, was at one of the marches.
Alison van Diggelen: I’m here at the San Jose Women’s March in the center of Silicon Valley and the women are out in force…
Yogacharya O’Brian (reading her poem, “Forward Women”): Not to the back of the line, because Delores walked in front; not to be held down, not even by gravity because Sally soared in space.
Alison: That was Yogacharya O’Brian, founder of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment and one of the rally’s powerful speakers.
Alison van Diggelen: Silicon Valley took to the streets in record numbers on Saturday to protest the country’s new president. Donald Trump’s proposed tax cuts and infrastructure investment could benefit the tech community; the U.S. economy and many of those marching in Silicon Valley. As could his plans to repatriate millions of dollars of tech companies’ overseas profits. Last month Trump even hosted a cordial summit with some top tech leaders. Despite all this, many in this community are fearful of what his presidency might mean for innovation, transparency, multiculturalism, and social progress.
Nick Shackleford: I’m here because of Trump’s election…he is bringing America back in time instead of leading us forward. As a nation we need to go forward and not backwards.
Alison van Diggelen: Here in the world tech center of innovation, what do you expect from this community of innovators?
Nick Shackleford: Like you said, we are innovators and I think we’re going to continue to innovate and lead the country – and sometimes the world – in the innovations that are being developed here in the Silicon Valley. And we have a lot of millionaires and billionaires who are liberal, believe in the cause and are true Californians and they will continue their fight, be it with their money, and their power or just lending their voice to causes that are important to our nation.
Alison van Diggelen: What would you say to Mark Zuckerberg and people like him with power?
Nick Shackleford: I think Mark Zuckerberg did not to enough to stop the fake news. I think he cared more about (getting it re-shared and) his personal stake in his company…and he can’t convince me otherwise. He’s to blame for a lot of the fake media.
Alison van Diggelen: What would you have him do?
Nick Shackleford: I’ve reported about 100 things in the last six months and nothing has been in violation of their policy, but I’ve seen other people get the same picture and be sent to Facebook jail for it. So he’s not consistent, there needs to be more transparency on this fake news fight.
Patrick Adams: They gotta get rid of the fake news, people are being led down a kind of primrose path thinking that by being angry and violent they’re going to create a better world for the future…that’s not the path, the truth, the reality that everyone can see here today.
Alison van Diggelen: Patrick Adams was one of many men who came out to support the women’s march. Like many protesters who couldn’t keep quiet, he was energized by the proliferation of fake news, and Trump’s use of “alternative facts” which continues this week in the heated dispute over his inauguration numbers. Adams had a message for Silicon Valley’s tech leaders….
Patrick Adams: Lead with faith, lead with truth, and lead with a kind of human dignity that is absent in a lot of our daily conversations …Everywhere I go I see wonderful, amazing, beautiful people working together to make this future happen and I also see people who’re giving up…either to escape into an alternate world of the Internet or they want to pretend that this doesn’t affect them. But if affects everyone. Everyone is involved.
Yogacharya O’Brian: We do not wait for you to lead with sons and with daughters in hand, with husbands and with wives, lovers and friends by our side…we march!
Crowd chanting, cheering
[End of report]
Gareth Mitchell: What do you make of the comments you heard there, Bill Thomson?
Bill Thomson: It was fascinating to hear via Alison’s excellent report just how confused people are, and how uncertain they are; and how many different perspectives there are. For me, as a member of the press, what we need to be doing is reporting effectively on what’s actually happening, not just reporting on an agenda set by politicians…So the limitations on women’s reproductive rights, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Dakota Access pipeline, the Transpacific Trade Partnership, the nomination of the Supreme Court justice, are all far more important than the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.
There’s a real sense from Alison’s report that many people are confused because they don’t know what’s actually going on and are trying to project on that. It’s the role of us in the press to cut through that and be much clearer about what’s actually happening and not get dragged into debates or agendas set by other people.
Read more stories about Donald Trump on Fresh Dialogues
Photo: Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans is convinced we’ll see “Jetsons” human-moving drones in 5 to 10 years
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Portland is better known for its environmental activism and the quirky comedy Portlandia
than its tech; but that reputation is beginning to change. This month, I visited two Portland startups that are helping accelerate the future of transportation through innovative technology for drones and autonomous vehicles. Skyward
, a drone operations startup, predicts that the Jetsons
future of flying cars is closer than we think. And in the fast-moving autonomous vehicle sector, Polysync’s
software is being widely used to speed up the development of self-driving cars.
“It’s harder to move from A to B and when you look at the sky, you have a blank slate. Within 5-10 years you will see human-moving aero robots that will be moving programmatically in space. It’s a lot like the vision we have of the Jetsons. It’s going to be much more on-demand, much cheaper, empowering all of us to be able to access the sky for whatever we want to,” Jonathan Evans, CEO Skyward
“That’s the problem with autonomous driving: each one of these sensing modalities has their limitations: some don’t see well in rain, in fog, at dusk. The Mobile Eye, what Tesla was using to detect lanes, some objects…that does very poorly at dusk….when the sun is head on. You really want backup, systems that are all corroborating its perception of the environment. In my opinion, the more sensing, the better,” Evan Livingston, Polysync Test Engineer
BBC tech writer, and Click contributor, Bill Thompson
shared some good insights on my report, emphasizing the importance of new drone regulations
that will help bring drones from the Wild West era to “civilization in the sky.”
Here’s a transcript of my report (edited for length and clarity).
BBC Click Host, Gareth Mitchell: Flying cars are part of the subject for our final item. We’re off to Portland, Oregon to its famous “Silicon Forest”, their counterpart to Silicon Valley in California. There’s a startup there working on flying cars, another is working on autonomous vehicles and we have this report from Alison van Diggelen, who’s been there.
Alison van Diggelen: My first stop was the Technology Association of Oregon. Its President, Skip Newberry is bullish about Portland’s growth prospects: in data, software development, and the Internet of Things.
Skip Newberry: I refer to Portland as having this Goldilocks phenomenon: we’re not too big, not too small, not too expensive and yet we also have some interesting amenities and international connections. We have a great quality of life.
Alison van Diggelen: He sent me to Polysync, a software startup that helps speed up the development of autonomous cars.
Polysync just earned a top 10 startup ranking at this year’s L.A. Auto Show.
Evan Livingston: On the right trigger we have acceleration, on the left trigger we have breaking. [Ambi: car accelerating and breaking]
Alison van Diggelen: In a converted warehouse, Polysync’s engineers test the software of autonomous cars to make sure all the sensors are communicating. Field engineer, Evan Livingston gave me a demo.
Evan Livingston: On this car, we have about 15 different sensors…we have 4 cameras that give us 360 degree views of the environment, we have six radars. We have 2 different LIDAR systems, and then we have a GPS inertial movement unit…so it gives us a very accurate location of the vehicle.
Alison van Diggelen: We discuss the recent fatal crash involving Tesla’s autopilot feature.
Evan Livingston: That’s the problem with autonomous driving: each one of these sensing modalities has their limitations: some don’t see well in rain, in fog, at dusk. The Mobile Eye, what Tesla was using to detect lanes, some objects…that does very poorly at dusk….when the sun is head on. You really want backup, systems that are all corroborating its perception of the environment. In my opinion, the more sensing, the better.
Evan Livingston sets up a demo of the Polysync software that connects the car’s 15 sensors.
Alison van Diggelen: Polysync’s team has doubled in size in this year, driven by partnerships with over 50 major car manufacturers and their suppliers. The company uses a 32-acre “mock city” campus near Detroit for testing. It’s called M-City. Here’s Polysync’s CEO, Josh Hartung.
Josh Hartung says MCity’s physical test track allows them to test near collisions and real world simulations.
Josh Hartung: They have cute fake buildings, and intersections, a small section of highway, little stop lights…. They have different ways they can trick an algorithm to think that it’s a real person with cardboard cutouts or inflatable targets. It’s one of the first in the world.
Polysync demo shows the car sensors in action
Alison van Diggelen: Across the Willamette River, I meet with Jonathan Evans, a former Blackhawk pilot in the army. He leads Skyward, an operations platform for commercial drones. He’s excited about how our perception of drones is changing as they touch our lives ever more closely…from fun toys to aerial surveys to even delivering breaking news.
Jonathan Evans: They look at this really beautiful piece of technology that is really like a flying cellphone. It’s gyro-stabilized, grid-oriented, information-oriented robot that can move ubiquitously in space… We take the pilots and the aircraft and we put them into the global airspace and help them conform to whatever the rules of the road are there. We were in the era of the Wild West… but now we have regulators that have provided us the channels to flow into responsibly. You can see a dramatic shift into civilization in the sky.
Alison van Diggelen: Evans thinks that drones will soon make (package) deliveries –even Internet delivery – and anticipates a paradigm shift in transportation.
Jonathan Evans: On the ground, things are getting much more clogged and it’s harder to move from A to B and when you look at the sky, you have a blank slate. Within 5-10 years you will see human-moving aero robots that will be moving programmatically in space. It’s a lot like the vision we have of the Jetsons. It’s going to be much more on-demand, much cheaper, empowering all of us to be able to access the sky for whatever we want to.
Alison van Diggelen: Silicon Valley companies may steal the limelight but behind the scenes, Portland’s “Silicon Forest” is making its mark on the evolution and impact of technology around the world. [Ambi: Skyward flight ops team, DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone]
Jonathan Natiuk: “That’s kinda cool, man!”
Gareth Mitchell: Are we really heading for the Jetsons in our lives, do you think Bill Thompson?
Bill Thompson: Well, I started off being really skeptical about this…but then I discovered a human carrying drone is being tested in Nevada, the eHang drone…the actual hardware is being built. It can go 100 km/hour. The hardware is there and what we hear from Skyward is that the regulation is starting to be there. That’s the crucial thing. It’s about making sure if we have the technology that can deliver these things. It fits into a broader regulatory environment, so it becomes both legal and as safe as it can be to do them. It took a long time for the automobile, for the car, to go from being something strange and mysterious to dominating our cities. I do think we will get to the stage where we’re using the skies in these new ways, so actually, yeah: it is coming.
Find out more about electric and autonomous vehicles, from Tesla to Hyperloop at Fresh Dialogues EV archives
This week, UC Santa Barbara’s Professor Nakamura (and two colleagues in Japan) received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Their big breakthrough? The Holy Grail of material science for many years: Blue LED technology. It not only enables high efficiency lighting (goodbye Edison’s incandescent bulbs, hello backlit smartphones, and 2300 feet headlights); but one day soon will help double the range of hybrid cars (thanks to its power switching applications).
Today BBC’s Tech Tent aired my interview with Professor Steven DenBaars, research partner to Professor Nakamura at UCSB.
A version of this story aired on BBC’s Tech Tent on Dec. 12, 2014. Listen to the podcast below:
To give you a sense of just how energy efficient these LED lightbulbs are, Prof DenBaars claims that if everyone in the United States replaced their old bulbs with LEDs, it would reduce the country’s electric light bill from $100 Billion to $20 Billion. Impressive.
Sweden’s Per Delsing gives it a global perspective: “A quarter of all energy consumption goes to illumination,” he said at the Nobel Prize press conference. As a result, any increase in efficiency and consequent saving of energy “is really going to have a big impact on modern civilization.”
While reporting for the BBC, I got a fascinating tour of UCSB’s Solid State Lighting and Energy Center and a chemistry lesson from Steven Griffiths, a grad student researcher. His colleagues Sang Ho Oh and Daniel Becerra also contributed valuable background information (see below for more photos).
Here’s a transcript of my conversation with Prof Denbaars (aka: all you ever wanted to know about LEDs but were afraid to ask):
Alison van D: I’m here at the Uni of California Santa Barbara with the research team led by Prof Nakamura, the winner of this year’s Nobel prize for Physics. He earned the Nobel Prize for his blue LED breakthrough. I want to talk with Dr Steven Denbaars who is a research partner of the professor and start with the basics. What is an LED?
Prof DenBaars: An LED stands for a light emitting diode, it’s basically a semiconductor crystal which glows bright light, in this case, bright blue light when you apply electrical current to it.
van D: Can you explain how they’re used in smartphones, computer screens and in lighting?
Prof D: OK in smartphones the LED is used in combination with a phosphor on top of it to generate white light. That is, the blue is converted with a red and a green phosphor to produce a full spectrum of white light. That is the white light in your flashlight, you know when you take a picture, but it’s also the white light in back of your LCD screen. So it’s called the backlight. So all smart phones today use LED backlighting to do energy efficient displays.
van D: And tell me about the lighting aspect. Is it just the LED bulbs you find at the supermarket, is that the only application for LEDs in the lighting sphere?
Prof D: Well that was the initial implementation, a bulb replacement or retrofit. But what we’re seeing is: now you can use the LED to add additional features to lighting, such as communications. That is, you can have your cell phone control the color of the light bulb or even communicate information between the light bulb and your cell phone or maybe even your Internet server to distribute information into the house. That’s just starting. We call that smart LED lighting.
van D: So can you explain how that works? You get an app on your phone and you can change the mood lighting of your home?
Prof D: Yes, you can change the color temperature from a sunset to a cold day in Sweden, maybe, I guess. 6500 Kelvin would look very bluish white…That is using the Bluetooth feature on your iPhone that communicates with the chip in the light bulb, which then changes the mix of the colors in the LED.
van D: Can you talk about the particular breakthrough?
Prof D: Both Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura basically developed the P-type Gallium Nitride which was the missing link in the quest for the Holy Grail of LEDs at the time. We had red and green, we didn’t have blue.
van D: And why was that the Holy Grail?
Prof D: The blue was the Holy Grail because…if you have a paint brush and you only have red and green, then you can’t make a painting, correctly replicate the visible spectrum. So we were missing a huge chunk of the visible spectrum. People have been looking for 40 years for the right blue illuminating semi conductor …
van D: So do you see in the future, is this LED technology going to completely replace Thomas Edison’s incandescent bulb?
Prof D: Well I think it will definitely become the dominant light source. The quality of the light is winning over the consumer, it’s very close to an incandescent as you can see from this demo here…we have a bulb from a US manufacturer which looks almost exactly like a normal light bulb. I think there will still be some uses where people still really like incandescent lighting but that’ll be more for design or decorative reasons. Basically, if you want to have a long life light bulb…that’s the other advantage, these things last for 20 to 50 years. An incandescent light bulb lasts 6 months. So you’re really throwing your money away when you buy an incandescent light bulb. The US spends about $100 B for electricity for lighting and LEDs could take that down to about $20 B, so we could save the US $80 B in electrical costs if we switched over to LEDs, if everybody switched over today.
van D: Tell me about the LED laser headlights
Prof D: The laser headlight…you can see 700 meters in front of the car. Normal headlight is 150 meters. So you may think that this is going to scare the other driver, be bright, but it’s not any brighter to the other driver…it can be more tightly focused and columnated, projected on to the road. So this is a big safety advantage and it’s actually been released by BMW and Audi in Germany. Several thousand dollars per headlight but it’s a safety feature, because on the autobahn you drive about 240 K an hour, so you want to see 700 meters….
van D: So do you see that trickling through to all new cars within 5 years?
Prof D: Wow. The automobile industry is usually very slow to adapt. The LED headlight took about 5 to 7 years. Now you can see LED day-running lights everywhere, all newer cars. But the laser, which is the next generation of this lighting, will take 5 to 10 years.
van D: And what are you personally most excited about for the future of LEDs?
Prof D: Wow. I think it’s just to now be able to make a light bulb that’s smart enough to communicate, turn on and off when you need it. That’s very exciting. But also I think the real promise is: we can take lighting off grid. That is, you can make the LED, when you combine it with a solar cell completely renewable. That is, you just generate the electricity you want with a solar cell like this little solar powered LED lamp I have here, and therefore you don’t need electricity any more. Your light source, you just carry around with you. During the day time it charges up with a solar cell and at night it comes on. That would be the Holy Grail. We can become completely sustainable lighting without having to use electricity. This has the potential to save the world a couple hundred power plants of energy. More than a hundred nuclear power plants.
van D: Finally Professor Denbaars, is there anything else that you would like to share with the BBC listening audience?
Prof D: In electric cars it turns out you can use this as the power switching device (the thing that switches from the battery to the electric drive). Professor Nakamura and myself are also looking at it for power electronics. So Shuji’s (Nakamura) fundamental breakthrough of an LED is now impacting three major areas: not just lighting but it’s impacting displays, but now even electric cars.
van D: And how does that work? If you’re driving a Tesla or a Nissan Leaf, how is this LED technology going to make things better?
Prof D: I saw projections…it would take the Toyota Prius – which gets about 55 mpg – now the hybrid technology it would make it over 120 mpg…because it’s so efficient.
van D: How soon might we see this?
Prof D: This is a much harder problem to solve cos we’ve got to get the cost down and the scale up of the Gallium Nitride power electronics. I’ve seen lab demos… generally from lab demos to implementation it’s 5 years in this field of solid state that I work in.
van D: Are you already talking with Tesla and Nissan…?
Prof D: I can’t comment at all which car companies. But yes, we’re talking with car companies…they’re looking at it and the US government is putting a significant amount of money into this field. It’s called power electronics.
van D: Fantastic thank you.
And the research goes on. Researcher Steven Griffiths and his colleagues are working on further improvements in the Gallium Nitride (GaN) material to produce even higher efficiency LEDs and power swtiching. Below:
- A pure nitrogen-containing glovebox is used to handle chemicals which are reactive in air.
- The glovebox is used for alkali metals and ammonium salts, which are added to the reactors to aid in GaN growth.
Below: Steven Griffiths shows the interior of a blast containment vessel, which when in operation contains ammonothermal reactors (not pictured) used to grow large gallium nitride (GaN) crystals. The blue vessel is the “blast containment vessel”, to “crush cans” (which dissipate projectile energy in the case of an explosion). The white cylinders are heaters, in which the “ammonothermal reactors” (not pictured) are placed when in operation. The blast containment vessels must be sealed due to the extreme temperatures (>500°C) and pressures (>2000 atm.) used for ammonothermal GaN growth. Ammonothermal growth uses large quantities of ammonia at the extreme conditions mentioned, therefore researchers in the lab space must be protected from explosion, fire, and chemical hazards.
Below: Blue light emission from an LED. Blue light is produced when a bias is applied across the LED. Blue LEDs are composed of indium gallium nitride (InGaN) active layers sandwiched between positive (p-type) and negative (n-type) GaN layers, all of which are grown on a native (GaN) or foreign (Si, silicon carbide, sapphire, or gallium arsenide) substrate.
Below: Burhan Saifaddin (background) and Dan Becerra (foreground). The performance of blue LEDs is tested after crystal growth and device processing. Dan is applying metal to make electrical contact with the positive and negative terminals of the LEDs. Burhan is energizing the LEDs and monitoring their electrical operation/emission characteristics.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
London called again. This time for a BBC show called In the Balance. We discussed how to cope with “Infobesity,” the unhealthy excess of digital information.
Host, Manuela Saragosa moderated a lively conversation with Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft in London, and Julie Deane, the inspiring founder and CEO of Cambridge Satchels Co.
Saragosa: We’re joined by technology journalist, Alison van Diggelen…Alison, we could almost say you’re at the epicenter of the digital deluge there in Silicon Valley…Do you get nervous when you’re not online?
van Diggelen: Yes, I can… (some days) I’m constantly checking my iPhone, for emails, texts, twitter feed, Facebook…the whole thing. When I’ve just released a story (or interview) that I think is going to be reverberating around Silicon Valley and beyond, then I’m constantly checking: who’s reading it, who’s reacting to it…so yes, it can be like an addiction.
Here are some highlights that might help you deal with your digital overload.
1. Don’t multitask
Coplin: Multitasking is a computer-based concept, it’s not a human concept. We’re actually a third less efficient as human beings when we try to do more things at once. The mistake that most people make is that they drift into checking their email at their child’s swimming lesson…as soon as you do that, you’re choosing to disconnect from the experience you’re actually at. (Instead) make that a conscious choice about how you’re going to use the technology.
2. Be your own curator
van Diggelen: Silicon Valley is full of tech obsessed people, competitive Type A personalities, who want to change the world. Being connected and having a strong Internet presence is very important here. It is a case of being disciplined, we have to be our own curators. It is so easy to go down a rabbit hole of information, get distracted by some pop-up, some titillating story on the web. In Silicon Valley there are a lot of tools that people are using. Ironically, people are turning to digital tools to digitally detox.
Coplin: People complain about having too much information, but then say how valuable information is…the thing that can enable us to transform our businesses, to enrich our lives. The problem is we just lack the development of the tools to be able to… sort the useful from the useless.
3. Go inside yourself
van Diggelen: At Google there is a meditation guru, and his title is Chief Happiness Officer, he’s written a book called Search Inside Yourself, and he is leading a drive at Google and beyond…we need to take time to meditate… and get away from all the craziness that’s on the surface…It’s pretty hot and growing here. A lot of Silicon Valley CEO’s like (Salesforce’s) Marc Benioff and Ev Williams (one of the cofounders of Twitter), they’re coming out of the closet and saying: hey, we’ve been doing mindfulness for years and this is a great way to center ourselves, be more creative and be more productive.
Coplin: Mindfulness is big in the UK. But being British, we have a much more pragmatic approach to it…
Saragosa: Cynical, you could say…
Coplin: It’s about being in the moment. How many times do you sit in a meetings…allegedly taking notes but in reality, catching up on emails? Be in the meeting. How many times do you sit in a pub or cafe with your friends …checking your friends’ (Facebook) status. You’re there. Be in the moment. Things like Twitter and Facebook…it’s a fast flowing river, and from the moment you stand on the river bank you can enjoy watching the river go by…
See more BBC Conversations on the Dalai Lama, the Business case for Scottish independence and the greening of Silicon Valley.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
It’s no secret that cleantech has taken a bashing in the last few years, yet Andrew Chung, a partner at Khosla Ventures is still bullish about the sector’s prospects and convinced that it makes sense long-term, both domestically and globally. During our recent hour-long conversation, he admits that “keeping the cleantech fire burning” is the first thing he thinks about when he wakes in the morning.
“The number one thing is to ensure the cleantech industry continues to survive and thrive,” says Chung. He cites several companies in his portfolio that recently raised large rounds at strong valuations.
Keeping the fire burning? It’s curious imagery for someone focused on clean energy; and technologies that lower our carbon footprint. I imagine him cheerfully stoking a bonfire, plumes of black smoke filling the air.
“Would you like to qualify that?” I ask.
He chuckles, “Yes…we would capture the carbon created by the fire and transform it into something else.”
It’s a fitting segue into one of his favorite investments: LanzaTech, a company that happens to do just that. It takes carbon capture one step further, capturing waste gases like carbon monoxide from heavily polluting steel plants and converting them into “valuable fuel and chemicals.”
He calls it one of his Black Swans – highly improbable investments, that are not incremental improvements on business as usual, but giant technological leaps.
“This is cleantech done right,” Chung says. “The technology is so compelling.”
So compelling that the company recently announced a joint venture with Baosteel, a major steelmaker in China, which is investing in a new commercial facility due to come online in 2015. LanzaTech’s zero capital contribution to the deal means it can continue to scale up and pursue other partnerships in Japan, Europe, India and Russia.
I was curious to learn who helped with the initial discussions to broker the deal? None other than former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Those paying close attention to Khosla Ventures will remember he joined the team as a strategic advisor in 2010.
So what makes it such a compelling deal? Chung calls it a confluence of events. The blanket of smoke over Shanghai being a palpable one, leading to pressure from the Chinese government on major polluters like steel makers to clean up their act. There’s also the global ambition of many Chinese businesses who view such partnerships as strategic moves.
Societal tensions add to the pressure to solve China’s huge environmental problem. Even Jack Ma, China’s Andrew Carnegie is focusing his new philanthropic trust on health and the environment.
You’ll notice that the United States is conspicuously absent from LanzaTech’s partnership list. That fact is also at the top of Chung’s mind. Several of the potentially transformative technology companies he backs are finding it easier to get global partners than American ones.
“How do we communicate this message to D.C.?” says Chung. “If technology is not supported here, it will leave our shores.”
Chung feels the regulatory environment means that American companies are more complacent and have less appetite to take risks. He cites the U.S. car industry where employees get bonuses whether or not they achieve product improvements.
“It needs a regulatory push to compel them to take greater risk,” says Chung. “We don’t have the dire need like in China where (almost) 1 million people are dying of pollution every year.”
KINDRED SPIRITS OF ELON MUSK
Talking of risk taking, Chung sees himself and his boss Vinod Khosla as kindred spirits of Elon Musk, who staked all his PayPal wealth on transforming the electric car sector with Tesla Motors.
“It’s a major cleantech success story,” says Chung. “Elon deserves a lot of credit…he stepped on the gas when others were giving up.”
What makes them kindred spirits? It’s more than just their strong belief in technology explains Chung. He quotes Irish playwright and cofounder of the London School of Economics, George Bernard Shaw:
“All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
“So are you and Vinod Khosla unreasonable?” I ask.
Chung laughs. “We are contrarians!” he says. “We’re willing to do what it takes.”
He points to Khosla’s investment in Ecomotors, an internal combustion engine targetting energy efficiency gains of up to 50%. The company also has backing from Bill Gates and entered into two joint venture partnerships to build plants in China, deals involving hundreds of millions of dollars. He anticipates 200,000 engines for cars and diesel generators will roll off the production lines by the end of 2016.
“We’re addressing the transport problem from both angles,” says Chung. “We are focused on the electric revolution…battery technology investments. EcoMotors is a hedge to reflect the 99% (of the transport sector) that’s not yet electricity…electric vehicle infrastructure is still a challenge.”
SINGING FOR THE WORLD
We finally touch on what Chung calls his “secret identity,” his singing career. A finalist in Hong Kong’s version of American Idol, Chung says he has no regrets about choosing business over a singing career. Although he enjoys “bringing joy” to an audience, he’s very aware that it’s fleeting. Such momentary joy pales in comparison to his goal of having a major societal impact, or as he puts it, “Enabling 5 billion people to live like 1 billion do now.”
Chung plans to continue singing the praises of disruptive cleantech innovation. He’s firmly committed to keeping that cleantech fire burning.
See a Fresh Dialogues interview with Andrew Chung