There’s nothing that Silicon Valley likes better than a big problem to solve. But with California’s historic drought and mandatory water restrictions in place, can Silicon Valley tech alone rescue the Golden State from going dusty brown?
The BBC invited me to share another Letter from Silicon Valley about Tech in the Time of Drought. Smart water meters, drone surveillance and soil monitoring etc. can help save water, but Californians are also leveraging tech to shame their neighbors – and celebrities – into saving water. Not surprisingly, #droughtshaming is trending on Twitter. This week, actor Tom Selleck has been sued for stealing water from a public fire hydrant in LA.
The BBC’s Manuela Saragosa hosted the show. Here’s her introduction:
Saragosa: One of California’s biggest problems at the moment is drought. So can Silicon Valley’s technology sector rescue the state from going dusty brown? Alison van Diggelen is there, and sent this report:
BBC Letter From Silicon Valley by Alison van Diggelen: Tech in the Time of Drought
In January, Bill Gates famously took a sip of water that minutes before was raw human sewage. As the cameras clicked in Washington State, he drank and smiled like the Cheshire cat. Eeewwww, you’re probably saying, but let’s dive a little deeper into what this innovation means.
Gates’s smile speaks volumes about “tech in the time of extreme drought.” Not only did Gates give the ultimate endorsement for a waste treatment startup he’s backing, it demonstrates an important Silicon Valley mantra: for every problem we face, there’s a tech solution. The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity.
And right now, California is in its 4th year of serious drought. Experts are calling our water crisis “the new norm.” And it’s part of a global problem. This year, for the first time, the World Economic Forum ranked water crises the number one danger in its Global Risk Report, above nuclear threats and global pandemics.
Silicon Valley startups are scrambling to find solutions: from Watersmart, a software management system that encourages water conservation; to mOasis, a soil additive that maximizes crop harvests with minimal water. Plans for massive desalination plants are also moving ahead.
Since farmers use 80% of California’s water, tech solutions that impact agriculture are especially valuable.
But tech solutions can’t do it alone.
I recently visited the high desert state of New Mexico. As we flew over endless miles of parched land, I wondered, is this the future of California? I toured the Earthship headquarters where they are building radical eco homes, completely off the grid. With 8 inches of rain a year, residents are fanatical about water conservation, and they reuse every drop of water four or five times. Earthship roofs are designed for optimum rain and snow catchment and feed directly into massive holding tanks. They wouldn’t dream of having a bath, never mind using potablewater to flush the loo.
It was a vivid reminder that this crisis requires both low and high tech solutions; and we also need to adjust our mindsets.
A study by UCLA found that wealthier neighborhoods in LA use three times more water than others. A utilities manager in Newport Beach reported that some people – believe it or not – still don’t know that we’re in a drought.
Those with a cavalier attitude to water use in California will be forced to change. Soon, water districts can be fined up to $10,000 a day if they don’t reduce water use by 25%, on average. Residents here are bracing for a surge in water prices and potential fines. Installing greywater systems and replacing lawns with drought tolerant plants are becoming de rigueur.
As is drought shaming. Californians are using social media to shame their neighbors and target celebrities about wasting water. There’s even a drought shaming app that geo-tags photos so authorities can take action.
Ultimately, Silicon Valley’s tech solutions will help address this water crisis, but California will have to take action on all fronts. By adopting, and experimenting with a firehose of ideas from innovative minds* Silicon Valley could offer lessons for the whole world, as the impacts of climate change and water shortages grow.
*Tesla’s Elon Musk says he’s investigating a water saving solution using California aqueducts. Watch this space for updates.
Many people worry about the consequences of tech innovation, in particular: how will automation and robots impact our jobs? I sat down to explore the impact of robots and the chance of “robo-apocalypse” with social robot pioneer Cynthia Breazeal, founder of the Jibo Robot and professor at MIT. Jibo is a desk top robot that acts like a personal assistant for the family. It can see, hear, speak, dance, and according to its makers, it can even “relate to people.” Imagine a cross between R2D2, an iPad and the Pixar lamp. Breazeal explains how she sees the big “value add” of social robots and why she thinks the potential unintended consequences of robots demands a thoughtful dialogue between robot experts.
Excerpts of this interview were featured on my BBC World Service Report: Elon Musk, Cynthia Breazeal Explain Why Robots Are Coming To Your Home
Here are highlights of our discussion (comments have been shortened for length and clarity):
van Diggelen: Will robots take our jobs, and why are we obsessed by that?
Breazeal: When robotics first came onto the market, it was about replacing human labor, so that’s been the assumption: When any robot is introduced, “it’s about replacing people.”
Social robotics as a whole research discipline has been about a very different paradigm, which is about partnership. It’s about robots that can support and collaborate with people. Jibo is not being designed to replace anyone or anything. Sometimes peole talk about it’s going to replace my dog….it’s not about that. Jibo creates a different kind of relationship.
van Diggelen: What is Jibo?
Breazeal: Jibo breaks down barriers (for people uncomfortable with tech gadgets) by feeling much more like a someone than a something. In my research at MIT, we’ve put very sophisticated humanoid robots, you name it, but when you create that experience for people, that familiar, warm experience, people respond to it. I think Jibo has an appeal across a much broader demographic.
Jibo is about supporting the family, supporting those who help care for the family, doctors and nurses…helps make the whole human and technological network stronger and better able to serve human values. That’s the big “value add” of this kind of technology and that’s certainly where my heart is because certainly as a mom, I completely understand the value and importance of the human connection and the human relationships. And we have human responsibilities to each other. Technology should not be mitigating that or interfering with that. We want technology to really support that.
Breazeal: In many ways, it’s a tool that we use as a culture to ask the question: What does it mean to be human? I really think it stems from that. So whether it’s aliens or killer viruses or robots, it is that “otherness” that pushes up against our humanity; that causes us to reflect upon the human condition. For robots, because they have existed in our science fiction long before we could actually build them, this is our cultural undercurrent people can’t help but go there no matter what.
van Diggelen: But the difference is, it’s not some luddites who’re saying this: it’s people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates…warning people about the dangers of artificial intelligence.
Breazeal: Right so…there’s a difference between the apocalypse versus there could be unintended consequences that we need to be mindful of. So I’m agreeing that with any technology capable of tremendous impact on how we live our lives, there’s always those two sectors. Certainly with robotics, I certainly believe that it’s going to become a pervasive technology in our lives, so it is worth considering, how do we go for the good and avoid the bad?
van Diggelen: But how do you do that? From where you’re sitting, does it need government regulation, standards? What’s the best way to proceed?
Breazeal: I’m not sure we honestly know…the bottom line is: it starts with us and having thoughtful dialogue and discussion to try to really understand what the opportunities and the unintended consequences really could be, before we start jumping to conclusions. I think the most important thing we can do right now is to have this thoughtful dialogue. Even things we started off with, like peoples’ assumptions (that) all robots are about replacing people versus this other side: robots are about supporting people.
The new Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance will “likely serve as the definitive account” of the most successful entrepreneur in the world, writes Jon Gertner in the New York Times. But it can also be read as a manual of how to succeed in business. Here are six big lessons for entrepreneurs, young and old:
1. Think Big
While Musk was at college, he decided the three things that would have the biggest positive impact on the human race were: sustainable energy, the Internet, and making life multi-planetary.
Here’s how Vance describes Musk’s big thinking:
“What Musk has developed that so many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley lack is a meaningful worldview. He’s the possessed genius on the grandest quest anyone has ever concocted. He’s less a CEO chasing riches than a general marshaling troops to secure victory. Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to…well…save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.”
This passage comes early in the book, and feels as though Vance has been drinking Musk’s Kool Aid. By the last page, however, he’s painted a vivid and balanced picture of a driven man, focused intently on changing the world in a big way, no matter the cost to himself or his family (see No.6 below). So, if you want to succeed like Elon Musk, don’t waste time building a widget that’ll be 10% better than the competition:
Think big, really big, and go for it.
2. Learn to be a Better Boss
Elon Musk was ousted as CEO from two early startups Zip2 and X.com (the precursor to PayPal) because he was a bad boss. In his early days, Musk was a controlling, micro-manager whose “one upmanship” tactics were brutal.
“Musk’s traits as a confrontational know-it-all and his abundant ego created deep, lasting fractures within his companies.”
According to a colleague at Zip2, he’d rip into junior and senior executives alike, especially when employees told him that his demands were impossible.
“You would see people come out of the meetings with this disgusted look on their face…You don’t get to where Elon is now by always being a nice guy, and he was just so driven and sure of himself.”
These days, he’s still very demanding but has got better at being a decent boss at Tesla and SpaceX and his longtime employees are fiercely loyal.
Of course, part of being a good boss is inspiring your team with an awesome mission (see No.1 above) and articulating that clearly. Early employees of SpaceX were told that “the mission would be to emerge as the South-west Airlines* of Space.” More recently of course, the Mars mission dominates the company’s focus. Who wouldn’t be on board with the mind-blowing goal of making humans a multi-planetary species?
So don’t fret if you’re not getting “Boss of the Year” awards in your early days, but learn from your mistakes, and motivate your team with a grand vision.
3. Hire with Care, Fire fast
Musk is renowned for hiring top talent and for several years, he even insisted on personally interviewing employees fairly low on the totem pole. For key technical hires, once he decides he wants someone, he’ll go above and beyond to hire them. He even cold-calls them himself. A SpaceX employee recalls receiving a call from Musk in his college dorm room and thinking it was a prank call.
But on the flip side, if you’re not a fit for the team, then you’ll soon know about it, according to Steve Jurvetson, a Tesla, SpaceX board member and close ally to Musk.
“Like (Steve) Jobs, Elon does not tolerate C or D players. He’s like Jobs in that neither of them suffer fools. But I’d say he’s nicer than Jobs and a bit more refined than Bill Gates.”
The lesson: hire strategically with great care, and if an employee doesn’t fit, don’t wait.
Some of his “bombastic counteroffensives” worked, others were arguably counter productive and alienated potential allies and supporters.
Yet Vance also offers a more sympathetic interpretation of his tirades as “a quest for truth” as opposed to pure vindictiveness. As Vance writes,
“Musk is wired like a scientist and suffers mental anguish at the sight of a factual error. A mistake on a printed page would gnaw at his soul – forever.”
Although taking things personally and seeking war has generally worked for Musk, it’s a highly risky strategy. Setting the record straight is one thing, but how many bridges can you burn? One key consideration is this: going to war demands a lot of time and energy which might be better spent on getting your mission accomplished.
Choose your battles carefully.
5. Have a trusted assistant
Ashley Vance describes Musk’s long-time assistant Mary Beth Brown as:
“A now-legendary character in the lore of both SpaceX and Tesla….establishing a real-life version of the relationship between Iron Man’s Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. If Musk worked a twenty hour day, so too did Mary Beth…She would emerge as the only bridge between Musk and all of his interests and was an invaluable asset to the companies’ employees.”
Sadly for Musk, she’s now moved on, but having worked with her briefly in 2012/13 (to arrange an in-depth interview with Musk), I can attest that she was very charming and an excellent surrogate for Musk. She represented him well in a professional and personal capacity.
Read more about her in the biography and try find someone as loyal, talented and hard-working to be your right-hand man or woman. Good luck!
6. Work hard, very hard
Not only does Musk lead two hard-driving companies (which are 300 miles apart) – SpaceX (L.A.) and Tesla (Silicon Valley) – he’s chairman of SolarCity, and has five boys, two ex-wives and a tight circle of friends, that includes Google’s Larry Page. He claims to sleep an average of six hours a night, but almost every waking hour is devoted to his businesses. His ex-wife Justine Musk, describes his work ethic like this:
“I had friends who complained that their husbands came home at seven or eight. Elon would come home at eleven and work some more. People didn’t always get the sacrifice he made in order to be where he was. He does what he wants, and he is relentless about it. It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us live in it.”
The only regular downtime he allows is to indulge in long showers, but even then, it’s really work. He says that’s when he has most of his innovative ideas.
So, the lesson for you is the same as that espoused by pioneering giants like Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie: there’s nothing like good old fashioned hard work.
Note: Although Musk comes over as a hard-driving maniac in this biography, he does have a more sensitive side. You can see this for yourself in this candid interview. He comes close to tears several times.
Yet the biography is already courting controversy. Today Musk said one passage about his attitude to employees and childbirth was “total BS and hurtful.” He addedthat Vance’s book was “not independently fact-checked” and should be taken “[with] a grain of salt.”
So is there a definitive guide to Musk’s remarkable life? One that doesn’t need fact checked or taken with a grain of salt? You could start with a description of his life from the man himself.
As far as I know, this is the first time Elon Musk has shared his whole life story, so candidly, even tearfully, in front of a live audience.
Watch the video or read the transcript, as Musk takes us on a journey from the suburban streets of South Africa to the tech mecca of Silicon Valley…and beyond. He tells us about his teenage “existential crisis” and his bookish quest for the meaning of life; how the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle both upset him and inspired his space transport startup SpaceX; and why he became the reluctant CEO of electric car company Tesla Motors.
Interview highlights and key turning points in his career:
The Rebellious Child: Musk grew up in South Africa. At age 6, he desperately wanted to attend his cousin’s birthday party, but was grounded for some long-forgotten transgression. How did he get there? (This was probably the first of his many rule-breaking adventures.)
“It was clear across town, 10 or 12 miles away, further than I realized actually, but I just started walking…I think it took me about four hours…My mother freaked out.”
The Iron Man Inspiration: He was a huge fan of comics and read Iron Man comics. Did he ever imagine he’d be the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s movie character, Tony Stark?
“I did not. I would have said zero percent chance…I wasn’t all that much of a loner…at least not willingly. I was very very bookish.”
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: How did the novel fire his imagination?
“I was around 12 or 15…I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? …I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. To the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.”
Why was Silicon Valley his mecca at age 17?
“Whenever I read about cool technology, it would tend to be in the United States…I wanted to be where the cutting edge technology was and of course, Silicon Valley is where the heart of things is…it sounded like some mythical place.”
Why did his startup X.com (the precursor to PayPal) come close to dying in 2000?
“The growth in the company was pretty crazy…by the end of the first four or five weeks we had a hundred thousand customers and it wasn’t all good…we had some bugs in the software…Various financial regulatory agencies were trying to shut us down, Visa and Mastercard were trying to shut us down, eBay…the FTC…there were a lot of battles there. (But) we had a really talented group of people at PayPal…It worked out better than we expected.”
After making over $150M from PayPal, why not just buy an island and relax?
“The idea of lying on a beach as my main thing sounds horrible to me…I would go bonkers. I’d have to be on serious drugs…I’d be super duper bored…I like high intensity.”
On the seeds of SpaceX
“I always thought that we’d make much more progress in space…and it just didn’t happen…it was really disappointing, so I was really quite bothered by it. So when we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we were supposed to send people to Mars and that stuff just didn’t happen. We went backwards. I thought, well maybe it’s a question of there not being enough intention or ‘will’ to do this. This was a wrong assumption. That’s the reason for the greenhouse idea…if there could be a small philanthropic mission to Mars…a small greenhouse with seeds and dehydrated nutrients, you’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine the money shot. I thought this would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…”
On negotiations with the Russian military to buy two ICBMs
“They just thought I was crazy…I had three quite interesting trips to Russia to try to negotiate purchase of two Russian ICBMs…minus the nukes…I slightly got the feeling that was on the table, which was very alarming. Those were very weird meetings with the Russian military…’remarkably capitalist’ was my impression (of the Russians).”
Why he chose to create his own rocket company, SpaceX
“I came to the conclusion that my initial premise was wrong that in fact that there’s a great deal of will, there’s not such a shortage. But people don’t think there’s a way. And if people thought there was a way or something that wouldn’t break the federal budget, then people would support it. The United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. People came here from other places…people need to believe that it’s possible, so I thought it’s a question of showing people that there’s a way…There wasn’t really a good reason for rockets to be so expensive. If one could make them reusable, like airplanes then the cost of rocketry (and space travel) would drop dramatically.”
How did the vigils for the death of the EV 1 help inspire Tesla Motors?
“It’s crazy. When was the last time you heard about any company, customers holding a candlelight vigil for the demise of that product? Particularly a GM product? I mean, what bigger wake-up call do you need? Like hello, the customers are really upset about this…that kind of blew my mind.”
“I tried really hard not to be the CEO of two startups at the same time…It’s not appealing and shouldn’t be appealing if anyone thinks that’s a good idea. It’s a terrible idea.”
On the idea for SolarCity
“Solar is the obvious primary means of sustainable energy generation…in fact, the earth is almost entirely solar powered today. The only reason we’re not a frozen ice-ball at 3 degrees Kelvin is because of the sun…”
Check back soon for more from Musk on:
where his inspiration strikes (hint: not just Burning Man)
how to build, motivate and retain an excellent team
Here are some highlights of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Fergus Nicholl: Elon Musk…you’ve met the man. How would you introduce him to a global audience?
Alison van Diggelen: He is a genius inventor…the (Thomas) Edison of our day…incredibly sharp minded, a big old geek, but he’s very personable. He has grand visions and wants to make it happen…he has the ability to paint a picture, and motivate a team and build a team. He’s changed the world of electric vehicles and he’s now planning to change the world of power, utilities and battery storage.
Fergus Nicholl: That is an application that would apply in many many countries, beyond India. The idea that you could weather blackouts, brownouts…you’re saying you could bank it, use it when you need it and not necessarily get hit by little domestic crises?
Revathy Ashok: Absolutely. It’s pretty common in India for a normal household to have a one to three hour battery back up.For the last 12 hours it’s been raining heavily…we’ve had no power at all, so all connectivity is lost. I have three hours of battery backup which is all gone…
Alison van Diggelen: The main idea is, if you’ve got solar panels on your roof, or windpower, your house can become a power station with the addition of these batteries. No matter what natural disaster, earthquake etc. is happening, you will have a reliable source of power. You won’t need the utility anymore. You can just disconnect from the grid, go “off-grid.” So that’s the huge potential and that’s why people are really excited about tonight’s announcement.
Fergus Nicholl: The Gigafactory (in Nevada)…tell us more about it…a net zero energy factory…it’s quite an extraordinary project.
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, a net zero energy project means it will be solar powered itself and will produce as much energy as it uses to make these batteries. It’s definitely quite revolutionary and has Elon Musk’s fingers all over it.
Fergus Nicholl: In this picture, the entire roof is vast solar panels, kind of like a solar farm laid perfectly flat. I guess Nevada is probably the best place to be for that?
Alison van Diggelen: Indeed, several states were actually fighting over it. California was hoping to get it too, but Nevada won out because they gave some very juicy incentives…The Gigafactory will produce more batteries, once it’s fully operational, than the world’s supply of batteries in 2013. That’s what they’re predicting. It’s a mind blowing amount of batteries and Tesla board member, Steve Jurvetson told me they’re planning to build more Gigafactories around the world, once this one is operational. As well as being Net Zero, they’re going to be creating a lot of employment, so there will be a lot of communities wanting them in their back yard too.
Fergus Nicholl: They’ll be lining up in different countries…
Note: We didn’t have time to discuss the competition that Tesla will face in the battery storage space. There are already major players like Samsung, LG Chem and Mitsubishi working on energy storage solutions and a slice of what Deutsche Bank estimates is a $4.5Bn market. The question is, will Tesla’s strong brand and reputation for quality emulate what Apple achieved in the cellphone market, and leapfrog over the existing competition? In his usual hyperbolic (Steve Jobs) fashion, Elon Musk said last night that “existing battery solutions suck.” But the success of his high risk venture in the energy storage market will depend on swift execution and competitive pricing that makes the Tesla Powerwall a viable solution for a wide spectrum of potential buyers, from wealthy consumers and businesses in California to rural communities in India, Africa and beyond.