Pablos Holman: Renowned Hacker, Inventor, Top Tech Futurist On Innovation, AI, Big Data, Blockchain And IoT
Pablos Holman is one of the most renowned hackers in the world, an inspiring technology futurist, and an inventor with over 70 patents. He has a unique view into problem-solving and breaking, then building new technologies – talents he used for more than a decade at the Intellectual Ventures Lab in Seattle, where 150 scientists and engineers are inventing solutions to world’s biggest problems.
Pablos’ TED talks have gone viral totaling over 27 Million views. He has spoken for the World Economic Forum at Davos, the United Nations, and many other world-famous events.
Pablos has worked on a wide variety of futuristic impact invention projects to solve world-sized problems, including: for Bill Gates, a machine to suppress hurricanes and a device that shoots mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers to help eradicate malaria. He also built spaceships with Jeff Bezos, invented the first 3D printer to ever print food, and helped create the #1 selling 3D printer in the world, the Makerbot.
In this conversation, we dive into the innovation mindset for businesses in today’s world as well as discussing powerful technologies including: Space Travel, Artificial Intelligence, Computational Modeling/ Big Data and how it will soon help businesses greatly, Blockchain, Crypto-Currency, and Cyber Security.
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Pablos Holman: Renowned Hacker, Inventor, Top Tech Futurist On Innovation, AI, Big Data, Blockchain And IoT
Joining me is Pablos Holman, one of the most renowned hackers in the world, an inspiring technology futurist, and an inventor with over 70 patents. He has a unique view into problem-solving, breaking, and then building new technologies, talents he used for more than a decade at the Intellectual Ventures Lab in Seattle where 150 scientists and engineers are inventing solutions to the world’s biggest problems. His TED Talks have gone viral, totaling over 27 million views. He’s spoken for the World Economic Forum at Davos, the United Nations, and many other world-famous events.
Pablos has worked on a wide variety of futuristic impact invention projects to solve world size problems, including for Bill Gates, a machine to suppress hurricanes and a device that shoots mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers to help eradicate malaria. He also built spaceships with Jeff Bezos and he invented the first 3D printer to ever print food as well as helping to create the number one selling 3D printer in the world, the Makerbot.
I’m excited about the conversation we’re going to have, where we’re going to dive into the innovation mindset for businesses in nowaday’s world, as well as discussing powerful technologies including space travel, artificial intelligence, computational modeling or big data, and how it will soon help businesses greatly. The blockchain, cryptocurrency, and cybersecurity. Pablos inspires people to create solutions and to invent. Come with me as we take a look at the world through the eyes of a hacker.
Pablos Holman, thank you for joining me on Virtually Speaking. How are you doing?
I’m doing great. How are you?
I’m doing as well as can be, thank you much, here in Los Angeles and you’re up there in Seattle. How’s the weather? It looks sunny.
It’s always sunny in Seattle.
My dad had a joke. My wife is from Seattle, and he would always tell her and her family, “Did you know that it rains every single day somewhere in Seattle?”
We say that to keep people from moving here.
It’s a gorgeous city. You’re in your loft studio, warehouse, garage, invention place with your Apple IIe. Is that an Apple IIe in the background?
It’s an Apple II Plus which is the predecessor to the Apple IIe. That’s the computer I grew up with.
I had that one too but I don’t think I figured out how to use it as well as you did.
You also had a drum kit, which I didn’t have. I didn’t have anything to distract me from the computer, unfortunately.
I was pretending to be cool by learning how to do the drums.
That’s much cooler. No one thought computers were cool.
You worked on building spaceships with Jeff Bezos years ago.
Back in 2001, we started Blue Origin, which is essentially the first privately funded space program in human history. Even before SpaceX and things people have heard more of, I suppose. We were researching different ways of getting into space and eventually decided to build a big rocket and that’s what Blue Origin has been doing ever since. They created the fourth rocket technology ever developed for going to space.
They have a cool rocket that can do vertical takeoff and landing now and they’re trying to figure out how to get humans in space, which is pretty awesome. When humans outgrow the one planet that we’re on, which is absolutely the best planet, that’s why we call it Blue Origin. This is the blue planet. This is the best one to be on but we’re making a lot more humans than we know what to do with. We’re not making any more planets so ultimately, it’s a long-term vision but if you try to get your head around, what would it be to have a trillion humans thriving in space, exploring, developing space colonies, and living in other galaxies.We have to recognize that there are things beyond medicine and surgery that work. Click To Tweet
That’s what Jeff Bezos wants to accomplish?
In the long run, that’s what humans want to accomplish. We are explorers and that’s true in some sense for every species. We’re wired to want to grow and expand, perpetuate our species, and take it further. There’s no evidence that we’re done with that. It’s certainly a grander ambition type of vision and most people could ever devote themselves to or even get their head around. That’s the idea. If you think about the implications of that, it’s a good way to help reframe your mindset because a lot of our problems these days are people fixated on short-term problems and acute problems. It makes you depressed, sad, and frustrated because a lot of those problems can’t be fixed in days, weeks, months, or even in one lifetime.
If you start with a vision of 100 generations from now, my grandkids’ grandkids’ grandkids all the way down are going to be living on another planet. What do I have to do to lay the groundwork for that? My goal, what would I do in my lifetime to make sure that this planet can last that long and we can set a course for humanity that goes there. I’m not saying it’s the most important thing for everybody but if you had the opportunity to think on that long time horizon, it’s a pretty amazing and wonderful thing for some humans to do.
Even thinking ten years in advance is a challenge.
Most people can’t do it.
That’s something that we’ve been forced to do with this COVID crisis. It’s to fast forward the next couple of years in a short amount of time. I’m hearing people talk more a lot about that.
In some cases, it’s more. A lot of that comes from the fact that there’s a lot of things we should have been doing for the last couple of years that we didn’t do. We could have been doing a better job of preparing ourselves to both prevent this situation and prevent a virus from having such deep effects on the world. Also, we could have been preparing for a better response and we didn’t do it. We’re busy watching it.
Did you see that coming? There’s a famous quote that I like to use that I’ve known about for many years that is an appropriate quote for today by a guy named Kevin Slavin who you and I lot of know. It’s amazing. You’ve got to know this, everyone, “Pablos is a spy that we send to our own future to find out what they know and help us catch up. When you have to pick five people to bring with you into a bunker until the fallout subsides, pick Pablos and four others like him. The problem is there’s no one else like him.” That’s Kevin’s quote. We’re in the bunker with you now and the question is, you’ve been to the future and you know the future. What have you seen? What are we looking at here with the acceleration of everything right now?
The reason he would say that is there’s a lot of different things that you want to be able to do in the chaos. You need people who are comfortable with the uncertainty and good at figuring out what’s possible instead of doing what’s always been done.
I remember having a conversation with you a couple of years ago about AI. I said that everybody is so afraid of AI. Everybody is afraid that AI is going to defeat their business, it’s going to take over, it’s going to get people fired, and they’re not going to need people anymore. You painted a picture that was much more inspiring with AI that it is a helpful thing. What technologies do you see out there now that are underutilized that are going to be everywhere and the main part of society that hasn’t been adopted yet? Also, what are you most excited about with those technologies?
If I remember that conversation correctly, you were asking about AI because people are panicking about it. I was saying, “Don’t even worry about AI. You should worry about pandemics.” I hope that people are learning right now that it would be much better if you had a robot delivering your food than a human. Right now is a good time to reorient your thinking and say, “Robots, automation, and artificial intelligence are not the threat. That’s not the problem. Those are tools to help us create a future that we want.”
“We’re going to all get fired and we’re all going to lose our jobs. There’s going to be automated drivers and there won’t be drivers anymore.”
We got fired already. Look around you. Most people’s businesses don’t operate now. You don’t have a job, you don’t have a career, and you don’t get to go to work. Most people are not able to. Even if you go to work, you’re doing it from home in your pajamas. You’re probably not even wearing pants now. We’re pretending to do our jobs because we’re hoping the world goes back to normal. That’s a real problem. If we could use these technologies to help us reorient, help us get back on track faster, and build a future that we’re a virus that can’t bring us down, that’s much more powerful. That’s what we need to be thinking about.
The truth is, people have been put out of jobs by new technology since the invention of fire. Every time, we’ve created more jobs. I don’t think we’re being rational in any way when we look at this problem. In 2020, everybody was panicking in self-driving cars were going to cause self-driving trucks and that would cause 250,000 truck drivers to lose their job. In 2020, there were 50,000 open truck driver jobs in America. Now, it’s more. Those are jobs that we can’t fill. It’s 50,000 jobs and they started about $50,000 a year. That’s not too bad.
That’s not a bad job to have.
It’s more than I’m making right now. We get ourselves spun up about these scary stories. It’s easy to get terrified and have these dystopian stories and Hollywood loves to sell them to you because people like to buy scary stories.
The news will sell you the fear as well.
It’s all fear.
You told me also years ago, which I never forgot, “Don’t read the news.”
The news is not news. The news is a dopamine machine that is trying to get you hooked on being terrified every day. Every day it gives you something else to be terrified about. It’s much better if you want to read the news, read the news from ten years ago. Go look back ten years ago, the stuff people were panicking about. It’s hard to find an article that will get you spun up because you’ll see that the news that everybody was freaking out about, the election, and problems they’re freaking out about didn’t turn out to be such a big deal. They’re not freaking out about it now. If that doesn’t work, then look to the future and say, “Is the stuff that I’m freaking out about this week likely going to be a big deal next year?” Probably not, “In ten years?” Definitely not.
What are you most excited about? I’m excited to hear you.
Let me explain one thing because this is important to understand. I’ll try to be brief. One of the major tools we use at the lab is computational modeling. What that means is I can create a simulation of the world or part of the world or a simulation of a business. Think of SimCity, that’s a simulation of a city. If you have SimCity what you could do is run a bunch of experiments. What happens if I put a stoplight here? What happens if I open up a shopping mall there? What happens if I change the law around parking or increase the rates? You can test all that in SimCity. We build simulations like that for other things. That’s how we designed our nuclear reactor. We built the simulation and we got to model what happens to the neutrons in the reactor core.
Did you build a nuclear reactor?
At the lab, we invented a new type of nuclear reactor called the Terror Power Reactor which is powered by nuclear waste. It’s a modern and safe nuclear reactor that’s much more efficient. It’s possible because we have giant supercomputers we can use to test the designs and prove that they’re efficient and safe. We also use the same technology for computational modeling to do disease modeling to make a model the spread of disease largely in the developing world. We’re able to do that. Here’s an example of the successes. Do you remember the first Ebola outbreak?
Twelve thousand lives were lost. In the second Ebola outbreak, only twelve lives were lost. That’s three orders of magnitude improvement in a couple of years. We’ve lost a little ground since then but the reason it was possible in part is because we’re able to use computational models to optimize what is called Ring Vaccination Campaigns. It was a way of containing a bola before it spread too far. We were able to do that using computers. That’s possible for everything in the world. It would have been possible to do that with COVID. Imagine how much better the world would be now if we had done that for COVID and contained it early and before it spread out from Wuhan.
We’d all be enjoying ourselves. That possibility exists. That requires humans to develop these tools to use them aggressively and to develop response mechanisms. That’s what we were able to do with Ebola which is much worse than COVID and we didn’t do it here. What I’m saying is, these technologies didn’t exist. This is new for humans in the last couple of years. These supercomputers are massive, incredibly capable, and they’re cheap. Anybody can rent them by the minute from Amazon. You could have a computational model simulating your business or industry.
Imagine what that would be for almost any industry and all the readers what that means for you. Imagine if you had a simulation of your business on a computer, then you could ask it questions, “What would happen if I spent more on marketing? What would happen if I was able to find a source for these materials that were a little cheaper? What would happen if a pandemic shut down my business for a year?” You can ask questions like and that the computer can tell you what’s possible. It can go and compute all the possible futures and let you choose the one you want.
Anybody can use this technology?
That toolkit exists for humans now. These are real. I’m not talking about anything science fiction. I’m not explaining something that requires miraculous inventions. This is what exists now and what we’ve been doing in the lab for the last couple of years but the problem is these sound complicated and scary. This is what we mean when we say Big Data, Data Science, Computational Modeling, and all those kinds of things. The big businesses are starting to use them but we don’t have easy tools yet. We don’t have Excel for big data. That’s what’s got to come next.
We need to develop tools that make it easier for guys like you to model your business. Right now you can do it but you need to hire data scientists, which are expensive and hard to get. That’s how we do it industrially. If it’s a small business, a business like yours, a restaurant, or whatever, it’s inaccessible. The computational ability is there and it’s cheap but the know-how isn’t there yet for everybody. As those tools become more and more accessible, which is exactly what’s happening now. The tech industry is trying to make these tools available to everybody. As that happens, we need to start doing a better job of simulating our businesses running all these experiments in software thousands of times before we ever do it in the real world.
I’m a little confused because you said, on Amazon, you can get it and it’s inexpensive, and then you said it was inaccessible.
It’s like saying that anybody could go to Sears and buy all the tools to work on their car but they still don’t know how to do it.
You have to enter all the information the right way.
Do you remember how TurboTax made it possible for everybody to do taxes at home? It’s unfathomable to imagine doing your taxes by yourself but now that the TurboTax exists, everybody can do it. We’re talking about how do we make tools like that for computational modeling because it’s a superpower that we have. It’s a superpower that humans haven’t and we’re not using it yet. I’m excited about it because I know that the potential is there and the way you got to think about it is it’s the potential for humans to make better decisions.
Every problem we’re experiencing now that you and I are experiencing, it’s not because of a virus. It’s because of human decision-making. Humans have made the decisions that put us in the situation we’re in with our businesses. Economically, you can argue back and forth about whether they were the best decisions but largely, a bunch of them were not the best decisions. The reason is we’re using our intuition. Intuition is obsolete for decision-making. Human brains can’t take in enough data that causes them to make poor decisions that could be better.
That used to be the best thing we had was intuition and it’s still amazing what it can do in sports, music, and some things but it’s not good for making decisions about what to do in a pandemic. It’s not good for making decisions about what to do with your business. We’d be able to ingest all the data. We have sensors for that and everything. We can sense almost anything. We have networks to bring the data back to giant supercomputers which can run these analytics, these models, and help us decide which future you want.
You’re pretty optimistic about the future.At some point, we have to get back to human contact. Not everything has to be that way, but somethings do. Click To Tweet
I’m absolutely optimistic on a longer time horizon than most people are willing to acknowledge because even with COVID, even with this pandemic, can you name an actual problem that you and I have? We don’t have COVID. We’re healthy. Our families are also healthy. We’re stuck at home, which isn’t our preference but we’re not doing so bad.
What you’re saying is we don’t have any problems? COVID exists but we’re living and our business may be down but It’s temporary and it’s going to be fine.
As bad as things are now, it’s better than almost any time in human history.
Buffett who you had lunch with said, “This is the best time for any human to be born in the history of the planet.”
He’s not wrong. He’s absolutely right. There is no better time.
Many people would argue about that. They’d say, “Look at COVID. Look at poverty. Look at all these kinds of horrors.”
Poverty is at an all-time low. Poverty is not solved.
What screwed everybody up was the news, right?
The news exacerbates the problem. Here’s the thing. We don’t have more problems, violence, or poverty.
We have less of all that.
But we have an increased ability to report on it.
We didn’t know that it was happening.
You’ve got a machine in your pocket that tells you if a kid is kidnapped in Omaha, Nebraska, it becomes national news. Which is fine, but it’s making you feel like, “My kids are probably going to be kidnapped.” It doesn’t happen like that.
Let’s pivot because you are a hacker and a lot of people hire you to speak on your favorite topic cybersecurity. Also, blockchain continues to emerge and cryptocurrency is a hot topic like bitcoins going up. Explain this. You’re something called a Cypherpunk. I don’t mean to offend you and I don’t think that I offended him but that’s what they call them, Cypherpunks, in the ‘90s were these hacker guys who knew that cryptocurrency and the blockchain were coming and they started doing the work on it. Talk about that and the future of it.
Back in those days, this was early for the internet and the only people on it were extreme computer nerds. We could extrapolate that as the network grew and more people got online, we’re going to have an increasing set of problems. How would you communicate with people you didn’t know in a trusted manner? How would you transact with them in a trusted manner? We could see that there were threats to the network. What if somebody tried to take control of it? What if somebody tried to get an asymmetric advantage and decide that I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted on the network and I could only do what they wanted me to do on the network? The cypherpunks were an early community of fringe, wacko nerds who saw these problems early and saw that we could affect them.
What we believed was that the toolkit that we could get from cryptography would allow us to architect protocols that would keep anybody from getting an asymmetric advantage on the network. The protocols that would embody our values and in particular, our values were that you shouldn’t get to control me and I shouldn’t get to control you. We put a lot of work into developing different kinds of cryptography-based technologies and protocols that could do that. Some of it was for messaging, being able to send messages online securely, some of it was for being able to do things anonymously. In some cases, what we call pseudo anonymously. Some of it was around being able to transact.
Cryptocurrencies started in the ‘90s. The first cryptocurrencies were developed back then but they were missing one important aspect which is every currency in human history was created with a centralized mint. Somebody that’s usually a government-issued currency. Because of that, they have the ability to mess with the value of the currency. That’s what’s going on now. The government’s printing trillions of dollars that are going to cause a massive amount of inflation. You can argue about whether that’s a good idea or not, but the fact is, you and I are holding dollars and we’re beholden to whatever decision I make.
The idea with cryptocurrencies was to be able to start to solve some of these problems. What if you could create a currency like gold where there is no centralized mint? It has some intrinsic value, it’s impossible to make more or counterfeit currency and it’s also impossible to raid the mint. We had most of the pieces in place up in the ‘90s but the one that was missing was the center was the decentralized mint. How do you make a decentralized mint? That’s what Bitcoin brought for the first time. There were lots of other cryptocurrencies and different attempts, but what Bitcoin did for the first time was give us the answer to how you make a decentralized mint. That’s what’s being done in Bitcoin is super unique.
The blockchain was a way of making a fully decentralized currency. That’s why blockchain is unstoppable. Some people hate it and governments hate it but they can’t shut it down. The reason is because it’s a decentralized protocol. There is nothing to attack. We can choose to use it or not on our own as users and that’s a powerful technology. A lot of people got inspired by that and started looking at other uses for the blockchain and you can see there are a zillion startups and zillion cryptocurrencies.
A lot of the other cryptocurrencies are legitimately solving different problems. You want to be able to make things make a currency that works in a different way than Bitcoin to solve other problems. What happens if I want revocation? What if I want to unroll a transaction? What happens if I want to make a three-party transaction like with escrow or something. There are things you might want to do that Bitcoin isn’t suited to do. That’s why things like Ethereum have taken it further and that’s all part of the plan. We can make as many as we need for different use cases.
Is blockchain also good for making sure that we all know which factory our carton of milk came from or our medicine came from?
A better way to think about it is people are extraordinarily fixated on blockchain but that’s the newest tool in the toolbox for crypto. Crypto has a whole bunch of tools and now one of them is blockchain, which in your mind, you should think of as a decentralized database. Every other database is in a data center somewhere. That’s a central point of attack.
Wouldn’t that be great for voting?
It’s great for voting and there are a zillion different projects that make voting on a blockchain and make use of cryptography to make voting more secure and all those things. What’s amazing about Bitcoin is it has attracted an entire generation of coders to the crypto toolkit. It used to be only a few hundred of us, now it’s 100,000. That’s great because now people are using their creativity and creating all kinds of new protocols that are also decentralized for voting and all kinds of other things. That’s exciting.
Unfortunately, most of what you read about cryptocurrency and blockchain is caught up in these Ponzi schemes and this frenzy about trying to get rich because there were a lot of opportunities to make money off of Bitcoin and those things. I don’t think that’s the important part and in the long run, it certainly isn’t. Hopefully, we’ll weed those people out as these technologies catch on, and we use them for good. In the meantime, people get excited about it. It’s the same as roulette. You can buy some Bitcoin and maybe you’ll get lucky or you won’t.
Companies are using blockchain and there’s a lot of money on it to use to track their orders and their shipment, right?
The truth is they shouldn’t be using it. Blockchain is a terrible database technology that’s wildly inefficient but what they should do is be making these shared databases online. Blockchain is one way that you could do that. It brings a bunch of affirmations about your data that isn’t necessary in a lot of contexts. Usually, the answer is you don’t want a blockchain. What you do want is a protocol that allows all the parties to do what they need to do and play fairly. You can always architect a more efficient version of that than you can’t with a blockchain but the notion is good, which is let’s go architect protocols.
For example, it’s popular in industries where you have a bunch of different businesses involved in a supply chain. If you’re building a Tesla, while you’ve got batteries coming from one place, tires coming from another place, you’re making your seats, and you’ve got wires that are being shipped from Taiwan. You’ve got all this different stuff coming from everywhere and you need to be able to do things like keep track of, “If I want to make 1,000 new cyber trucks, am I going to be able to get enough tires for them?”
You want to be able to check a database somewhere that your supplier has enough tires and if he doesn’t have them, you want to be able to see, “He doesn’t have enough tires because he’s waiting on getting carbon black from this supplier,” you want to be able to see the whole supply chain without your competitors seeing it. You want to be able to architect these complicated transactions because you can’t promise to sell me a Cybertruck until you can get tires for it and all those different things have to come together.
We’ve been doing that in less efficient ways in every business. Using a shared database like a blockchain might make it possible to reimagine how you do all that. The day I decide that I want to make a Cybertruck version two, how long is it going to take me to get all the stuff? Instead of taking nine months to answer that question, you could do it in nine seconds. That’s how you reimagine a business. Going back to what I said earlier, we have these extraordinary tools. It’s not only blockchain, computational modeling, or CRISPR. There’s a lot of amazing modern tools that technology is bringing us that we can use as the fundamental building blocks to re-architect our businesses and industries. That’s the opportunity that exists in almost every business.
The real ramifications of this global reset that we’re living through now are that somebody is going to win. Somebody is going to decide, “I’m doing that for my industry. I’m going to take those technologies. I’m going to imagine what it should be like in ten years, and I’m going to build it now.” Those are going to be the winners. It’s going to be a lot different than what you expect. It’s not going to be the incumbents who win because they usually suck the worst at the process I described.
There’s a lot of people who looked at things years ago like the Ubers. Amazon was longer than a couple of years ago. Not only were they smart, and they looked at the industry, everybody knows that Uber was planning on getting rid of their drivers anyway and having it all be autonomous vehicles at some point. That’s their end game but now that gets sped up, it’s almost like the COVID thing makes you a little bit lucky if you had adopted some of these technologies because you saw that’s where technology was headed years ago. You’re in that position now so those guys got lucky. What are we going to do now that years from now, we are going to be and we’ll be lucky in the future?
I’m not going for the “I told you so” prize but it’s pretty easy to get guys like me to tell you that you should take a look at these technologies and use them as a toolkit to reinvent. I’ve been saying the exact same thing for the last decade or more. If you talked to me a decade ago or so, I would have told you the same thing I would have said, “Look around. What technologies can we use?” The reason Uber decimated the taxi industry is because guys like me would go to the taxi companies and say, “How about if we make an app so people can call a taxi on the phone?”
They wouldn’t buy it. I’m not joking. Multiple companies tried to go sell an app to taxi companies to order rides and none of them bought it. They wrote their history at that point because they were tech-averse. They wanted to keep a hold of their monopoly position in each market. They tried to do things the way they’ve always done them and taxis suck. They’re like plastic prisons. It’s a horrible user experience.
The same thing happened with Blockbuster, Netflix, and Kodak.
It’s the same thing with Airbnb and hospitality. I told the hotel chains that they should buy Airbnb when it was still six guys working there and they would listen. All this is repeatable history because when you are incontinent, you’ve seen this, and you’ve seen me say the same thing in some of the talks I’ve given. When you’re a big successful industry, institution, business, you name it, part of what happens is you evolve an immune system. The immune system’s job is to suppress risk. The thing that looks most risky is change. That’s why in Silicon Valley, we don’t fix companies or businesses. We don’t even try. We start from scratch, we look at what you’re doing, and we make an end-run around you.
We take all the superpowers we got from our technology, we re-architect to build a new business and a new industry that’s built for the future, and that’s how we win. That’s why software is eating the world. That’s why Uber decimated taxis. That’s why Facebook decimated the media industry. It’s because those industries have that immune system and you can’t fight it from within. You’ve got to start from scratch.
That’s a great point. The COVID moment right now is forcing people to have that viewpoint and to have that opportunity mindset. I imagine that it’s going to be a good thing that it happens for some people because they’re going to say, “If it wasn’t for COVID, I never would have never developed this. I would never have looked at that.”By the time we have a vaccine, somewhere around 35% or 40% of the population has gotten it. Click To Tweet
That’s going to happen in more businesses and more industries than it ever has before. The reset button isn’t only mortgages, it’s the planet. It’s every business. It’s everybody in the world. We all have this shared experience. If you were starting a restaurant now, would you do it the same way? No. The way to practice is to look at other businesses. It’s too hard for your own business because you know it too well. You have the immune system for your business. You’re fighting that. You know everything that can’t be done but if you look at other businesses that you don’t know as much about, hair salons, restaurants, travel agents, it’s easy to make fun of them.
You look at their business and say, “There’s no way I would ever do that the same.” You can start to practice. What would it be like if I were reinventing a restaurant? Do that and get some practice. Once you’ve got that practice, and you figured out how you would do restaurants, travel agencies, and hair salons then aim it to your own business. How would I reinvent a Speaker’s Bureau? How would I reinvent my own business? Maybe you’ll be a little better at it. If you aren’t, call me and I’ll help reinvent your business because I don’t know anything about it.
One of the industries you are reinventing as we speak is the fashion industry. Mainly because you took a look at it. Tell us a little bit about what you saw and what you see coming.
Years ago, I was working on 3D printing technology. I helped a little bit with Makerbot, which was the first consumer 3D printer. It’s the most popular 3D printer ever. When we sold that company, I got excited about the idea of manufacturing on demand. What would happen if I could wire up the Buy Now button to the 3D printer and not have an inventory, a warehouse, or anything except a 3D printer. When you click Buy Now and make your stuff and ship it out the next day.
No inventory. That’s amazing.
That’s my vision for how the future of every product should be. When I order bike parts, they should be made that way. When I order a new floppy drive for my Apple II, it should be made that way. When I order a new chair, it should get printed and sent to me. We’re a long way from being able to do that. 3D printers don’t make stuff people want to buy. The technology needs more time to mature. It’s getting closer all the time but I wanted to play with those ideas and I figured out pretty quickly that the best place to start was the apparel industry. There are a bunch of reasons for this but one of them like taxis and restaurants are tech-averse. They’ve been at it for a long time and they’ve collected all the problems so it’s a wildly inefficient industry. I’ll give you an example.
It’s worse than taxis and restaurants because they’ve got so much inventory.
There’s only one industry worse than apparel which is oil. The apparel industry made 150 billion garments in 2020. That’s more than twenty for every human. Fifty-five percent of that stuff is already in landfills or incinerators. Thirty percent of it never got sold in the first place. Imagine if the auto industry threw out 30% of the cars they made without ever driving them. That’s how bad it is. The apparel industry is almost as big. That’s how bad this industry is.
That’s not good for the planet.
It’s definitely not good for the planet. About 10% of global CO2 emissions are from making clothes. Twenty percent of the freshwater pollution in the world is attributable to making clothes. It takes 940 gallons of freshwater to make a pair of jeans. That’s three years of drinking water for you. That’s not even my number. That’s Levi’s number.
For one pair of jeans?
It’s 940 gallons of freshwater.
I’ll tell you why. The industry is stratified. Your brands are not your manufacturers and not your retailers. Nobody is in a position to capture enough of the value chain to make enough money to spend it on innovation. All they do is push the guy below them to cut costs. The fundamental problem is that they’re doing what I call Speculative Manufacturing. The product cycle is usually nine months. Sometimes, it’s a little faster and sometimes it’s twice that. That means that you’re guessing a year in advance or nine months in advance what’s going to sell, what designs are selling what colors, what sizes, what volumes. No one ever can guess right.
That means you’re going to have something made in Asia, it’s going to come back on a boat, you’re going to put it in a warehouse, you’re going to send it out to retailers, and hope somebody finds, “I love this color. Do they have my size on the shelf?” No one guesses right. That’s speculative manufacturing. If you compare that with my 3D printer and a Buy Now button, what happens is I’m taking that product cycle down from nine months. The winners in the industry are the guys who got it down to nine weeks like ZARA and H&M. I get it down from 9 weeks to 9 hours. That means I put it through a phase transition where I’m producing after it’s sold instead of before it’s sold. That means that I guess right every single time. I’ve never guessed wrong. We’ve been doing this for a few years.
It’s like In-N-Out versus McDonald’s. They make it per order and the other people have it already ready to go.
McDonald’s is guessing how many Big Macs they can sell in the next hour, they make them so it’s ready to go for you. They do less of that these days. That’s why you wait longer for the Big Mac than you used to.
That’s amazing. You’re cutting out all of the inventory, shipping, ships, oil, gas, and pollution, everything.
I have never made a product for the landfill. I never made something until it was already sold. Every time I did that I got paid retail for it. I’m about three times as profitable as a normal business in apparel.
A couple of years from now, people will be able to go on your website and design the shirt that they want with a bigger collar, a decent-sized pocket in a different color. It’s completely customized.
You can do that now. That’s all software. That’s easy. Most people suck at design so we don’t let them do that but it works.
The 3D printers are the printers that you have. Can you print all the material and put it all together?
We were able to automate every part of our production process except for sewing. There are no sewing robots yet. I would love to invent them. Those don’t exist yet but all the ways that we colorize fabric, these digital printing, all the cutting, packing, and shipping stuff are automated. It’s only sewing that we have humans do. We’re trying to automate the process. That’s a way to reinvent one of the worst industries in the world. We’re responsive. If a celebrity wears something on Instagram that we made, if we need more, we start making them more. They don’t have to wait for nine months to get more.
My last question for you is going back to cybersecurity. These people who hire you to speak on cybersecurity, they have their conversations with you is about why their audience is interested in it. What is the most concerned area that they are asking you to speak about? What is it that they want you to talk about specifically when they say come out and speak about cybersecurity? What do they all have in common that they want you to focus on?
The thing about cybersecurity is it’s technical. It’s complicated and few people have enough knowledge and experience to feel like they can make good decisions related to it. It’s this mythical scary threat that they can’t get their heads around. That’s what I’m trying to help them with. They need people to have a greater sense of comfort because the truth is, with all these computers and all this technology, our job is to try it.
Take on the risk early at a small scale, figure out which of them are good, which technologies are good, which are helping, which ones suck and aren’t, get rid of those, and double down on the ones that are good. We need a process that if we have companies, they’re terrified, they’re paralyzed by fear, then they won’t adopt these technologies. We see that in a lot of industries. What I’m trying to do is help people get comfortable with the fact that cybersecurity is one of the risks we’ve got to handle.
There are steps we can do that we can take to make sure that we’re not the low hanging fruit and we’re not exposing ourselves to more risk than necessary. Help them understand that. Help them see that this is a risk management problem and we’ve done that type of thing before. We’ve managed risk in other areas in the business. We need to manage it here as well because we need allies for adopting new technology in order to advance these businesses.
We can’t have been paralyzed by fear. A lot of times, I’m trying to demystify how this process works, technology, what hackers are up to, what they’re doing, what they’re capable of, and how that works. We’ll show a little bit about what’s on the defense side, “Here’s what we do about it. Here’s how to think about it. Here’s how we’re going to turn this into a risk management game that we can play versus some all-encompassing, panic-stricken monster that’s coming after us,” or something.
What’s the number one game that hackers are playing now?
A lot of what’s happening is you’ve got to think of as opportunistic fraud. They’re trying to find a way to suck money out of the system without getting caught like any criminal. They have a couple of advantages over historic criminals. You can do it from your bedroom in Romania or some other place where you might not get caught or might not get in a lot of trouble if you did. There are those kinds of things. A lot of the motivation, you got to remember maps to people with poor economic conditions, and are highly educated or technically educated. We had a lot of problems with Eastern European hackers, some places in Asia, and now the Middle East, where they’re getting a lot of expertise with these technologies.
Like any kid in America who knows about cybersecurity or anything to do with hacking can get a six-figure job configuring firewalls for a Fortune 500 company. We have economic opportunities if you know these skills, but that’s not true everywhere in the world. That is who is creating the noise floor of cybersecurity problems. On top of that, you’ve got more sophisticated hackers that are targeted. They’re going after a specific company in a specific industry. They’re trying to get specific things that they can trade on and capitalize on. That’s a little scarier and that’s why those companies that are valuable have more to protect, and they have to spend more to do a good job.
Is there anything you want to say to wrap up and leave us with thoughts?
We covered a lot of the things that I like to talk about and that covers my perspective on things but people would probably be better off not watching the news and find something to build. I hope that with this pandemic, we come out of it stronger because people learn that they get to vote with their intention. The vote you cast in an election doesn’t matter but the vote you cast with your time, intention, and dollars matter.
Spend your time learning to do a good job with that. Choose who your influences are. People made poor choices about who they use as influences. A lot of times, it’s who’s famous, who’s saying the most bombastic things, who’s the best at playing sports ball. That’s probably not going to get you the results you want. Try to find the people who are thoughtful, smart, who you respect for their intelligence, and try to understand their thought processes.
I would say that a good example of how to get that in your head is there’s an extraordinary book by an amazing guy named Hans Rosling who we unfortunately lost in 2020. His last book is called Factfulness, and it’s a way to train yourself on how to make better decisions and how to learn the difference between a fact in someone’s opinion. It’s accessible. High school kids can read it and they should. That’s a good way of learning a different thought process.
Now is your chance. This is the moment to reset personally with your business. Go think about how am I going to become somebody who contributes to the future we have to build now. You can be a spectator. You can stay at home, panic, go crazy, or you can die COVID if you want. That’s all your prerogative but now we need allies. We need people to help us build a better future and if the opportunity exists, we’re going to build some future whether we like it or not. It might as well be a better one. That’s how I hope people will think about it.
Very well said. It’s great having this conversation with you. Thank you so much for doing it.
My pleasure. Thanks so much, Chris. I’m looking forward to getting to do a lot of fun stuff together.
The future is bright and thanks to people like you. Thank you so much.
Take care. Bye.
About Pablos Holman
Speaker Pablos Holman is a hacker, inventor, viral TED Talk speaker, and technology futurist with a unique ability to distill complex technology into practical tools. Always building the future, his projects include cryptocurrency in the 1990s; AI for stock market trading; building spaceships at Blue Origin for Jeff Bezos; the world’s smallest PC and 3D printers at Makerbot. He helped start the Intellectual Ventures Lab for Nathan Myhrvold to support a wide range of invention projects, including a brain surgery tool; a machine to suppress hurricanes; a nuclear reactor powered by nuclear waste; and a machine that can shoot mosquitoes out of the sky with lasers – part of an impact invention effort to eradicate malaria with Bill Gates. A member of the most prolific team of inventors in the United States, he has over 70 patents.
A world-renowned expert in 3D Printing, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Robotics, Automated Manufacturing, & Cryptocurrency, Pablos has contributed to visions for the future of urban transportation, entertainment, education, energy, manufacturing, health care, food delivery, sensor networks, payment systems & cloud computing.
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