I’ve been thinking about the future a lot lately. While I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, The Hyperion Cantos shook some stuff free in my brain. I’ve finished the first two books – Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion – and expect I’ll finish the last two in the next month while I’m on sabbatical.
If you have read The Fall of Hyperion, you’ll recognize some of my thoughts at being informed by Ummon, who is one of my favorite characters. If you don’t know Hyperion, according to Wikipedia Ummon “is a leading figure in the TechnoCore’s Stable faction, which opposes the eradication of humanity. He was responsible for the creation of the Keats cybrids, and is mentioned as a major philosopher in the TechnoCore.” Basically, he’s one of the older, most powerful AIs who believes AIs and humans can co-exist.
Lately, some humans have expressed real concerns about AIs. David Brooks wrote a NYT OpEd titled Our Machine Masters which I found weirdly naive, simplistic, and off-base. He hedges and offers up two futures, each which I think miss greatly.
Brooks’ Humanistic Future: “Machines liberate us from mental drudgery so we can focus on higher and happier things. In this future, differences in innate I.Q. are less important. Everybody has Google on their phones so having a great memory or the ability to calculate with big numbers doesn’t help as much. In this future, there is increasing emphasis on personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate. People are evaluated more on these traits, which supplement machine thinking, and not the rote ones that duplicate it.”
Brooks’ Cold, Utilitarian Future: “On the other hand, people become less idiosyncratic. If the choice architecture behind many decisions is based on big data from vast crowds, everybody follows the prompts and chooses to be like each other. The machine prompts us to consume what is popular, the things that are easy and mentally undemanding.”
Brooks seems stuck on “machines” rather than what an AI actually could evolve into. Ummon would let out a big “kwatz!” at this.
Elon Musk went after the same topic a few months ago in an interview where he suggested that building an AI was similar to summoning the demon.
Musk: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful with artificial intelligence. I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon. You know those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram, and the holy water, and he’s like — Yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon? Doesn’t work out.”
I need to send Elon a copy of the Hyperion Cantos so he sees how the notion of regulatory oversight of AI turns out.
I went to watch the actual interview, but there’s been a YouTube takedown by MIT, although I suspect, per a Tweet I got, that a bot actually did it, which would be deliciously ironic.
If you want to watch the comment, it’s at 1:07:30 on the MIT AeroAstro Centennial Symposium video which doesn’t seem to have an embed function.
My friend, and the best near term science fiction writer I know, William Hertling, had a post over the weekend titled Elon Musk and the risks of AI. He had a balanced view of Elon’s comment and, as William always does, has a thoughtful explanation of the short term risks and dynamics well worth reading. William’s punch line:
“Because of these many potential benefits, we probably don’t want to stop work on AI. But since almost all research effort is going into creating AI and very little is going into reducing the risks of AI, we have an imbalance. When Elon Musk, who has a great deal of visibility and credibility, talks about the risks of AI, this is a very good thing, because it will help us address that imbalance and invest more in risk reduction.”
Amy and were talking about this the other night after her Wellesley board meeting. We see a huge near term schism coming on almost all fronts. Classical education vs. online education. How medicine and health care work. What transportation actually is. Where we get energy from.
One of my favorite lines in the Fall of Hyperion is the discussion about terraforming other planets and the quest for petroleum. One character asks why we still need petroleum in this era (the 2800’s). Another responds that “200 billion humans use a lot of plastic.”
MIT is a special place.
I was a student there from 1983 – 1990, got two degrees, and was booted out of a Ph.D. program well before I finished. I lived in a fraternity (ADP) on the edge of Central Square (351 Mass Ave) for four years. My first office was that address – for several years I got more mail each day than almost everyone else I was living with combined. My next office was 875 Main Street, just behind the frat. And daily, between Monday and Friday, I walked down Main Street to Sloan or Mass Ave to the rest of campus.
IHTFP was my motto, along with everyone else I knew. If you need some clues for what IHTFP can mean, there are many lists on the web. But “I Hate This Fucking Place” is one side of the coin and “I Have Truly Found Paradise” is the other. However, the coin – at least for me – was not equally weighted so it didn’t land 50% of the time on each side. I’ll let you guess which side it landed on more frequently.
I read Samuel Jay Keyser’s amazing book Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows the past two nights. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while but for some reason hadn’t read it. As I was scrolling through the infinite list of unread books I stumbled upon it and consumed it. It was just awesome.
I vaguely remember Keyser from when I was at MIT. Much of this book takes place during the 1980s when I was there and I remember many of the stories and situations he describes. I also remember a number of them he doesn’t that he doesn’t talk about that he was likely involved in, such as when my frat was put on probation and two of our members were suspended for a year in an “inappropriate publishing incident”, which coincided with a five year shift in campus views on pornography and sexual harassment during a period when the male / female ratio shifted from 80/20 to 50/50.
Toss in apartheid, a thing called the “MIT Committee on Discipline”, huge building and construction projects on MIT land around a very debilitated and pre-gentrified Central and Kendall Square, and a generational shift clearly to Gen-X as undergraduates, and you’ve got a pretty interesting time to be a senior member of MIT’s Administration.
Keyser is a great writer and story teller. He captures so much of what I remember clearly, but shows it to me from the administration’s, rather than a student’s, frame of reference. He does it with humor, even in the most frustrating and maddening moments. And like everyone I’ve ever encountered at MIT, he continuously teaches throughout.
I loved this book. As Amy read a Game of Thrones book (the last one I think – she just said something about really big dragons and lots of fire and death), I kept reading her sections out loud. As a Wellesley graduate now on the Wellesley board, who knows MIT culture and students well, I got some good belly laughs out of her.
Even though IHTFP, I will always think of MIT as a special place. So much of what I am, and how I approach things, was forged in the intense place that I describe as a daily assault on one’s self-esteem. A book like this one helps me remember the power of it against the backdrop of an institution that is a remarkably complex and amazing place.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. On an almost daily basis, someone out in the world sends me a physical book, which I love. While I have something like 500 unread books on my Kindle, I still love laying on the couch reading a physical book. So the stacks of books that show up keep me company and I chomp through them whenever I need a break from everything else.
Yesterday I read No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet. It was awesome and I recommend it for any entrepreneur out there either working on a company or thinking about starting a company.
If you don’t recognize the name Danny Lewin there are two big things to know before you dive into this book. First, he was the co-founder of Akamai Technologies (NASDAQ: AKAM – currently valued at $8 billion.) Second, he was likely the very first person to die in the 9/11 attack.
There are lots of other interesting and unexpected things to know about Danny before you start the book. He was born in Denver. His parents made aliyah to Israel when he was a young teenager. He was built like a tank and was a member of Israel’s Sayeret Matkal. He longed to be at MIT.
Akamai’s original name was Cachet Technologies. They entered, but didn’t win, the MIT $50K competition in 1998. As a judge for the MIT $50k until 1996, there were always a lot of VCs hanging around. In this case, however, the only VC who truly had conviction to get behind Akamai was Todd Dagres – then of Battery Ventures, now of Spark Capital.
Akamai was an amazing pre-Internet bubble story. From nothing to IPO in less than 18 months, a market cap of > $20 billion, followed by a 99% decline in the stock price post-bubble. Over the last decade, however, they’ve demonstrated that they have a real business, now valued at $8 billion with Q313 revenue of $396m, Q313 GAAP Net Income of $80m, and cash flow from operations in Q313 of +$158m. Not bad for a company that was written off completely a decade ago.
This is the story of the creation of that company. And the people behind the creation, mostly notably Lewin. The author, Molly Knight Raskin, writes beautifully, deeply, and thoughtfully. She combines an origin story (for Akamai), a coming of age story (for Lewin), and a tragedy (for Lewin, his family, his extended family, and Akamai.) While the tragic ending, which comes much to early, is the end of the book, it’s short (less than 10% of the book), appropriate in its level of drama, and helps us process the amazing life that Lewin lived.
I’m tired of the classic boom bust popular media story arc of “hero emerges from nothing, the hero does amazing things, bad things happen and the hero crashes, watch how the hero is no longer a hero, the hero fights and claws his way out of the cellar and rises again to be a hero.” This is not one of those books. Instead, it’s a great biography of an entrepreneur, his company, and his all too short life.
As I continue to talk about Startup Communities, I say over and over and over again that the leaders have to be entrepreneurs. Everyone else – who I call the “feeders” (government, university, non-profits, big companies, VCs, angel investors) – have an important role, but the leaders must be entrepreneurs. Now – members of feeder organizations can play a leadership role, but in the absence of a critical mass of entrepreneurs, the startup community won’t ever develop into anything meaningful.
I was interviewed recently in MIT Technology Review in an article titled It’s Up to You, Entrepreneurs. It’s part of a series they are doing titled The Next Silicon Valley. It was a long interview by Antonio Regalado who boiled my rambling down into a bunch of coherent answers to specific questions.
For example, when he asked, “What’s the most important step an entrepreneur can take to create a startup community?” I answered:
“Just do stuff. It’s kind of that simple. It’s literally entrepreneurs just starting to do things. If you’re in a city where there’s no clear startup community, the goal is not raise a bunch of money to fund a nonprofit, the goal is not get your government involved. The goal is start finding the other entrepreneurial leaders who are committed to being in your city over the next 20 years. Then, as a group, get very focused on knowing each other, working together, being inclusive of anyone else who wants to engage, doing things that help recruit people to that geography, and doing selfish stuff for your company that also drives your startup community.”
He got underneath some great key points about startup communities with his questions, which follow.
If you want the answers, go read It’s Up to You, Entrepreneurs.
On Friday July 19th, I’ll be hosting Bill Aulet in Boulder to discuss his new book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Lessons To A Successful Startup.
Bill, the managing director for the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, is a close friend and amazing thinker on entrepreneurship. The book is a result of many years of his work and thinking on creating and scaling startups.
The event will take place at Rally Software in Boulder, CO from 9am – 12pm. Seating will be limited to 150 people which means you better get your tickets NOW!
Bill’s book Disciplined Entrepreneurship is currently available for pre-order, but will officially go on sale August 13th.
I hope you will join us!
In the “truth is stranger than fiction” category, my CU Boulder bathroom donation (well – the gift I gave to CU Boulder that resulted in me getting to name a bathroom) made the TV news tonight in Boston on Fox 25. There’s apparently a new bathroom news cycle because of William Falik’s gift to Harvard Law School for the Falik Men’s Room at Harvard Law School. While my bathroom at CU Boulder doesn’t have the same elegant name (it’s known as RRM 209 in the ATLAS Building, or the Feld Mens Bathroom on Foursquare), I’ve got a better quote: ““The Best Ideas Often Come At Inconvenient Times – Don’t Ever Close Your Mind To Them.”
The two minute news clip, along with a Skype interview I did this afternoon, follows. MIT – my offer is still open – don’t flush it.
After a long really fun day yesterday at TechStars and StartLabs I wandered over to 34-101 to be on a panel for Joost Bonsen and Joe Hadzima‘s IAP class 15.S21: The Nuts and Bolts of Business Plans. It’s not really a class about business plans rather a class about starting a business and has been regularly modernized by Joost and Joe. On the panel were the two founders of Super Mechanical (creators of Twine) which is an awesome project that used Kickstarter for its initial financing (and that I’m an excited supporter / customer of.) I had a fun day and wish I had found more IAP courses to help teach and participate in this trip.
After the course finished at 9:30, Joost and I wandered over to the Muddy Charles for a beer. When I crawled into bed at 12:30 my head was full of a ton of awesome ideas that came out of our rambling three hour discussion. I’ve been friends with Joost since the early 1990’s when we first met around the MIT 10K competition and have been a huge fan of his ever since.
Among other things we talked about the startup ecosystem in and around MIT and the evolution of Boston as a region. The comments in my post from yesterday titled I’m in Cambridge, Not Boston were great and stimulated additional thinking on this topic, as did Joost’s experience here over the past 20 years. Joost has incredible knowledge and history of the region and of MIT, which occasionally appears in posts like How Kendall Square Became Hip: MIT Pioneered University-Linked Business Parks but is really apparent when you spend extended time with him talking about MIT, how it evolved, what it is today, who has been involved along the way, and the entrepreneurial community that has evolved around it.
About mid-way through the conversation Joost dropped two phrases on me that blew my mind. The first was “Creative Construction.” As we were talking about startup communities and the new book I’m working on, Joost said “How about a play on words on Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” and call your theory about startup communities “creative construction” instead. After I put the exploded pieces of my brain back together and said “that is exactly fucking right” he went on. “Think of entrepreneurship as a tool of mass construction.”
The play on words is just delicious. And right on – we are talking about an awesome positive force in the world and should be using language that represents that. At the core of our conversation was the notion that an entrepreneurial region like Boston is actually a collection of 100,000 person “entrepreneurial neighborhoods” (that’s what Kendall Square is, as distinct from the Fort Point Channel area, or the Leather District, or what’s going on in Davis Square, or …). And the idea that creative construction drives this – and the neighborhoods are part of a broader entrepreneurial community (in the region) is a construct that resonates with me.
I’m off to HubSpot to give a talk, a swing through Venture Cafe at CIC, and then back to StartLabs for the rest of the day. My three weeks in Boston (well – Cambridge) with a side trip to New York is coming to an end. It’s been amazing, enlightening, educational, productive, and a lot of fun.
Over the last three weeks I’ve had numerous people ask me how my trip to Boston has been going. For a while I corrected them and said “I’m mostly in Cambridge” but gave up. Tonight, after hanging out at the TechStars Boston Mentor evening and program kickoff, I got into a long discussion with a Bill Warner and Ken Zolot about Cambridge, Boston, and startup communities. At some point in the conversation I blurted out “I have no idea why we call this program TechStars Boston instead of TechStars Cambridge.” And then something that I thought was important dawned on me.
My entire entrepreneurial view of “Boston” is centered around Cambridge. I’ve been here for two of the last three weeks (I spent four days in New York). I’m staying in a hotel in Kendall Square across from Google and next to MIT. I’ve spent my days walking to meetings at MIT, Kendall Square, Tech Square, Central Square, and East Cambridge including what I refer to as “the old Lotus building”. I’ve had all of my meals in Kendall Square or Central Square. Other than running, I’ve only been physically in Boston four times – first when I arrived at the airport, then when I took the train to New York, then when I returned on the train from New York, and finally when I spent the morning at Fidelity’s FCAT offices at Summer Street.
Now, I know there is plenty of startup activity in Boston. My old neighborhood near Fort Point Channel (I used to live on Sleeper Street in a condo at Dockside Place) is bustling with startup activity. There’s plenty of stuff on 128 and 495. There’s are other entrepreneurs tucked around the city. But that’s not the interesting story, at least in my mind.
The few square miles in Cambridge around MIT is the white hot center of startup activity in the region. One of my basic principles of startup communities is the need for what I call entrepreneurial population density (EPD) which I calculate as the total number of entrepreneurs and employees of entrepreneurial companies divided by the total number of all employees in a region. Then an even more powerful metric is entrepreneurial density, which is EPD / size of region. A large EPD in a small physical region wins.
Part of the magic of Boulder is the entrepreneurial density of the place. And as I wander from meeting to meeting in Cambridge, running into people on the street who I know, or who I met with the day before, or I who I want to know, reminds me of the dynamic in Boulder. For example, I ran into Matt Cutler on my way to Rich Levandov’s office and we walked over together. I bumped into the StartLabs organizers when going to a meeting with Will Crawford. I saw Joe Chung while hanging around StartLabs. I saw 50+ mentors who I knew last night at TechStars and expect to see more today when I’m there. While having breakfast with Michael Schrage at the Cambridge Marriott Joost Bonsen came over and said hello. At Dogpatch meeting with Yesware I saw Dave Greenstein and gave him a hug for his new kid. And the list of moments like this, which happened with 10 square blocks, go on and on. But when I hop on the red line and travel to South Station, the magic disperses.
I remember when the Boston VC community moved from downtown Boston to Waltham. I understood it was an effort to create a “Sand Hill Road” like venture community but the big miss was that an MIT student couldn’t hop on a bike and ride to Waltham like a Stanford student could with Sand Hill Road. And it’s no surprise that downtown Palo Alto, which is even closer to Stanford, is an attractive place for VCs to hang out. The snarky message when the VCs moved to Waltham was that they wanted to be close to their fancy houses and their private golf clubs and the entrepreneurs could come to them. It’s no surprise that many of these firms have relocated to Cambridge, recognizing that they should be in the middle of the entrepreneurial energy.
I’d suggest to the Cambridge and Boston startup communities that they should think of themselves as two separate but related communities. Even within Boston, it seems like there are different startup communities in downtown, 125, and even 495. I think that thinking of it “Boston” is a mistake.
In my world view, the entrepreneurs drive the startup community. Focus on entrepreneurial population density and entrepreneurial density – and make sure your geographic region is small. Over time, linking the critical mass together in a larger region (e.g. Silicon Valley or Boston) is fine, but the real power comes from the startup communities with the largest EPD in small physical regions which are big enough to have critical mass.
One of the magic special things I remember about MIT is what happens during January. It’s called IAP – Independent Activities Period. Rather than classes, students can do whatever they want, including go home and sleep for the month (which I did a few times). There are lots of events, seminars, and short courses (day, week, month) on campus covering a wide variety of topics.
I decided to spend two weeks of IAP at MIT this year. I rented a hotel room in Cambridge near Kendall Square and tossed out a bunch of “hey – I’m going to be around – anything for me to do?” type emails. I got a little back – much less than I expected – and when I started looking through the online IAP directory I was disappointed in what I saw. But I decided to go anyway and arrived last Thursday after CES.
I’m doing a couple of things – the main being mentoring at StartLabs, a one month program for undergrads starting up companies. So far it’s been really cool – I’ve spent time with all of the companies and am focusing on two of them – Thingdom and Muse Analytical. Thingdom is up – go friend me, play around, and tell them (and/or me) what you think. Muse Analytical is still in product design mode (miniature, portable, chemical analysis) and crossing the gap between tech and product vision is fun. All of the teams in the program (seven of them) are hanging out at RedStar, the offices created by two of my frat brothers – Joe Chung and Jeet Singh. The energy is awesome.
I’m also hanging around the MIT Entrepreneurship Center a little (spent some time there Friday and Monday) and am on a panel for Joe Hadzima’s “Nuts and Bolts of Business Plans” seminar on 1/25 (where I’ll likely say something like “business plans are useless – just go read Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and build some shit.”
In the mean time, I’ve decamped to New York for a few days where I’m hanging out with my friends at USV and my dad talking about how to transform healthcare via software and the Internet (not a huge interest of mine, but of them, and my dad) and then spending time with MakerBot creating machines that create machines.
I’m having fun on my “travel different – spend a big chunk of time in one place” efforts so far, although the intensity is pegged at 10 all the time right now which is clearly not sustainable. And I miss Amy, although she’ll be here soon (note to Amy – bring a warm coat.)