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Reese Jones: Inventing and Applying Technology on a Global Scale
I’m super excited because I get to host one of my friends here. Reese Jones is an incredible mind. He is the inventor of the technology that probably all of us have used, not to mention as a true thought leader and has been supporting the community of creatives, inventors and revolutionaries for the past many years. Reese, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Thank you for having me.
Tell the audience a little bit about yourself and what you’ve done.
I’m one of the Associate Founders of Singularity University, which has been operating about ten years now and based in Silicon Valley, that teaches people about technologies that change fast and how to apply those two problems at global scale. That’s something that has turned out very well and I’m excited to be a part of that.
For the audience who don’t know Singularity University, this was a school started by several well-known futurists: Peter Diamandis, Ray Kurzweil to name a few of the countless people involved. The school’s curriculum changes consistently with the way that society changes. Is that right?
Yes. The main program in the summers takes place on the NASA campus in Mountain View next to Google and the participants live and eat together in the dorms on the NASA campus. In the first part of the summer, they learn about technologies that change at an exponential pace, like computer chips, memory, the speed of wireless communications, energy, and things of this nature, and then how those can be applied to solving problems, so that if you use something like a phone that naturally gets better without extra work on your part to solve a problem, such as poverty or food supply, your solution to that problem will get better naturally. Our definition of a problem is something that positively affects a billion people within a ten-year timeframe. Problems at a global scale using technologies that get better to have an impact on society and the earth.
I heard that Singularity couldn’t get accredited as a university because to be a university, you have to have a core curriculum that stays the same. In an ever-changing society, that’s impossible, so you can’t file a standard core curriculum. Is that right?
It’s a little bit the opposite in that Singularity intentionally doesn’t teach accredited courses because by definition, accredited means the same and means old material. Technology changes fast and so if you try and stay within an accredited course framework, you can’t change the curriculum to stay current with the times. Many people nowadays, if they’re in a technical field, by the time they graduate, the stuff that they learned at the beginning of their education and accredited courses is already obsolete. Singularity intentionally does not try to do accredited courses. It allows the material that is taught to be changed in real time and the curriculum to be changed daily. That keeps things current and fresh and vital for the people who are in the programs. By not being accredited, the government agencies that fund and regulate education don’t apply, but the experience and the stuff that is covered is much more current, relevant, up to date, and changing with the way it is in the real world.
A lot of this concept of exponential growth or exponential impact may have been a byproduct of Moore’s Law. One of the Co-Founders of Intel, the processor and computer chip company, realized the complexity of the computer chips were consistently doubling every eighteen months. Is that accurate? In fact, over time, that has even accelerated.
That’s accurate with regard to silicon semiconductor chips and Gordon Moore’s Law relates to the amount of transistors you can fit in an area on a chip over time. It’s an example of an exponentially changing technology where the exponentially improvement of computing has been going on for over 100 years or 120 years at least, that even predates the silicone semiconductors to vacuum tubes and even punch cards where the cost performance of computing has been improving on an exponential pace for a long time over a hundred years.
70 years ago, only a handful of places in the world could even afford to have a computer. Now, anybody who has a job can afford a computer in their pocket that has more computing power than the entire world did 70 years ago in the form of their phone.
In exponential technologies, Moore’s Law is the most commonly understood, but there’s a similar one. For example, Marty Cooper’s Law, which is the speed of communications on wireless connections. Marty Cooper was the inventor of the cell phone at Motorola and that also has been improving on a doubling pace for over a hundred years. We consider that a hundred years ago when the Titanic sank, the speed of wireless communications, the best that they had at the time was Morse code. As they were sinking, all they could communicate is dots and dashes at a very slow speed to say, “Help, we’re sinking.” Now, it’s quite common to have 4k video, audio, real-time conferencing or multiple camera views on the wireless communications and that’s over a hundred years. That also gets roughly twice as good per year and that’s an information technology that is based on using signal processors and better antennas and better electronics to improve its performance over time.
With all of these exponential technologies, from the energy productivity of solar power to the range of how far an electric car can go to the size of microchips having every so often so that they’re also both getting more complex and smaller. What is it that you are seeing on the horizon that will be able to impact us all?
It’s an interesting evolution of complexity in that over time, things evolved to be more complex and more intricate at the same time. Not just computers and wireless but also life itself has been evolving to be more complex and more intricate over billions of years. In that the first single cell organisms and eukaryotes, which is a cell within a cell, then multi-cellular organisms. Then organisms with nervous systems have evolved. This is also on an exponential pace, life becoming more complex over billions of years. Some views that the complexity of life and the complexity of electronics are in parallel. Kevin Kelly for example has a concept called the Technium where complexity is what’s evolving and it’s evolving naturally both for information technologies and for biological life forms in a parallel or a complimentary way as though what’s evolving is really complexity and not technology per se.
You’ve been around technology for quite a while. In your early days you were playing with computer phone systems and phone hacking. You helped in the development of what we understand is a critical piece of the modern internet.
At the time, I was in grad school at Berkeley and my research work was on brain chemistry and how brain chemistry is different in normal people versus people with schizophrenia or affective disorder. I was using brain imaging technologies and chemistry techniques to measure that with PET and MRI imaging, looking for the difference in the chemistry in the networks, in the brains of normal people compared to schizophrenic people, for example. My hobby at that time was phone hacking. That is something these complex networks that from the outside, can you figure out what’s going on in the inside, whether that’s a biochemical network in the brain or a neural network or a computer network or the theoretical aspects of that are something that has long interested me.
You helped convert the early wiring from what looked like a cable wire to what we now know as ethernet cord.
When computers were first being networked in the popular networks of the time were Ethernet and token ring, both of which use complicated cabling systems and they were designed by engineers who had been trained in engineering. I wasn’t training in engineering. I was trained in physics and I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to design computer networks differently than phone networks. When I was trying to network computers in the early days for the research work I was doing as well as at home, it seemed frustrating to me to have to use complicated tri-axial cables with clamps on it to hook together the computers. Being very familiar with phone components, I redesigned the way the computer network worked on to use the phone wires to connect the computers together. This was something frowned upon in engineering, but it turned out to be a better method to connect the computers together and perform better once a few details were worked out. That worked out by not knowing that something was impossible made it possible for me to do
It’s a perfect example of how the merging of two disparate fields led to a better solution. Your understanding of neuroscience and biology and phones combined with engineering led to a more effective solution. All of us use that blue cord to connect to the internet either because it’s our router or because we hard wire the computer and it’s thanks to innovations like what you had, which is amazing.
At the edges of things, complexity and diversity happens like between the ocean and the land or between the land and the sky. These things between computers and phones or between people and computers are areas that lots of different ideas turn out to be important. Even the combination of biology and physics where one is physics is deterministic and rigid and biology is squishy and unpredictable. Combining those two together is very interesting to me and creates new opportunities and new ideas that are exciting.
You’re always looking at the forefront of whatever it is that you’re doing regardless if that’s phone systems, computer systems, education. Now, you’re very interested in the effect of certain chemicals on rehabilitation and health. Throughout your career, there has been a few pitfalls that you learned from along the way. For people who want to innovate or do something extraordinary, what have you learned that we could share with them so that they don’t make the same mistakes?
One of the things I’ve learned is that what we call facts are malleable and that they change. There’s an interesting book called The Half-Life of Facts and that’s things that we assume are a certain way, even scientifically established, are subject to change and that there’s errors and misinterpretations. Things that are scientific or generally assumed or politically and socially accepted may be wrong or anything might be wrong to some extent. Not being too rigid in assuming that something is unquestionable that it may be the current interpretation is unquestionable, but that’s subject to change based on new evidence. For example, the standard model of physics not working when things get really small or really big in in quantum mechanics or cosmology. The estimates of how things work or just that, estimates. They’re not necessarily rigid facts that applied at all scales and all circumstances. Our assumption about what we can rely on needs to be flexible and open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things for the future.
One of the great quotes in this idea is, “The map is not the terrain.” As human beings, we love to build these models that describe the world and we have these beautiful descriptions or maps or models, but you can’t confuse standing on a map and walking around for walking around reality. Life itself is a lot squishier. It’s not as deterministic to be able to put in a box and put a bow around.
A similar analogy of the map is not the terrain is, “The menu is not the food.” You can look at a menu and understand what is available at the restaurant and even think about what it would be like to eat it. But that’s a very different experience than actually eating their real food that’s served that may not be accurately described on the menu and embodying the experience because the experience can be quite different.
With all these changes and all these changing models, it’s expected that the rate of change will increase as we continue to grow as a culture and society and become more complex. It raises the question, “How do we prepare for this?” If I’m seventeen years old right now, I’m about to go to college, and I’m new to pick a major, it’s very likely that by the time I get out five years from now, accounting will be a completely different industry handled by machines.
One of the things used to evaluate how to choose your path is to keep in mind that things change, and that change is natural, changes is good. Learning how to learn at the intersection of different fields or learning how to learn as opposed to learning a thing that is likely to change is a better path for the future. Models, as an example, are estimates of how things are supposed to work, and the estimate becomes more refined over time. The model, almost by definition, is wrong. It’s an estimate of reality. It’s not reality. Learning about uncertainty and learning about change and how to evaluate those things is a much more lifelong valuable skill to learn. In many technical fields, learning about accounting or engineering or physics or even medicine is something where at the beginning of your education, the things that are being taught are, to some extent, out of date before you’ve even finished your program. Not being too focused on learning the truth or the facts, which are subject to change, set you up for how life works in a more comfortable way.
Some people say the Singularity is coming that moment that machines will be able to upgrade themselves faster than humans can. Are there certain industries that you think have more of a level of demand and job security over the next ten years?
The term singularity comes from physics from over a hundred years ago. The term was used to describe falling over an event horizon into a black hole where the way the models of the physical world work are predict things accurately changed to where the models do not work anymore once you fall over this singularity horizon into unpredictability of a black hole.
A black hole is an object in space that has a massive gravity to it and things are being pulled in to get closer, faster and faster. There’s a certain point where light can escape and certain point where light gets pulled in and you can’t see what’s going on inside. Like we’re pulled to the ground, light is affected so strongly by the black hole that it cannot escape, and we can’t see what’s going on in there. Without that, we don’t really know specifically what’s happening. The event horizon is that line between when we can see and when we don’t know exactly what’s going on. The singularity is what happens when you tip over that line. Is that right?
That’s a cosmology physics way to describe it but a singularity just means change and falling into change. Another example of that would be swimming along in a river and the river is heading towards a waterfall. As you’re swimming along, you can predict what it’s like to be swimming in the water, but as you drift closer to the waterfall, things become unpredictable. When you go over the edge of the waterfall, what happens to you becomes unpredictable and not easy to model. That’s whether you crash on the rocks or you pop out in the stillwater below. It can’t easily be modeled or predicted. A singularity is a change from a predictable experience to unpredictable. When people talk about it as computers or the internet getting smarter than people, right now people are considered smarter than the internet, but that’s evidently changing as we see the internet evolved to be smarter and smarter. At some point, the internet will become smarter than people. As we fall over this waterfall into that situation, it’s hard to know what life will be like when the internet is smarter than people. We trust that and the things that the internet does more than we trust people. That is going from life being predictable in the way that it is now with people being perhaps the smartest thing to a time where people are no longer the smartest thing. Life will change accordingly, but it won’t happen on some day, like a light switch turning on. It’s a process that we’re feeling now as we rely on internet search more than asking her friends.
People have suggested, “No matter what you study in college, go ahead and study that, but also get a dual degree in artificial intelligence.” You want to study literature but get literature and artificial intelligence because it’s a topic that will be relevant for the next ten years.
Intelligence is related to learning. Another way to describe artificial intelligence is machines being able to learn and that’s useful in anything. Studying how that works is important, but it’s like saying, “I’m going to study software in that.” Artificial intelligence is basically smarter software and smarter machines that are able to learn and that will likely be ubiquitous in almost everything. If you say, “Something can learn,” that makes it a better product, whether that’s a table or a chair or a car or a piece of clothing or your shoes. If they become smarter, odds are it’s better. Artificial intelligence isn’t a discrete field. It’s more like software or machine learning. Peter Norvig, who used to teach the main AI course at Stanford and is an artificial intelligence researcher for Google, has a good way to phrase this, “Artificial intelligence is a bit like raisin bread in that the AI is the raisins, but it’s still bread.” Look to see AI becoming ubiquitous in almost anything that the people interact with because making things smarter generally makes them better.
This has been enlightening. Thank you so much for giving us your insights and your knowledge. It’s been a real treat. Who do you consider your heroes or the people that have inspired you the most? Maybe it’s an author or a book that you loved. It could be your parents. Who is it that’s created the biggest impact on you?
Somebody who had a big impact on me growing up academically and overtime was Sasha Shulgin or Alexander Shulgin, who is a chemist who researched the way that chemicals affect the mind, not just the brain. He invented the synthesis for different variations of chemicals that have an impact on the mind and consciousness. His exploration was using that as tools to figure out how the mind works and how consciousness works. He has a huge impact on how chemicals affect consciousness and it was built over time, a toolbox of how to do that and evaluate that. He died a few years back, but I have the luck of working with them in a variety of different ways and he’s one of my favorite hero mentors.
If people want to find you on the internet, where can they find you?
Facebook is probably the easiest way.
Thank you so much. For the audience, stay tuned for an anonymous interview. If you can figure out who this is, you can run into invitation to The Salon.
About Reese Jones
Anonymous Guest Interview
This is always my favorite part, the anonymous interview, where we get to play a bit of a game. We have the incredible Will with us. Will, thank you so much for coming on.
Thank you for having me.
Let’s give the audience some hints about who you are so that they can have a chance of guessing what’s going on. Where did you grow up? Where are you from?
I’m from Western Pennsylvania.
Was there a certain moment or a teacher or something that inspired you to go into your field?
I was lucky enough to have multiple influences both on the music and art side, as well as the scientific and medical side. My career is the result of a blending of creative science, which I’ve had moments of all throughout my career from the time I was growing up until I went to graduate school.
I don’t know the details of your entire career. I know that there’s been a slew of celebrity moments and people come to you for your expertise and knowledge specifically in medicine, but is there a certain accomplishment that you’re most proud of in your career?
When I started my career, I set out to find ways to help people using the tools that people in my profession are trained to use and they’re the ones that everyone knows about from a health perspective. You’re armed with a stethoscope and other kinds of tools. I trained in internal medicine as a doctor and my remit as a trained professional was to take care of people healthy and sick, young and old, men and women. Having had the privilege of training at some of the best places, I was trained at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, one of the best Harvard teaching hospitals. I felt like I mastered or had the opportunity to master the standard of care. The interesting thing about standard of care for a doctor is that the standard continuously changes. When you practice medicine, you are asked to repeat the same best standards without necessarily changing those standards, even though the actual knowledge and the tools may change. I’m one of these people that always wants to do something a little bit different, better, more advanced and try to put some of the old, less successful practices away.
I was referring back to my research training, which was in a field called angiogenesis, blood vessel growth, inspired by a surgeon who is from Boston, a mentor of mine named Dr. Judah Folkman. I realized that the way to bring about paradigm shifts in medicine is to keep one eye on the ball of where the standard of care is or the standard practices today, but also the challenge can we do better and how would we do better and how the science give us the clues of where we can do better. I took advantage of that insight and pursued looking for the common denominators of disease. That was quite different than what most of my other colleagues in medicine and we’re doing at the time.
This is the origin of your expertise and what you’re known for now. What is it that you spend your time on these days?
I spend my time on blood vessels. This is 60,000 miles, one of the largest organs in our body. I started an organization. I’ve given a Ted Talk about my work in this area. What I’m particularly proud of is that there are breakthroughs that are helping people every day that are coming, not only from the biotech and treatment side for disease, but also from the food and dietary side, which is all about disease prevention.
To give people a sense of what you look like, who would play you in a movie?
Probably somebody like Keanu Reeves, who has the physicality but also an intelligence and a little bit of an explorer mentality. I find myself in the Matrix every day, so I have to decide what reality I live in, whether it’s the today’s standard of practice or whether I need to explore into other areas that may or may not yet be proven
When you went into this field, this wasn’t something that a lot of people were doing. Was there something like a crazy stunt or a gamble that you made that led to your success?
The work I do in blood vessels, which is a field called angiogenesis, is a process. It’s not a disease and as a medical doctor, most people specialize in diseases, like the heart for cardiology or the brain for neurology or cancer for oncology for example. I chose a completely different route by staying away being locked to a disease but being drawn towards building a career around a common denominator of lots of different diseases. This approach was a risk, at the time. I had some of my professors that were training me question whether or not I was making the right career decision. My work wound up being very productive and by looking at common denominators, we’ve actually been able to create, through my organization, the realization of 32 FDA approved new drugs and devices, which is a good track record in the medical research world.
There’s so much that people can now base their search on and figuring out who you are. William, thank you so much for joining us. For the audience, you have between now and the next episode to figure out who Will is. If you can, you can win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers.