Zolli: Technology makes superheroes of ordinary people

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Michelle Kanaar | Staff Photographer
Andrew Zolli, executive director and curator of PopTech, closes Chautauqua’s week of lectures on “Digital Identity” with a Friday address in the Amphitheater.

Privacy issues and the fear of becoming obsolete increase as technology evolves, but people cannot lose sight of the possibilities it provides.

“The big story is that our capacities and our challenges are moving in lockstep. We’re living through both a global extinction event and the Renaissance at the same time,” said Andrew Zolli, executive director and curator of PopTech. “It’s hard to wrap our minds around.”

Zolli focused on technology’s capabilities amid the challenges and disruptions society faces during Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater, ending the “Digital Identity” lecture platform on a positive note.

The media consistently report on terrorism and climate change as risks, he said. The chance of being affected by terrorism is one in 28 million, compared with one in six for climate change, according to an independent health risk analysis, Zolli said.

Though climate change has a greater effect on people, many focus more on terrorism, because humans have evolved to respond to threats from other humans. As a result, he said, they are blinded to slower-moving risks.

“We’re in a position in which we can’t even see and identify some of the most pressing forces, even when they’re reported to us over and over, and over again,” he said.

In 2010, there were riots in Mexico City due to an increase in tortilla prices. Though rioters blamed the government and wealthy landowners, the price surge was a result of Hurricane Katrina.

When the hurricane hit, it knocked out oil refineries along the Gulf of Mexico, which caused gasoline prices to rise. More farmers began to grow corn to keep pace with a new demand for bioethanol, which then drove corn prices up.

The price increase exemplifies the connections among different countries and climates, energy, agriculture, trade and food systems, and technology, Zolli said.

“We need to build systems, organizations, people that are able to withstand disruption, because we are living in an era of the cliff, closer and closer to the cliffs,” he said.

Technology plays a role in countering disruptive changes and making communities more resilient, Zolli said. But to understand how to use the tools to respond to challenges, people need to understand how they respond to risks.

Humans adapt their behavior to respond to risks they face in certain situations, a concept known as risk compensation. Organizations also have high levels of risk compensation, Zolli said.

“Cultures develop in organizations, and if you are more risk tolerant or less risk tolerant than the culture of your organization, you will be told to either get with the program or find the door,” he said.

In response to that, institutions and communities are finding ways to ensure people maintain an open mind, he said.

The United States military in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., runs the Red Team University, a program that trains a corps of professional skeptics within the chain of command. It helps commanders avoid groupthink problems, Zolli said.

Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who worked with World Health Organization Global Program on AIDS, founded CeaseFire in Chicago’s South Side. Through his experience, he found that violence followed the epidemiological patterns of illnesses, Zolli said.

The program includes three steps to prevent violence: interrupt violence, change behaviors and change norms. Zolli said Slutkin had trained jobless senior-level gang drug operatives, because they knew the causes, consequences and social networks that govern the streets.

“Change is possible,” Zolli said, “but it’s possible when it comes from credible messengers with credible messages.”

When Kenya held elections in 2007, a group of Kenyan engineers, bloggers and social media technologists created Ushahidi to give people in the countryside a platform to report violence they witnessed. The reports were included on a map to show where patterns of violence were, Zolli said.

“In spite of all these difficulties,” he said, “we are turned effectively into superheroes if we understand how to use the tools in front of us.”

But people must also use their time effectively to contribute to change. Video games are a way in which people can be motivated to become responsive and resilient to complex environments, Zolli said.

In 2003, a study showed Americans spent 9 billion hours playing solitaire. If those hours were turned into work hours, it would take 6.8 solitaire hours to build the Empire State Building, he said.

“That’s how much time we waste with something we don’t even care about,” Zolli said. “That’s how much extra slack there is in our cognitive universe.”

Some games have become a platform for causing change. For example, Epidemic IQ is a system that uses artificial intelligence, people playing games and a group of experts to search for disease outbreaks.

It works by sifting through data, such as texts, blog posts and tweets, and eliminates 99 percent of them. It sends a balance of the remaining results to people who play FarmVille on Facebook, Zolli said. The players are offered virtual rewards if they identify whether a post has to do with a potential outbreak.

The system was able to identify an E. coli outbreak in Germany, Zolli said. It discovered the outbreak eight days before the Center of Disease Control and Prevention and 12 days faster than the World Health Organization, he said.

Technology today can even give people feedback.

He had the audience imagine a scenario in which a man stands before a Krispy Kreme doughnut case, fighting the temptation to buy a doughnut. With the iPhone Temptd application, the man posts about his dilemma, and everyone encourages him not to eat it.

“It wouldn’t work without digital identities,” Zolli said. “It wouldn’t work without the ability to use technologies to communicate instantaneously where I need to make change in my life with the people most likely to influence that change.”

The way in which people’s lives are organized today creates a challenge, because they are not required to understand how technologies’ and processes’ underlying structures are organized, Zolli said.

Simon Hauger started the Workshop School at the West Philadelphia High School in which students were given a challenge to make an all-electric vehicle that gets 100 miles per gallon. Because they had no formal training in mechanics or technology, Zolli said, the students had to use reverse engineering to build the vehicle.

The team of students participated in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize and beat teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities.

They beat the prestigious schools, because they had learned to reverse-engineer — they had experienced how the system they built worked, Zolli said.

Toward the end of the lecture, Zolli compared his experience with technology to his daughter’s own experience. At almost 2 years old, his daughter had already learned how a smartphone works. She began to apply how she interacted with the smartphone to other objects in her life.

Zolli learned about basic computer coding when he was young. He used code to create different shapes on a computer, which gave him a new understanding of the world he was in.

Reality was like what he saw on the computer screen, he said.

“Everything I saw became connected to this system,” he said. “I could see how you could explain something like a complex shape by all of the points on its surface. And the world exploded.”

Photo by Michelle Kanaar.


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: One of my points is that you ended talking about this place that obviously is grounded in this idea of face-to-face engagement. The examples that you gave in dealing with the Haiti earthquake … and even with PopTech — you’re talking about an organization that meets in Camden, Maine, where that face-to-face engagement is necessary. How does that change in 50 years, where the technology allows for at least the illusion of face-to-face engagement even more?

A: It’s a great question. Let me riff a little bit on the answer, because I’m not sure I know, but I’ll say a couple things about it. Never has ignorance prevented men from answering. That’s the first rule of all education. I think there are a couple things going on here. First of all, I’m very bullish on the future of technology, but I think we have to be careful of that fallacy of over-extrapolating the novelty of the present. As I’ve been interviewed on the radio today, somebody asked me, “What is the future of homes going to look like?” We’re going to be living in basically sleep pods. And there’s a wonderful thinker at Xerox PARC named Rich Gold. And Rich was a genuine genius in an age when we apply significant grade inflation to that term. He was a genuine genius. And he had a fantastic presentation that he would make called “How smart does your bed have to be before you’re afraid to go to sleep at night?” And in it, it was an hour in which there wasn’t a single declarative sentence. It was just questions — one after another. And one of those questions was “How does it feel to get up on a Saturday morning and pad across a cold floor to make your partner pancakes?” If you could heat the floor, so that your feet weren’t cold, would that be worth it? If you could push a button from bed, and have your lover’s instant pancakes shot into your mouths, would that be an improvement? No. Because a little bit of challenge is the human condition. We resist things being too easy. That’s why we make them harder. But I think the reality is that technologies have to work with people. Much of the future of architecture, for instance, is already here. You can see it. It’s all out here. It’s all going to be here 50 years from now. Right? We’re not going to be landing UFOs next month and replacing all this stuff. We have a heritage and connection to the past. And one of the things, I think, that is really valuable to think about in connection to in-person versus digital is that it really depends on the task. The job of mapping all of this data that was coming out of Haiti was relatively small tasks that could be done by big groups of people who didn’t have to be tightly coordinated with each other and didn’t have to know each other. Like a kind of all-volunteer team who could be rapidly assembled. But the job of writing the program had to happen face-to-face. The program that enabled them to do that required people to be in the same room with each other. They had to work together. And so I think face-to-face isn’t going away. And the last thing I’ll say about it is that I think, actually, the reality is that the pervasiveness of digital makes the analog more valuable. And that is not true of any domain of human life more than time. The vast replication and ease with which we can do things digitally makes the time we spend in fora like this one more important, more valuable, more luxurious. Because there’s more and more competing for our attention when we’re not here.

Q: When you talk about the motivation to do extraordinary things, many of the examples you’ve given are small acts that people are performing. But as a whole, because of the digital age, are able to accomplish an extraordinary thing. But in some cases, it almost seems as if, with a Farmville game — or I think there’s a couple of examples you were using — where people may not even know that they’re doing an extraordinary thing when they’re asked to do that task. Can you speak to that?

A: Certainly there’s an enormous opportunity to capture the passive attention of people and to channel it into productive endeavors. But that’s just the beginning. And to talk to you a little bit about the future, I’ll mention one program in particular run by a computer scientist named Adrien Treuille — who’s now at Google at a special think tank they run — who’s from Carnegie Mellon University. And he and his colleagues created something called “EteRNA,” which is a game that people play where they’re given complex puzzles to solve, and those puzzles are actually a very technical, biological, life-sciences problem called RNA synthesis problems. Basically given a complex lock design of the key that unlocks it. And this is an experimental problem. Scientists spend time designing RNAs, these little molecules, in real life and using them in real-life science experiments. So they created a game that allowed people who didn’t have any background in this to contribute by playing this game. And this is the way it works. You play the game. You come up with your design for solving the complex problem, the design of this molecule. That design is voted on by people who play the game. The top-voted solutions to the problem are then sent to a laboratory at Stanford where the molecules are actually synthesized using the plans that the games produced, tested experimentally, and fed back into the games. And this year, the first scientifically published papers that will be co-authored by video game players are about to be published in about two months. And one of those authors is a 13-year-old girl who just got into college. Wow. Hard to argue with that kind of success. But she is not just an augment to the experts. She’s better than the experts. She’s a Mozart. She’s an Einstein. She’s one of those weird folks who’s randomly distributed in the population, and one of the things about these tools is they let us find those folks who have natural talents and apply them to some of the world’s toughest problems. So that’s where it’s going. It’ll be less passive and, I think, more active.

Q: Could you comment on the value of the open source movement versus the closed, for-profit locked systems?

A: Absolutely. The headline to any discussion about what our current software system is — an open source versus closed — has to start with the patent system, which is a giant disaster. We have an intellectual property governance system in the United States which has been rigged, and gamed and become a source of competition among firms. And it’s a mess. And one of the reasons that it’s a mess is sometimes patents are applied to things that shouldn’t be patented, and then it’s impossible to reverse these decisions, and then they become very, very complicated. Now, you need incentives for people to do creative work. And patents serve an incredibly important and useful purpose. But there are plenty of places where intellectual property, if given to the public domain, can become a kind of general platform on which new intellectual property can be produced. And so I’m very bullish on open source software. I don’t think it’s the solution for everything by a long shot. Because motivations count. And resources count. And very, very good software artists are just that. And artists should be paid for their work. Just like you wouldn’t say “I want every single musician in the world to play for free.” No, we’ve got to keep these people going, and thriving and being creative so that they can get on to the next creative act that emboldens humanity.

Q: What are the easiest and most socially productive ways in which we can game-ify our lives?

A: I would say it sort of depends on what domain you’re talking about. The one thing I will tell you is there are amazing, new, very passive bits of technology. I mention one, and this is in no way an advertisement for this company. The folks at Nike produced something called a fuel band, and there’s a similar product called the Fitbit, and it’s a little bracelet that you wear. And all it does passively is read your levels of activity throughout the day. When were you walking around, and when was your heart rate elevated and when was it at rest? And that information is then passed on to your mobile phone. And it passively monitors you. And it doesn’t give the data to anybody else. It gives the data just to you. But you can build in tools on top of that platform that encourage you to produce — for instance, I normally wear one. I took it off, because I thought it might interfere with the broadcast equipment. But as I’m walking around, if I find that I’m 2,000 Nike fuel points below where I ought to be, I’ll go take a walk at the end of the day. And sometimes it’s just the little nudge that you need. So there are lots and lots of these. There is a whole movement of people who are using these technologies not to just make themselves more transparent to themselves, but to take their data and combine it with other people’s in a proactive way. There’s a fantastic organization called Patients Like Me, in which people who are suffering from illnesses that don’t get the attention that they need from the medical establishment are taking their data about all the different aspects of their lives and combining it and giving it to scientists and saying: “Here. Here’s all the data on all the people that are suffering this problem. Tell us if you can help us find a solution.” So there are millions of things like that.

Q: This will be the last question, and I think it speaks to what a lot of people are probably concerned about in terms of those who haven’t grown up with a lot of this technology. It seems that people need to understand the technology to be able to control it both in their lives and achieve those extraordinary things that you talked about. So is this even possible for someone who isn’t like your daughter who’s growing up with this, who understands the code?

A: I believe that the best thing you can possibly do is connect with someone who’s a young user of this technology. I really believe that. I actually think they need your wisdom, for those of you who are of a certain age. I think that one of the things that often happens is that questions that sound like they’re naïve questions turn out not to be such naïve questions. Basic and simple questions are not the same thing as stupid questions. And I think that one thing I will tell you is that learning the skills I learned in sixth grade — learning that code I showed you — that’s intellectually accessible to everybody. Because as I was in sixth grade going into seventh grade, I mostly only cared about girls. I was beginning that part of my development. I wasn’t a genius. I’m not a genius. That’s not my role in society. But I believe very strongly that these skills are critical thinking skills expressed in typing. That’s really all they are. And just learning a little bit of that, just a tiny bit, an afternoon. You should have a class here on that. Programming for people over 50. In a half-hour. Just to teach you how five lines of code works will change everything from the way you use your ATM to the way you think about sending email. I think it’s extraordinarily accessible. And just a little bit not only can help you better understand the world around you, but it can keep you sharp. So do that, and hang out with the teenager as long as it’s tolerable, and everything will be fine.

—Transcribed by Jen Bentley