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Podcast No. 6: Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab Founder who Helped Create the Internet

January 16, 2019

My guest today is Nicholas Negroponte. Nicholas is one of the cofounders of the MIT media lab, where he helped drive the birth of the computer industry, the internet, and much of the technology we use in our daily lives.

By Will Ahmed

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He also founded One Laptop per Child, was the first investor in Wired Magazine, and is the author of the book Being Digital, which predicted many of the technological advancements we’ve seen over the last two decades.

In this conversation we take a deep dive into everything technology, including the things he foreshadowed in his book 20 years ago, the pace at which these evolutions happened, virtual reality, augmented reality, voice recognition, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, and ideas like taking a pill to learn a language, or how human performance monitoring will someday exist completely inside your body.

Additionally, we discuss Nicholas’ long-time friendship with Steve Jobs, from his lasting memories of the Apple CEO, to his experience with what was literally the first iPhone.

Nicholas has been a phenomenal advisor, investor and board member at WHOOP for the past six years, and I’m thrilled to have him on the podcast.

Show Notes:

3:57 – Founding MIT Media Lab. “As our little lab grew, it grew more and more into the human-computer interface problems, for example, we more or less invented touch screens,” which at the time people thought were stupid.

6:07 – Being Digital. Nicholas’ book, published in 1995, and the predictions he made in it. “They weren’t really predictions, they were extrapolations, everything in the book was something we were doing.”

8:37 – What Took So Long? “What affects the timing is usually not the technology, the technology very rarely is the gating factor.” He gives the example of newspapers, where it was the well established industrial model of manufacturing and distribution that slowed the progress of digital news. “English is one of the few languages where the word ‘paper’ is in the word ‘newspaper,’ so it’s kind of really embedded that we think of it as a paper. And it’s not, really it’s the distribution of bits … to go from the atoms to the bits business was the big transition.”

10:27 – Voice Recognition & Digital Butlers. Nicholas explains why voice transcription is so difficult, and how it didn’t really become important until devices got so small that it was the best option.

15:35 – Translation Earbuds already exist, what will they lead to? Maybe implants in your ears? A pill that lets you temporarily learn a language? “That’s plausible.” Will the world speak one common language in the future, or will translation technology eliminate the need for that?

19:38 – Learning by Taking a Pill? He describes how this could work, by putting nanorobots in the bloodstream that access neurons in the brain.

21:07 – Virtual Reality in 1967. Will wonders why it’s lagging behind other things, Nicholas says it took 50 years because we had to wait for other tech to support it.

23:48 – Augmented Reality. Might it stop VR from ever fully happening, and what is the difference between the two?

26:05 – Birth of the Internet. “DARPA laid the groundwork for most of the industry.” The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union terrified the US that it had fallen behind, “the internet came out of that.” Nicholas explains what TCPIP is.

28:30 – Email 55 Years Ago? “I was certainly using email in 1964-65.” Originally the internet consisted of three machines. “I was a user at a time when I knew everybody on the internet. He describes how “it was a way of sharing time sharing.”

32:45 – A Linear Accelerator so large it’s underneath multiple countries.

34:28 – Design is at the Core of Technology. How did Nicholas get into it tech? His professional training was as an architect. “One of the first people to really embrace it hook, line and sinker, and I think I taught him not most, but certainly a lot of what he knew, was Steve Jobs … he was somebody who had an affection for both computation and design.”

37:26 – Bill Gates vs. Steve Jobs. Their contrasting points of view. Nicholas says Apple’s design is getting worse these days, but it’s “just because anybody who’s been at the top so long has no place to go but down.”

38:09 – His Lasting Memory of Steve Jobs. “He would blow hot and cold to such extremes that he’d be in a meeting crying at one moment, and then laughing at the next, and then yelling a moment later, and then telling you that you were the stupidest person he’d ever seen and the next morning saying you were the most intelligent. … It was not necessarily getting the best work out of people.”

39:27 – Failures Too. Not everything Steve Jobs did was a success, in particular the Apple Lisa and NeXT. Nicholas also describes being in John Sculley’s office the day Jobs was let go (he was good friends with both of them).

42:30 – The First iPhone. Nicholas recalls his encounter with the original iPhone, literally. “He said ‘I’d like to show you what I consider my life’s work.’ … He was sort of holding it the way you’d hold a fine piece of jewelry … and he said ‘Would you like to touch it?’ It was a little bit like passing a hamster or something.”

45:15 – Motorola’s Board wasn’t impressed with the iPhone, why?

48:48 – Apple’s Design Decline “They’ve basically exited the laptop business … and face recognition has got to be the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard … it’s such a bad idea, but it’s cute.” Global leaders can fail, he sites Motorola and IBM. “Unless Apple makes a car, I don’t think it’s going to be around that long … the whole company isn’t going to fold, but it’ll break up.”

52:43 – Could Facebook Disappear? Does a lack of hardware equate to staying power? “It depends how sticky it is, how hard it is to exit, and what you lose by doing it.” In the developing world, “Facebook is for many people the internet for them, they don’t know it in any other way.”

55:46 – Artificial intelligence. “The interesting AI of today is the collective intelligence … the fact that you can have some form of super intelligence by having multiple intelligences working together.”

57:38 – Why WHOOP? He’s not a sports guy, so how did we get him involved? “It was the people not the idea, you could almost invest in two people to do anything and they would be a success. … Now I’m rather interested in the industrial applications, when you think of it, no school bus driver should be allowed to drive your kids unless they’re wearing a WHOOP Strap.”

1:01:11 – Recovery = Readiness. Research WHOOP is doing in the industrial space, using construction sites as an example.

1:02:35 – Wearable Tech: “Cool or Invisible.” Will contemplates the future of WHOOP, and how it might someday reside inside your body. Nicholas theorizes on how.

1:04:08 – “Parasitic Power.” Extending battery life by getting energy from somewhere else, the possibility of powering with movement?

1:05:54 – Your Body Online? Will doctors’ offices and checkups go away? “What we know about our body is so limited. You go to the doctor and at best you’re using a recollection.” Will shares an amusing story about having his resting heart rate taken at a recent annual checkup.

1:08:00 – Cryptocurrency. Is it the web 3.0? “The whole idea that you could have the kind of benefits of central control without central control is evident in the internet. There’s nobody running the internet.” Nicholas also notes that in the UAE there’s a “Minister of AI” and “the government is putting 100% of government affairs on blockchain.”

1:10:32 – Clean Energy. “We’re just working on the wrong thing.” Rather than solar or wind, nuclear fusion (not fission) is the real solution. “It is the green future … as a society we’re not pushing it hard enough.”

1:12:26 – Space Travel. “It’s a little bit of a sideshow, but the derivatives of it are going to be very important.” For example, a toilet that doesn’t go to a sewer. “That’s what they use in outer space … little boxes that are smaller than a toaster that you can pee in one end and drink out the other, so why can’t we have that in slums?” Nicholas also shares his thoughts on Elon Musk.

1:16:37 – His Legacy. “I’ll be remembered as the person who had the idea and wherewithal to create the place for those people to do their work.”

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance and health. WHOOP members include professional athletes, Fortune 500 CEOs, fitness enthusiasts, military personnel, frontline workers and a broad range of people looking to improve their performance. WHOOP has raised more than $400 million from top investors and is valued at $3.6 billion, making it the most valuable standalone wearables company in the world. Ahmed has recruited an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, marketers, and designers. Ahmed was recently named to the 2021 Sports Business Journal 40 under 40 list as well as 2020 Fortune 40 Under 40 Healthcare list and previously named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40. Ahmed founded WHOOP as a student at Harvard, where he captained the Men’s Varsity Squash Team and graduated with an A.B. in government.