Kate O’Neill is the author of “A Future So Bright,” a book that argues that the best way to confront challenges and build a better tomorrow is to allow ourselves to envision the brightest future possible, while at the same time acknowledging the ways the future could go dark and working to prevent them from happening. Widely known as the “Tech Humanist,” Kate is helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future with her signature strategic optimism. Kate is also the founder and CEO of KO Insights, a strategic advisory firm committed to improving human experience at scale.
As a professional global keynote speaker, Kate regularly speaks with leadership audiences around the world, exploring how data and emerging technologies like AI are shaping the future of human experiences, and advocating with her signature strategic optimism for humanity’s future in an increasingly tech-driven and exponentially-changing world. Her clients and audiences include many Fortune 500 and World’s Most Admired companies and brands, including tech giants like Google and IBM, household-name brands like Coca Cola and Colgate, future-forward cities like Amsterdam and Austin, top universities like Cambridge and Yale, and even the United Nations.
Bryan Wish: Kate, welcome to the One Away Show.
Kate O’Neill: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Bryan Wish: Absolutely. And I appreciate you replying to my random LinkedIn message. And I remember I sent you a quote that my mom sent me that resonated with your work. And I guess should do that more often.
Kate O’Neill: Remind the, or tell the listeners what the quote was. I have it in front of me, if you want me to share what it was?
Bryan Wish: I would love for you to share. I just remember.
Kate O’Neill: You said that your mom raised you on the quote, “In every crisis there is an opportunity.” And you’ve always had tried to find the silver lining, so.
Bryan Wish: That’s right.
Kate O’Neill: That’s amazing, what a great philosophy to be raised on.
Bryan Wish: Well, thank you. It resonated when I was kind of looking at your work and I figured you would appreciate it. And so I’m glad you did and you responded. But this is about you today, which I’m excited to dive into. Kate, for your One Away moment, I’m curious how you’d answer that question. What is the One Away moment that you want to share with us today?
Kate O’Neill: So, it’s really funny. I don’t, I’m going to just go ahead and be the rebel that says, “I don’t really think of my life in that way. I don’t think of the one moment as the pivotal moment.” I think of there being just kind of this whole sequence of moments, but I think there have been a lot of things that have been meaningful and significant. One of them maybe being when I got a chance to, after undergrad in Chicago, I got a chance to be recruited to go to Toshiba in California. And I built their intranet, their first intranet. And there were a whole series of kind of weird decisions and tangents and sort of circumstances that led to that, which is partly why it doesn’t feel like a one sort of contained moment, because I know how much kind of pivotal stuff went into it.
But when I think about everything that happened in my career from then on, being in Silicon Valley from the mid-90s on, was pretty fundamental to a lot of the technology, the innovative technology that I was exposed to, and that I helped be part of building and designing. So, that certainly was one sort of macro moment that feels like it was really pivotal in my life.
Bryan Wish: Super interesting. Well, Kate, I’m curious because you built an intranet in the sense that one of a major company. I saw you had a degree in linguistics.
Kate O’Neill: Yeah.
Bryan Wish: So what, I’m just someone who’s very curious, what led you to, from maybe a linguistics background to saying, “I’m going to go help a major company build a major part of the business.”
Kate O’Neill: Right, I know. Yeah, it’s a great question. And it’s a good observation that you wouldn’t think of a language as background as being sort of ideally suited for a career in technology. But it’s actually been pretty helpful because I think it gives me a way of looking at the tech landscape about how tech helps us communicate with one another. And the meaning that gets communicated through the interactions that we have in technology. But the way that I got to it was I actually was, in languages I was actually a German major in undergrad and a linguistics and Russian double minor. And then my grad work was in linguistics and language and languages development.
But I was supervising the language lab at the University of Illinois, Chicago, the very first time that I saw the web, the graphical web. So I had seen the internet, text-based internet functions for anyone in your audience and for yourself, even if you’re not as familiar with those sort of early pre-web internet functions, there were just like, if you’ve ever seen a text monitor kind of thing, like a screen that just has prompts of text, that’s what it all sort of used to look like. And you might be able to play some kind of multiplayer game with friends at different schools or something like that, but it was all through text. You’re all just be typing text commands and getting text replies and everything.
And so when I saw the web for the first time, it was a text-based feature. It was just something that looked exactly like everything else. But then I saw the graphical web for the first time. And it was where they actually had embedded images and formatted text and all of this kind of richness to the way that content was being presented. And it blew my mind. And I remember having this feeling like, “This is going to change everything.” And of course it did, but I also got a chance to, I learned that I could build a website for the language laboratory, which I was supervising. And it turned out to have been the first, if not the first, one of the very first departmental websites at the university, which is what got it noticed, long series of steps through by someone at Toshiba. So this is kind of the reason why the One Away moment is kind of funny for me, because there’s this whole sequence of things that happens that makes all of these things possible.
And then to take that and go, get excited about building technology, which I’d always been interested in programming and technology, but keep this linguistic mindset and framework. It then takes years of working in this space before I realized how to apply that in my life and start figuring out what that consulting practice is going to look like, and what value I can add back into the space because of that. So yeah, so it’s a great question, but it’s a, it was definitely a tangent, I think, from most people’s perspective, but it’s been incredibly valuable to me to that perspective of this kind of multi-linguistic approach to the world. And thinking about how technology facilitates connection and communication between people.
Bryan Wish: Yeah, that’s fascinating. And it’s almost, and I hope this isn’t too big of a jump, but language in a way was almost like this key to unlock the door to so much more in your life, I.e. the internet and building and connected so many dots for you, which seems to be a central thread through, just some what I’ve seen in your brief, I mean, your tenured background in your career of all the things that you’ve accomplished. But what I’m curious about, Kate, you picked linguistics maybe, so it’s such a niche major, in my opinion, just from what everyone does. I think what would be interesting for the audience and maybe as we connect the dots down the road in the show is like, what drove maybe your early interest in linguistics and language from maybe a younger age [crosstalk 00:07:40]?
Kate O’Neill: Yeah, I’m happy to get into that, because I think that’s a really interesting thing too. I think when I was a kid, I can remember distinctly, being seven, eight, nine, whatever, somewhere in there kind of years old. And in school we had exchange students coming from France. They had, the teachers had handed out to the students a sheet, just a one eight and a half by 11 sheet of paper that had some phrases on it for us to learn just to be gracious and friendly. And I remember being really taken with those phrases and really studying them so that I could say these things to the students when they came. But at the same time, at that point for some reason, and it didn’t happen throughout my childhood and into my teen years. But in that moment my family was going to the library, the public library, after dinner sometimes.
And that would be something we would do together as a family. And I remember finding my way to the language learning racks and finding little Spanish language learning guides. And so very young I was fascinated with the idea that there are all these different languages. And one of the things that I remember very clearly observing, like kind of connecting the dots and realizing was that in our language, in English, that you might hold up a book and you might be like, “Okay, this is a book.” But in Spanish it’s Libro and in French it’s Livre and in German it’s Buchen and Russian it’s kniga. And you have all these different labels and terms that describe the thing, which I remember the moment it hit me that that meant that the thing was different from what you call the thing.
And that the thing existed separate from the label for the thing, which meant that there was a difference between meaning and the underlying object that describes, that the meaning describes. And that that meant that we are responsible for describing the meaning of things. And I just remember having these kind of multifaceted thoughts and going like, “This is so fascinating.” And it’s been truly an obsession the rest of my life is the notion of meaning and how things work when it comes to what means what, and how do we understand meaning as human beings.
And it turns out that that’s something that a lot of people who work around experience or work around neuroscience and so on are fascinated with as well. And there’s a lot to it, but yeah, that carried me throughout my life in studying languages.
Now, I also was interested when I was approaching college. I was thinking about maybe majoring in theater or majoring in music as well. So it’s sort of the decision process of I’m going to major in German because I thought I might become a UN interpreter. That was more of that, it felt like a practical decision at the time. But I think the way that it becomes practical later in my life is by having made that observation about meaning and then being able to apply that observation about meaning to all kinds of things now, thinking about that in many ways.
Bryan Wish: Okay. We’re starting to break through here. I’m starting to see some doc, this is fascinating to me. And it’s funny, my next question, which you kind of answered was, was there any … I noticed a lot of correlation just when I talk to people who have background in let’s say programming or technology with language and music.
Kate O’Neill: Oh yeah, yeah, sure.
Bryan Wish: And I’m just curious, how you grew up, we’ll definitely get to the future and some of the things this is all connected to, but with how grew up? Were you raised in a way that your parents maybe put all the stuff in front of you, or dinner conversations were about really exploratory and diving into the meaning? I mean, have you given-
Kate O’Neill: You would think, you would think, right? No, no, it was, I did not grow up. I love my parents. My father passed away in 2005 and my mother’s still around, thank goodness. But I will say, as much as I love them, they were not raising us in an intellectual environment. That was not what was happening. So it wasn’t like we were having dinner table conversations that were thought provoking or anything like that. I think partly one of the things was we really did love music. So that was part of, that sort of that landscape, as you’re describing. My dad had been in the army, during his time in the army when he was stationed overseas, he became kind of a nightclub singer. He had grown up, in his family they all sang together in church. And so they did a lot of kind of coral arrangements for their family, was a fairly large family. I think he was the oldest of eight or nine. I can’t remember how many sons and daughters my grandparents had, so there’s enough of them to constitute nearly choir on their own.
And they actually even made a recording, an album of their family singing. So my dad had that background. And then when he went into the military, he was singing in these nightclubs. And this is actually how he made a little money, made a little pocket change while he was stationed just overseas. So I think that, and we had an organ in the house and he used to play at home and all of us sang in the church choir from time to time, my sister and I both did. And so I think there was just, there was this kind of love of music and that was ever present.
The other stuff though, like the theater and the languages. That was more just something, I think there may have been little pieces that I picked up in my family, but it was more just a result of adopting these things from around me. Like that example of the school handing out that sheet of phrases and then piecing it together into like, these things just really fascinate me.
Bryan Wish: Yeah. Well, it’s so interesting to understand where these early fascinations come from or derive meaning from it. And I think I was curious because I was at a dinner conversation in Seattle, the guy kind of runs Alexa and his kids are very … So the son is very much more technology driven. The daughter is very technology driven, but is a big writing and creative writing background, and the mom is an author. And so I was at their house all weekend and I’ve known these kids for a couple years, really good people. And with dinner, both nights the whole conversation was around like GBT III and programming, ideas around how to help authors and writers kind of work through ideas. And I was just like, “Are these kids like this because this has been the conversation since growing up, or?”
And so anyways, I’m sure you could appreciate, giving your background, but thank you for sharing and giving us maybe an insight and also a fun way to honor your father. Sounds like a well hearted, a good hearted man. So let’s get back to this One Away moment now that we kind of went off a nice tangent. We know that music was a big part of childhood in growing up. You always had this fascination for language and they’re deriving meaning from things and like a book. I thought that was fascinating. So with the example that you provided at Toshiba, to me it sounds like it was just another place to create meaning around language, but for a company. And you could kind of harness that internal curiosity to help them build a really meaningful part of the business. Go ahead.
Kate O’Neill: Yeah, I was just going to say, I think your interpretation of that is valid and it’s one that I would look back on as true, but I don’t know if in the moment I was seeing it as that outside of just being interested in the opportunity and in what I would learn from it.
Bryan Wish: Of course.
Kate O’Neill: But yeah, when you look back over your life, it’s a lot easier to see those guideposts, those one away moments, and be able to connect the dots between them. When you’re moving forward through life, it isn’t always as clear. Like, “Oh, this is a guidepost moment. This is a One Away moment.”
Bryan Wish: Well, I love that. I love this Steve Jobs quote about not being able to connect the dots looking forward, but back. So I don’t know. It’s always stuck with me of trying to make sense of drive meaning from things. So of course, but it’s interesting to dive into nonetheless. So I’m just curious, once you did this work with Toshiba and really dug into the innerwebs of things, what happened next or as a result of that project?
Kate O’Neill: Well, so then I’m living in California and working in Silicon Valley and surrounded by the people I’m meeting socially are all working in startups and other tech companies. And so it became very clear to me that there were lots of opportunities out there. And Toshiba, I felt within the span of less than a year that I was there, I felt I had done what I came to do. I’d added value and I learned a lot and I felt ready to move on. And so I was at a series of startups next. I went from one startup to another, helping set up things like building their website or building their sort of tech pubs program. Doing a lot of that kind of stuff. And then moving on to the next, hiring maybe some new people and then moving on to the next startup.
And I got a lot of really great experience very quickly by doing that. And within a few jumps, Netflix was the next startup that I landed at. And it was such a great moment of this company that crossed my radar because I had bought a DVD player and there was an insert in the DVD player, like a little promotional sheet insert. So the company existed already, obviously, and they were well enough along on their path to have formed relationships with DVD manufacturers to get their promotional insert into those packages. But they were still young. They were still, when I got hired, I was within the first 100 employees, so they were still very small.
But what really caught me was, I signed up for the program and I was renting the DVDs from them. And then I got an email from Netflix that said, “We’re beta testing a program where you would pay a monthly fee and it’s a subscription. And then you’d be able to get the DVDs on a rotating subscription basis.” And I went, “That is brilliant.” So everybody knows that model. I mean, if you were with Netflix before it was a streaming platform, if you used it as a DVD service, then most people know it for the DVD subscription program. What very few people know is that it actually did do à la carte DVD rental just like Blockbuster before it launched that subscription program. And I was a customer back when they did that. I just remember thinking they were so brilliant to observe that this could work. I tried the program for a few weeks and then I sent them my resume.
I said, “I don’t know what you need, but here are my skills. Here’s what I could do. I’m pretty good at just figure things out and building things, building teams around me.” So they hired me, they put me in as the first content manager managing a team of content producers. And so a lot of the work we were doing had to do with information architecture and helping understand the way that data and content were structure on the site to make sure that it was rich with metadata, that any given movie had a lot of kind of details about the director and the actors and the genres and stuff like that. And so that is actually one of the first projects that I did with. Oh, good, did you want to ask or say something?
Bryan Wish: I’m so curious because the massive amount of customer data. A massive amount of data on maybe the shows before they were screaming and maybe producing their own shows. And it sounds like part of the role and was the personalization element of how to maybe match consumer interest or customer interest with kind of your library of content. Can you share how that happened or what maybe what that was, how you kind of created that?
Kate O’Neill: Yeah. So, and I want to be clear that, I can’t say that I created any of this, these are teams of people having great ideas and working together. But what I did do was helped lead a project that took what was then the homepage of Netflix from a logged in experience. When you would log in and you’d be presented with all these movies that you could rent or whatever. And at the outset it had been a fairly statically coded page. So, you might have one movie here and one movie there and one promotional movie there or whatever, but it wasn’t dynamic. And at the time that wasn’t really something that was being done, like in ’99 that’s pretty early for dynamic personalization. But this project that I helped manage introduced dynamic personalization to that page. And it was pretty revolutionary at that time. It was really exciting because we were basing it on the algorithm that determined what would show up in any of those kind of content placeholders was going to be based on things like your rental history and your ratings history, which movies were available in inventory, for example.
We didn’t want to, since it’s DVDs and not streaming, it was going to be, if we had a 100 of these DVDs sitting around in the warehouse, then we probably wanted to promote those as opposed to if there’s only like one copy and we know that it’s going to go out of stock the moment you put it in your queue. So it was balancing those things. There might have also been maybe a revenue sharing deal with the studio and we might have wanted to promote some titles a little more heavily than others that were going to cost us more on the back end.
So trying to find just the right balance within the algorithm of which of those factors was really going to move the right content in front of you, that I think was, it was exciting to be part of something so cutting edge, which has now become such a common place activity on the web and in the digital space in general. But also I think what they’ve learned, what Netflix in particular has learned about customization, personalization of content and figuring out how to balance all kinds of other factors. Not only now I’m sure anyone who’s out there who’s a customer of Netflix has probably observed that there might be times when you’re looking at the recommended movies in your options as you review what’s available to you and it’s not like you’re going to see the sort of movie poster of the movie, of the title. You’re going to see a promotional still of that title.
And I don’t know how many of you, have you noticed that sometimes that still changes as your viewing habits change. If you particularly like a certain actor, like maybe I’ve been on a Paul Reid kick lately, I’ve been watching all these movies that star Paul Reid. And so I bet in the near term I’m going to see a lot more of his movies that have him front and center in the promotional still that Netflix shows me because it’s clear that my viewing habits are associated with Paul Reid consumption. So I’m going to be more inclined to watch those movies. So I think just the level of nuance that has been able to be built around that is pretty fascinating. So then that all builds from these early, early decisions.
Bryan Wish: Yeah well, it’s so, I think this part of the internet and technology has just always captivated me. And I’ll just, a quick side note. After college I was working on this platform, this content platform, and I was trying to work on this AI algorithm with these PhDs at Georgia to create word clusters off of the stories on the websites to connect people through the meaning of the stories. Because I thought, and I still think to this day, LinkedIn could do it, Facebook could do it. The way it populates why we should connect or recommend people I think is still very superficial, yet if you could do it through shared content and the human experience of the content, maybe that’s something the brain still work on.
But anyways, I kind of cracked it, but I was always so fascinated with the content and the personalization. And then as I’m on these platforms, the Netflixes of the world, it’s like, “Wow, it’s pretty accurate what they’re serving to me.” And I’ve just always found that so neat. And I don’t find it manipulative. I just find it like they’ve done a really good job cultivating a good customer experience.
Kate O’Neill: Well, that’s the thing. I think some of it can be manipulative in some contexts in some platforms. But I think that’s the trade off that most people understand is, as long as you’re going to provide me a better experience and I’m going to feel safe and cared for within that experience, I’m not going to feel like you’ve stepped over some line or that you’re being creepy or surveilling me inappropriately, or like you’re, if what Netflix’s decisions of what to recommend to me are based on my behavior on the Netflix platform, then that seems entirely appropriate. I think when you step over and you look at Facebook, for example, and a lot of what Facebook is doing and getting called out for right now is because a lot of Facebook’s decisions on the Facebook platform are based on your behavior elsewhere outside of the Facebook platform.
And that does start to feel like, “Wow, what are you manipulating in my life? How is this overriding the agreement that we sort of tacitly had as a user or customer and a platform? That was not how I signed on to use this platform.” So I think that’s the difference that anyone who’s making a data-driven human experience really has to think about is like, obviously this is all very powerful information that we’re collecting from people and what we have the opportunity to do with it is really powerful. But I think we have to recognize that borderline of respect and never step over it.
Bryan Wish: Well, I cannot agree more, especially if let’s say Facebook knew as the documents are starting to leak what the impacts they were having on the behavior changes outside the platform. Which I always look at content as a vehicle to drive positive behavior change, but content drives negative behavior change. Not to go too far off topic, but I also think is relevant just given maybe your more futurist mindset. In this era of personalization data technology and let’s just say 10 years out this metaverse in Web3, where do you see this all going? And how does it maybe tie back to just some of the work that you’re doing today? Because I bet you have some interesting thoughts about where things are headed.
Kate O’Neill: Yeah, I think it’s, that’s too broad of an area to have a, where is it going kind of opinion on it. It intersects by then by 10 years out the whole metaverse play and everything that has to do with virtualized experiences and how we interact and connect on those will intersect with so many areas of life. I think we will have an awful lot of entertainment experiences that play out within probably five years. A lot of retail experiences that play out in metaverse-like spaces probably within three to five years. And what then starts to be possible is we’re thinking about fields broader, like healthcare and education and finance and these kind of broader opportunities for how much of our lives then can we find meaning in having, in transacting some part of in a virtualized space and how much does it behoove us to do that?
How much do we get out of having an educational opportunity that intersects with entertainment opportunities that also happen in virtualized spaces or with shopping opportunities. And I don’t think that there’s any reason why that’s not all going to be happening in parallel and in interconnected ways. So yeah, so it’s not so much a specific prediction for 10 years out, it’s more just that I see over the next 10 years that all of these industries and topics and sort of disciplines, we’ll be finding more and more ways to create augmented and virtualized experiences. So I think virtual experiences are where everyone kind of thinks about with the metaverse that it’s sort of like the idea of existing, like sort of playing a virtual game where you are your avatar self in this virtual world.
But I think what people overlook is the power of augmented reality, which doesn’t necessarily take us out of our built surroundings or our natural surroundings, and yet still brings digital experiences to us in a relevant just-in-time sort of way. And actually I think that there’s going to be an awful lot more potential and power to that in the near term than in fully virtualized environments.
Bryan Wish: Completely. And I really appreciate and respect your answer. And I think it also, it’s interesting from a meaning perspective of just humanity and the sense. That woman who I was telling you about who’s the author around this family of technology, she’s like one of her books, she writes fiction, but it was, she was describing to me about how one of them is based on what it means for humanity living in more of a virtual world. And does it detach meaning from the human experience and what it all, but from your perspective, I think it’s really interesting how you said it’s going to take and connect a lot of industries today and give just new ways to experience them and move to these different ways. So, I think it’s interesting, especially with your background in personalization and how this all kind of come together and innovate in the space. So I just appreciate your take, it’s very interesting.
Kate O’Neill: Well, thanks. I mean, I think that it’s just a new modality of experiencing meaning, it’s like everybody, when Instagram became popular and everybody was post seeing pictures of their food or taking videos of concerts, and everybody was kind of pearl-clutching about it and going like, but people aren’t experiencing the thing. They’re not just being there and having the food and experiencing it or watching the concert and experiencing it. But as I wrote about in Pixels and Place back in 2016, there had been a study that I found that suggested that the act of photographing or videoing the event is itself a form of focusing our minds and curating the experience. So we’re much more likely to remember and retain those experiences when we have interacted with them in that way, because we’ve chosen that moment.
We’ve curated it, we’ve put it through a lens. We’ve decided this is a meaningful moment. And I think what people kind of need to step back from when they’re nervous about how these new modalities change the way we interact with the space around us is that we still are able to derive meaning. We’re still able to impose meaning on these things. It’s just like the label of the book and the book itself. The thing is still happening, but we are deciding that there’s a new label that we’re putting on that. And I think that that opportunity is huge for every new innovation. As long as we keep it human focused and we never lose sight of making sure that people can have meaningful connections to one another, they can have meaningful experiences for themselves.
I think that doesn’t matter what the technology is. It matters that people are protected when they share their data and it matters that people are safe in using these experiences, but as far as will there not be meaningful experiences in the metaverse? I think that that’s just another form of pearl clutching and people being scared of innovation.
Bryan Wish: Yeah, absolutely. I’m aligned to your views and think that, think everyone, a lot of people bash technology, they go on these technology cleanses, but I think when you use effectively, technology can be, actually cultivate very meaningful experiences and interactions. And it’s, I think how you look at it. So, I want to get to your published work, you just came out with, first you’ve written a few books now, and have been putting your thoughts and ideas out for the world to hear, I think in a really beautiful fashion, but you did just release a book, A Future So Bright, and I definitely want to give you the space to speak to the book, what it’s about, why you wrote it, give us all the details?
Kate O’Neill: Sure. And I think actually that last segment of what we talked about does sort of segue nicely into A Future So Bright, because so much of what happens when we think about the future is that we tend to isolate it into either dystopia or utopia, right? We tend to think, the way that literature and science fiction has sort of socialized us to talk about and think about the future is in that dichotomy, dystopia or utopia. And we never think it’s going to be both. And in fact, I think most of us think utopia is really off the table, we’re never going to have everything go exactly right and end up in this perfect idealized world. So now it’s only dystopia. It’s like shades of dystopia that we’re ever talking about.
And I think that’s just such an actively harmful and unhealthy way for us to think about our own future. It removes all agency and empowerment from ourselves and from … It disconnects the decisions and actions that we make every day with the outcomes and consequences that occur in the future. So I think a one piece that feels really important in A Future So Bright is actively sort of breaking down that dichotomy and saying, “The future is not either dystopia or utopia.” It’s going to maybe be a little from both columns, but what it is, is the outcome of actions that we take. And so we can make better decisions about how we’re going to create this better future.
And part of that is to look at opportunities like scientific advances, technological advances, and recognize them for the risk and harm that they introduce and make sure that we put the appropriate boundaries around those harms and make sure that people aren’t having their data inappropriately collected and that people aren’t being inappropriately manipulated outside of the context in which they’ve agreed to.
But then also look at the opportunity that those innovations present and what we can do to create more meaningful human experiences at scale as a result of those innovations, and really lean into that. And I think that’s the piece that I have seen us not do as much with opportunities in recent years. And I think as we think about the innovations that seem to be coming ahead of us in terms of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and intelligent automation and things like that, I really feel like there’s so much power to leaning into what those technologies could do for us. As we look at change factors like climate change and the climate emergency, so much opportunity to leverage AI and automation to clean up the environment, to do powerful things that have to do with renewable energy and removing plastics from the ocean and things like that.
As long as we lean into those positive outcomes and we’re not fearful of what this technology is bringing, where there’s fear and it’s founded, we need to put the right kind of protections and regulations and whatever else in place, but just leaning into those positive opportunities as well.
Bryan Wish: So I love what you said about how we get to create the innovation of the future, but also be cognizant of the effects that it could have is kind of what I took away. And you kind of triggered in a positive way. And I’m going to bring this around, so work with me here.
Kate O’Neill: Okay.
Bryan Wish: When I read the book, have you read Sapiens by, I find that book fascinating and I don’t remember, I read it probably six years ago, or five years ago, but they’re like, maybe midway through the book it was talking about exploration and how when I think Europe started investing, not so much maybe in the church, but they started investing in technologies for exploration. And it’s like they knew, I could be wrong, but I don’t know, like on Europe, but I think this is right. They knew they needed to invest elsewhere to go explore and conquest and do all the things that to see what was out there in the world. And so they put the investment dollars in those areas, opposed to maybe in the homeland.
So I’m using that as a way to ask the question about, I’m teeing it up to ask you the question to what you just said, the future’s so bright. How do we know where to invest our time, our dollars, the problems to solve? Because what we created is a byproduct of where we invest time and money, effort, energy. And so my question to you is, it’s like the future could be so bright, but if we maybe focus on the right thing, so how do we know the right things to focus on and what we should invest our time, dollars, effort, energy into as a global society?
Kate O’Neill: Well, that’s where I think that, so this book unpacks the model of strategic optimism. This is the concept that I introduce in this book. And the idea is to recognize where optimistically we have the potential to make the most impact, where we could bring the brightest futures, but then also have a strategy, a plan in place. And some of that plan comes back to this concept of meaning is at the heart of this. It’s the recognition that meaning at every level is a really fundamental human concept. And meaning is also about what matters. And then we can think about innovation in this very human-centric way and sort of technological innovation. By thinking about it through that lens of meaning, as far as what matters, we can think about innovation as what is going to matter.
And then I think the third piece, or the kind of the completing piece of that is to think that wherever possible, since these technologies like artificial intelligence and automation, and even thinking about the metaverse, virtualized experiences and so on, all of these technologies bring with them such incredible capacity and scale, that it gives us so much power to solve problems at scale. And so the opportunity is to really think about where could we make the most difference, where could we solve for the best futures for the most people? And I think that if every time that we’re stuck as leaders, as designers, as strategists, every time we’re stuck and we can’t figure out which is sort of the right way to go with something, if we’re generally bringing ourselves back to this question of, which one of these ways to go forward is going to create the best futures for the most people?
Well, that’s a pretty good way to keep ourselves honest about these technologies, about sort of using these powers and capacities of scale for the future. Because with that incredible power and capacity and scale comes incredible power and responsibility, and we absolutely need to be using it responsibly because what it does is create kind of rippling effects throughout culture and throughout our legacy. So that, when we decide what’s important and we encode that into something that then gets amplified through algorithms and made it more efficient through AI, we have just created an entire legacy system that we’ll be living with and future generations will be living with. If future generations have the luck to survive on this planet, then we certainly need to be thinking about how do we create those legacy systems in ways that are going to benefit more people rather than fewer.
Bryan Wish: Wow.
Kate O’Neill: So I think those questions will keep us honest. What matters, what’s going to matter, and then how do we create the best futures for the most people?
Bryan Wish: I love that quote, “How do we create the best features for the most people?” I wrote it down. I really appreciate the insight and I think you’re absolutely right. It’s looking at the outside impact that we can have. And I like what you said too about strategic optimism. Because strategic in the sense, a bettering for the most amount of people as well. Now, from this latest work, is there any part of the book or any section that you just want to cover that you think is super relevant to this conversation, that if you walked away from this conversation, if you didn’t say it, you would have regretted it?
Kate O’Neill: One of the things that is part of that best futures for the most people, how do we build that future in ways that are going to ensure the human-centric or kind of the right legacy, one of the things that I, one of the dots that I connect in this book is to recognize that the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, the set of 17 goals that have been created to sort of improve life on the planet for all life on the planet, that those are already a pretty darn good roadmap for business and for technology developers to think about how to align their work. So when we think about businesses, most businesses can pretty easily choose at least one of those SDGs that they align with. So there’s things like, no more poverty and there’s things like gender equality and quality education and things like that, as well as life on land and life below sea, kind of improving those things, or infrastructure and sustainable cities and communities.
I mean, it covers such a wide range of areas to improve that there are very few companies I could imagine who would not be able to find at least one goal, if not more goals that they feel like they align with. When those leaders of those companies kind of get out of bed in the morning, the thing that really drives them and makes them passionate about the work that they do is probably aligned with one of those goals. The thing that’s even more exciting than that is to think that when we think about what AI could do to amplify and accelerate our progress along those goals, it’s incredibly powerful. And so I give an example in the book, for every single one of the 17 goals, proofs of concept, actual working proofs of concept of AI projects that are aligned with meeting those goals.
So I think that if you can imagine that it’s true, that businesses do have at least one goal that they align with and that AI exists that can amplify every single one of those goals. Then what seems true in conclusion is that every business could be using technology to actually solve human problems at scale. And if that’s true, then there’s really no ethical reason why we are not doing that.
So it’s the challenge that I leave with every audience at every keynote, with every group of leaders that I speak with is really think about what is it that you are trying to do at scale, and then really think about how do you solve those problems with technology? How do you align the work that you’re doing with what it is you say you’re trying to do at scale? Use technology to create better human futures, and let’s go about creating those best futures for the most people.
Bryan Wish: If thousands of people are watching this, your face is just brimming with just optimism and passion. So I love the challenge I’m thinking and how technology can enable to solve some big, big problems, and why your work is so impactful. And what’s needed is you have credibility to your story. You’ve been doing this for the last couple of decades, and you’ve seen it at a very early age. Now, you’ve messaged to other people who are the key to the world maybe at the early part of their careers, you can go do this too. And so I think that’s really special. So I want to do something that I’ve never done.
Kate O’Neill: Oh, hurray.
Bryan Wish: I want to end with three rapid fire questions.
Kate O’Neill: Okay.
Bryan Wish: Less than 10 seconds gut answers. And then we’ll ask people where they can go find, buy your work, see everything you’ve done, all right. All right, here we go.
Kate O’Neill: All right.
Bryan Wish: How soon do we meet aliens?
Kate O’Neill: Maybe never, maybe in 10, 20 years. I don’t know. I’m hedging.
Bryan Wish: Great. Love it. When we die, afterlife, no afterlife?
Kate O’Neill: I say no afterlife.
Bryan Wish: Okay, I figured that. If Facebook was deleted off the web tomorrow, what would happen?
Kate O’Neill: I think ultimately it’s better for humanity if that happens. But I think that people, I think people will really struggle with how to replace what it’s served for them in terms of the connection of community. So I think that it’s better that we start now trying to figure out how to represent and how to replace those kinds of opportunities to stay connected with people in ways that aren’t quite so invasive and harmful.
Bryan Wish: Great. Well, I’ll make sure to send this to my lawyer before I mention it.
Kate O’Neill: That’s okay. Mark Zuckerberg, I’m coming for you.
Bryan Wish: Good. Well, you go for him. Just take the fall for me by putting this up. Kidding. This was Kate. This was awesome. I know we didn’t give you much prep or lead time, and I think you crushed it. Where can people find your work, learn about you, stay in touch with your ideas?
Kate O’Neill: My business website is koinsights.com. That’s plural koinsights.com. And then I’m very active on Twitter, so people can find me there at Kate O, K-A-T-E-O, and elsewhere on the web. The only problem is there are a lot of other Kate O’Neills out there. So Kate O’Neill Tech Humanist, or Kate O’Neill KO Insights will definitely get you the right one.
Bryan Wish: Love it. Well, thanks for doing this. I had a ball and can’t wait to push this out to the world.
Kate O’Neill: Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me on, Bryan.