MIT TR100 keynote speech

What happens when Technology meets reality?
Tips for succeeding in the real world

These are my basically unedited notes that I used for my speech which was delivered at lunch to the MIT TR100. These are 100 of the top new technology leaders in the world, age 35 and under. Bill Moyers and Leslie Stahl were moderators for the event.

Why am I here?

  • Dr. Evil was not available
  • To deliver a message to help you succeed
  • They promised me a free lunch if I showed up (what they didn’t tell me is that I wasn’t going to get a chance to eat it)

This is a great honor to be in such company

  • …I wondered…what value could I possibly add to such a group?
  • I’m not nearly as funny as Bob Metcalfe, nor as wise as Chuck Vest, I’m not as famous as Bill Moyers, nor have I spoken with as many prominent people as Leslie Stahl
  • So finally I figured it out the two things that make me special…
  • #1, I’m an Internet guy. So while must people get up and drive on the highway to work, I’m driving on the I-way. I have better web page
  • #2, In the process of starting and running 3 successful high tech ventures, I’ve done something that none of these great people have done...I’ve made a lot more mistakes than all of them put together! Like not acquiring Yahoo for $20M because I though overvalued. Boy, was that dumb.
  • So I’m going to focus on my own mistakes and mistakes of others with the hope that you won’t repeat the same mistakes that I and other prominent technologists have made


Two points I’d like you to remember

  • Never underestimate the human component
  • Pick a cause outside your main focus area and get involved



Key thought: Technology is useless unless it can be applied to real world problems

  • Inventing a new technology is really the easiest part
  • Putting it safely "into production" is the challenge
  • A lot can go wrong when the rubber meets the road

Paul Cook

  • Q: How do you spend your time?
  • A: On people problems, mostly.

You didn’t graduate with a complete set of tools

  • You received no formal training in the interpersonal skills that are critical to your success. It is your responsibility to get this training.
    • Presentation skills
    • Negotiation skills
    • Sales skills
    • Teamwork skills
    • Listening skills

Donald Stedman

  • His technology:
    • Remote sensing of vehicle exhaust
    • Proven in Denver
    • one of most highly respected scientists out there
  • His mistake?
    • Assuming gov decisions made rationally
    • Underestimating the magnitude of the government process
  • The lesson?
    • Working the gov process is critical to any practical claim of success
    • My foundation is funding environmental measurements in Calif. On 100,000 vehicles because Bureau of Auto Repair didn’t do it to eval efficacy of smog check program (should have happened a year ago). BAR, Air Resource Board, Inspection Maint Review Committee work together. Light fire under BAR.


Pay attention to the art of persuasion

  • Brilliant CalTech technologist at AC Propulsion vs. GM: Alan Cocconi
    • Built the world’s fastest street legal car, the tzero: 0 to 60 in 4 seconds.
    • Guess what: it’s electric.
    • Conductive vs. inductive
    • Recharge much faster and cheaper using his design
  • What was his mistake?
    • Why not adopted? Perception of unreliability. He was unable to persuade the right people even though the data was on his side.


Design systems that accommodate human error

  • Recent examples of a small human error creating devastating result:
    • $125M NASA spacecraft destroyed because of wrong units used
    • Workers at Japanese power plant added too much uranium to a tank of nitric acid because they wanted to play scientist (perhaps inspired by that MIT movie Goodwill Hunting)
    • My safe (9V battery inside the safe)
    • Flight recorders on airplanes


Human error will always be with us

  • In 50 years (Ray Kurzweil), we’ll have machines as smart as people
    • these machines may even watch TV to relax after a heard days work
    • they’ll survive destruction of our environment, nuclear holocaust
  • Any machine that thinks will make mistakes
  • So the bottom line is that we’ll always be challenged to design systems that deal with error


Don’t mistake rules and policies for laws of physics

  • Rules and policies are allowed to be broken because they are made by people
  • Laws of physics cannot be broken... except for Internet stock prices which are permitted to defy the law of gravity for limited periods of time
  • To break a rule, you need a compelling reason
  • DO NOT be afraid to ASK


Speaking of laws of physics, not all physical laws have been discovered yet

  • Some things defy explanation simply because our knowledge of physical laws is incomplete. Example
  • Wearing an expensive NEW white shirt while eating spaghetti... the sauce always seems to get on the shirt.
  • There must some physical law that governs this,I’ve never seen this published
  • And sometimes, we accept rational explanations prematurely
  • Ulcers caused by a virus, not by stress
  • Heart attack not often caused by narrowing of blood vessels, but by plaque falling off


Change is always harder than you think

  • Even when the benefits are obvious
  • Newton’s first law applies to people as well as objects
  • Example:
    • Trying to get them to teach interpersonal skills at MIT


We are trained to make decisions based on facts and logic; But many people we interact with don’t make decisions based solely on rational arguments

  • I still have a tough time with this one
  • Decisions are made by people, not by logic, and people make decisions for a variety of reasons
  • OJ Simpson trial; the technical evidence was overwhelming
  • Your rational arguments won't work if you are offensive, arrogant, … You can minimize an emotional response if you take the time to understand the other person's point of view.


Only half the people have an IQ of more than 100

  • that’s overall average; at MIT, the % is much higher; closer to 100%
  • among Senate Republicans, the number of people with IQ >100 appears closer zero (except the 4 who voted to ratify the CTBT)


Smart people can make important decisions for odd reasons

  • Why no Nobel prize for math? (Nobel's wife ran off with a mathematician)


Don’t waste time on people who don’t get it

  • Your time is finite
  • If you hit a roadblock and you don’t need to cross it, seek another route. You may find you get a better solution!
  • Example: my attempts to license technology for a product I was working on…I kept getting turned down. So I took another route and found a better solution


The two greatest motivators?

  • What are they? They didn’t teach you this at MIT.
  • Sex and money
  • At Infoseek, I learned people go to insane lengths to avoid spending 10 cents on the net


Use money to your advantage

  • I never got a PhD from MIT
  • But I have an auditorium named after me.
  • Because I’m a successful entrepreneur? Nope. A $2.5M donation.
  • Never underestimate the power of Money. It can compensate for a lot of things. It can work for you or against you. But you received no formal training in this area either.


One man can make a difference

  • 80% of success is just showing up
  • AB71 campaign:
    • Met with key opponents
    • Convincing principal opponent supporting this measure helped him achieve his goals
    • Worked: unanimous vote
    • I found out what was important to the Governor


The system isn’t set up for teamwork; Smart people are incentivized to compete rather than collaborate

  • The system isn’t as smooth as you think; medical research isn’t collaborative
  • Targesome won’t publish until the data is bulletproof


Most people need help with mathematical expectation

  • people in calif do this math calculation every day…they buy lottery tickets because the 1 in a million chance they might win in 12 months is possible. They prefer this to having a higher chance of winning less so they don’t understand ME.
  • But our government can’t do the math calculation either. Much worse!
  • According to JPL, 1/100,000 chance of being hit. That’s 10 times more likely than your chance of winning the lottery. Like driving w/o collision insurance. We will be hit if we do nothing. Guaranteed.
  • What’s the value of a human life?
  • Data points
    • If you get into an accident and go to the hospital, they don’t say, "this will cost more than $100,000 to fix him up which is more than a life is worth, so we can make an economic decision that this is not cost effective and let him die"
    • NY jury awarded 150K to 215K ea for 28 secs of turbulence on AA flight to 13 people
  • assume a life is worth $10,000
  • 6B people. Half will die shortly after impact, and it won’t be a picnic for the other half
  • $20M investment saves 3B lives with a 1/100,000 chance find the 90% we don’t know about
  • In other words, spending $20M one-time saves a mathematically expected $300M each AND EVERY year for the next 100,000 years. Less than the price of one jet.
  • The government basically is saying each human life is worth less than 1 cent
  • This is preposterous since you are certainly worth more than that since you pay more than that in federal taxes.
  • The math is obvious here; logically, it’s a phenomenal return on investment.
  • Politically it’s a stupid decision: if NO asteroid hits, you look like an idiot, and if an asteroid DOES hit, it doesn’t matter since we’re all dead.
  • In reality, the government has allocated $1M per year for the NEAT program at JPL, but, unbeknownst to our Congress (who thought things were going on), this program has been off line for almost a year and doesn't seem to have much prospects for getting back on line. Their best man just quit and they sent no representative to the latest meeting of Principal Investigators of NEA search teams. We have no idea what they could be doing with the money.


Pay attention to knowledge dissemination issues

  • Richard Stedman developed great knowledge of the process for surgery and rehab, but completely random dissemination
  • no money for education
  • can’t do a cost-benefit calculation on non-quantifiable benefits
  • but isn’t it obvious to all of us?
  • Lesson: great technical breakthrough has little meaning if the information can’t be effectively disseminated


People don’t always tell the whole truth

  • My 4 yr old… "I didn’t do it!" or "Lexie did it!"
  • Even our elected officials, including our President!


Never underestimate Microsoft

  • Gates’ Law acts against Moore’s Law. Computing power increase but software speed decreases since OS and apps are more complicated.
  • This law may no longer hold as there may not be enough people to write the layers of code required to maintain the status quo


Life is short

  • Why not fly First Class if you can afford it?


POINT #2: Pick a cause

  • wife in law school and I have full time job and I like to spend time with my kids, so it really cuts into the amount of time we have for philanthropy. So we picked a few easy goals that we can accomplish in our spare time. These goals include:
    • Saving the world (asteroids, nuclear disarmament)
    • Curing major diseases (such as cancer through our investment in Targesome and sponsoring of research scientists in many other areas)
    • Cleaning up the air in Calif (through our support of Evs and solar vehicle research, work in passing AB71 and future legislation)
    • Reforming politics (just getting started)
    • And a bunch of others
  • We’ve left the really tough causes, like eliminating daytime talk shows, to those with more time.


The rest of this talk is political

  • I’m an Internet guy.
  • Until about a year ago, I avoided politics like the plague
  • That was a mistake because I am interested in self preservation for myself and my kids and without a major change on how we do things, we are setting ourselves up for major disasters on nuclear and environmental fronts


Our most important technical challenges ahead require government action

  • Environment, nuclear disarmament
  • Kyoto treaty, an international pact to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions
  • Strongly supported by Gore, 70% of public in favor
  • Rejected 95-0 by our Senate, but now big business is starting to see the light


Government decision making is not based on logic either

  • Don’t assume politicians are swayed by logic
  • Many are, some are not
  • Why do you think Senate Republicans (with a couple of exceptions) didn’t ratify the test ban treaty which was opposed by only 4% of the population?
  • A: Most Republicans so distrust and despise President Clinton that they were willing to inflict damage to Bill Clinton even if it meant harm to U.S. national security.


The political process needs reform

  • Governor/President can kill a bill at the final moment, yet often can’t be polled at the beginning of the process
  • Great bills are regularly killed for political reasons
  • A Republican president has much easier time getting a treaty approved by the Senate than a Democratic president, no matter who controls the Senate.
  • Powerful individuals can derail process
  • Jesse Helms can single handedly make decisions that can lead to destruction of the planet… and you didn’t even elect him
  • Campaign laws are funny. Calif vs. Federal. Why the difference?
  • Finally, hugely important issue like the nuclear test ban treaty…rejected with virtually no debate in which hatred of Clinton was a major factor
  • If you want to do something about it, the place to start is campaign finance reform.
  • Bill Moyers himself is president of Schumann Foundation


The US government needs your help

  • The cold war is over, yet Congress has a moratorium on arms reduction
  • 7,000 nuclear weapons, half on alert
  • No way to safely dispose of the Plutonium
  • We should be spending money on diplomacy and creating technology for disposal, not on maintaining our arsenal
  • Talked with the UK foreign minister: could never meet with Jesse Helms because handlers needed to guarantee a win.


Governments are permitted to violate Newton’s first law

  • Four-star General George Lee Butler found this out the hard way after he retired
  • He assumed Newton’s law applied
  • We were reducing staff/arms. when he left, reduction stopped.


Global warming

  • Isn’t it amazing how something where the evidence is so compelling can be misunderstood?
  • Gore: "Undoubtedly true"
  • Bradley: "Serious threat"
  • Bush: agnostic
  • Forbes: "I don’t believe it"
  • Ford Motor: "one of the most important issues of the 21st century"
  • Amoco: "demands a serious response"
  • Source: Time, Aug 9, 1999


Nuclear disarmament

  • Bradley: "gets it"
  • Bush: Will disarm if the Soviets do too


The single most important thing you can do

  • Help get the right guy elected President
    • Campaign contributions, talking to your friends
    • Like CEOs, some are better than others
    • High leverage (in both directions)


Summary: 2 pieces of advice

  • 1. Real world issues virtually always will limit your success. So don’t underestimate the human factor get the training and practice you need to confront these issues
    • Non technical training is more important than technical training
    • Learn how to work the system
  • 2. Don’t bury your head in your own technology; you have a social opportunity (not responsibility) outside of your own area. Your involvement is needed to help us solve problems outside of your particular domain. Pick a cause that makes you mad and get involved. One man can make a difference.