DAVID LEDGERWOOD: It’s really good to have you. Thank you for joining us.
ERIC HUNTER: Thanks for having me.
LEDGE: Can you just give a little background story of yourself and your work, just so the audience can get to know you?
ERIC: Absolutely. It’s a little bit different. Currently I’m Chief Technology Officer at Bradford & Barthel, which is a law firm. I’m also Managing Director of Spherical Models which is futures consulting – focusing on the future of technology and human behavior.
My background in no way directly led to that. I was a jazz performance major. I played upright bass and played gigs and tried to starve up some money to go skiing when I could. I ended up applying to Intel to work as a developer because I figured, it’s creative, how hard could it be? It was a little harder than I thought, but what ended up being a two-week gig to support skiing and my musician habits ended up turning into a career.
I worked at Intel, and then back at Oracle, and I moonlighted with competitive horseracing at the time. Raced cross country endurance. A lot of different backgrounds coming into it finally led to volunteering for the International Legal Technology Association which essentially focuses on where the field industry of law is going, and then how it’s evolving with a lot of the different disruptions that are happening.
There were some thoughts at the time that the legal industry itself was going through what the newspaper industry went in the ‘90s. Where essentially you’ve got a lot of folks, well meaning, but looking at month to month dollars and cents, “We’ve got to stay in the black,” but not listening to some of the more innovative minds saying, “Hey, guys. Things are changing.” In this case with the newspaper industry, look, things are coming online, the whole medium itself is changing.
The legal industry was looking like that for some time around the billable hour, the way that the industry itself interacts. So what ended up happening is that we ended up looking at things a little differently and what we ended up doing is starting this futures consultancy around where things are trending, and that ended up going agnostic.
I've done some work with Google, with IBM, with Shapoorji Pallonji in India, and I've done a couple of TED Talks around it. More specifically, how human behavior and technology are evolving. As technology is moving forward, how it affects our perception.
Where I’ll end with that is that, there’s a personal note for me. I had a stroke about eight years back. So I had, by default, a very strong interest in how the mind works, how we process information. In my case I’m getting some of that back. I've always carried that with me and I think that that’s a big mover of where things are currently trending.
Where I tend to focus more is on the augmented virtual realities and AI. Those level of perceptions, the evolutions forward, will be affecting the brain and how we look at things.
LEDGE: Okay. Well, let’s get into that. Everybody wants to know, how will they be affecting and what do these big companies want to know? What do us little companies need to know?
ERIC: It’s interesting. There’s a thought leadership exercise I do around that called Let’s Go To Mars. The idea behind it, obviously it’s inspired by what Musk has been doing trying to create almost this Edison-like shift in culture and getting people to think about it.
Where I go with it is for people to sort of step outside of their role, where they’re looking at things, and to look at things in a different perspective.
So if we go through this, I came up with this over dinner with colleagues in Portugal. We were looking out over the water, just having dinner and some wine. I said, “’You know what? If you guys,” and I guess this would be for the audience now, “if you were in charge of picking who it is that would go on a trip to Mars and come back, and you have to be able to vet what it is that would make the best chemistry with the team that would go, how do you choose and how do you do it?”
At first it’s kind of a ridiculous thing because you're thinking, well okay, one, they’ve got to be able to breathe. They have to have an engineering background because they're going to have to understand how the ship works. But if you think about the groups of people that we all work with and how that chemistry has to happen to make a successful team, then you introduce how technology and things that affect perception – like augmented reality, virtual reality, AI – these elements start to come into play, it becomes a much more complex question. A more complex issue in that case.
Then taking a look at how you take a team to Mars and back, how you get that right kind of chemistry, that’s where the music tends to come in with this. You have these individuals – we all have them – that are kind of the glue. They keep the team together. The perception forward.
AI tends to be behavioral self-reinforcing. We see that with the way we work with news media. Where I’m going with this is that, you take that is a good example where you’re interacting with it. It tends to go ahead and take the behavior that you currently have and further you down the same prism that you have where you’re getting more and more refined towards your interest. It works really well that way, but the behavioral adapt in AI doesn’t really tend to work to broaden our interest – and that’s something that would have to happen if you end up moving forward with this trip to Mars.
So, wrapping that back towards where the brain will be evolving, I think it’s important to think about we’ve got to look at ways to expand the different ways that we perceive. Expand the different ideas we have. Find ways to push the different ways that we currently think so that, as we integrate more with some of the behavioral adapting AI, we plug in more to it and we start to challenge the way that we have evolutions and perception, we can end up taking a step forward that’s much more productive towards the team as opposed towards an individual.
Last point I’ll make with that would be a quote from where he talks about saying, hey, you can end up having individuals, with the help of a computer, beating a super computer. This kind of a concept, that’s where I’m going with this.
You can have examples like IBM’s Deep Blue beating Kasparov in chess. Or, you can have examples like Google DeepMind beating the Go champion, then DeepMind beating itself, which is fantastic. It’s amazingly complex. But what I'm more interested in is taking that, partnered with human partners, and then going towards strategic goals of how you can solve things, how you can solve problems going forward.
Anyway, long answer but that’s some of my thoughts on it.
LEDGE: Hey, that’s the way thoughts go. I believe that I've read that in fact most of the studies are showing now that human-augmented partnering with AI ends up beating the AI on its own. Is that correct?
ERIC: It’s interesting. I think that right now – again this gets back to the stroke – I feel like our understanding of the brain isn’t ready yet to partner with what we’re capable of doing with technology. Now, granted what happened to me happened almost nine years ago, but I was at a high performance computing event where I was working earlier last year, spring of last year, and I was talking with a neuroscientist there. He was talking about a lot of the evolutions that have happened forward with the brain and our understanding.
When I was talking about my case, he gave a lot more matter of fact feedback. Saying, oh, yeah, okay. So the stroke was in the medullas and the brain stem. You ended up having more symptoms afterwards because the area itself was inflamed, and so forth.
It was interesting to see how the understanding of the brain had progressed but I don’t think it’s progressed forward enough for us to be able to integrate enough with AI in order to understand what the outlying perception would be. Although I know, nonetheless, there is progression forward to try to do just that. Particularly as it integrates with perception, with augmented virtual.
LEDGE: I understand that we’re modeling AIs and the machine learning and deep neural networks, et cetera, based on our understanding of the architecture of the brain from a neurological perspective. So, are we accidentally architecting in our own misunderstandings of our own perception evolution?
ERIC: It’s a great question because I think that, in that case, it’s a tenet of what I call prejudicial thinking. Not prejudicial in the sort of taking into race and prejudicing up race and so forth, but it’s more of prejudicial thinking just as far as a point of view. Receiving points of view.
I find it’s really common in higher education. It’s common within the music field, and I’ll explain how. Where you kind of have this ivory tower perspective of, you go down this incredibly specialized tenet – let’s say for example jazz – to a point where these folks can get really brilliant at interacting with a very small field of people that understand what they’re doing. The others just haven’t progressed enough down the music path to do it.
But that in itself doesn’t necessarily lend some of these people to look outside of that and appreciate what can be happening outside of it. The education itself can get in the way. It gets in the way of perception.
In some case, if we’re architecting neural networks around our current understanding of the brain, I think your question is extremely astute in that we’re missing everything that we don’t currently know about the brain.
As long as it’s done in a way, whether it’s a trial and error, understanding that what we’re doing may not only evolve but may have to start all the way over as we learn new things, then I think that that could be productive. If it’s done completely understanding that it’s going to grow our understanding and sometimes you have to scrap everything and go back to the drawing board. That’s probably going to have to happen several times.
LEDGE: When I think about perception in VR, doesn’t it fall sort of into the same category? We’re designing virtual 3D worlds but they still adhere to the three dimensions that we can see through our eyes and experience in our senses. What work needs to happen there to expand that dimensional or multidimensional perspectives beyond what we’re already doing, and to get to that actual level of augmentation? Do we need to turn the design itself over to the AIs?
I know there’s a lot of talk about, well, AIs may help us chunk enough information together to figure out fusion finally, because it’s just too complicated for the human brain. Is that the path this has to take? Maybe we just aren’t perceptive and smart enough to be able to take the grey matter and come up with these things.
ERIC: I think the way that that could evolve was, you end up having AI as a partner and you’re programming AI as a partner to try to bring things into a degree of probability. That can help when dealing with these incredibly complex issues of looking at something like, how we handle perception and how they’re trying to get us to be within an environment that is a user interface we don’t want to immediately just take apart and shut down, I think that AI could be a very effective partner in working with those that are very specialized in the field.
You’ve got a series of engineers, and this is exactly what they’re doing, this is what they’re focusing on, it’s what their education is, and they need to be able to have these different partners be able to come in – AI partners – and take a look and process the information.
Similar to how, let’s say Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, some conversations I had with them had to go around the way they were approaching cancer research. Some of the cancer research, the AI algorithms and programs, it was more of a process approach. Taking a look at the mass of complexities and trying to funnel where the best probably of success would be. It sounds redundant, it sounds simple, but it’s actually incredibly helpful.
When coming back to this idea of virtual and augmented, I still think some of the prejudicial thinking that tends to take place happens to be around sight. Sight and the experience, and therefore three dimensional.
It’s really important, I think, to introduce scent and touch and some of these aspects. The stuff that’s more sci-fi but that this type of environment will really be able to lend itself. If you’re going to have a conference call – just as we are now but we include people from around the globe – we can set it. We’re not only able to see each other, we can sit near each other and you can feel the breeze from whatever area of the world you want it to be in.
It may sound redundant, but environmentally I think that’s incredibly important to people. You see how they decorate their walls, how they decorate their offices. All the money that Google and Apple pours into their environments, the environments where people work, these kinds of things can come in programmatically. It’s a huge opening.
I still haven’t seen as much progress in how this could revolutionize the way that we work, as opposed to, this would be an incredible gaming experience or an incredible movie experience, or an entertainment level experience. As opposed to, this can open up the day to day way of how organizations function, how they get the most out of the individuals they’re working with, and how those individuals tend to pair the personal with the professional.
What this ends up doing, just by that very nature, if you change the environment or the perceived environment, people introduce the personal into the work environment. Both how they are, what makes them up, what makes them interested, and what they choose to do, if that makes sense.
LEDGE: Absolutely. It makes me think, I have seen this. That the movie theatres are trying to roll this stuff out, and pay 39.95 and you get to take a jaunt through the Star Wars landscape and smell the lava and feel the heat.
I wonder, you came sort of out of an entertainment discipline and an arts discipline. Is it not reasonable to think that in fact the place that development happens and that multiperceptual type of art really gets fleshed out in the entertainment space first? I think we can point to many opportunities where that has in fact happened, and then become useful from a business context.
Even look at just mobile connectivity itself, the iPhone and smartphone was not originally a business tool, and now it’s a critical business tool.
ERIC: It’s a great point, and I think that the entertainment industry, operating as a medium in this case for delivery, it definitely makes sense. It’s just that the key point is that delivery aspect.
With the iPhone and the mobile device there was a whole different delivery aspect that businesses then had to adapt to. As individual consumers, with things you want to search for, Google, or the way we want to share pictures with the different levels of social media and so forth, the individuals adapted to it really quickly. The user interface was extremely astutely done.
I feel like, a challenge with this is trying to make that environment reach the same.
Maybe you hit on it. Maybe the best point would be more of this theatre-going experience. The way that theatre evolved from live play action to more of a movie interface, and it took a long time for it to evolve to a point where you can have something like this revolutionary aspect like Amazon and HBO, the way that they deliver these series. The narrative tale itself has now evolved where you can have a really strong, creative narrative tale told hours and hours over a period of time. It’s a whole different creative medium, it’s a whole different work medium for those involved, and a delivery system.
I feel like what we’re talking about with the augmented virtual layers of perception, it will have to navigate through all of those and then finally make itself a device that isn’t clunky. Something seamless that you don’t even think about.
Of course, that’s how oftentimes a lot of tech fails. It can be a great concept, but what it comes to it, if it takes people any kind of time at all to figure it out or work out or work through it to any time, they just don’t end up using it.
LEDGE: I think you’re right. You talk about the temporal dimension, a great story takes 30 hours to tell on an audio book. We slam it into a four-hour movie at best. Then what we’re talking about here is, hey, how are we going to have a half hour conference call and make it an awesome experience?
Temporal compression there is just one more very challenging aspect of taking a multidimensional, multiperceptual approach to that. I’m an at-home worker so maybe I don’t want to turn on the smell right now for the conference call.
I think you’re right, and there’s a multidisciplinary approach that is necessary there. We ought to pull in those learnings from all those different stages, if you will, and see where are things working in this industry and where are things working in this industry?
Perhaps there’s a whole other layer of abstraction. That we don’t get to solve problems the way that we think about the problem. We’ve also biased ourselves to a solution that lives in the business context, and we’re going to have to even more zoom out and go, “Just forget everything you know.” Which is very difficult because, as a brain thinker, you can’t think in the negative. The human brain isn’t wired that way. So if I say, “Well, don’t think about being in an office,” the first thing you brain goes is, “Well, what’s an office? Oh, I’m in an office. Oh, wait, I’m not supposed to think about that.”
Maybe that place is where AI starts to be important because we can kind of say, if we can figure out a way not to give it the biases that we already have and the experience we already have in its learning set, that’s where you’re going to get new ideas from.
ERIC: It’s a really good point. You can filter out the prejudices that way. I’m thinking then also too is, we would start to evolve with this. That in itself means you take the human side of it. Meaning we…
So, let’s assume that there is this type of fast forward 10 years, whatever it might be. We have the connectivity to deliver this, and in a specific use case, let’s say you’ve got Design Engineers. Design Engineers is a global firm and they have people from around the world and they need to be able to compare ideas.
It might sound quite simple, but in order to be able to compare ideas like you’re all in the same room while being in the same room showcasing what’s there not only in three dimensions but being able to take notes as we’re doing it – cross compare and so forth, and in some cases have that directly input it in different aspects where the brain is accessing this in the cloud – it sounds very sci-fi but it’s something we’re already doing through these very clumsy devices of a laptop and phone as opposed to what’s definitely possible.
I think in that case we’re probably just scratching the surface of some of the evolutionary aspects that could take place. Again, I think that comes down to the brain.
You take a child from zero to six and they’re learning the most. The brain is just exploding with the way that it processes information into the levels of possibility and learning that we have with these different fields. I think you have that type of same, explosive evolution that takes place.
Sometimes I think things tend to progress when people project forward on more of a linear path, or it’s going to be this one shot exponential aspect. But it definitely tends to seem that what happens with these type of technologies is, it’s almost like a rogue wave. You put it well when we have the prejudice within the office as far as that the level of thinking, I’m trying to convince my brain the opposite.
Some of these aspects, when thinking forward, the rogue wave, it’s more like you can see maybe three-quarters of it then there’s 25% where nobody really has put everything together with that upsets the whole medium, but then you’ve got a whole new picture. If that makes sense.
LEDGE: Absolutely. I know you and I clearly could go on for hours, so let’s just let the audience simmer on that, and it’s going to be fun to summarize this one.
Eric, really cool to have you. I love these futurist thoughts, and I’m so glad you took the time to be with us today.
ERIC: Hey, thanks so much for having me. Really appreciate it.