“I became particularly interested in modelling chaotic systems”: Five Questions with Azeem Azhar, serial entrepreneur and Chief at Exponential View.
70% of my weekly knowledge about the world comes from two products; Inkl and The Exponential View. The latter is a weekly collection of insight about the future of technology and society which is difficult to match. I was introduced to it by Fred Wilson in February and I was immediately struck by the thought that goes into its curation and commentary. Azeem Azhar is the driving force behind Exponential View. He’s spent time at The Economist, The Financial Times, True Knowledge (acquired by Amazon in 2013) and founded PeerIndex (acquired by Brandwatch in 2014). Today, in addition to running the The Exponential View, Azeem is VP and Head of Venture and Foresight at SchibstedMediaGroup.
We connected recently and we talked about the past and the future.
You studied Politics, Philosophy, Economics at Oxford. What attracted you to technology?
It might be the other way round. I’ve had access to computers since I was seven years old, when my next door neighbour built his own. It would have been based on a Z80 or a 6502 board but I don’t recall what type it was.
By the time I was nine I had a ZX-81 (which I still own). My school had a Sharp MZ-80K. In those days there wasn’t much in the way of games, but there was an opportunity to programme. I wrote lots of types of programmes, including basic games. But I became particularly interested in modelling chaotic systems, feedback loops and fractals during my teenage years.
Both my parents have Economics degrees. My mum also had a copy of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which I started to flick through when I was around 10 or 11. I was probably still referring to it (and not fully grasping it) by the time I went to university. I remember the pages about Spinoza were missing, and he was one philosopher I recall never getting to grips with. I think that influence, and the presence of The Economist, Newsweek and economics books in the house directed me a little.
I’m more a generalist than a specialist so I majored in as much maths and chemistry and hard science as I could at high school. But I felt, on going to University, that there were some core principles about the world (microeconomics and the art of analysis that philosophy gives you) that were extremely important to grasp. That said, I consider myself a closet scientist and I was probably the only Philosophy, Politics and Economics undergrad to take a C++ course.
I find Exponential View plays an essential role in curating content that unpacks the implications of technology on society. What inspired its creation and how’s it been received?
I’ve been thinking about technology with the appreciation of social science for more than two decades. And I felt that there is a lot going on right now. Much of the debate tends to focus on the technology itself or if it doesn’t on the lurid scenarios (like superpowerful AI).
There are some common themes which are very relevant to all of us today. And it is impossible to escape technology because as humans we are inextricably linked to it. Exponential View is just a tour of those themes.
The objective is to help people understand the issues and then become participants, not spectators in the world.
I’m not particularly strategic about how I select content. I’m happy to make people feel uncomfortable. And on occasion, I have run the same content two weeks in a row because I believed not enough people read a particular article the first time round.
I am happy for the reception we’ve had. I have received hundreds of pieces of positive feedback, including from people in the street. I can’t say whether it is better than other blogs or not but I’m happy and the feedback motivates me to continue.
Given your unique vantage point what are your top five most interesting trends in tech that you see capturing the hearts and minds of people over the next two to three years?
- Technology enhancement is inevitable. Without going into the details, my observation is that the fundamental interplay between a ‘natural world’ that is shapeable (by beavers, corvids, humans, etc) and our abilities through general intelligence to solve unseen problems to better get what we want, means that change through technology, and that changing nature of technology, is an inevitable outcome. Not good, not bad, just inevitable. As witnessed through the ages I call this “Technological Cnutism” after the Danish King Cnut who demonstrated to his courtiers that there were powers that not-even a king could overcome.
- The second is that the pace of technology change is accelerating, hence the exponential in Exponential View. We seem to see intrinsic patterns of exponential change through natural systems. For example, hominid brain sizes have grown exponentially over hundreds of thousands of years. It is just that we seem to be at some point where the doubling speed is happening not across multiples of generations (where it looks like stasis), not within a couple of generations (where it looks like “the white heat or technology’) but within a generation or even within a decade (where it looks “bloody fast”).
- The third is that given these things are happening, the fundamental interfaces of the world are going to be governed by increasingly technocratic and algorithmic systems. Not good or bad, just is. And our public discourse won’t keep up with the decisions that need to be correctly vetted. Instead, our public discourse lives in a fantasy land of soundbites. While the algorithms that will govern us will be determined by a set of systems populated by specialists. The two need to be connected. Exponential View attempts to raise those issues so that a wider group can understand what they are — and ultimately participate.
- The fourth is that many of the systems are being designed in the model of the designers. We’ve been doing this for ages. Our initial conceptions of god and the supernatural were heavily influenced by what we have seen (and hence could imagine), not what we couldn’t. Today that same bias of starting position continues in many cases. So image recognition algorithms are designed predominantly be western high status men, and so may have those biases built in. We saw this with the Google Photos debacle a year or so ago. We need to be conscious that the design of these systems is a political choice and needs to be done by teams of people who are aware of who they are designing for and what tradeoffs are and are not acceptable. Ethics in product design is an increasingly important field.
- The fifth is that the planet is burning. I’m not a climate scientist but I am a trend watcher. The climate news is really terrible and the data has the hallmarks of multiple subsystems all coming under terrible strain, and feedback loops accelerating. We are going to be seeing all sorts of strange, extreme socio-political events taking place. We’ll identify the proximate cause, the Gavrilo Princip, if you will, but the systemic backdrop will be climate change. That externality is going to bite us on the ass and we’ll need to step up and take collective responsibility.
Let’s turn to entrepreneurship. You advise ventures like re:infer and Seldon. Every adviser and investor has their own set unique questions they ask founders as they consider engaging. What are yours?
Great question. I look for self-belief in founders, and try to size up whether that self-belief confers enough stamina for the journey ahead. How you find that depends on the person you are talking to. I’m confident that the founders I advise will not give up, and because they won’t give up they will find a path through to success.
I like founders who have built before they have powerpointed. I also like founders who are coachable and will to push themselves into new areas.
You meet with a soon-to-be, first-time founder and over coffee she asks “If I had to develop three habits to be a successful founder, what are they?” what would you say?
- Cut your to-do-list to the minimum.
- Now do even less.
- Focus on the most essential thing that is left.