I figured I ought to write a little bit about why I care about this topic. So here goes.
When I was little we’d visit my Grandmother’s place at the weekends and I’d sit with her as she ploughed through a stack of logic puzzles. You know - the ones where your task is to complete a partially-filled grid by taking a list of clues and figuring out what that implies about the relationships between the rows and columns of the grid. I became obsessed with those and other puzzles and before long I began to wonder what other problems I could solve, if I could just define the problem and find enough of those precious little clues.
I’m originally from Gibraltar, a tiny little British territory on the southern tip of Spain, only 2.6 square miles in area. To put that into perspective - you can drive around the entire place in just 20 minutes, and the liveable area is probably about half that, so about the same size as central park in New York City. It’s close-knit, ethnically diverse and historically rich; a melting pot that helped me feel secure and curious enough explore further - I wanted to look outward, and I wanted to look forward.
So I left home. I studied math and decision / data sciences and joined a management consultancy, excited to work with some of the world’s biggest companies on that wonderful cliche: “making an impact”. And I did, working across 17 countries and 7 industries on all sorts of problems from “How can we help MS patients to access their treatment sooner?” to “How can we provide better on-demand public transport for people with disabilities?”.
I’m enormously grateful for these experiences, but over the last few years I became increasingly restless and a question started to gnaw at me - “How can I do even more to help?”
I realized that I needed a change, so last year I took a leap of faith. I asked for some time off to travel and create some head space to reconnect with what I was passionate about. A full 12 months off. For a guy who hasn’t had more than 3 consecutive weeks away from work in 11 years, this was pretty daunting….
Part of the time I spent in my adopted city of New York, trying in vain to (re)find myself, before a friend bullied me into doing a hackathon.... I was skeptical but gave it a try. And it was great. More than great - our team won. So I did another, and another, and I was part of the winning teams. It reminded me that I had become too focused on the day-to-day and had lost sight of what made me most fulfilled - solving big problems in a solid team.
For the rest of my year off I travelled. Cue cliched travel-emancipation story… I remember once having dinner with a family in Nepal, and they would bring out extra helpings whenever I had cleared my plate. So I kept eating, worried that if I left food to waste then they would be offended. After a while, our guide turned to me and whispered "Stop eating… if you finish your food again then they will think you are still hungry...”
Travel stories aside, if we look outward to national and global governance, and look forward to the coming technology-driven societal revolution, then it’s clear that having shared understanding isn’t a nice-to-have - it’s critical. Just look at Brexit and the US Presidential election last year - news was often contradictory, narrow or simply wrong. It’s impossible to know how this may have influenced the outcomes, but you have to wonder.
Over half of US adults now get their news via Facebook, where they get personalized versions of reality based on preferences and behavior; so conforming to their pre-existing biases. And it’s not just Facebook. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to cut through the noise to understand what’s really going on, and we must do so to make progress.
So what if you could see, instantly, how your news from social media or elsewhere, compares with what others are seeing? Better yet - what if you could trust, with absolute confidence that you’re getting the right information?
This is the challenge we are addressing - that of radically transforming the way we make collective decisions as a society. For any society, this means debate and compromise, which is only possible if we can understand and respect each other. We concluded that online filter bubbles are the most immediate and pressing part of that problem, so we’re starting with that first as part of our entry into the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE.
Technology is shaking up the old power structures by changing the way in which we communicate and influence each other, but the problem is not technology in itself. The issue is how we respond to it and how we influence its evolution. Rather than trying to suppress or regulate technology, I believe that we should embrace new ways of using it to help society move forward into a more open and connected future.
I don’t know if this attempt will be successful, but we must try, keep trying, and hope to inspire others to also take up the challenge.