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WTF?: An Interview With Tim O’Reilly

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Tim O’Reilly is often referred to as “The Oracle of Silicon Valley.” A 2010 Inc. article running with that title referred to him as Silicon Valley’s leading intellectual and noted that “O’Reilly is worth listening to because he has been on top of nearly every important technology development of the past three decades.”

Lately we vacillate between amazement and anxiety regarding the increased roles that AI, automation, and digitalization play in our careers and lives. The prospect of a self-driving car, for example, leads us to dream of commutes marked by leisure. But at the same time, we worry about displacement of the jobs of drivers and truckers. Recent articles include the worrisome title, “Report: Fear of losing job to AI is the no. 1 cause of stress at work,” but also the more optimistic “Will your job be automated? 70% of Americans say no” from the Associated Press.

An October 2017 piece in WIRED best summed up our schizophrenic feelings about AI disruption: “Americans love automation, until it comes for their jobs.” I recently spoke with Tim O’Reilly, the founder of O’Reilly Media, to get his thoughts about where this disruption is headed and what that means for us as workers but also society in general. O’Reilly is not worried about robots replacing all of the human jobs. In his opinion, there will always be work to do and problems to solve. His main concern, however, is in ensuring that we direct our technological advancement and energies towards solving major societal issues such as global warming. He is clearly positive about the impact of AI and automation, yet adamant about society taking an active role in its use. Over the last forty years, O’Reilly has been at the forefront of many of the major technological disruptions such as the World Wide Web, Web 2.0, and the Maker movement. Following the dotcom crash of 2000, O’Reilly was credited with helping lead the resurgence of the web with an executive conference of top tech and business leaders in 2004, and the public-facing Web 2.0 Summit events starting in 2006.

O’Reilly has just released the book, “WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us,” which serves as a call-to-action for businesses to capture long-term benefits of the tech revolution. It also addresses the hysteria surrounding AI and automation, and offers a larger historical lens to contextualize our current moment. The title of the book derives from a July 2015 Medium piece that O’Reilly wrote called, The WTF Economy. Similar to what O’Reilly had launched with Web 2.0 Summit and Gov 2.0 Summit, his company put on the event, Next: Economy (What’s The Future of Work?) in San Francisco in the fall of 2015. A bold quote from O’Reilly advertising the event stated: “Every industry and every organization will have to transform itself in the next few years.”

“WTF can be a WTF of amazement or it can be a WTF of dismay,” says O’Reilly, emphasizing our conflicted feelings with a few choice examples of the current tech disruption. It can be, according to O’Reilly, “‘Oh my god, the robots are going to take all the jobs.’ Or, ‘WTF, the robots are going to mean that I get my packages the same day from Amazon.’ Or, ‘WTF, there’s going to be genetic engineering and they’re going to bring extinct species back to life.’ Or, ‘WTF, they’re going to use genetic engineering and make a weapon that will put humans out of existence.’”

The fear of AI leading to the end of human civilization isn’t confined to the dark corners of the web or tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists. When respected thinkers such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking sound the alarm around the the potential devastating impact of AI and automation, it seems like a legitimate concern. Speaking to the BBC in December 2014, Hawking said that, “…the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” And speaking to the World Government Summit in Dubai in February 2017, Musk relayed his advocacy of Universal Basic Income as a way to handle an automated future with less jobs than people.

Tim O’Reilly isn’t buying it. He points to recent research by Michael Mandel of the Progressive Policy Institute which found that the economy is gaining more jobs in e-commerce warehouses and e-commerce delivery than it’s losing in retail. In addition, the e-commerce jobs pay better. When I ask him the hotly-debated question about whether AI and automation will be a net positive for job creation like previous tech revolutions, or a net negative, he is firm in his reply.

“We will create more jobs that we lose,” he says. “There will be disruption…not all the jobs will be in the same places or in the same way. There is plenty of work to be done. There is no reason why we have to run out of jobs.” To O’Reilly, the proof can be found just by looking around the the multitude of problems needed to be solved. “There is work to be done. Look around. There is so much stuff we are not getting to, and the big question isn’t, ‘Will there be enough work?’ It’s, ‘What’s keeping us from doing it?’”

Part of the problem, according to O’Reilly, is that our economic system “rewards extractive behavior through financial markets rather than rewarding real goods and services to real customers. And we effectively have an economy that has been taken over by the equivalent of spammers and fake news and we’re celebrating it.” Instead of celebrating these short-term gains, O’Reilly is looking to shift the focus towards more pressing issues facing society—such as global warming. He tells the story of Carl Icahn making a multi-billion dollar investment into Apple, although they had no use for his money. In O’Reilly’s opinion, this type of behavior was non-productive for the economy at large. Instead of Apple lowering its prices or paying its workers more, the investment led to a few people getting richer.

How we can better align the business interests with the human interests and general good of society?

“I think we definitely need better economic policy and a little more courage on the part of government,” says O’Reilly.

I think we need a little bit more moral fiber on the part of our business leaders. But mostly we need to understand that when we make decisions about taxes, for example, we are writing the rules of the economy and there will be winners and there will be losers. And right now we’re doing it on the basis of lobbying by people who are trying to get an advantage.”

In O’Reilly’s view, we can learn a lot about the best rules for the economy at large by looking at the Darwinistic jockeying that often takes place with tech platforms. He gives the example of Google’s Panda Update that occured in February 2011, which was aimed at dramatically reducing poor quality results from appear high in Google searches. This move effectively put a lot of spammers out of business. For O’Reilly, this is an example of a company decision that is putting the value of their customers in the highest regards. The disruption that happened from the decision, the loss of spammers and poor quality sites, was merely a form of positive competition that increased the overall quality to consumers.

I do think that there’s an opportunity to take the lessons of tech platforms and say,  ‘Okay, platforms are are more successful when they’re inclusive and they create opportunity. Oh, so are economies.’ Platforms start to fail when they become extractive and a few people are taking too much from them and not creating enough value. ‘Oh, okay, we can see that in our broader economy as well.’ Tech platforms are continually changing the rules in order to optimize their products for their users.

Of course, many of the major tech platforms that started as revolutionary have transitioned into the “extractive” phrase of dominance. New York Times technology journalist Farhad Manjoo has coined these companies—Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook—the “Frightful Five.” The insuition is that their immense power may prevent the typical rules of competition and disruption from applying. This may be similar, however, to how Microsoft was viewed as an unstoppable Goliath in the 1990s.

You know, when everyone was like, ‘Proprietary software rules the world, Microsoft is the biggest, baddest software company, nothing can be done.’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, there’s this band of misfits over here that are giving away their software for free. And, over time, that movement actually dethroned Microsoft and became the foundation for the next level of computing. The World Wide Web led to an even bigger revolution than with the personal computer.

O’Reilly sees this pattern of revolutionary-becomes-extractive potentially repeating itself with Google and Facebook. Although it may seem like their power and wealth prevents new entrants from disrupting the status quo, their current perch may not be as inevitable, as disruption always finds a way to occur. “This should be a warning sign to the big guys. If they don’t pay attention, innovation will basically move elsewhere.” O’Reilly goes back to the example of Microsoft, and how their dominance did not mean an end of innovation. “The innovation just went to some new field where there was opportunity,” says O’Reilly.

He sees the same dispirited conversation happening right now with venture capitalists who believe the only current path to success is to sell to one of the major tech companies. “These things pass” says O’Reilly. “And the reason they pass is because when companies choke off the innovation it goes somewhere else.” And although many startups may feel the need for heavy venture capital funding, O’Reilly points out that most disruptive companies have not needed a tremendous level of investment. While it is hard to predict where the “somewhere else” will be, O’Reilly believes we may be waiting for a pivotal moment that dramatically shifts our societal focus as to what innovation should be used towards. “I think when we wake up to the reality of climate change, for example, there is going to be a lot more realization that the necessary innovations are in things like agriculture, genetic engineering.” He also mentions the potential for warfare with North Korea and Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election as larger societal issues that could quickly shift our focus on what is truly needed with innovation.

“This idea that somehow the continuation of our extractive consumer culture dominated by a few big companies is going to continue forever I think is pretty short-sighted,” says O’Reilly. “Any sense of history will tell you that there are a lot of factors that could upend that in a moment.”

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