Alex Bates – Managing Partner, Neocortex Ventures

Johann

My name is Johann Berlin host of the Discerning What Matters podcast and CEO of TLEX Institute. throughout this series, I’ll be interviewing experts and leaders who are driving with the future of work will look like within their companies and across their industries. During the podcast, we’ll be exploiting a central question. As technology speeds us into an uncertain future. How can we design a future of work that meets our human needs and values? How can we create environments that will help us flourish and thrive in the way we live and work? We’d love to hear from you what matters most to you in the future of work. Please share your thoughts with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook at TLEX Institute. And you can check out our work and symposiums on tlexinstitute.com. Really excited to have Alex Bates joining us today the future humans of work discerning what matters. And Alex as a serial entrepreneur and has a background in AI, augmented reality in the intersection there. And recently sold, sold a company and now as an investor in the space. And so I’m really excited to learn more about Alex and also dig into where and how he’s thinking about the future of humans at work. So, Alex, it’s great to have you have you be part of the series.

Alex

Hey, great to be with you today.

Johann

Yeah and I wanted to start off, I’d love to hear and we had talked about this a bit before the recording, how did you become interested in AI? And what was sort of the inspiration for you

Alex

To go down this line of inquiry and interest. Yeah, I think there were a few key imprints during my childhood when I was a kid visiting my grandparents in New York. My grandfather was a professor and had all these bookshelves and somehow I got into books on psychology and philosophy of mind. And would discuss that with my uncle who was a physicist and really just got immersed in that in that subject. And then, at some point stumbled upon a textbook at a library on artificial neural networks. And this is probably some time in sort of mid middle school and I guess just became obsessed with this idea. My brother and I’d been tinkering with computers and the internet was just kind of coming out. And the idea that you could just in a few lines of code, create these artificial neural networks that could automatically learn compared to traditional programs, kind of just blew me away. And it was just a fundamentally different way of computing and then also understanding how our own minds work and so delve into that kind of perspective with computer science and math. And yeah, I’ve been kind of immersed in that field ever since.

Johann

Amazing and I would Alex I always start with question which is from the intersection of really where you sit. So how you’re looking at the world, how you’re looking at the field that you’re in as its evolving? What do you think matters most in the future of humans and work?

Alex

Yeah, that’s a that’s a topic I’m very passionate about. Because I think a number of changes are looming with human evolution and what we described as work versus what we describe as what we’re passionate about. And I think one of the most important things right now is that AI has the potential to evolve into something that will really augment our human gifts and help us better understand ourselves in our in our purpose. And when it comes to work I think it has the ability to free us from sort of the more mundane and sort of soul crushing or just the parts of work we sort of hate the most. And that really reduce our creativity and empower us to be more creative and sort of transform our relationship with work.

Johann

I love this idea of freeing us up. And one of the one of the things that I feel is often missed in this conversation is that work hasn’t necessarily been so enjoyable right over the last hundred years. And people who have to do particularly people who have to do repeatable task over and over and over again. There’s not a lot of meaning making in that and enjoyment. I’d be curious from your point of view, what are the types of things that you see people being freed up from? Or do you think that the possibilities are there, if any?

Alex

Yeah, well for me, a lot of times producing low level written reports, status reports. Sometimes just stopping what the creative stuff we’re doing to communicate to others about status and what we’re doing and what we’ve achieved and having achieved. To me those things tend to take away from my creative output. I think it’s very unique for each person. Some people thrive in communicating with other people in large meetings and other people. It drains them and kind of saps their creative output. So I think one of the interesting things would be AI might be ability to learn and how each of us more personalized sense what makes us most creative. And create an environment that provides more of that and less of what takes away from that.

Johann

And just and just kind of piggybacking off of that, Alex, I think, so much of the conversation and we were talking on this a bit before the interview is kind of around that the fears around automation. And they’re real, right like if we look at the union movements were promised sort of rescaling during the beginning of globalization and it didn’t really happen, right. Like many of the areas that were affected are still affected today. But I also think there’s tremendous possibility to the point we were making around repeatable tasks. And I’d be curious from your point of view, because so much of the conversations around a fear based been around that it’s going to take away human jobs or the sort of ethics, where are the areas that you feel optimism? Where are the areas that if you were going to look forward and say look this can create a better future or this can create new possibilities? What are some of the things that you’re most optimistic about?

Alex

Well, I love that question. Because I think, without vision, fear becomes the vision and building from a fear based perspective. I think is not the right way to build and design our future and yeah, so for me looking forward. The things I’m optimistic about are I kind of agree with some other writers that point out that we have some great you know. We have all this modern technology but the concept of free will a lot of us are stuck doing things that aren’t fulfilling or that don’t really give us we’re not the most passionate about. And so the ability to unlock us and first of all, to better understand ourselves have a little bit more of a mirror. You can think of an AI that had complete history of all your written thoughts and communications and could help augment your memory and give you a better sort of feedback loop into your own history or your own thinking. And then to and then to unlock us from the things that we are not only not passionate about. But maybe distract us from our gifts and our flow state. And I just think you look at most people’s environment today you have this commute to work and you go through a lot of traffic and you sit in a cubicle and there’s a lot of distractions and voices. You have a smartphone pinging with notifications, people emailing you demanding status and reports and meanwhile you’re trying to do creative four hour focus concentrate sessions, it’s almost a losing battle. So to me, the ability to completely rethink and design that experience is a huge opportunity that I’m very optimistic about.

Johann

And so most of the most of the people in these interviews are operators. And but in your case, you’re actually an investor. So I just wanted to kind of think about from your point of view as an investor in the space, what are the types of things that you’re looking to invest in? When you think about the future of work and the future of enterprise and AI? Are there particular areas that that are of interest to you?

Alex

Yeah well, I have a few investment kind of theses. One is that there’s some short term applications in narrow AI. I think that the vision of artificial general intelligence is still a ways off. And so I think that there’s just opportunities to do narrow kind of niche applications involving some AI technology to help you a prediction application but When it comes to the workplace. One of the key areas I’m excited about is this idea of the centaur for Human AI hybrid, where the AI augments the individual people in a work process. And I think there’s a huge opportunity there because most machine learning, for example, applications are our approach where we look at the data. We looked at the labels, we asked the people to improve the labels. And we try to use machine learning models and try to do different types of prediction and inference and maybe classification and a couple other things. But in general, a totally different approach is to look at what are the people in the work process and what are their strengths or weaknesses? If it’s a doctor, how do we give them more ability to tap into their intuition about the patient. Maybe their psychological state as well as their physical state and do less of the paperwork and data entry and stuff that might distract them from actually interacting with and observing the patient. So I guess In the centaur human AI hybrid, like augmented intelligence is the other key area.

Johann

Very interesting, yeah and so just curious from your point of view. Having thinking about these things and thinking about the way forward on them. Obviously, I think you’re investing in more emergent spaces. But what would you see if you had to predict or if you were a futurist, think about this. What would you see as the adaptive challenges that people are going to face going through that? Particularly the last premise that you mentioned.

Alex

Yeah, well, I think any anytime we make a leap forward with new tools. There’s an adoption hurdle you have to get through and you have to take some time to figure out how to how to make it a seamless part of people’s lives. And the key thing I think, is to do it in an uplifting fashion. If you look at how we adopted smartphones and social networks, the way they sort of tapped into some aspects of addiction and attention control. That’s a negative way to skirt option. And also, obviously not really an empowering one. And you hear some jokes in the community about investing in one of the seven deadly sins, you know. So I think the key opportunity is to get the adoption. You know, the challenges to how do we get this adopted in a way that empowers the people in the process and also, you know, improves the productive output.

Johann

And if you are going to think about just going forward, what are the critical roles, functions that you think will be replaced by this? What would you say that they are? What are what are some of the big opportunity areas for people to be freed up in? Because, again, going back to the fear, I think this is so much a part of the conversation, right. If we take and you’ve touched on it a bit, but if we take away somebody’s kind of quote unquote, security and what they know what’s familiar. What kind of things do you think they could be freed up to do that are uniquely human?

Alex

Well, yeah, I think we’re just starting to understand and explore what creativity is, as opposed to intelligence and there is some overlap. But if you look at the first automated math theorem prover was called the logic theorist. And it was invented in 1956 and was kind of the dawn of artificial intelligence. And imagine at the time we thought mathematics was going to be completely dominated by AI and a couple of years. In fact, the opposite has been proven out in the last 60 years. Human mathematicians are the pinnacle and they make these creative leaps or kind of eureka moments, where they find these sequence of steps and prove, you know, some of like the Millennium grand challenges, for example. And computer AI systems still cannot do that. So these we kind of have these like, epiphany and eureka moments. And there’s been some recent neuroscience this looking at how our default mode network in our brain and our Central Executive network have this interplay. But to do to have them you have to have almost like a mind wandering episode. And a lot of these scientists will describe it’s when they were, you know, Archimedes in the bathtub or people just walking out in nature is when you’ll have these “aha” moments. And so how do we provide a work environment to give us more access to that if you look at our current environment. It’s anything but conducive to that we have smartphones alerting us we have emails, requesting status. We’re constantly in a task positive focused kind of Central Executive network mode, but we’re not treating except for our default mode network.

Johann

I just want to double click down there for those people who don’t know what the default network mode is. I’ve researched it a bit through the neuroscience and measurement application we’re doing but how would you describe the default network mode and how we can utilize it?

Alex

Yeah, I only became aware of it last couple years in the neuroscience behind it, which is absolutely fascinating. But it’s interesting because it’s a little bit of a subconscious kind of model in the sense that when your mind wandering and you’re, in some cases, when you have an “aha” moment. It’ll feel like something snapped into your consciousness from the beyond. And of course, like the famous mathematician Ramana John would describe, he thought a Hindu goddess was whispering number theorems into his ear because it feels like it. In other words, some of that is outside of your subjective conscious awareness. It’s almost like this subconscious iceberg that can do can search through and solve things for you. And then just in some cases, almost hand over a solution. And it’s the other thing is your frontal lobe is your more task positive Central Executive network where you’re white boarding or writing emails and you’re A frontal. The non-frontal lobe components are what underlie this default mode network, which is more subconscious in nature.

Johann

It’s so fascinating I think I’m gonna be a lifelong student in this respect, because it’s what we’re uncovering. But I’ve had the chance, actually Alex on just to highlight the point that you’re making the interview two Nobel Laureates. And one of the things I was really interested in was, when did you come up with your sort of breakthrough idea? Were you in the lab? And were you in nature where you would family? Like, what happened did somebody ask you a question? And in both cases, that one said “they were swimming” and the other said “they were walking on the beach”. And when the ideas sort of clicked on this, whether we call it intuition or the unconscious mind. This is certainly an area of potentially untapped potential that we’re just beginning to understand. And I think your point, as kind of a closing idea of just how unoptimal education environments are for the unique value add work that we can do, that unique capacities that we have. Is so true, we need to really think about that when we think about how we’re designing the workplaces and also the technology that we use. So Alex, this has been a fascinating conversation. I really look forward to having you be part of the series. And just if you wanted to close with any thoughts on the future of humans of work. Things that are you’re personally passionate about on it that you that you haven’t shared any kind of closing thoughts.

Alex

Yeah well I mean, I think right now, a lot of people are. I think, as you alluded to, in the beginning, really focusing on the fear around AI and I think the huge uplifting potential with respect to humans at work is to is to think about what would the ideal environment be. and assuming we’re going to have some more economic abundance and improvements in energy and resources and less extractive processes for that. So I think ascending will have a little bit more abundance. What would what would your ideal environment be like and what will your creative pursuits be and your passion? There’s this term key word passion quotient, as opposed to IQ intelligence quotient. So for each of us, there’s an opportunity, what maybe what were we passionate about, but we kind of had to pivot away from that when we were younger, because we had to focus on what was an immediate short term economic benefit. And to think, what if we could go back to find those things that really inspired us and pursue that. And you know of course, to think through how the economic models will evolve, but in general, I think the potential with AI to augment us and help us understand ourselves better. To evolve i think is really inspiring to me going forward.

Johann

That’s such an interesting lens of like, not just understanding the world better or things You know, abstract ideas that can be sort of built out of it but also an inquiry into us and I think that’s a that’s a great place to close on. Thank you so much, Alex, for for taking the time.

Alex

Really enjoyed the conversation thanks so much for having me.

Johann Berlin

Johann Berlin is a serial entrepreneur, international keynote speaker and leadership consultant specialized in human and organizational development, mental health and well-being, and sustainable business and investing. Johann is CEO of TLEX Institute, providing over 1 million digital users with evidence-based leadership, breathwork and emotional intelligence training. His clients include top business schools like Harvard Business Schools and Fortune 500 companies like Amazon and Microsoft. A leadership writer at Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Real Leaders and Huffington Post, Johann is also Consulting Chief Learning Officer for Cooper Investors, a $13 billion private equity fund where he is integrating values-based investing principles into the firm’s culture fund. He is also Consulting Chief Learning Officer at Total Brain where he develops mental health and well-being content for clinicians, large consumer groups, and organizations. Johann is a leading voice on human-centered leadership, founding the Future of Humans at Work conference and podcast. Previously, he served as CEO and co-founder of Sustainable CitySolutions and was SVP of Sustainability and Strategy for JDI. As a board member, executive advisor and community volunteer, Johann is passionate about social ventures dedicated to resilient schools, local economy, prisoner rehabilitation, and youth leadership. Johann's TEDx talk has been viewed over 100,000 times.

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