Screenshot from The Singularity is Near

Humblebrag: I won an award for my feature writing

I’m delighted to report that I won a 2018 Azbee Award of Excellence in the category of Web Feature Article. (Azbees are awarded by the American Society of Business Publication Editors). My winning article is titled Artificial Intelligence: When Will the Robots Rebel? It’s a deep dive into the evolving technology of AI, its relationship to human consciousness, and its likely future disruptive role in society.

Researching the article, I interviewed numerous experts, including Adam Coates, Director of the Silicon Valley AI Lab at Baidu, and Pieter Abbeel, director of UC-Berkeley’s Robot Learning Lab. Visiting the Robot Learning Lab was a blast – I got to see how BRETT, a robot, actually “learns” how to do things like fold towels and tie knots.

The article ties together many themes, from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to 2001: a Space Odyssey. I work in Ray Kurzweil and the singularity, and discuss Facebook’s highly-responsive AI algorithm.

Toward the end, I delve into how artificial intelligence will displace workers in the years ahead; automation has already killed countless jobs. One doesn’t have to be a pessimist to see that massive job losses will result from AI. Some disagree with me, and take a cheerier view of this – this is a core debate in AI. But I think it’s clear that machine learning and AI will displace not just legions of unskilled jobs, but the jobs of knowledge workers as well.

There will surely be plenty of new jobs, but these will require sophisticated education and training. The problem is that public education is woefully under-equipped to educate people at the level required to keep up with future technology. Of course I want to be wrong about this — hopefully a greater premium will be placed on education. The human race has always adapted to historic shifts in technology, but the emergence of AI poses its greatest challenge yet.

(The image above is a screenshot from the film, The Singularity is Near.) 

Women in Tech, Tech in Transition

brotopia, women in techI wrote this after going to a book release event for Emily Chang’s Brotopia, a book about sexism in Silicon Valley.


There’s something unusual about this evening’s tech event.

Tonight’s gathering is, to be sure, a classic San Francisco tech event. The audience is mostly professionals in their twenties and thirties, largely white, clearly educated and affluent. As I circulate through the crowd beforehand, everyone I meet works in technology. A few work in tech-related public relations, an oceanically large field in SF. This is clearly the bright young crew that codes the apps and promotes the platforms that shapes our lives.

But the gender balance is atypical. At most SF tech events, it’s usually, oh, about 70 percent men, 30 percent women – often even more skewed toward men. Tonight’s crew is majority women, perhaps 70 percent or so.

Riding the elevator up to the 24th floor, I hear this evening’s star speaker discussing, of all things, nannies. It’s a topic I’ve never once heard men mention in countless SF tech confabs.

That star is Emily Chang, anchor of the daily TV show Bloomberg Technology. She’s here to promote her book, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley.

She shares the stage in an interview-style conversation with Leah Busque, founder and executive chairwoman of TaskRabbit, and a general partner in venture fund Fuel Capital.

To say that I can gauge how closely an audience listens to a speaker may be exaggerating my powers of observation. But it feels like tonight’s attendees are deeply attached to Chang’s words. That her discussion of sexism in the tech sector resonates as a report of their own experience.

women in tech

Attendees at the Brotopia book launch, at Sribd headquarters in downtown SF.

Early on, she references two well-known figures: Susan Fowler, whose 2017 blog post about the bro-sexist culture she encountered as an engineer at Uber helped topple co-founder Travis Kalanick; and Ellen Pao, whose gender discrimination lawsuit against VC firm Kleiner Perkins (though the jury found for Kleiner) spotlighted the challenges of women in tech. Chang doesn’t provide this background, and doesn’t need to – it’s reasonable to assume the audience knows their stories.

Chang tells an anecdote that seems core to the entire book, and to the entire question of women in tech.

She recalls interviewing famed venture investor Michael Moritz, a partner at Sequoia Capital. Sequoia at that point had female investing partners in China and India, but none in the United States. Chang asked him, “What is your responsibility to hire women?”

Moritz blamed the pipeline – the relative lack of young girls pursuing STEM, which results in fewer candidates for tech positions. When Chang pressed him, Moritz said that Sequoia is completely blind to gender, race, and religion but “what we’re not prepared to do is lower our standards.”

This “lower my standards” quote seems to sum up, as Change tells it, the entrenched male-dominated tech leadership structure.

“As soon as he said that, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” she tells the audience. “Everywhere I went for the next few months, people wanted to talk about that.”

Some people didn’t see what was wrong about this, she says, while others were horrified and couldn’t believe his comments. “It’s a topic that inspires such a visceral debate…everyone thinks they know what the problem is, like, maybe women just don’t want these jobs, maybe it is a pipeline problem.”

However, pointing to the pipeline in isolation ignores longstanding cultural biases.

Chang speaks of a double standard: “A man who’s cautious, that’s a positive; a woman who’s cautious, ‘Oh, she doesn’t have what it takes.’”

brotopia book event

Leah Brusque talks with Emily Chang.

This double standard far outstrips any STEM pipeline issues, playing a defining role in who gets funded. “When investors are looking at funding entrepreneurs, if it’s a male entrepreneur, they’re simply looking at the idea – can this person execute?’” In contrast, “If it’s a woman they’re like, ‘Can she do it? Is she going to have kids?’…literally every woman entrepreneur has been asked about their kids…Sometimes investors have come to believe that women aren’t willing to make the sacrifices that investors believe you need to make.”

The disparity in venture funding is well documented. According to Pitchbook, all-women teams received a tiny 2.2 percent of the $85 billion total 2017 investment by VC firms, while all-male firms hauled in 79 percent.

Providing an example of the cultural bias that creates this disparity, Chang quotes Lynn Jurich, co-founder and CEO of Sunrun.

“She took her company public three weeks after having her first child, and she brought her baby on the roadshow. As she’s walking into a roadshow meeting, one of the investors was like, ‘Who are you?’ And she was like, ‘I’m the CEO.’”

Tech’s Outsized Influence

Chang’s Brotopia is, to be sure, part of a larger narrative. The book reflects the titanic groundswell – you’ve surely noticed – that’s driving awareness of the role of women in technology, Hollywood, and the culture at large. It’s about #MeToo, outing a long list of men for sexual harassment and abuse. It’s about who has power, who controls funding, who holds leadership. It’s about questions that, in Silicon Valley, directly shape how technology is developed.

The tech sector is one of the most resistant, perhaps the most resistant, to enabling women. The startup culture embodies a brash, elbows-first ethic, a heedless race toward the hallowed “first mover advantage” – to disrupt the old in the interest of immediate market share. That is, to make vast, almost uncountably large piles of money.

The tech sector’s output wields an outsized influence on our lives. Tech’s new gadgets and whiz-bang platforms affect where we shop, who we date, how we vote. The people – mostly men – that have zoomed up this nifty infrastructure have been monomaniacally focused on success above apparently minor concerns like cultural impact. (You mean my social media platform enabled Russians to influence an election? Hey, we’re focused on growth! You mean my ridesharing service violated regulations across the country – the world – and even used greyballing? Well, gosh, we’ve got an empire to build!)

Given the centrality of technology in our lives, it’s critical that it’s developed with all of us in mind, which requires inclusive teams. Technology evolves differently if it’s created by diverse groups working together.

Chang poses a question to the audience: “What if women were present at the founding of some of these companies, would they be different?” In answer, she recalls asking Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, if the platform would have less of a trolling problem (particularly against women) if women were part of the founding team. “He said, ‘Actually I don’t think it would be such a problem – we just weren’t thinking about it.’”

In that quote is the essence of Chang’s theme. A more inclusive tech ecosystem is, ultimately, better for all of us.

In the book, she writes that achieving fifty-fifty gender balance in tech is “incredibly complex and nuanced, requiring many detailed solutions that will take decades to play out.”

To speed the pace of change, Brotopia spells out specific recommendations. Among the several: CEOs must lead the effort, focusing on the long term. “It may take three weeks to find a white man for the job, but three months to find a woman,” Chang writes. Yet that longer job search could stave off a later scramble to create a diverse workforce.

Most primary: “First of all, people, be nice to each other,” she writes. “Treat one another with respect and dignity, including those of the opposite sex. That should be pretty simple.”

Also among her recommendations: boards need to hold leadership accountable to move toward gender parity; venture firms must hire more women partners; and investors need to fund more diverse teams.

Brotopia’s pushback against sexism in technology is, fortunately, riding an updraft – the title cracked the business bestseller list. That its message resonates and helps create a more inclusive tech ecosystem is, ultimately better for us all.

Interviews: Women in Tech

At the book launch that evening, I interviewed three women, career professionals in the tech sector, about their experience with sexism in technology. Here are the times on video:

Karyne Levy, editor, Scbribd (start – 2:36)
Rebecca Liebman, co-founder, CEO, LearnLux (2:37 – 4:37)
Michelle Zaffino, founder, CEO, In the Stacks (4:38 – 8:49)

electric piano in a music store

My Tribe in the Music Store

I like stopping into the music store now and then. There’s a Yamaha electric piano I have a crush on, but for $800 my love is better off unrequited.

It’s always good to check in with the tribe in the music store. They’re my people, the people who really love music. They are – and I speak affectionately – a mangy bunch. Their hair tends to be bad, and their complexions are nothing to write home about either. They seem a little “apart,” as if they could converse with you if need be, but it’s not their first choice.

There are always a few standard humans in the music store. There’s the young woman who – I apologize for this – might be charitably described as plain. She might even – okay, I’m very sorry about this – be dressed in a style called tasteful Goodwill. She typically has red or strawberry blonde hair, and she sings and plays the guitar. If you listen to her for a few minutes, you’ll hear some distant place, some place where poetry matters, some place where the human heart feels like it should. There are no words for that place. She never has once, nor will she ever, consider giving up music.

Then there’s the old guy in the guitar section, strumming an electric as if he’s going to buy it, but really, he just wants to sit there and strum. He usually wears a Harley T-shirt and has a beer gut and shaggy gray hair. Often a pair of wire-rim glasses that need a cleaning. He had those three great years in the band in his twenties, and things haven’t been the same since. In fact things have mostly drifted downward ever since, what with Sheila gone and left, and the music that kids like these days — just noise. Plus his damn left knee just aches when he lifts an amp on to the truck. But here he sits with his Gibson Firebird. A damn sweet guitar, God it’s so pure.

Then there’s an assortment of people, mostly dudes, who have a slightly hard look to their face. Like a life focused on music means they’ve endured something. Gotten used to enduring it, and don’t think they won’t be enduring it anytime soon. It’s like a very light version of heroin addiction, much less painful and not nearly as ruinous, though not fantastically better. They’ve hunkered down and resigned themselves to a life in music, with its dubious career options and marginal pay levels.

It’s kind of funny. I once saw Jack DeJohnette – yeah, Jack DeJohnette – in a parking lot in St. Louis, and 45 people were there, and he played (I’m assuming) for free or close to it. I guess he just loves it so bad. Then again, he’s Jack DeJohnette, so he’s made it to the Promised Land.

I do get why those music store types are from another place. A lovely place, maybe, sometimes, but not a place you want to be if you don’t really love it. On the other hand, if you really do love it, there is no better place.

march for our lives

March for Our Lives in SF – Feelin’ It

[From Saturday, March 24] Gathering for the March in front of SF City Hall. Must admit I’m a tad verklempt at the energy of it all, the young people voicing a higher purpose. Kind of makes you think there might be hope for us after all. That we make terrible mistakes but that there’s some larger, timeless energy that resides in us – all of us as a whole – that somehow keeps us moving upward. Damn. There’s a lady writing in chalk on the sidewalk: “vote them out.” Oh yeah.

The Zen Mountaintop of Transcendent American Consumerism

Clearly, it’s the dizzying Zen mountaintop of transcendent American consumerism: the Apple Store on Black Friday. Even for the privilege of talking to clerk about a MacBook, I was told the wait was 35 minutes. In that moment I stared into the abyss….empty and forlorn….inadequate access to the Apple buying process. Then I rallied, briefly checked out the new iPhone X — which seemed needlessly complex — and walked back out into the mall, a vibrant minnow swimming in the invigorating waters of holiday commerce.

Life in the Bay Area

Ah, life in the Bay Area: even the coffee shops can be techie in San Francisco and surrounding areas. I was walking down the street in Berkeley and spotted Algorithm Coffee. Perhaps a dude or dudette is dreaming of a start up in there?

Lion, Starring Dev Patel: A Feel-Good Drama

Lion, starring Dev Patel, scored mediocre reviews – a low wattage 69 out of 100 on Metacritic – but I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it. The story starts with a destitute young boy, Saroo, who gets lost and separated from his family in 1980s India, a world of dire poverty; a real dystopia. The child actor, Sunny Pawar, performs with sublime authenticity; those deep brown eyes looking out at the world, hustling through train stations and running from authorities, could move a heart of stone. As the story progresses, Dev Patel plays the grown up Saroo, convincingly and with a light touch. Saroo dreams of finally finding his family again after many years. The climatic scene offers a deep payoff, truly emotionally compelling. Lion is the rare drama that succeeds with hardly a touch of humor. A three-hanky movie, in a good way.