Rand Hindi once thought his big idea was a weight loss app. A crazy good weight loss app – way ahead of its time – and one he became so obsessed with he intentionally put on 70 pounds (32 Kilograms) to test out. That was before he met Menno van Dijk, one of the founders of the THNK School of Creative Leadership. Menno taught him that most start-ups have a single good idea that they build themselves around, and if that idea fails, so do they. What sets successful companies apart, according to van Dijk, is that they know what their mission is, and can nimbly iterate and switch up ideas around that mission. If one fails, it’s not the end of the company, merely the end of the idea.
It was like spotting a white rabbit: Hindi decided to chase after the deeper story behind his idea. He joined THNK’s 2012 Creative Leadership class to help him find the source of his passion. “I found this incredibly smart, diverse group of people who could help. Some of whom because they’d already been on that journey, others because they were extraordinary listeners, and others because they just threw these astounding ideas up in the air for me to catch.”
Four years later, and the weight loss app, like the extra weight, is a thing of the past. He gave up a company, started another, (Snips), and says he has THNK to thank for helping him articulate the real mission that lay at the heart of that project: using Artificial Intelligence to make technology disappear.
“In 25 years we’ve moved from an unplugged society to one in which, by 2005, we averaged 3 devices per person competing for our attention. By 2025 there will be 100 billion connected devices networked through the Internet of Things. Without Artificial Intelligence to filter and sort that data, to make sense of it for us and spare us from checking a screen every 30 seconds, we’re heading toward a future in which technology is going to enslave us rather than liberate us.”
We’re chatting in the THNK lobby in Amsterdam, sitting on a cosy set of wooden steps rising above the reception desk and outfitted with cubbyholes, cushions, power outlets, Wi-Fi, and a half dozen alumni catching up with each other and their passion projects. We’re at the annual FSTVL event in which past attendees of THNK’s Creative Leadership Program – 4 high-intensity one-week modules over a 6-month period – gather to exchange ideas and co-create with members of THNK’s worldwide community of more than 450 creative leaders from over 50 countries.
Hindi’s got a dangerous twinkle in his eye and a kind of muscular, courageous self-confidence that could swagger into a Wild West Saloon and silence the place. But he also has a gentle, intense calm and centeredness that inspires immediate trust.
“The challenge I overcame very early in my youth was the fear of failure. I treat it as science, as experiment — you learn just as much from failure as you do from success.” That turned out to be a successful strategy. Hindi started coding at 10, owned his own web agency by 12, and got a PhD in computer science by the time he was 21. His startup has pulled millions of dollars in investment.
“I took apart a lot of televisions as a kid. When my dad asked what I wanted for my birthday, it wasn’t toys. It was tools. I was building, making, and I wanted to be faster.”
The tools Hindi loved the most were the ones whose designs made them vanish, the ones that allowed him to focus on the task and not the tool.
He talked about making technology vanish from a TEDx stage in 2015, where he spoke of the typical sci-fi vision of a future dense with technology. He contrasts that with a vacation snap: the sunny aquamarine solitude of a beach in Costa Rica. “This is what we really want: quiet beauty, nature, and human interaction, and the peace of not being disturbed by a constant clamour of notifications.” Notifications that he points out we need to tweak, ceaselessly, to lower an aggravating signal to noise ratio.
Hindi’s vision for achieving that is a form of artificial intelligence that’s smart enough to trust with complete delegation. But for that to work, it means having to trust the AI itself with all of our information — our AI assistants will need to be as intimate with our lives as any friend, relative, or lover, but as discrete as a bonded bodyguard with a deep knowledge of our patterns, needs, priorities, and values. The goal is to be able give an AI so much information that we can trust the AI to make the decision we ourselves would make about how to respond to routine information requests. “Do we really need to answer the baby sitter’s SMS asking what time we’ll be home if that answer can reliably be made by an AI? Especially if that AI knows us better than a companion of 25 years, and can operate at a level that mimics instinct and intuition?”
But answering the babysitter’s SMS is one thing – how do we learn to trust a software engine with deeply personal information in a world in which Facebook and Google attempt to monetize every piece of knowledge about our preferences and behaviours? This is where Hindi is diving deep into something called Homomorphic Encryption as the firewall between private and public networks. It’s a new, potentially revolutionary way of operating on encrypted information without actually decrypting it. As Hindi describes it, it’s like having a glove box that’s completely isolated from the rest of the world, but which can talk to networked systems usefully about things like location, purchases, and interests, through an impermeable membrane that reveals nothing about who you are or even what that actual location, purchase or interest might be.
“Making tech disappear is a philosophy, something I believe should be true for every technology,” he says. It’s a philosophy he thanks THNK for helping him articulate.
If you’re interested in joining THNK’s creative leadership programme, start a dialogue with a member of the Global Adviser team here.