Conversation with Ali Velshi: How “The Many” Are Holding the Key to Humanity’s Greatest Challenges

By JF Bouchard, Chairman and Curator, C2 Montréal / CEO, Sid Lee

This year, during C2 Montréal, we will have the great pleasure of welcoming Ali Velshi on stage to hear his daily “Take on the Day”. Ali brings more than 20 years of journalism experience with CNN and Al Jazeera America. Born in Nairobi, he studied in Canada before pursuing his career in the USA and becoming a household name in journalism. Our chairman, Jean-François Bouchard, grabbed a coffee with him in Austin a few weeks ago.

JF:
C2 Montréal’s theme this year is “The Many.” What do you think of the impact of the multitudes on society and business?

Ali:

This is a theme that’s very close to my heart, the beauty of the Many taking responsibility for the biggest challenges that humanity faces is fantastic. I’ve done a lot of work where you give a problem to solve to the Many, and you actually get a better solution. I used to lament the end of programs like NASA, where a government took charge of a problem, or things like Bell Labs, where somebody was just working on stuff that wasn’t for commercialization. But you know, what’s better than the government and these labs is people, regular people. And what we  find is that some of the best solutions come from some of the farthest corners of the earth, from non-traditional places, from places where education has not been the obvious source of this innovation. I think there’s a negative side to this too, but on the positive side, the Many are the solution to all of our problems.

JF:
Your involvement in the XPrize Foundation probably gives you a unique vantage point on that. Can you explain a bit what you do with the foundation?

Ali:
Look, we’re recording this on a phone right now. Your phone has more computing power than President Reagan had at his disposal when he was not in the White House. This same phone gives access to a rural farmer in Africa, a field worker in India, a peasant in China. We think that there are innate smarts, right? We don’t think that you’re smart just because you went to a good school or you roll in a good crowd.

So the bottom line is this connectivity between people and things means that you might have a better solution. And we’ve done research that indicates that sometimes better solutions to things come from individuals around the world. We’re not at the singularity point yet where human and computer have melded. We’re at a point where minds still solve problems, and now we are having far more people involved in solving those problems. That’s our philosophy at the XPrize, by the way. Take a problem, put it out to the world, give them a prize if they solve it. And it works every single time.

JF:
One area where we see the impact of that phenomenon is in learning, more specifically. Can you talk about what you’ve been doing with the XPrize Foundation in this regard?

Ali:

We’ve gone from prizes that are about a technical problem that requires a solution, to where we’ve put metrics into more social problems, problems that actually involve humans. One of them is the Global Learning XPrize, which is meant to be a technological solution to teaching people how to read. We’re well into the research into finding out what the metrics have to be, but it’s going to be one of our biggest prizes. And even though we’ve got a prize that’s about paying $30 million to go to the moon, we’re actually more interested in learning because if you are thinking of the many as the source to your solutions, well, the solution does have to be based in some basic learning. Someone has to be literate. They’ve got to have some idea of what the problems are that they can solve. So if you can spread learning in a cost-effective way to places that it has not effectively reached around the world, you now have a greater pool of talent for this global crowdsourcing. Imagine how much more quickly we’d solve health and engineering issues if more people around the world had a basic level of education!

JF:
Understood. You’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years now. What’s your take on the future of media in this context of decentralization?

Ali:

I think it’s beautiful. I can get news and information from places I didn’t even know existed. There are two main reasons to be a journalist. One is to bear witness: to simply be there when things are happening. There’s a beautiful scene in the movie “Ghandi” where a young Martin Sheen plays a New York Times reporter witnessing Ghandi and his followers marching to the sea to make the salt they claim as their own, and watching the British soldiers beat them back. No one else was there, and it just shows the scene of him filing the report. That is one job of journalism: to just be there, bear witness. There would be entire groups of people annihilated today if not for the fact that people will bear witness.

The other thing is accountability. Ask tough questions. Bear witness and ask tough questions. If we have more journalists around the world, it makes my salary pressure a little difficult because I can’t earn as much, but you’re getting more news from more people. We do have to figure out ways to keep that news at standard so that the context and analysis is there, but the bottom line is that having more people collecting information and being content providers is better for all of us.

JF:
Another topic we’ll explore at C2 is the future of work, how this whole movement is also changing how we work and interact. How do you see that evolving in the future?

Ali:

This is the one that worries me a little bit. I am so fully in the embrace of technology and what it does, and I’m part of the XPrize. I am part of the market which values these technology companies so highly, but at the same time, the dirty little secret we’re not talking about is the industrial revolution. The last one, the third industrial revolution, as well as the second, took people out of low paying, unskilled jobs and displaced them. That wasn’t good, but we managed to get past it. This one is taking high-skilled workers out of their jobs, and it’s unclear what a safe job actually is now. We don’t understand. We have to recalibrate and understand what income is meant to be, because if I can’t work as much, but things are cheaper – because that’s what it’s doing; technology is making all of these things cheaper – what does life look like?

So, I wish that we would devote as much time to the conversation about what happens to the Many who are displaced while we’re talking about the Many who will benefit from these innovations. We are in the fourth industrial revolution. There will be upheaval, and this is a topic that I want to spend a lot of time talking about in life and at C2.

JF:
One last fun question to conclude. If you could spend an hour in someone’s brain, who would you pick and why?

Ali:

I have to say, I would always choose the same type of person. It’s someone who’s out of the mainstream discussion. It’s the kind of person who might join that XPrize and solve that problem. It’s a kid somewhere in a rural village who dreams and looks at the sky, looks at an airplane and dreams of getting out one day. I want to know how their minds works because when we talk about our entrepreneurial culture, that’s the root of it. Entrepreneurial culture is not about starting a start-up and having somebody buy it out and list it on the stock exchange and making billions of dollars. It’s about looking over there and asking, “How do I get there? How do I make that better?” So I’m always more curious about the beginning stages of “How do I solve a problem?” than in the great minds who are experts at it.

JF:
Thank you and see you soon!

See Ali on the C2 Montréal stage on May 24, 25 and 26, 2016 as he delivers his “Take on the Day”. Follow @jfbouchard and @alivelshi.