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Pushing the Perimeters of Our Humanness: Q&A with Futurist Jason Silva

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Exponential change, the rise of nanotech, and the impact on brand experience

Futurist Jason Silva is known for his energetic way of sharing exciting concepts in accessible and digestible mediums (like his Shots of Awe video series). An acclaimed presenter, he’s also the host of National Geographic’s Brain Games and the new series Origins: The Journey of Humankind. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Jason, where we discussed everything from out-of-the-box thinking to what makes an awe-inspiring experience and more. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: You’ve chosen a fascinating career. How did you become a futurist?

JS: Well, I always had a curiosity about future technology and trends. But I became kind of enamored, obsessed with these trends after reading a book by Ray Kurzweil, the head of engineering at Google. He’s a very famous future trend forecaster and inventor, and he wrote a book called The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. He makes radical projections around artificial intelligence and genetics — ideas about reprogramming our genes and building computers that would determine the blood cells that go into our body and brains. Basically, if you’re a pessimist, it’s the terminator scenario; if you’re an optimist, it’s the dream of overcoming illness and death — and becoming transhuman.

But the key difference between his forecasting and other people who talk about the future was that Ray based his numbers on the data-driven extrapolation, but with very real exponential numbers that we’ve seen over the past 40 years. So, I think what inspired me was that this was a very powerful, compelling story, and yet it wasn’t gaining traction or attention. As an artist and a digital filmmaker, I felt that I could put these ideas in a different form, in a different visual style. And I started releasing these short films on the Internet about technology, about disruption, about exponential change — and they just blew up.

Q: Tell us a bit about exponential change. What does this mean?

JS: To start, you need to understand that the world rises on the shoulders of technology. Technology informs policy more than policy informs technology. The reason we see so much disruption nowadays is because of technology’s accelerated pace of disruption — it is catching everybody off guard. Human beings see change through a linear lens. For example, if you take 30 linear steps, you get to 30. But technology changes exponentially — if you take 30 exponential steps, you get to a billion. So, these disruptions go against our intuition, and it can be hard for us to comprehend and adjust. But it’s also why the smartphone that’s in your pocket today is a million times cheaper, a million times smaller, and a thousand times more powerful than what used to be a $60 million supercomputer inside a building 40 years ago.

Q: You’ve talked in the past about the relationship between “out-of-the-box thinking” and innovation. What are some of the ways people can reframe the way they think to create truly insightful ideas?

JS: When it comes to creativity, that’s one of the hardest things to do. We tend to stick to our normal patterns. We like to do things the way we’ve always done them. When we’re young, we’re flexible; our brains are like plastic, so we’re very inventive. Once we find our way in the world, we tend to stick with what has worked in the past. Everything is good and great because you stay within the edge of your comfort zone. 

That’s a mistake. People need to be willing to be uncomfortable, to be proved wrong. They need to be willing to allow new information to come in that changes their way of doing things. The most disruptive companies end up being disruptive because they do things very differently. They’re not afraid of breaking with tradition. They question preexisting dogma, preexisting ways of doing things, and they’re just willing to put it all out there.

But that’s scary to most people. Change is scary. Change threatens stability. But as people make that ideological shift, they realize that change is actually an opportunity for reinvention and for invention.

Q: So, the changes that are coming include biotech, nanotech, and artificial intelligence. How will these technologies help us push, in your words, the “perimeters of our humanness”?

JS: What’s exciting about these technologies is that they’re all becoming information technologies. If you think about it, genes are just software programs. Biotechnology means mastering the information processed as biology. Our DNA is a code that we are increasingly going to be able to program and reprogram. And the speed at which this is happening is also exponential. We’ve seen exponential change in the digital universe over the last 40 years; now we’re going to see the same thing happen in the world of biology medicine. We’ll be reprogramming our biology — programming the body away from disease, away from aging. It’s going to change healthcare and what it means to be healthy.

With nanotech, we can turn the material world also into a programmable media — the physical world becomes manipulatable. So, you have these two revolutions alongside artificial intelligence. Those are powerful forces that could lead pushing the perimeters of our humanness. Basically, humans will become more than what we used to be.

But it’s important to remember that we’ve always done that. This is nothing new. It happened when we started using stone tools, created fire, cooking food, etc. We’ve always incorporated new technologies outside of our own skin to actually transform physiologically and become more than what we are. So this is just a continuing trend of the human experience.

Q: When you think about brand experiences and live events, what are some of the ways face-to-face connections could be impacted by these game-changing technologies?

JS: I think live events are huge because there’s something profound that happens when you bring people physically together in large numbers, in a designed environment, and take them out of their heads. The whole point of a live event is to grip you by incorporating amplification systems — microphones, music, design, LED screens, lighting, everything. You are basically arresting the senses and getting people out of their heads, which provides them with an experience of timelessness and selflessness. When we get out of ourselves, we experience that liberation. 

And the reason why these encounters with large masses of people can be so profoundly life-altering and leave people so inspired is because they experience an ecstatic sense of community, a oneness with other people. Also, their models of the world and their preconceived notions get dimmed, allowing them to create new possibility spaces in their mind. They may think, “Oh, I didn’t know that was possible,” and the act of accepting new possibilities can leave people not only inspired, but with increased feelings of compassion, empathy, and well-being. So, when you can bring all these elements together, like you can with live events, you now have a very powerful tool at your disposal.

Q: As an acclaimed keynote speaker, what do you think makes a good presentation?

JS: I think a good presentation blends together novel information or something that at least we didn’t expect to see or we haven’t heard before, presented in a counterintuitive way. You see, when people are surprised, they’re taken out of their heads. They’re temporarily disjointed and there are little cracks in the mind, allowing new information to get in there. Multisensory modalities, like intense music and lighting, also help get people out of their heads as well. And then, of course, a compelling, inspirational speaker is key. Somebody who is a linguistic artist, who can put together sentences in a way that makes it seem like poetry. 

In the future, I think we’ll have more toys to play with in these encounters. From the architecture of the space, to the psychology of the message, to better uses of lighting, and projection mapping — all with the goal of getting people out of their heads and into their imaginations.

Q: Where can people go to learn more about you and the projects you’re working on?

JS: Check out my new television series on National Geographic called Origins: The Journey of Humankind. It’s the story about the cultural and technological history of humans. Also, you can connect with me on social media, Facebook, and Twitter, to keep up with all my videos and content.

Q: If you could leave our audience with one message, what would it be?

JS: Dare to wonder.

For more perspectives on our Global Outlook, download the insights paper: Tomorrow, Today: The Future of Brand Experience.

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