Q: If you were an ambitious teenager, like your younger self wanting to participate in this brave new world, how would you do it?
I think the greatest opportunity is the amount of information that already exists on the internet. Self-learning was very important for me and is getting easier every year. It’s quite surprising to think 20 or 30 years ago it was very difficult to acquire knowledge if you weren’t lucky enough to go to a top university or a good school. Although the knowledge in today’s world is still written in long-length form, whether it be in academic journals or snippets of code, access is gradually becoming more automated.
Q: You chose to study at Oxford University after becoming a successful entrepreneur – is that a contradiction?
I think it’s very complementary. I decided to go to Oxford for two reasons: first to academically formalise my knowledge, because I might want to pursue an academic career in the future; and secondly I wanted the university experience. Although the need to go to university to get access to knowledge and information is less today than a few decades ago, I still think it has significant benefits when it comes to maturing and acquiring social experiences.
Q: In a world facing very substantial changes, is the rarefied academic experience that you’ve sought out at Oxford still useful?
Oxford gave me access to the academic rigour associated with academia, both in computer science and philosophy. I wanted to set my real world experience within a formal theoretical framework, and in particular to study computer science from a theoretical standpoint, whereas the approach at Stanford and similar universities has more emphasis on their application in the real world.
Q: When hiring people from this new generation, do you think businesses need to behave differently towards them?
Over the last 30 years there has been a rise in allowing employees to direct their own careers and organise their working day to a far greater extent. I look for potential employees who have developed self-discipline and self-motivation and learnt how to direct their own path in life and in education. The good news is that irrespective of whether they went to a top class university or not, a lot of people are learning new skills through using the internet – to do their own research for term papers, or coding projects, or learning design on Tumblr, or whatever it might be.
Q: Do you think you have a different approach from the previous generation of tech entrepreneurs?
I don’t think I had a different motivation, but I did have a different method. I was able to discover far more information than had been available in the past and so I was able to go about building a company where I could apply the idea, build a prototype and get that out to real users and get feedback before needing to conceptualise it or get funding. I can imagine that a generation ago, if you wanted to be an entrepreneur you would likely have to premeditate the usage of your product a lot more than you do today, and to justify it conceptually. In the case of Trimit which became Summly, I didn’t go into building that product thinking I was going to create a company of any sort. It was far more that I had this idea for application technology, and I wanted to send it out to users to see what they thought.
Q: Do you see yourself as a serial entrepreneur – someone who is waiting for the right moment to start up your next business?
Entrepreneurship to me isn’t the word. I see myself as a self-learner – someone who is constantly trying to learn about things, think about things in a new way, fuel my curiosity. I would like to build another technology company. I had a great experience with Summly, and I have a lot more ideas. But in the longer term I can see myself switching to other areas of interest.
Q: Automation has led to job destruction as well as creation. Do you think that’s a problem?
In the short term, new technology may destroy jobs in older industries, but we can’t predict what other opportunities it might lead to in the longer term, so the question is impossible to answer.
What I learnt at Summly and subsequently building Yahoo News Digest was that I believe in the hybrid model – putting together humans and computers. Humans are very much equipped to solve certain kinds of problems so there will always be a role for them, and I reject automation for its own sake.
Q: At Oxford you are reading Computer Science and Philosophy. Is that a deliberate combination?
In Computer Science you are studying a logical system, and Philosophy is the study of logic and reasoning, so there is significant formal overlap. Personally I am interested in the philosophy of mind and consciousness and this relates heavily to artificial intelligence. I think it is good for someone who wants to go into computer science, and build companies that leverage artificial intelligence, to have had that classical training in how to deal with those problems.
Q: Do you think artificial intelligence is the new frontier?
We are at a stage now where the best application of technology is to understand large amounts of data. I see artificial intelligence, the algorithms, most useful when assisting the human, not as a replacement but as complementary to the human. I think the technology today is at its most useful as an assistant, and what I think we mean by artificial intelligence now is the ability to learn from mistakes, not to replace the human brain.
Q: Last summer you served as Airbnb’s Entrepreneur in Residence. What did that involve and what did you learn from it?
Brian Chesky (co-founder of Airbnb) was an investor in Summly. I got to know him over that period and he wanted me to come to California to work on a stealth project – which I can’t really talk about much. The biggest lesson I took away from Airbnb is that they don’t see their users as numbers, but as valuable human beings. I think we need a brutal honesty about the limitations as well as the benefits of technology. The most successful companies over the next decade will be those that are very honest with themselves about the limitations of their own technological solution.