Live from TED2014

Instead of futurists, let’s be now-ists: Joi Ito at TED2014

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May
Joi Ito. Photo: Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Joi Ito. Photo: Photo: James Duncan Davidson

On March 10, 2011, Joi Ito was in the MIT Media Lab, in discussions about whether he should be the next director of the mythical innovation space, when he heard that a major earthquake had hit the Pacific coast of Japan.

“My wife and family were in Japan,” he says. “As news was coming in, I was panicking. Listening to the press conference and hearing about the explosion at the nuclear power plant, all I could think about was how our house was 200 kilometers away.”

Ito wasn’t hearing useful information on the news. “So I got on the internet and tried to find out if I could take matters into my own hands,” he says.

There, Ito found others concerned, with bold technological ideas about how to get information out to the people about the situation in Japan. They formed a group called Safecast that created an online map of radiation, by enabling people on the ground to contribute, and even built a downloadable geiger counter and other useful tools. “Three years later, we have 16 million data points. It is arguably one of the most successful citizen science projects in the world,” says Ito. “How did a bunch of amateurs … somehow come together and do what NGOs and the government were completely unable to do?”

“It was not a fluke, not luck, and not because it’s us,” says Ito. “It’s a new way of doing things enabled by the internet.”

Remember before the internet? Ito calls this period “B.I.” In this stage of the world, life was simple and somewhat predictable. “But with the internet, the world became extremely complex. The Newtonian laws that we so cherished turned out to be just local ordinances … Most of the people who were surviving are dealing with a different set of principles.”

In the B.I. world, starting a business had a clear timeline: says Ito, you hired MBAs to write a business plan, you raised money, and then you built the thing you wanted to build. But in the AI world, the cost of innovation has come down so much that you start with the building—and then figure the money and business plan. “It’s pushed innovation to the edges, to the dorms rooms and startups, and away from stodgy organizations that had the money, the power and the influence.”

During Nicholas Negroponte’s era at the MIT Media Lab, the motto he proposed was: “Demo or die.” He said that the demo only had to work once.But Ito, who points out that he’s a “three-time college dropout,” wants to change the motto to: “Deploy or die.” He explains, “You have to get it into the real world to have it actually count.”

Ito takes us to Shenzhen, China, where young inventors are taking this idea to the next level. In the same way that “kids in Palo Alto make websites,” these kids make cell phones. They bring their designs to the markets, look at what’s selling and what others are doing, iterate and do it over again. “What we thought you could only do in software, kids in Shenzhen are doing in hardware,” he says.

He sees this as a possibility for the rest of us, too. He introduces us to the Samsung Techwin SMT SM482 Pick & Place Machine, which can put 23,000 components on an electronics board, something that used to take an entire factory. “The cost of prototyping and distributing is becoming so low that students and software can do it too,” says Ito. He points to the Gen9 gene assembler. While it used to take millions and millions of dollars to sequence genes, this assembler can do it on a chip, with one error per 10,000 base pairs. In the space of bioengineering. “This is kind of like when we went from transistors racked by hand to Pentium, pushing bioengineering into dorm rooms and startup companies,” he says.

Of course, this new model is scary. “Bottom-up innovation is chaotic and hard to control,” he says. But it’s a better way. It’s a way that lets you pull resources—both human and technical—when you need them rather than hoarding what you think you’ll need before you start. And we need to educate children to think along on these lines. “Education is what people do to you and learning is what you do for yourself,” says Ito. “You’re not going to be on top of mountain all by yourself with a #2 pencil … What we need to learn is how to learn.”

Ito urges us to follow a compass rather than a map. Instead of planning out every exact points before you start, allow yourself to make the decisions you need as you go in the general direction of where you need to be.

“I don’t like the word ‘futurist,’” he says. “I think we should be now-ists. Focus on being connected, always learning, fully aware and super present.”