Kevin Surace is a well known Silicon Valley entrepreneur, disruptive innovator and innovation keynote speaker, who had been awarded Inc Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year, listed as one of the top 15 innovators of this decade by CNBC, awarded “Tech Pioneer” by World Economic Forum – Davos, nominated as “Innovator of the Year” by PlanetForward and inducted into the Innovation Hall of Fame. He has been awarded 28 patents and is credited with pioneering work on the first human-like voice user interface, the first cellular data smartphone, the first mass produced high R value windows, the first soundproof drywall, and many other innovations which have become commonplace today. He is currently CEO of Appvance, a technology company which is disrupting the way enterprises improve the quality, performance, and security of their software and applications.
SPEAKING.COM: You have 28 patents and a successful career as an innovator and inventor, spanning decades. How do you keep coming up with fresh ideas?
SURACE: I live and breathe disruptive innovation and inventing. Most markets have been untouched for years or even decades. They are ripe for disruption and we can see it everywhere. Steve Jobs disrupted music, laptops, and phones; while Elon Musk, cars and rockets. They could both think way outside the box and envision solving existing pain points. If you are not going to disrupt an existing market, why spend the resources at all? I have found that not everyone can invent, but most everyone can imagine disruption if they are provided the right culture. That’s what I try to do in many of my talks – give companies the tools to create a disruptively innovative culture.
SPEAKING.COM: How can people know when the time is right for their business idea?
SURACE: Great question! My friend Bill Gross of IdeaLab fame analyzed hundreds of startups and found out that it wasn’t the best team or the most money that provided the big win – it was almost always market timing. You cannot always know if now is the time, but you can step back and say “is 2 years from now the time to disrupt this market?” Since it takes time to develop a product, introduce it, learn and repeat and finally build a brand, you are probably targeting 2 years out. Even the iPod was not really successful in its first incarnation. It took time to get the hardware right, then introduce iTunes, and finally move iTunes to Windows, and then the market exploded.
SPEAKING.COM: What steps can people take to measure the viability of their product?
SURACE: There is no substitute for market testing. An old adage is that in startups it’s the 5th business plan that gets it right. Also, be humble. Your idea is probably good but it’s not great until the market says it is, and the chance of greatness first time out is about zero. Perseverance and patience, though, always win the day.
Above that, you must be able to solve real identifiable pain points. Too many inventions are a great product looking for a problem to solve. These are never successful. The iPhone solved many pain points like really easy access to the web, email, calendar, and contacts. Uber solved many a pain point with taxi’s. Solve a real pain point that people identify with. Talk with 100 people and see if the pain point resonates strongly. That’s a good place to start.
SPEAKING.COM: What are some ideas you tinkered with, but never took to market?
SURACE: There are many, specifically some in the sleep technology area. That is an area where there is a known pain point and very little works. I also experimented with a number of construction materials, such as some wickedly good insulation, and AI-driven software dev and test systems, but I still have many good years ahead so I might get to these in the future.
SPEAKING.COM: How do you decide if it’s time to let go of your business idea and move on?
SURACE: When no one is willing to continue funding it! If you have passion and you are humble and willing to learn from the market, you will eventually get to a sellable product, maybe even a disruptive one.
SPEAKING.COM: Inc. called you a “human Swiss army knife” due to your ability to handle financing, marketing, engineering, sales, and production. How proficient does a CEO need to be in the different aspects of the company’s operations?
SURACE: The answer depends on how large your organization is. As the company grows, a good CEO will hire far better people than themselves to own these areas, but until you have say 100+ people, it’s good to have your hand on the pulse in most areas. I think great CEO’s of startups do have a solid grasp of all areas, since most startups begin with one or two people.
For me, no matter how large the company has been, I have often been “chief inventor”, even when I hand the concepts to others to execute and make it their own, but that’s a function of who I am because I am drawn to invent. Others might be drawn to finance and they would probably stay closer to that area.
SPEAKING.COM: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs that are transitioning to CEO roles?
SURACE: Are you SURE you are built for this? You will fail 90% of the time. People you trust will abandon the effort, you will spend much of your time fundraising, and you will work 100 hours a week for little money. Not everyone is meant to be a startup CEO, so be really sure you want this job.
SPEAKING.COM: You gave a fascinating talk for TEDxOrangeCoast about A.I. and the end of human labor. Expanding on that talk, could you discuss a bit the new socioeconomic paradigm that you imagine resulting from such a major change?
SURACE: I am asked to speak a lot now on automation and robotics and the end of human labor. Actually I directed some of the first work in the automated assistant category back in 1996 at General Magic where we introduced Portico to some 3M users. She could answer your phone and schedule appointments and surf the web and read you your email – arguably Siri, but more advanced. That’s when we first could see that continuing reductions in hardware costs would enable very powerful automation going forward.
I already had worked on the first smart data phone (AirCommunicator) so we could see this all eventually coming together, and we must prepare as a society for it. This is already impacting restaurant workers with taxi, Uber, and long haul truck drivers soon to follow.
Within companies, software-driven automation is creeping in quickly. If you are not automating processes your competitor is and they will undercut your costs. So everyone is already involved in the transformation from insurance claims adjusters to police. It’s not just manual labor that is being automated – it is everything.
The impact will be enormous since not everyone wants to be trained as a programmer so we need to think about a society that produces far more than we do today, but with very little human involvement. Everyone will need a basic income to meet their needs and quite possibly unique human attributes like art, music, and theater will become more a part of our lives as they did in the Renaissance. That’s certainly one possible outcome.
Another is that everyone is starving and out of work except for a few robot overlords. I prefer to think that we will come to grips with the change in work and deal with it as a society appropriately because that would be a joyful life. And we can get there if we start thinking about it now.
SPEAKING.COM: What are your thoughts about creating a “basic income system” for people who are losing their jobs due to A.I.?
SURACE: It’s not clear that in 60+ years out, a human will be able to bring anything of importance to any job as we know them today. Doctors will be easily replaced with better computer driven versions, and the same with lawyers, and the same with programmers. Our brains will be capable of < 1% of a single laptop at that point. There will not even be a need for managers since there will be no one to manage and frankly computers will do that better as well. Humans will need income, then, or else there will be no market for the goods produced. Of course there are already examples of Universal Basic Income to some extent in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Alaska. It doesn’t take care of all needs, but it gives us a glimpse of what it could look like. Looking to pop culture, Gene Roddenberry imagined this in the 1960’s in Star Trek as money had been eliminated in future Federation societies. Will humans be productive in such a system…and what would productive even mean? That remains to be seen, but I am hopeful!
SPEAKING.COM: What role do you believe the government should play in regulating A.I. technologies?
SURACE: This is a complicated issue. “Can AI turn on humans?” is the question and the answer is most certainly yes. Not yet, but we can see it coming. How would we control that from one government? We can’t. The US is not the world and even if we banded together as a world to place regulations on AI, there just needs to be one rogue scientist or coder somewhere who releases something into the wild that does not have the right safety mechanisms in place.
The concept of beings being destroyed by AI gone mad has been featured in films for 50 years, but if we are intent on making systems that can think for themselves and have access to weapons or any ability to harm, someone will make one that will. And if it knows how to make copies of itself in the physical or software world, it will. Killing all humans would seem improbable unless these things had access to a nuclear arsenal in some country, but still, they could wreak havoc on power systems or satellites or the Internet itself should we make them angry. So, treat your robot nicely in the future and we should be ok.
To bring innovation keynote speaker Kevin Surace to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com