In Conversation With Marcus Shingles, CEO, XPRIZE

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Sangeeta Waldron interviewed Marcus Shingles, CEO of the XPRIZE Foundation at the Web Summit – the largest tech conference in the world. The XPRIZE is a not-for-profit global leader in designing and implementing innovative competition models to solve the world’s grandest challenges. 

Sangeeta Waldron (SW): What do you think is the biggest challenge for the world right now?

Marcus Shingles (MS): Through my lens right now and what we work on at the XPRIZE is the convergence of new technologies that can be harnessed in ways that can be really effective, promising ways that we have not seen before to solve the world’s problems; or that can be adapted by nefarious actors to create some of the biggest problems that we have not had before. 

Previously, technology was only in the hands of big governments and industry, but now it’s in the hands of individuals; so there is this convergence. We need to see how we ensure that this technology is only used for good…perhaps we need a new type of moral leadership.  

SW: Elon Musk is of the view that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to destroy humanity. Does the XPRIZE share the same view?

MS: Elon Musk is part of our network and supports some of our prizes. AI is such a powerful tool with huge capabilities, where you can do some real significant damage or some good. It is a progressive and contemporary means for solving big problems facing the world today. The exponential change in computing power is fueling more sophisticated AI and transforming the landscape of business, culture, politics.

I don’t think you can regulate AI and it will definitely become a part of human intelligence. Once it gets to that stage it compounds itself in a much faster rate than what we are used to.

I think the biggest challenge for society, is that it is bad at adapting to change; that’s our biggest risk. It takes generations to adapt to change. Technological unemployment is something we have always faced as a society, but not at the pace we will face now. 

SW: Do you think enough is happening in schools globally to prepare children with the skills needed for this brave new world?

MS: Of course not. On a personal level, I have two kids and I have had to take my daughter out of college to re-tool her three times to make her productive and employable. I was able to do that for her but it’s not like that in the rest of the world or for others.

With the XPRIZE we are currently working on the global learning prize with the government of Tanzania, as here the children are not getting any education, let alone a progressive one. There is no access to schools and neither will any schools be built in the next decade or two.

No one is trying to build software to teach these kids in Swahili because there is no market for it. There’s no solution here as far as the educational footprint goes. That’s when we decided to create the ‘Global Learning XPRIZE’, of $15 million. Elon Musk has put the money up for this initiative. 

We identified 4,000 illiterate children across 200 villages, where the XPRIZE has culturally assimilated itself into the role working with the World Food Programme and UNESCO. We approached the village elders and the ‘village mamas’ and will now be educating the children in Swahili and English. 

We have designed a prize to equip very remote villages in Tanzania with electrical power, along with tablets that Google has donated. 

We will also be looking later on to see what happens to the girls who will empowered in these villages through education and what will be the anthological impact. This is how we create change. 

SW: What has been the most mind-blowing XPRIZE solution that you have seen since becoming CEO?

MS: I think a mind-blowing XPRIZE solution based on the impact we make, is what we have designed around the concept of democracy, which we call the ‘Will of the People’; we are not sure if we will launch it yet, but this is based on the notion to completely reinvent the way that democracy uses technology for voting and filtering fake news. It uses AI as a ‘political scientist agent’ that helps us as citizens to absorb information; enabling us to make an informed choice based on our demographic and constituency. 

This is an interesting space for us at XPRIZE and part of our ‘Civil Society Doman’ and I like that…my father was a political scientist and using technology as an idea for democracy – for the will of the people that betters humanity is exciting and timely. 

SW: You started your career in the corporate world (Kellogg, Deloitte) and now you’re in the not-for-profit sector with the XPRIZE. Has it been a big transition? 

MS: Both the business world and the not-for-profit space need to be innovating well to problem solve and both need better training to be good at it. The difference is at the XPRIZE we are thinking of impact as opposed to the profit motive. 

Some of the world’s biggest contemporary and progressive thinkers in the world and business leaders sit on our board or are trustees, so we are applying this wealth of knowledge to our models. Our way to problem solve is not to compete but to crowd source and to scale impact – that’s our strategy.

My own transition has been adapting to the leadership style within a not-for-profit, but I have a good team around me, coaching and helping me do that.  

SW: What’s the best bit of business advice you have received? 

MS: Understanding how to innovate within your organization and is something that I have focused a lot on for the last six years, including the time I was at Deloitte. I have seen it first- hand within many organisations – the struggle to become more pioneering and being able to adopt new technologies for innovation as a strategy for business. This is whether you a corporate or not-for-profit. 

To innovate from within your organisation is difficult, as the core of an organisation smothers innovation and doesn’t let you disrupt your organisation. So you need to create innovation from outside the organisation - from what is called the ‘edges.’ 

John Hagel a former colleague of mine at Deloitte has perfected this theory; he calls it ‘scaling edges,’ while Salim Ismail another good friend of mine sets this out in his best-selling book, Exponential Organisations. 

Photo Credit: XPRIZE