How a nerdy kid from nowhere self-published a best-seller and got noticed by Google CEO Larry Page and The Wall Street Journal
Reading time: 12 minutes.
Last week Larry Page, the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world, and possibly one of the most powerful people on the planet, released an interview with the Financial Times endorsing my work and research on the effect of artificial intelligence and automation in the job market. That's quite remarkable, given that my school teachers told me I had no talent, that I wasn't good at writing, and that I was not even that smart. But let me take a step back.
I was born in a small village near the mountains, on the Italian Alps. There were only two schools, and not very good ones. Like many kids who like to think a lot, obsessively study things they're fascinated about, and dream big, I felt very alienated in such a small, provincial environment. There were a few bullies at school whose fathers were in jail, according to some rumors they were in for murder, some even said mafia. I never checked, I just knew I didn't want to mess with them. It was a pretty harsh environment. For someone like me who wasn't good at football, didn't like football, whose favorite bedtime reading was the CIA World Factbook and whose most beloved show was the French animated science cartoon "Once open a time... [Space, Life, etc...]," life didn't get any easier.
Beside my classmates, with whom I could never relate with but didn't particularly care, the biggest problem was the school itself. The teachers, the academic program, the tests, in my mind everything was wrong. Any interest I had was either considered irrelevant, not part of the standard curriculum and therefore not worthy of my time, or just plain weird. It shouldn't be a surprise that I looked for a way to escape.
First, I began with computers. I started with building websites, I must have been 11 or 12, but when I installed a Debian Linux on my machine I fell in love with system administration and programming. I would obsessively type on the keyboard unix commands all day long, writing scripts, hacking things apart and together, often times until late at night. It was exhilarating and incredibly satisfying. I remember once my mother came to my room to check on me at 4AM. "What are you doing up at this hour!?" she asked, "Coding stuff," I replied. I guess she was expecting me to watch porn. To this day, I still don't know if she was relieved or preoccupied that I wasn't.
If working late at night on my computer and reading books on science, technology, and economics was like drinking from the fountain of youth and wisdom, going to school felt like gulping battery acid from a rusty can. When I finished middle school, one of the teachers told my parents that I would have been better off going to work right away, because I was not smart enough to go to high school. Needless to say, we didn't follow that advice.
The turning point came at age 16. I was so depressed and frustrated by the educational system that I found myself on the brink of dropping out. Out of sheer serendipity I discovered that there was a progressive and revolutionary school (the United World College) that was accepting applications. This place had no grades, no compulsory attendance, you built your own curriculum, and you had to live alongside 200 students from 82 countries for the last two years of high school, away from home. The best part was that you could only get in through a scholarship, which was not given on the basis of your academic achievements, but rather on your general culture, attitude, ability to discuss with others, to challenge your beliefs, and to accept new ideas. This was my jam.
Fast forward 8 years. At this point I started five non-profits, political movements, international sustainability groups, did lots of street activism, graduated in Computer Science, won an international award for journalism on climate change, worked as a developer, IT manager, screenwriter and director, founded and failed two startup projects.
Whenever I started something new, there was always somebody telling me, "Why do you bother? You can't do it." There were many excuses they would bring up to justify their contempt for me — you're not an expert at this, you don't have the right connections, what you're trying to do it too big and big things never change — or one of my favorites — you're just a kid. Every time I received a rejection or I was put down by someone, it had the opposite effect on me. I felt like I had just been charged with life fuel, because if people whom I didn't really respect of cared for didn't think what I was doing was possible or even desirable, it probably meant they were wrong, and that I was in fact on the right track. Conventional thinking leads to apathy and acceptance, so that nothing ever changes, and pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since my earliest memories, my life has been all about challenging that apathy and building something new and exciting, which would make the world suck less.
After having tried many different things, I managed to get a safe job with a good salary and nice future prospects. This was during the period of the largest economic recession in recent history, particularly in Italy, where youth unemployment rate was as much as 50% — a number which persists to this day — and only a small fraction had a safe job, pretty much everyone under 30 in the country was working on temporary contracts. I should have been happy and pacified. I had a career path, safe income, everything one my age would have wanted, and yet I was feeling very frustrated and slightly depressed. Almost everyone around me told me I was extremely lucky to be in that position, that I should have stopped blabbing about changing the world and be happy with what I had.
I knew they were wrong, for two reasons. The first was that if I landed on the position, it wasn't due to luck. I worked hard, got noticed, and proved my worth to get there. Second, if the vast majority of my fellow citizens were in this awful situation, it was also because the conventional attitude was to accept in silence whatever you were lucky enough to get, think egotistically about yourself, and never go out our way to try to change things for the better.
It wasn't long before I decided to quit my job — a move that infuriated most people I knew — and started a new career. I felt that society was not taking into consideration many important things, but there was one in particular that had been largely neglected up until that point. So I decided to write a book on that very topic, something that had been under my radar and that I've researched for years: the implacable advance of technological innovation and how it will transform the world, in particular the job market. A year later I published "Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That's OK: How to Survive the Economic Collapse and Be Happy". I was attacked by many, who claimed that I wasn't an expert, that I didn't understand economics, that I wasn't good at writing, that I should just shut up and go back to whatever I was doing before, and that I was a fool to think that I could make an impact. Needless to say, I didn't listen to that 'advice'.
I started off by announcing a crowdfunding campaign on YouTube, and after five days or so I reached my funding goal. By the time the campaign was over, I exceeded the initial goal over 300%. Again, this didn't come out of luck. After doing social activism for years, I had built a reputation for myself, and a couple thousand people were following me very closely. I earned their trust through hard work, dedication, and incorruptible ideals.
One of the things that make people trust me is that I have a set of core values, which I have never betrayed. I was born in the cradle of free and open knowledge, so it made sense to me to release the book under a free license. As it turns out, these conditions weren't very popular among publishing houses. The combination of being a first-time author, with an uncompromising choice of Creative Commons license and a promise of a free release on the web, didn't go well with publishing deals. I negotiated with a few publishing houses, and the common response was pretty much the same — I wasn't good enough, I wasn't famous enough, I didn't have impressive achievements, and therefore I couldn't hope to dictate any condition. If I wanted to get published, I first had to bow down and compromise my values, and then *maybe* they would consider publishing my book. When I told them I would try self-publishing, they said, "Good luck with that, you'll never make it." Just like with my teachers, I didn't listen to this 'advice,' and instead I just went ahead and did it.
The book immediately became a best-seller on Amazon. It got translated into four languages and it wasn't long before I started getting interviewed by newspapers, magazines, and even national TVs and radios in Austria, Brazil, Italy, Norway, and the US, just to name a few countries. My keynote speech at Vienna became one of the most popular TEDxTalks of all time, it got mirrored, translated, and even dubbed in many languages, all through uncoordinated, emergent grassroots action. Around the same time, there came a scholarship from Singularity University (SU), and so in 2012 I spent a summer at the NASA Ames Research Park, where I had possibly the most amazing three months of my life. SU is a place founded by visionaries Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis — who became a dear friend — and the goal of the university is educating and inspiring young leaders to positively impact billions of people in less than a decade. After Singularity I started touring around the world, speaking at universities and consulting with Fortune 500 companies in some 20 countries.
One of the predictions that I made in the book was that the pace of technological innovation was too rapid compared to our ability to adapt our socio-economic system, that unlike what happened in the past, this time we would experience systemic technological unemployment, and that as much as 45% of all jobs were at risk of automation within 20 years. This prediction I made years ago had been ridiculed, and often time ignored altogether. Yet, a couple of years later, researchers at the Oxford Martin School published a paper where they claimed that within 20 years, as much as 45% of all jobs in the US were at risk of automation. A few months later, another study analyzed the effects of automation in the near future in Europe, with similar results. On January 2013, a few months after publishing my book, Wired magazine published a cover story titled, "Robots take over! They're coming for Your Job, and You'll Be Glad They Did!" featuring Jimmy Fallon in a black suit, with a black tie and shiny robotic right hand, eerily familiar.
On September 2014, I was asked to do an AMA (Ask me anything) on reddit.com. It quickly rose to the front page of the site, and to this days remains one of the most popular AMAs on Futurology, a subreddit with over 1.5 million users who submitted hundreds of enthusiastic and inspired questions.
One day I was watching an interview by the Wall Street Journal where Peter Diamandis was talking with Robert Reich, a political economist who served for three US presidents, and when asked what should we do on the issue of jobs displaced by technology, Peter said that a good friend of his had written a book, which he loved, and that he recommended reading it, because it looked at a bold vision of the future.
Another great surprise came when C.G.P. Grey, one of my favorite YouTubers, released a short internet documentary film, Humans Need Not Apply, which focused on the future of the integration of automation into economics, as well as the worldwide workforce. The film was covered by several publications, including Business Insider, Huffington Post, and Forbes, has its own Wikipedia page, and more than 3 million views. Grey credited my book as one of the primary sources for his research.
Even more surprising, last month I received an email from one of the top managers at Google. When I saw it, I immediately checked the headers to make sure it wasn't a scam. It was indeed legitimate. He informed me that a few times a year a book catches the attention of their CEO Larry Page, that he was my talking about my "Robots" book, but then noticed that it wasn't available on Google Play. He immediately asked him to find a way to get me on the Play Store, and so for a few hours I was personally assisted through the whole process by on the heads of Google under direct request of the CEO. As if this wasn't surreal enough, he then gave me Larry's personal home address, saying that he would have loved a signed copy. I was happy to oblige. A few weeks later, I noticed on my news feed an article, citing an interview on the Financials Times, titled "Google CEO: Robots Will Take Our Jobs and It's OK." I almost fell off my chair.
At this point some of you might be expecting one of those self-help lists along the lines of "10 steps to write a best-seller," or "the key to success," or even "how to become a millionaire in two months," or something just as ridiculous. You won't find such nonsense in here. But if you pay attention, you'll find a common leitmotif, and that is perseverance.
Whenever someone tells you that you can't do it, what the probably mean to say is that *they* can't do it. There are of course things that are objectively impossible for someone, and I'm not saying that you can achieve anything you put your mind to. If you have a heart condition, or you lack the mutation for the sprint gene, it's very unlikely that you'll win the 100-meter track at the Olympics. But if love something and want to get really good at it, go ahead and just do it. If you're passionate about it, and you persist, you can get damn good at it, don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
Next time somebody tells you that you come from nowhere, take it as a compliment. It means that everything you will achieve in life, it will be because you deserved it, not because of your status or your family.
If you think you can't achieve great things, and that nothing will change, then you're probably right. That kind of mindset will become your self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you can change the entire world and all you have to do is work hard, you're probably delusional. What I think is a healthy attitude, is to live by two core values, do what you love and strive to make something better. Don't set your goals as places to 'arrive at,' but rather understand that the only thing that matters and that you can always achieve is to improve and to have fun doing it. That is a goal that you can achieve every day, and every hour of your life.
What if everybody received every month enough money to live by? Will society collapse? Will we all become slackers? Myths and facts about Unconditional Basic Income, with analysis from a real world experiment conducted in India between 2011-2013. Keynote speech at the Future of Work Summit, NASA Ames Research Park, California, June 30, 2014.
I've yet to fully grasp the significance of what took place last night. I understand rationally what happened. I can recall quite clearly the events that came about. I can remember the details, each moment, but I don't think I have fully internalized the implications of it all.
Let me take a step back and describe it to you, perhaps writing it down will help me get a more gut feeling of the situation.
It's New York City, Harlem district, circa 3AM. I'm waiting for the metro train downtown, when I discover it's closed down due to construction, and I miss the shuttle bus. Bummer. I wait for the next shuttle, casually listening to the latest Freakonomics podcast. Then I suddenly see some lights at a distance. I quickly realize it's not normal, and I get closer. It's a fire.
On that moment a few thoughts run through my head. It is a very unusual feeling agnizing that you are about the break your routine and that a major event of your life is about to unfold. For a moment I think it isn't anything of particular significance. A couple of minutes before I heard a few teenage girls screaming and making noises, only to disappear and leave me alone on the empty streets of Harlem, in the middle of night, while thousands of unaware souls are being lulled to sleep in the arms of Morpheus.
The moment I approached and realized it was a fire.
Without indulging into my own train of thoughts, I grab my phone and dial 911. I give a detailed description of what I am seeing, give my coordinates and personal information. It's only after the phone call ends that a stream of thoughts begins to invade my head. Here I am, a young, foreign, white guy at the heart of the infamous Harlem neighborhood, in the middle of the night, calling the police. As I am constantly reminded by the locals here, the only white males in Harlem at that time of the night are either drug dealers, or dangerous criminals (or both). What if they think I started the fire? What if they ask what was I doing here? What if they don't believe me? What if they throw me in jail accusing me of a crime I didn't commit? What if.... All these thoughts and a lot more go through my head in a split second, only to be replaced by the more important thought of trying to help whoever is in the building.
I call the people I knew who lived there, and I instruct them to wake up, warn as many people as possible, get outside, and wait for the firefighters to arrive.
As I frantically type messages down on my phone and make calls, I see the flames increasing, moving up into the air, coming dangerously close to the copious trees that surround the building. It's in this moment that I understand things can get ugly very quickly: if the trees catch fire, the fire and most importantly the smoke (most deaths are due to carbon monoxide inhalation, not the fire itself) will spread into the building. Hundreds might die. I can't tell. All I know is that I'm glad I made that call right away, and now it's a race against time.
The fire rising, getting dangerously close to the tree branches.
About three minutes later, the firefighters arrive, and begin to extinguish the fire. A cloud of thick smoke rises and engulfs the entire block. A exhale deeply, in relief.
About an hour later the fire was completely extinguished, and nobody was hurt. Most people were completely unaware of the disaster that didn't happen, and simply woke up the next morning, knowing nothing of what happened, or what could have happened.
By the time they arrived, the fire was over two stories high.
Quick video while I was on the shuttle bus, stuck in front of the closed street as the firefighters begin to extinguish the fire. Apologies for the colorful language.
The cloud of smoke rises, as the fire is being extinguished.
I was called back by the police, checking on the situation and confirming that it was under control. I was not questioned nor accused of anything.
I take home a few lessons from this experience. First, you never know when a major event of you life is about to happen, and most likely you will not recognize it as such, until much later on, probably days, weeks, or in some cases even years. Second, I was happy to observe that my instinct of helping others overcame the logic of self-preservation, which kicked in later on. And last, the amount of effort one has to make to potentially save hundreds of people can be very small, compared to the work real heroes have to do every day on duty. The police, the firefighters, they all acted beautifully coordinated and incredibly efficiently, in a moment where a difference of a few minutes can literally represent the different between an interesting anecdote on a blog, and tragic accident on the next day newspaper. They are the unsung heroes, I was merely a spectator who did the minimum effort and performed his duty as he was supposed to. Sure, I had to spend a few hours there and came back home as the sun was rising. The next day I had to attend a conference, and I didn't get much sleep. A minor inconvenience.
Compare that with the potential catastrophe that could have unfolded, had I looked the other way and simply went home.
If that is the price to pay to make a tangible difference in people's life, it's something I think we can all afford to do. We just have to keep our eyes and our hearts more open.
How Should Humanity Steer the Future? Social Evolution Through Massively Decentralised Distributed Resilient Networks
I entered a Scientific American contest with an essay titled "Social Evolution Through Massively Decentralised Distributed Resilient Networks" on How Should Humanity Steer the Future. Help me win by reading and rating the essay here :D http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/2074
Direct link to the PDF file: http://fqxi.org/data/essay-contest-files/Pistono_steer-humanity-futu.pdf
Book Project: http://opensourcesociety.net/
Essay Contest Guidelines: http://fqxi.org/community/essay\
Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7HenehoarY
I'll be presenting Esplori at SWSXedu Conference & Festival 2014, held in Austin - Texas from March 3rd to 6th. The conference is today one of the leading education oriented events in the country. It seeks to drive meaningful conversation and collaboration around the most promising practices to improve teaching and learning by bringing about a forward-learning community of education innovators, all committed to creating a brighter tomorrow.
The Conference introduces thought-provoking featured and keynote speakers - from recognized scholars to CEOs and members of innovative education organizations - that will attempt to shed light on today’s leading topics in education. Also, the conference is enriched by a diverse combination of additional sessions and workshops which follow the same pattern of speakers and topics.
I will be participating on an one hour Core Conversation session on the topic Survival in the New Knowledge Economy with professional musician David Brake - founder of the online education organizations Teacher 2 Go LLC and LRNGO.com. Here's the summary of our discussion:
What effect do the economic and technological changes taking place today have on adult education inside and outside of the classroom? Are the goals the same, or have the rules changed? Are we addressing these changes holistically, or ignoring them hoping they’ll go away? Let’s take a step back, and have a conversation about the challenges and opportunities these changes present.
Thursday, March 6
10:30AM - 11:30AM
Hilton Austin Downtown Salon A
500 East 4th Street
See more at: http://schedule.sxswedu.com/events/event_EDUP23324