Nov 16, 2023

David Shrier: The Futurist Shaping Tomorrow's Technology, Today

Navigating the crossroads of technology and ethics with a futurist's vision.

David Shrier: The Futurist Shaping Tomorrow's Technology, Today

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From pioneering ventures in artificial intelligence to advising on global financial technologies, David Shrier’s path is a narrative that gets at the heart of what it means to drive progress in a constantly changing digital landscape. From global engineering with MIT to leading a New York Stock Exchange-listed company, David's not just predicting the future — he's busy building it. A futurist, entrepreneur, and academic, David challenges our understanding of what it means to innovate in an age where the line between the digital and the tangible increasingly blurs, inviting readers to question not just the 'how' of technology, but, more importantly, the 'why'.

David's curiosity about the future was kindled in his youth, nurtured by a voracious appetite for science fiction. This early fascination blossomed into a career devoted to leveraging technology for large-scale problem-solving. His focus? AI — a technology he believes is “both humanity’s greatest existential threat, and also our opportunity to create a better future.” To navigate these treacherous waters, David has marshaled a network of over 3,000 AI researchers from top universities worldwide.

"I’ve enlisted a network of over 3000 AI researchers across multiple top universities to help tackle this challenge, which I believe is both humanities greatest existential threat, and also our opportunity to create a better future."

But his vision extends beyond the digital horizon. David is also involved in what he calls "global engineering" with MIT Professor Amos Winter. This initiative aims to shatter the price-performance curve, delivering innovative solutions to both developing and developed worlds. It's a testament to David's belief in technology as an equalizer, a tool to bridge gaps rather than widen them.

The title "futurist" was a deliberate choice for David, distinguishing him from futurologists who study tomorrow—rather than build it. A futurist, according to David, actively shapes the future. This title was not a hasty decision; it emerged from a career that can only be described as eclectic and expansive, from venture capital and corporate venturing in the late 1990s to driving over $10 billion in strategic growth initiatives for global enterprises.

David's hands-on experience in the business world grounds his futuristic aspirations in reality. He's not just a consultant; he's been in the trenches, leading private enterprises and taking a company public on the New York Stock Exchange — a feat he accomplished amidst the tumult of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This practical experience, coupled with his academic and technological pursuits, gives him a unique credibility. People value this blend of visionary thinking and real-world pragmatism: “CEOs I work with seem to appreciate that I’ve had to make payroll and deal with all the challenges of building something from zero to scale.”

In 1999, David embarked on a path that would see him advising startups and eventually leading him to found Visionary Future, a crystallization of his vision for the future of business, technology, and sustainable growth.

Visionary Future stands on two pillars of business. The first, Visionary Future Advisors, caters to corporations with valuations over $1 billion, providing strategic and operational bandwidth often lacking in overwhelmed management teams. This division specializes in crafting new initiatives and developing minimum viable products (MVPs), with a keen focus on digital transformation areas like artificial intelligence, blockchain, and sustainability technologies. What sets them apart, according to David, is their access to a network of top-tier experts.

The second pillar is the startup portfolio, approached with a dual strategy. On one side, there are passive investments, primarily in the pre-seed to Series A stages, concentrated on artificial intelligence, new financial architectures, and technologies aimed at addressing planetary crises. On the other side, Visionary Future exercises its 'foundry capability', actively building companies in the AI domain. These ventures are at the cutting edge—as David puts it: 

"We are presently putting together three companies in the domain of artificial intelligence. One of them is pioneering computational chemistry, one of them is delving into automating professional services, and one of them is engaged in human+AI financial predictions.”

When evaluating new investment opportunities, David and his team adhere to a set of criteria that mirrors his entrepreneurial philosophy. They look for ventures in large, growing markets, with a unique blend of technology and team strengths. Acceleration towards product-market fit and market entry is crucial, ideally underpinned by early revenue generation or customer relationships. But it's not just about the potential of the business itself; it's also about the difference Visionary Future can make. They seek opportunities where their team and network can provide a distinct advantage in business growth. Lastly, insight into the technology and market opportunity, derived from their extensive experience and network, is a key factor in their decision-making process.

In essence, David's approach to investments is reflective of his broader vision: identifying and nurturing ventures that are not only commercially viable but also at the forefront of technological innovation and sustainability.

David also shares invaluable insights into the challenges and opportunities of bringing new technologies to market. His perspective, honed by years of experience in the field, offers a roadmap for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those navigating the intricate path from cutting-edge academic research to successful business ventures.

David identifies a common pitfall for many innovators: the allure of technology itself, often disconnected from real-world applications. He emphasizes the importance of being "laser-focused on solving a problem for a customer." Understanding the market and the specific needs of potential buyers is crucial. It's not just about the technology; it's about how that technology addresses a tangible problem.

Another significant hurdle he highlights is the "inefficiency of the funding market." David points out the trend-chasing nature of venture capital, which can lead to an imbalance in funding opportunities. Startups that align with current trends might receive inflated valuations, while others struggle to attract attention. This disparity is particularly pronounced in the UK and Europe, where there is a notable funding gap for businesses seeking to raise between 10 and 20 million pounds or euros.

Moreover, David stresses the importance of storytelling in fundraising. Captivating narratives that engage investors are key to securing funding.

“Raising money is all about capturing the imagination with narrative. It doesn’t matter how good your technology is, you might even have a set of customers, but if you can’t tell a compelling story that investors want to become a character in, you will not be able to raise money.”

For those looking for a starting point, he suggests resources like "Sequoia pitch deck" as a template to guide entrepreneurs.

For entrepreneurs emerging from academic settings, David offers specific advice. Understanding the nuances of intellectual property associated with one's technology is crucial, whether it's open-source or patented. He points to resources available at universities, such as Imperial College London's Imperial Enterprise, which provides support, including seed venture capital, for commercializing technologies. Universities also serve as fertile ground for finding co-founders and building balanced teams, essential for any successful startup.

David Shrier's insights into the future of AI and the evolving digital landscape reflect a deep understanding of both the potential and the challenges that lie ahead. His work at the Trusted AI Institute underscores his commitment to developing AI that is safe, fair, and beneficial for humanity.

In discussing the core components of trustworthy AI, David highlights three critical areas: AI Systems Assurance, Workforce of the Future, and AI for Humanity. He stresses the importance of AI safety, algorithmic fairness, and security. His vision extends beyond the technical aspects, delving into the societal impact of AI, particularly in relation to job disruption and the integration of AI in human systems. David's focus on leveraging AI to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals encapsulates his belief in technology as a force for global good.

Regarding the metaverse, David provides a startling glimpse into its burgeoning growth: “Most people aren’t aware of the fact that the metaverse, today, is over 500 million people and more than $60 billion of annual turnover.” David anticipates its expansion into corporate applications. Training, design, and collaboration, facilitated by augmented reality, are areas he expects to see significant development. This evolution of the metaverse presents new opportunities and challenges for businesses, demanding adaptability and innovative thinking.

In advising regulators on emerging technologies like blockchain and AI, David underscores the necessity for regulators to build their understanding of these technologies. This knowledge is crucial for creating regulations that balance risk and innovation. He advocates for a risk-based approach, as seen in the EU AI Act, and draws parallels with the regulatory stance on e-commerce in the late 1990s. His approach favors regulations that protect consumers and manage risks while fostering innovation, a philosophy elaborated in his book "Global Fintech."

David's perspectives and initiatives in AI and digital transformation are marked by a blend of caution and optimism. He recognizes the transformative power of these technologies but also understands the need for ethical frameworks and informed regulation to ensure their benefits are maximized while mitigating potential harms.

David candidly acknowledges the obstacles he's faced, particularly the resistance to new ideas in the business world. The inertia of comfortable, old ideas often poses a significant barrier to innovation. He sees a critical part of an entrepreneur's role as shifting mindsets, a task that is as challenging as it is crucial. This process of changing perspectives can be a race against time and resources, with the outcome often hanging in the balance:

“People tend to be very afraid of new ideas and try and find a number of ways to undermine them so they can hold onto their comfortable old ideas. A big part of the job as an entrepreneur is shifting mindset.”

In mentoring the next generation, David emphasizes a systems thinking approach and the concept of Responsible Innovation. He advocates for a perspective that goes beyond the mere adoption of technology for its own sake. Equity, access, and fairness are at the core of his philosophy. This approach is reflected in his investment portfolio: “When I look at my investment portfolio, more than 90% of it is looking to do well by doing good.”

Projects like The Emissions Capture Company and METHA.AI are prime examples, where cutting-edge technology like AI and big data analytics are leveraged to address environmental challenges while also enhancing profitability.

David is particularly excited about the democratization of artificial intelligence. He views this trend as a pivotal moment in technology, shifting the power of AI from a "privileged techno elite" to a broader base of users. This shift, according to David, unlocks enormous potential. It enables those with intimate knowledge of specific problems to directly contribute to shaping solutions, thereby fostering a more inclusive and innovative technological landscape.

In charting the course of David Shrier's journey, one can't help but notice a thread that weaves through his narrative: the marriage of innovation with responsibility. David's career is an example of transformative ideas when guided by a moral compass. As we stand at the precipice of a new era in technology, where artificial intelligence and digital realities are rapidly reshaping our world, David's story urges us to ponder a profound question: How can we, as a society, ensure that our technological advancements not only propel us forward but do so in a way that uplifts and safeguards humanity? His journey challenges us to envision a future where innovation serves as a catalyst for global betterment, compelling us to contemplate the true purpose of progress in the 21st century.

Images courtesy of: David Shrier

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