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ATU528 – The Five Forces with Captain Hoff

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Special Guest:
Steve Hoffman (Captain Hoff) – CEO and Founder of Founders Space

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—– transcript starts here —-

 

Steve Hoffman:
Hello. My name is Steve Hoffman and I am the captain and CEO of Founders Space, a global startup incubator and accelerator. Welcome to this episode of Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:
Hello, and welcome your Assistive Technology Update, our weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 529 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on July 9th, 2021. On today’s show, we’re super excited to have Steve Hoffman from Founders Space on to talk about his book, The Five Forces, and how these future technologies cannot just change the world, but what they mean for individuals with disabilities. Please, don’t forget, we always love to hear from you, so you can always reach out to us via email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org, or call our listener line at (317) 721-7124 or drop us a line on Twitter @INDATAproject. I can’t wait for you to hear this great conversation. So, let’s go ahead and get on with the show.

Josh Anderson:
Do you feel like you don’t have the time to sit down and listen to a full podcast? Well, we have just the thing for you. Check out our sister show, Accessibility Minute. This is a one-minute podcast that talks about some of the cool things in Assistive Technology that gives you just a little taste of it, so that you can go out and do some research and check them out on your own. Check out Accessibility Minute, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Josh Anderson:
Folks, today on the show, I’m very excited to have Steve Hoffman or Captain Hoff as he is affectionately known. He’s the founder and CEO of Founders Space, but we have him on here to discuss his new book, The Five Forces That Change Everything: How Technology is Shaping Our World. He’s been generous enough to come on the show today to talk all about the book, emerging technologies, and what they can mean for individuals with disabilities. Captain, welcome to the show.

Steve Hoffman:
It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, I’m so excited to have you on. I’ve really wanted to kind of get into this conversation. It’s something that comes up a whole lot kind of as you talk about assistive technology. So, it’s great that there’s a book coming out about it and that we can really kind of relate to the things that we look at every day, but could you start off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Steve Hoffman:
I have been in the startup space for quite a while. I started off as an entrepreneur. I did three venture-funded startups, two bootstrap startups, and then I became an investor and I started an incubator and accelerator to help entrepreneurs all over the globe launch their companies. And it has been an amazing experience because I work with entrepreneurs doing all sorts of things, developing new technologies so people who are vision-impaired can read. One of the startups from Korea was developing this new braille reader technology sort of like an iPad, but for reading braille, a very sophisticated. And people all over the world now are thinking about how do we apply these new technologies to helping people who are disabled. And that to me, is a very worthy investment for venture capital.

Josh Anderson:
And I could not agree, I’m sure our listeners probably could not agree more. And Captain, you brought us right into a kind of talking a little bit about Founders Space. What is Founders Space?

Steve Hoffman:
The Founders Space’s mission is to go in there with entrepreneurs at a very early stage and help them with their businesses. So, most entrepreneurs, they face obstacles. There’s always something keeping them from getting to the next level. Sometimes it’s just raising capital. They don’t know investors, they don’t know how to pitch investors. So, we’ll step in there, help train them how to speak to investors in a way that will get investors to understand the potential of their business, and to feel comfortable investing, and then make those introductions. Other entrepreneurs have problems with their product, either they’re having trouble getting their product in front of customers, or understanding what the customers really need from their product, or maybe they’re having trouble launching their product, actually getting it out, marketing, pushing it, scaling that business. All of those things are what Founders Space helps entrepreneurs with.

Josh Anderson:
And we even talked to a lot of folks on this show that maybe just have a very small company and it’s a need, it’s something they’re trying to get out there, but like you said, there’s so many obstacles in the way, so that’s great there’s a place for them to go get help with all those.

Steve Hoffman:
There is. And I also have taken all this knowledge because I’ve been doing this for decades with my own companies first, and now with hundreds of entrepreneurs around the world. And I’ve taken that knowledge and I put it into my books. My first book, Make Elephants Fly, it’s all about how entrepreneurs innovate. The elephant is your big idea that you think you can never get off the ground. Well, how do you make it fly? And then my book that was just released by Harper Collins, Surviving A Startup, really teaches entrepreneurs everything they need to know to get over those obstacles, all those little things that they can do to up their chances of survival. Honestly, 90% of new startups fail. So, the odds are against you and you have to beat those odds.

Steve Hoffman:
And then the book that will be coming out very soon, actually in August, it’s going to hit the bookshelves, it’s already on pre-order on Amazon, The Five Forces, which tells entrepreneurs and really everybody out there about the technologies that are coming and how these technologies will change their lives. And in the book, I go into all the applications for these technologies, for business, for your personal life or entertainment, but also assistive technologies. It’s like, how will these technologies be used to really transform how we, and especially people with disabilities overcome those disabilities, and that is what I’m here to talk about today.

Josh Anderson:
And I’m very excited. You did a great segue there. I swear you’ve done this before. And Captain, as you kind of talk about those five forces, can you start off by just telling us what are those five forces that you’re talking about?

Steve Hoffman:
So, there are a number of forces out there that are really going to have an oversight impact on our lives and on society.

Josh Anderson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Hoffman:
The one I start the book with is mass connectivity. And by mass connectivity, I mean, right now we’re all being connected with each other through the internet, right? This has revolutionized everything. What comes after the internet? And I will tell you, it’s when we aren’t just typing on smartphones or laptops to connect to the internet, but literally, the internet is being implanted inside our body. So, it’s being implanted inside our body, in devices and sensors that measure our heart rate, measure different processes in our body, and actually chips and devices that can read our brainwaves.

Steve Hoffman:
Imagine a world where you have a brain-computer interface that is either implanted in like a chip into your brain, or you can wear in a non-invasive fashion on your head that can actually begin to communicate directly with your brain. So, you don’t need a laptop. You don’t need a smartphone. You just, by thinking, you can control everything around, you can turn off and on the lights, you could potentially drive a car. You can order pizza from the local pizzeria. You can do all these things in addition to downloading knowledge, and then the applications for that in terms of assistive technology are really mind-blowing.

Josh Anderson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Hoffman:
So, that’s just the first force. You get to the next level, and you’re talking about artificial intelligence. What will artificial intelligence do? What can it do today in deep automating, automating all of these different aspects of our life that currently, human beings are doing? And what impact will that have on us personally and society in general? There’s also space technology. We are now, with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos pouring billions into this, going further in space than we ever dreamed in our lifetime, potentially even colonizing Mars. Where will this take humankind?

Steve Hoffman:
And there’s also new materials, nanotechnology. These materials that we’re developing like graphene and others that you haven’t even heard of, will have profound effects, and working at the nanoscale, you can also build tiny machines which we may be injecting little machines that you can’t even see with your naked eye into our body to eradicate cancers, to clear arteries, to even potentially keep it so that you never have to brush your teeth again because you have little nanorobots cleaning your teeth. So, these changes are coming. They are in the pipeline and they are going to radically alter our society.

Steve Hoffman:
And finally, there is genetic editing. We have literally unraveled the source code to life. And now we can, just as we code computers, we can start to construct new living organisms, plants, and animals on earth. We can invent them, entirely new ones, or modify the ones that exist today. So, you could be getting gene therapy that can literally make you live longer potentially, that can cure diseases like Alzheimer’s disease potentially, Parkinson’s disease, that can eradicate different types of cancer. Our bodies, we’re going to be programming our bodies, even from birth, making designer babies. So, all of this is in the book.

Josh Anderson:
Wow. Well, that’s a whole lot to think about there real quick. So, as we kind of dig into those new and emerging technologies and the amazing things coming down, where do you think they’ll fit into the disability and assistive technology space?

Steve Hoffman:
There are so many different applications. And also because disabilities are so broad, everybody from autism to somebody who’s had a spinal injury, to somebody who’s blind or partially vision-impaired, there are so many, but let me just tell you a few of the things that really excite me. So, one of my friends is David Eagleman. He’s a neuroscientist, and he has a company called Neosensory. And they are helping people with… Right now, they’re getting ready to launch this product that is helping people with hearing, like people who have hearing disabilities, but they’re hearing impaired. They might not be completely deaf, they might be able to hear, but it’s difficult. It could be age-related, it could be accident, or that’s the way they were born.

Steve Hoffman:
However, he has perfected the idea and the concept and built a device that does sensory substitution. And what do I mean by that? Like, what it does is it essentially allows you to hear through the nerves in your skin, by wearing a simple bracelet, you can actually get vibrations, audio vibrations translated into the nerves on your skin and your brain being extremely malleable can actually begin to decode these almost on a subconscious level. You will start to hear just through this bracelet. It works like magic.

Josh Anderson:
That’s amazing. And it takes me back to when I used to be a job coach, I had some different consumers who were actually deaf, had no usable hearing, and I saw them at a concert one time. And I couldn’t… I was like, “Well, why would they?” But then I realized, you can feel the music at a concert, it’s loud enough that you can actually feel it. So, they were having most of the same experience. So, I can see where that kind of comes from that same idea, but that’s amazing. What are some of the other ones?

Steve Hoffman:
So, there are many out there, and some of them are just amazing. So, they’re building robots now for autistic children that actually… Autistic children have trouble relating to other people. They have to kind of learn these skills, and it’s much harder for them to overcome these barriers. However, these robots will be programmed to actually understand their needs, and interact with them in a way that makes them feel comfortable. So, keeping them calm, communicating different things. The robots are specially designed so that when an autistic person may say something or do something that either disturbs another child, let’s say, or even feels threatening or frightening to other kids, because they don’t understand what’s going on, for the robot, it’s just normal. They will understand, and they will be able to help that autistic child learn the skills necessary to become more functional in the world. So, these robots are getting smarter and smarter. They’re developing them, they’re deploying them in schools. They are great assistive technology.

Josh Anderson:
Nice. And I know there’s a lot of cool things being done with AI as well. What are some of the really cool things being done with AI to help individuals with disabilities?

Steve Hoffman:
So, AI is really broad. So, AI is going into all sorts of different things. It’s going into the robots for kids, but it’s also… AI is out there. And one really interesting combination of AI and brain-computer interfaces is that artificial intelligence is being used to actually decode the brainwaves. So, we have a lot going on in our heads, but it’s very hard to interpret what that means in the real world. One is you might get all these brainwaves through a device like an EEG device, which can actually measure changes in your brainwaves through the voltage. But what do they mean? What is the person trying to communicate? Well, using AI, you can remove a lot of the noise, the brainwaves that don’t matter and focus in… And AI, machine learning is really good at pattern matching. That’s what it’s excellent at.

Steve Hoffman:
And that’s what you need when you are decoding brainwaves. Because let me tell you, they are building devices right now for people who have extreme disabilities. For example, there are people out there with locked-in syndrome, meaning they are completely paralyzed, like entirely. Maybe the only thing they can move is blink their eyes.

Josh Anderson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Hoffman:
So, you could imagine your life when you are that disabled, you almost don’t have a life, like you can’t feed yourself, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t do anything. However, by inserting a chip in their brain and decoding those signals, they actually, these people can now control a robotic arm. And they have this at Brown University, it’s working at Brown and other universities, and actually feed themselves. They can actually start to control an iPad or iPhone and send a text message to other people. So, these things that were just totally impossible before are now possible, and this technology is only at the beginning stage.

Steve Hoffman:
Another area for this, BCI and AI combined is people who have lost an arm or a leg. They are making prosthetics now that are extremely advanced. That just by thinking, you can actually control the prosthetic arm, and you can actually… Because of sensors that are embedded in the fingertips of this artificial arm, you can actually start to feel like what the real world feels like. Through that arm, it almost becomes your arm, even though it’s a mechanical arm, but because you can start to receive sensory input through it, you can actually start to feel it, manipulate it. It’s life-changing experience for these people, and they’re getting these right now, the very first generation, they’re still like version 1.0, but you can imagine a decade from now, they are going to be so sophisticated because even today, they can put that prosthetic arm on you, the more advanced ones, actually connect it to the nerves in your body so that as your brain sends signals down those nerves, it just starts to function. It’s like when I was a child and watched the Six Million Dollar Man, the Bionic Man-

Josh Anderson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Hoffman:
… all of that is coming true. We have now bionic eyes, cochlear implants for hearing, all this technology is coming out now so that people who totally… The Six Million Dollar Man is possible in today’s world, it actually is possible.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah. Let’s just hope it’s a little bit less expensive, but-

Steve Hoffman:
Yes [crosstalk 00:16:54]. Most of us can afford it.

Josh Anderson:
Most of us will be able to afford that, let’s hope they get a little bit less expensive. Well, and so we talked about the good things and everything, I’m sure you probably get into this book, but talking about what we grew up watching, I grew up watching Terminator and The Matrix and other movies like that where man does create these amazing things. And eventually, it leads to our demise. Do you kind of touch on that in the book at all?

Steve Hoffman:
I go very deep on that. So, all of these technologies are wonderful, especially for people with disabilities. They can be life-changing, whether it’s even like simple technologies with AI that we’re looking at today, like Google Voice or Siri, the difference they can make in your life is astounding, and these are just the beginning. I just want to talk about the positive and then I’ll jump right into the negative.

Josh Anderson:
That sounds good.

Steve Hoffman:
But there are literally so many great technologies coming down the pipeline that people, no matter how severely disabled you are, you could imagine a future where you can actually have your brain connected to these devices and literally inhabit a robot. So, this seems like science fiction, but technology is in place today to make this happen. So, think of the prosthetic arm, where you can feel through the fingers of this arm and then your body, like all the limbs of your body, they are mapped into your brain. They’re actually mapped into your brain. So, that’s why you feel this phantom ghost pain when you lose an arm because that arm and the hand are still mapped into your brain.

Steve Hoffman:
But when you plug in a prosthetic arm, it rewrites over that mapping, so you stop feeling that pain. But the idea is, and they’ve done these experiments with people and with rats and other things is that literally if your brain is connected to a robot through the internet, and that robot could be in your house, or it could be halfway around the world, and you are controlling it, and you are getting input from the robot, those signals will actually be mapped into your brain. Like the body of that robot will eventually map into your brain so that robot will become an extension of you.

Steve Hoffman:
And literally, we can be sending not only disabled people but even normal people. We could be allowing them to go deep-sea diving, where no human could ever go, and actually feel what it’s like to be a dolphin or a whale in the water, to fly like a bird, put a robot in the air. All of these things are possible, and we will be developing actually the prototypes very soon because in the lab, this is working. So, imagine if you’re disabled, almost any disability you have in the future is solvable. These are all solvable problems. Literally, because our brains are literally black boxes. In everything, we consider our senses and our body are just inputs of electronic signals, just like you can hear through your skin. They have devices now where you can see through your tongue. Literally, they’ll make little electric impulses on your tongue and allow blind people to see. That technology is here. It’s deployed. You can go get that device.

Steve Hoffman:
Well, imagine if it’s a robot, you can not only see what a normal person would see but if the robot sensors can sense ultraviolet light, infrared light, your abilities as a disabled person could be potentially far greater than a human person. You could become superhuman. So, that is the potential that’s what I’m so excited about. And as you brought up, there’s a dark side to this. All this technology is great, but could it actually diminish our life, get out of control? I will tell you. I really go… I try to paint a balanced picture between all the goodness that technology can bring, and some of the downsides that we as a society must face. So, for example, very simple, AI is out there. AI is everywhere. We’re using AI now to make decisions, and AI is only going to be getting better and better, and better at this.

Steve Hoffman:
In fact, because AI can access so much data, takes so many inputs, process it, and look at all these other people who’ve tried similar things and come up with the statistics of what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. We are going to be asking AI to help us make key decisions in our life. Now, let me give you an example. Let’s say you want to get a new job, whether you’re disabled or not disabled, you have certain qualifications, things you can do really well, things you can’t do really well. Well, instead of searching for a job which is really cumbersome, you may go to an AI and say, “Find me that perfect job.” And the AI will do that, because they can see all the job listings, processes, massive amounts of data which human beings aren’t very good at. And they may know us and our personality and our abilities by monitoring us much better than we do. So, we may delegate that decision to an AI.

Josh Anderson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Hoffman:
On the same token, we may ask an AI, “Who should I date? I don’t want to use Tinder or any of these dating apps, just find me the right person. Save me all the trouble.” AI would do that. So, AI in the future will not just be helping us pick the restaurant we want to eat at or what movie we should watch on Netflix tonight, AI will be making key life decisions. At what point do we cross the line? At what point do we bring AI into our lives? Because it’s so useful and does so much better job than we could do at these tasks, that we start giving up our free agency, our own ability to make these hard choices in life.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah.

Steve Hoffman:
Like, we just say, “Whenever we have trouble, we just ask the AI.” Is that a good thing for society? You have to ask yourself that.

Josh Anderson:
No, you definitely do it. I’m glad you kind of brought that up. And then one of my big worries or not, I guess worries is always as this technology comes out, that it’ll be used for something else as opposed to kind of the disability space. I even think about the brain interface and being able to control a robot far away, I could see how that could be used as a weapon of war, as opposed to a weapon to help folks. But I guess, it all kind of depends on what the people that created try to do and how they try to get it out there as well, but.

Steve Hoffman:
I want to talk about that because you are absolutely right. All of this technology has many dual purposes, many other uses that we can’t even imagine some of us, and think about the brain-computer technology. It can totally transform the life of somebody with locked-in syndrome, who’s had a stroke and is completely paralyzed. However, that same brain technology could be used to actually control people, because you can imagine if you have a chip in your brain and… We’ve trusted Facebook with our data and they didn’t handle it that well-

Josh Anderson:
True.

Steve Hoffman:
… and weren’t quite as responsible. Imagine, Facebook is building a BCI device now, a brain-computer interface device. They know that the next operating system that supplants Android and iOS will be the brain operating system that connects directly to your brain. Do you trust Facebook with all the data in your brain?

Josh Anderson:
No.

Steve Hoffman:
Do you?

Josh Anderson:
No, I definitely don’t.

Steve Hoffman:
And I don’t either, honestly. And what if these brain-computer interface devices become so sophisticated that we can actually start to write over information in our brain, replace memories, not just download information, but actually change and manipulate how people act.

Josh Anderson:
Wow.

Steve Hoffman:
Now, this sounds like science fiction, but in the lab, they’ve done it with rats. I will tell you, they hooked a human up to a rat that had a chip in its brain, and the human had a non-invasive brain-computer interface. And that human just by thinking could then control and guide the rat from maze.

Josh Anderson:
Wow.

Steve Hoffman:
But what’s really scary is a rat had no idea it was being controlled. It thought it was making the decisions-

Josh Anderson:
Oh my goodness.

Steve Hoffman:
… yet the human was. If you have a chip implanted by good old Elon Musk in your brain or Mark Zuckerberg, do you trust them with access to your brain and your decision-making and potentially manipulating you for their own means, for their own profit? And then that’s not to mention governments or other organizations that may use this technology in ways that may not be beneficial to you, but maybe more beneficial to them. So, these are the questions we need to face as a society.

Josh Anderson:
Wow. That’s a whole heck of a lot to talk about. We went down a dark path there and maybe not a dark path though, but ooh, man, [inaudible 00:24:59] it a little bit scary. Well, Captain, if our listeners want to find out more about Founders Space, or maybe actually be able to get a copy of The Five Forces for themselves, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Steve Hoffman:
So, you can find me just by going to foundersspace.com and you can email me. Just click on the contact form, put my name in there and email me. You can also… I’m on all the social networks, just search for Founders Space, it doesn’t matter what social network it is. And if you want to get the book, you can find it on Founders Space, or you can go to thefiveforces.com, and get it there. And it’s on sale now on Amazon.

Josh Anderson:
All right. We will definitely put a link to all that over in our show notes, so our listeners can find out. And really, after talking to you today, I’m looking very forward to reading the book myself.

Steve Hoffman:
Thank you.

Josh Anderson:
Well, Steven Hoffman, or Captain Hoff, thank you again so much for coming on the show and just having this great conversation. I’m looking forward to a lot of this technology, but I do love the fact that you talked about the good and the bad sides, just to give us all something to think about as we just look in that beautiful world of technology coming down the pipeline and all the great things it can do, but some of those dangers that are out there as well.

Steve Hoffman:
Thank you.

Josh Anderson:
Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If so, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124. Send us an email at tech@eastersealscrossroads.org, or shoot us a note on Twitter at @INDATAproject. Our captions and transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation or ​InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC at relayindiana.com. A special thanks to Nikol Prieto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule. Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the INDATA Project, Easterseals Crossroads or supporting partners, or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update, and I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-bye.

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