Rohit Talwar

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Rohit Talwar a global futurist and award-winning speaker, who works with corporations and governments to help them explore, understand, and respond to the forces shaping our world.

He has a particular focus on how we can harness emerging science and technology to ensure that these advances are used to unleash individual potential, and enable a very human future.

A great futurist really helps people get insights into the emerging future

In this week’s show, we will find out what a futurist actually is, why Rohit would like to have coffee with the oddly named drug dealer “the Penguin” and what could happen if machines took over the world. All this and more…

NB This was recorded before Stephen Hawking sadly passed away in March 2018.

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Podcast Transcript

This week Maria interviewed, Rohit Talwar.  Rohit is a global futurist and award-winning speaker, who works with corporations and governments to help them explore, understand, and respond to the forces shaping our world.  He has a particular focus on how we can harness emerging science and technology to ensure that these advances are used to unleash individual potential, and enable a very human future.

Rohit talks to us about what a futurist actually is, why Rohit would like to have coffee with the oddly named drug dealer “the Penguin” and what could happen if machines took over the world. All this and more …

NB This was recorded before Stephen Hawking sadly passed away in March this year.

Maria: 

Rohit Talwar is a global futurist and award-winning speaker, who works with corporations and governments to help them explore, understand, and respond to the forces shaping our world. He has a particular focus on how we can harness emerging science and technology to ensure that these advances are used to unleash individual potential, and enable a very human future. Rohit, welcome. Thank you very much for joining me.

Rohit Talwar:  

My pleasure, thank you for hosting me.

Maria:        

Fantastic. So, Rohit, did you wake up when you were a child one morning, and say, “I’m going to be a futurist,” is this what happened?

Rohit Talwar:        

Absolutely not. I think, like every child growing up in the sixties, or every boy child, I started off wanting to be a soldier, wanting to be a fireman, wanting to be all those things. Or a cowboy, if they still existed. And then we had the Apollo landings, and that was it. I was taken, space captured my imagination, and I wanted to be an astronaut. And that got me into just loving new things, and always being fascinated by what was new and what was coming. So, I think the seed were sewn at that point, for me to become a futurist.

Maria: 

Fantastic, but did futurists exists then? Was that something that was known about?

Rohit Talwar:

It was a term that was known only amongst very small circles. It had been coined by the RAN Institute I think, but it didn’t really come to prominence truly until about the eighties.

Maria:   

How would you define a futurist? For people who don’t know what that is.

Rohit Talwar:

So, for me, a futurist is someone who explores the forces that are shaping the future.  That might be the mega trends. So, today we hear about globalisation, climate change, advanced technologies but it’s also the underlying trends that we can start to see emerging. It’s the ideas, the development, and the weak signals of what might come. So, it’s taking all of those, and exploring how they might come together, and the different scenarios that play out, and what that could mean for individual society, business and government.

But today we also have a group of what you might call genius forecasters. People who spot one thing, and say, “Okay, the future’s going to be entirely about that.” Artificial Intelligence, or enhancing our brains and bodies, and they get very focused on trying to predict how the world will be, based on a few developments. History tells us that they’re normally wrong, because humanity doesn’t respond the way that technologists would like us to. So, there’s sort of two camps, and the camp I’m from, are the futurists who like to explore different scenarios so we can prepare for a range of possibilities, rather than betting the ranch on one set of predictions.

Maria: 

That’s really interesting, actually, because I have seen that happen. Has your role changed much in the last 20 years? Because for me it seems like things have got faster. It might be because I’m getting older, but has your role as a futurist changed with the pace of change?

Rohit Talwar:     

Absolutely. You have to keep your material very much up to date, with examples of what’s new. And what we were talking about three years ago, as maybe being 10 years ago, we’re seeing advances now that are bringing it to market today. But I think what’s also different is the appreciation of the value futurists can add now. Organisations are really beginning to see that they can’t just keep using the same strategies as they’ve had for the last 10 years. They have to challenge their assumptions, they have to challenge their world views about how things work, and they have to start letting go of the thoughts and beliefs that guided them.

And that’s where we can come in. We can provide the evidence to show them how things are changing, and we can help them learn how to let go of some of the stuff that no longer serves them well, and start letting in new ideas. So, I think what we see now is some of the best futurists are part-therapists and part Buddhist Monk in the way they teach people how to let go of things.

And really, we’re encouraging learning. I think that’s our biggest role, and I think that’s the biggest challenge for every organisation and every individual, to learn about what’s changing in the world, and just how different it could be, and how we make sense of it for ourselves. So, I think we have a critical role there in facilitating learning about what might happen.

Maria:       

It’s incredibly disruptive as well, isn’t it? All this change, and all these technologies, and I’m imagining that you’ve probably seen some huge changes in the last decades. What for you, in your lifetime has been a really big seismic change?

Rohit Talwar:  

I think there are three things that have really changed our world quite dramatically. One is the internet, connecting people globally, making information available globally, making it available for almost free. That’s quite incredible if you think about it. Secondly, I think that the way ideas come to market is quite different today. We used to think that big corporations had to develop things and decide when a new idea could become commercially viable. Now, anyone can create something. They can raise money on crowdfunding, they can launch it via the internet, and anyone and everyone has a chance of becoming a behemoth corporation in the future. If we look at the biggest corporations in the world today, 25 years ago Amazon and Google weren’t even really on people’s radar. Now, they’re amongst the biggest corporations on the planet. And then the final thing I think is what’s happened in the last couple of years, which is this coming together of immense computing power, massive data stores, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence.

So, we can start to do things now with our data that we couldn’t have imagined possible. Doing a cancer diagnosis by comparing a patient’s symptoms to literally millions of other cancer patients, and millions of pieces of research, to come up with what seems like the best fit diagnosis. We couldn’t even have imagined doing that in the past. But we’re now at this point where the technology is enabling us to do things that really will change the course of history, will change the way our lives operate, will change the way countries run, will change even the need of having a job.

Maria:      

Wow, that’s amazing. And actually, Steven Hawking said something to the BBC recently, which he said, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Do you agree with that statement?

Rohit Talwar:   

There’s always that risk. So, you’ve got lots of different camps here. A, there’s a lot of hype from people selling software at the moment, saying it’s got artificial intelligence in it when really, there’s a few rules, or a little bit of machine learning. But then, at the other end, the really-advanced practitioners are developing mind blowing applications that can outperform humans in comprehension, in playing games like Go, in almost every field of endeavor.  We’re starting to get machines that can outperform us.

So, that leads to the possibility that we could get to this thing called artificial general intelligence, which is as smart as humans. The thing is, if it gets to being as smart as humans, it won’t stop there, it will keep learning and evolving. And so, we could get to this thing called artificial super intelligence, which is what Steven Hawking is worried about, Elon Musk is worried about, and various others. Where they’re saying, “We don’t know what it would do.” If it’s smarter than us, it could create whole new fields of science, it could create whole new fields of economics, mathematics, that we can’t even describe, because it’s a higher level of intelligence.

And so, it might just turn around and say, “Well, actually, you as humans, we might choose to serve you as an inferior species to us as AIs, or we might just decide that we don’t need you, because you’re clearly not protecting your planet, and you’re not protecting each other, you’re not sharing your resources well, maybe we should just do away with you.” So, that’s the concern from someone like Steven Hawking, is that the technologies might just get to the point where it looks at us, and really says … In Janet Jackson terms, “What have you done for me lately? I don’t need humans” or, “We don’t need humans.”

That is a fear, and because it’s very hard to know what’s going on inside AI systems, we’re going to have to rely on other AI systems to monitor them. So, we get into this very complex world, and there is a fear that the machines could just outstrip us in everything. And from serving us, we become servants to them, and ultimately we become irrelevant to them. And there’s a lot dystopian films about that kind of thing coming out of Hollywood. So, it is a risk. I think the best way of avoiding that risk is by facing it head-on, and developing codes of ethics, and looking at, how do we guide development to make sure that it doesn’t run away from what humans want technology to do for us.

Maria:     

Well, it is like a movie, isn’t it? I’m thinking Terminator, and Skynet, and all that kind of stuff, and the machines taking over.

Rohit Talwar: 

The best example I think that really makes it real, Ex Machina, is one great film and the other is Her, where he has the operating system that’s an AI operating system, and it’s like Siri on steroids, and it just gets smarter and smarter and in the end it says, “I’m leaving you, because you just can’t keep up with me and I’m going off where there’s other AI, and we’re going to live in the ether.” That whole film really brought home just the potential of AI, but also how fast it could evolve, and how limited we are in our capacity to deal with it. And that’s why you get the leaders in AI thinking, and the so-called trans-humanists and techno-progressives arguing that the next stage in our evolution should be to start embedding technology in our brains and in our bodies, so that we can keep up with AI, and that we can all connect our brains via the internet, and have this so-called singularity.

So, we hear all of this being talked about at the same time as a lot of businesses are just seeing their first application of AI, maybe a bit of smarter marketing. And it’s quite hard to make the leap from, “Okay, we got a tool that helps us choose the right words to say to a customer in an email,” to the other end of the spectrum where someone’s saying, “The machines could take over the planet.” It feels like too big a leap of imagination at the moment for most people to understand that.

Maria:     

I’m relieved to hear you say that, actually. Now, Rohit, as I’m talking to you, I realise you’ve got a very good broadcasting voice, a really great voice, but you’ve actually done some media, you’ve done some documentaries, and been a subject of documentaries. What was all that about?

Rohit Talwar:  

For some reason people love doing documentaries with me about different aspects of the future. So, I did a whole series for the BBC in South America about sustainability, the environment, how technology could change our lives, and how do we make sure we reinvent our education systems to prepare people for an uncertain future. I did a really fun one with someone on, how would you create a new country? If you were going to literally create a new country on a ship, or out at sea, how would you do it? How would you set up the rules? How would you choose who lived there? And it was just a chance for me to exercise my imagination.

But I’ve done others, I’ve done one on the future of Finland, of all places. Where they just interviewed me on all the different aspects of Finland’s future development, and asked me to talk about what could influence it, and how Finland insured that it retained its humanity as science and technology advanced. And then perhaps the most fun one I’ve done was about the future of travel and tourism in Iceland, because it’s one of the places on the planet that I love most. And so, they just had me do a short documentary about why I love Iceland, why it’s so interesting as a country, and what it’s potential was as a travel and tourism destination.

Maria:     

That sounds great, that sounds really good. Well done. How did you end up on Interpol’s most wanted list?

Rohit Talwar: 

A very short version of the story. 2001 we were in Barcelona, we had our passports stolen from a bag as we were changing hotels. My passport ended up in the hands of a Brazilian drug dealer. His house was raided in 2005. He got away, they found piles of cocaine, piles of money, and my passport with his photograph in it. So, in our absence, I was sentenced to prison in Sao Paolo. As a foreign passport, it should have been registered with Interpol, and they forgot.

Eventually in 2016, they were going through the open case files, and they realised they should inform Interpol, they did. The first I knew about it was when I arrived in Dubai, was put in the prison cell in the airport, held there for several hours with no explanation, then taken to the central police station, and was told it was Interpol. Held overnight, and then eventually got to talk to the British Embassy, and the authorities there let me go, because they could see it wasn’t me. They told me to get it sorted out. Same thing happened again the following week, I was detained in L.A. for a couple of hours. And then, eventually we got the Brazilian authorities involved through my local MP, and we managed to convince them that I was not this person by providing proof of passport entries, that I was in different countries at that time he was supposed to have been arrested and things.

It took over three months to clear it, cost me a lot of money, because I had to cancel a lot of foreign gigs and things, including one with Richard Branson, which was a bit of shame, I’d say. But it was incredible, trying to navigate the system, and get your identity back, and prove that I wasn’t this drug dealer. I actually bear him no malice at all. He was just doing his thing. I’d love to know what his life was like when he was being me. I’d also love to know what he’s doing now. Is he on the run, has he still got my identity? I doubt it. What’s he doing? I’d love to just sit down and have a chat with him about it. The one thing I would have said to him was, “Choose a better nickname.”

You have all these great nicknames for drug dealers like Scar Face, and El Chapo, and things. And he was The Penguin. It was not a very drug lordy name, but it had me on Interpol’s most wanted list for a few months, which was interesting as an experience. And I got to see a few prison cells, which was less exciting.

Maria:   

My goodness, that could have had such a huge repercussion for you. And it did, obviously, for that period of time. Anyway, if he’s out there listening, you’d like to have a cup of coffee, maybe a Brazilian coffee, and have a chat.

Rohit Talwar:   

Yes, absolutely.

Maria:   

Fantastic. Okay, you talked about your speaking, and actually, I’d love to explore that a bit further. You are one of the busiest speakers I know, and you’ve just told me before we had our chat, that you’re even busier, you’re busier than ever. How did you get into the speaking business, where did it start?

Rohit Talwar: 

So, I was working at a consultancy, and we were looking at, how do we develop new business, particularly around, at the time it was business re-engineering, and change management. And so, because I quite enjoyed standing up and talking to audiences, I’d done it a few times, I started to approach conference organisers to speak. And they were very generous, and started inviting me in to talk about all sorts of topics, because they liked the way I spoke, and the way I connected with audiences. And then I started getting asked to go and speak to companies, and then suddenly we had to put money against that. And then a friend, brought another friend along to see me speak. She was a professional speaker, a lady called Marie Mosley.

And she just said, “You need to be out there promoting yourself as a professional speaker, and you need to get some video and start approaching the speaker bureaus.” And I think you were one of the very first Speaker bureaus I spoke to. And yes, it just went from there, and it started to build, and now the business comes in from a mix of speaker bureaus, a lot of referrals from people who’ve had me speak, they refer me across their organisation. And then quite often I’m doing public events where Microsoft might be doing an event for their clients, and I’m speaking, and then a lot of people in the audience might want me to come and talk to their audience, which I love.

And then more and more people are seeing our books, and just approaching us to say, “Actually, can you come and talk about the content of this book?”

Maria:     

So, there’s a lot of great advice actually there for anybody wanting to get onto the speaking circuit. So, the first thing you did, you approached organisers, and offered to speak for free. Is that how you did it?

Rohit Talwar:    

Yes, and now we have just so many more avenues. You have local Chambers of Commerce, in the UK, we’re blessed with literally thousands of meetup groups and other networking groups, who are always looking for speakers, and then there’s the Professional Speaking Association in the UK, which has local chapters. So, even new speakers can get 10 minutes to try things. There’s Toastmasters where you can learn how to speak. So, there’s lots of avenues. And the thing I would say is to start off with, don’t worry about the money, worry about your craft. Get good at speaking. So, go to Toastmasters, learn how to give a one minute, two minute, 10 minute speech, and then find lots of avenues where you can go and speak.

If you get paid, great, but to start off, just learn how to connect with an audience, how to deliver your message, how to serve them with your content, rather than just show how clever you are. And really understand what their needs are, and then how do you get your messages across to them. And then start experimenting with fees, asking for money, seeing what people say, handling the yeses and the nos. Both of which are quite daunting. When people say, “Yes, we’ll take that, we’ll accept that fee rate,” Or, “No, we won’t except that.” Both of which are learning opportunities.

And take lots of advice. I think going along to things like the Professional Speaking Association in the UK, the events are fantastic. You get to see so many good speakers doing their thing. You get to see lots of different approaches to stagecraft, you get to ask questions of people. And there’s some very good forums on the web as well, where you can just ask for advice, and there’s a community. People are very willing to give advice. So, I’d certainly encourage anyone who’s even got an inkling of it to have a go.

Maria:  

Thank you, that’s very kind. So, with regards to clients though, what advice would you give them once they’ve booked you to speak, to get the very best out of you?

Rohit Talwar:     

So, I think the briefing call is really important, where they sit down and give you a very honest appraisal of what’s going on in their organisation, what the event is that they want you to speak at, what their goal is for the event, where they see you fitting, and what they want from you, what is the emotion they want from you. And then, what we try and do more and more, is to advise our clients on how to set up my presentation, and how to follow it. Because often, a futurist is way out from the norm of the rest of a conference. If it’s a leadership conference, or a sales conference, or whatever. And what can happen, is that someone makes a throw away comment that reduces the impact of what you’re about to say, or you’ve just said. So they’ll say, “So now we’re going to go off into space, and Rohit’s going to talk to us about these things.” And so, it sort of says to the audience, “Well, you don’t have to pay that much attention.” Or, someone will come on after you and say things like, “Well, now let’s go back to earth.” And actually it means that for the people in the room, they don’t know whether to take seriously what you’ve just talked about.

So, we do a lot of work with clients around how to set up the presentation, how to follow it, how to make sure that they follow on from what they’ve had from me, and integrate that into the rest of the event. So that they use the future insights, to drive the decisions they’re making. Because a great futurist really helps people get insights into the emerging future, that help you make better decisions today. And if we’re honest, whilst we do talk a bit about the stuff that might be five and 10 years away, most of the time we’re talking about developments that are already on the horizon, or happening somewhere. They might just not be touching your organisation.

And so, they’re things that you need to act on more immediately. And the biggest thing is about changing the mindset of the organization, to be open to new ideas, and new thinking. So, making sure that the design of the event really does follow on from our input. To keep that open conversation going.

Maria:  

Rohit, that is wonderful point to end on. That is excellent advice. I want to thank you very much for your time.

Rohit Talwar:     

My pleasure.

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