Erik Anderson is not your typical tech entrepreneur. He is involved in a large number of projects, from chess apps to Singularity University, where he has recently been appointed Chairman.
He has been named by Goldman Sachs as one of the ‘100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of 2017’ at its Builders + Innovators Summit in Santa Barbara, California and is a winner of EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year award.
With such diverse interests, we wanted to get to know this modern day renaissance man. We asked him a few questions for our recent Science and Technology edition of OBSERVE magazine.
What connects so many varied interests?
“Basically, do I think they have a scale, and is there a compelling value proposition, although, with energy company Avista, my dad worked there, so that’s kind of a labour of love because it’s based in my hometown of Spokane, and I liked doing that.”
And the chess connection?
“I grew up in the early 1970s in a small rural area outside Spokane in the Bobby Fischer era, when he was world champion. I played chess with my good friend Robbie Patterson. Sadly, he died early from cancer, so there’s always been an emotional connection with the game, and when I look at all the businesses I work with, there’s a fundamental set of patterns that allow me to think at a high level. Today, chess continues to allow me to honour that early relationship.”
What does technology mean to you?
“People used to think, or even today think, of technology as somehow ‘outside’ of themselves, that it’s away from you. Electricity is a simple starting analogy. People hit a switch and lights go on, but they know nothing of how it’s created. It was something you accessed.
“Technology in the future will be much more intimate and integrated within us. Take contact lenses. Who would have thought about putting a piece of glass or plastic in your eye? Is technology the right word? I can’t think of another one.”
What amazes you?
“CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), the technology that’s revolutionising genome editing.
“There’s the young boy with a terrible genetic disease who had lost 80 percent of his skin. In the past, he would have died. But scientists were able to genetically alter the boy’s skin, eliminate the genetic problem and regrow it. The boy was put in a coma for four months while his skin was ‘rebuilt’. Now he’s playing soccer!
“Ten years ago, we couldn’t have imagined that. There’s no more exciting time for science and tech. Evolution will take on an entirely new definition.”
Are we ready for such massive change?
“It’s actually more about understanding. We’ve always been fearful of technology in a way. Technology amplifies everything, and therefore it has a lot of risks, but there’s no turning back from it.
“Everything is just going to move faster. We will have to move on from traditional ‘linear thinking’ and really understand exponential change.”
Isn’t great disruption generally frightening?
“Sure. But I am an optimist. You either say ‘I am going to get there’ or you dig your heels in and try and slow it down. But it’s not going to stop, and that’s why mindset is so important.
“Singularity University is a platform to transform mindsets and how you think about the world. 35 000 people from 130 countries go through this learning journey at Singularity, including some of the most influential leaders in the world, with the aim of applying exponential technologies to address humanity's grand challenges.
“Singularity is an optimistic place. We believe that technology can fundamentally change the world. We describe it as an abundant place.”
“Chess. I looked at how valuable chess was in terms of pattern recognition for young people. Chess can act as a toolkit, teaching critical and creative thinking skills for kids going forward in their lives. We (America’s Foundation for Chess) had a pretty good analogue chess programme, but we’re now partnering with a company called Quill and putting it on a digital platform that will drive cost down even further and allow parents and kids to get real-time feedback.
“That’s the beauty of it: once it goes digital, it goes exponential.”
This interview by Jonathan Arnold is adapted from a longer profile in the latest edition of the Odgers Berndtson magazine, OBSERVE.
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