Weekend Briefing No. 208

Welcome to the weekend. Today marks the 4th anniversary of the Weekend Briefing! Thanks for being along for the ride. I hope it provides unique insights to help you excel in business and in life.

Of course, it’s the beginning of the month, so that means it’s time for new music. Enjoy my February playlist.

Prime Numbers

300,000,000 Last week, tractor maker John Deere acquired a Silicon Valley AI firm, which precision-targets weed killing using machine learning, for a cool $300 million. The future of farming is headed in one direction, and it’s automated.

1,000,000 More than one million people have signed up for “early access” to the Robinhood app’s cryptocurrency section in the four days since it said it would offer no-cost trading in digital coins. It could be a long time before they’re able to trade.

25 The 25 most popular icebreaker questions based on four years of data.

Shareholder Value

I was so excited when I saw that Chad Dickerson – former CEO of Etsy, and Weekend Briefing community member – had launched his own newsletter. As expected, it’s good. You should subscribe. Right out of the gate he dives into socially responsible business and shareholder value noting that our entire business ecosystem in the US operates on the notion of shareholder primacy, i.e. that “shareholder value” rules all. This concept is so widely accepted that it can seem to be a natural law — like gravity — or a divine edict. But it is neither of those. He notes that: (1) Today’s CEOs and the next generation of leaders who fail to understand expectations around social responsibility in business from Millennials — the largest cohort in the workforce right now — will fail to attract the best talent, and (2) The way one thinks about leadership, strategy, success, and business in general rests on how you think about the role of companies in society. Chaddickerson.com (9 minutes)

Wizards & Prophets

Today the world has about 7.6 billion inhabitants. By 2050, that number will reach 10 billion. Will we be able to feed them? Two mid-century thinkers William Vogt and Norman Borlaug had opposing approaches to this question. “Wizards” and “Prophets.” Wizards, following Borlaug’s model, unveil technological fixes; Prophets, looking to Vogt, decry the consequences of our heedlessness.  Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. If we continue taking more than the Earth can give, he said, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale. Borlaug’s view was that science and technology, properly applied, will let us produce a way out of our predicament. Both men are dead now, but the dispute between their disciples has only become more vehement. Wizards view the Prophets’ emphasis on cutting back as intellectually dishonest, indifferent to the poor, even racist (because most of the world’s hungry are non-Caucasian). Following Vogt, they say, is a path toward regression, narrowness, poverty, and hunger—toward a world where billions live in misery despite the scientific knowledge that could free them. Prophets sneer that the Wizards’ faith in human resourcefulness is unthinking, ignorant, even driven by greed (because refusing to push beyond ecological limits will cut into corporate profits). High-intensity, Borlaug-style industrial farming, Prophets say, may pay off in the short run, but in the long run will make the day of ecological reckoning hit harder. The ruination of soil and water by heedless overuse will lead to environmental collapse, which will in turn create worldwide social convulsion. Wizards reply: That’s exactly the global humanitarian crisis we’re preventing! As the finger-pointing has escalated, conversations about the environment have turned into dueling monologues, each side unwilling to engage with the other. The Atlantic (25 minutes)

Cutting Out the Tapeworm

This week Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan announced a vague but market-moving plan to launch an independent company that will offer healthcare services to the companies’ employees at a lower cost. The initial focus of the new company will be on technology solutions that will provide U.S. employees and their families with simplified, high-quality and transparent healthcare at a reasonable cost. This will cut ballooning healthcare costs, what Warren Buffett calls a hungry tapeworm on the American economy. My initial reaction was, “Thank God.” The market reaction was significant. The market value of 10 large, listed health insurance and pharmacy stocks dropped by a combined $30 billion. The new group will pursue this objective through an independent company that is “free from profit-making incentives and constraints.” Jay Coen Gilbert postulates that it could be the first mega-healthcare benefit corporation. Not a bad idea if you ask me. Forbes (8 minutes)

Autonomous & Open Source

Baidu, China’s giant search company, could beat Google in self-driving cars. By building “the Android of autonomous vehicles,” Baidu thinks it will make them smarter and safer. Google has a headstart in the autonomous vehicle space, so, in an effort to catch up quickly, and raise China’s profile as an AI innovation center, Baidu is eschewing the secrecy that normally surrounds self-driving cars (as Google did with its Android smartphone operating system) by offering Apollo – its self-driving software – free to anyone who wants to use it. The open-source approach makes a lot of sense simply because this is an AI-based technology that needs a huge amount of data to thrive. Apollo 1.0 was released in July, and Baidu started testing Apollo-running cars on public roads in late 2017. Baidu hopes companies that use Apollo—it has 90 partners so far, including car makers like Lincoln owner Ford, car-component makers like Continental, and chip makers like Nvidia—will then contribute data that it can use. MIT Technology Review (6 minutes)

Neuromorphic

Superconducting computing chips modelled after neurons can now process information faster and more efficiently than the human brain. This recent achievement is a key benchmark in the development of advanced computing devices designed to mimic biological systems. And it could open the door to more natural machine-learning software, although many hurdles remain before it could be used commercially. ‘Neuromorphic’ hardware are devices that mimic the structure of the human brain in the hope that it will run brain-like software more efficiently. In conventional electronic systems, transistors process information at regular intervals and in precise amounts — either 1 or 0 bits. But neuromorphic devices can accumulate small amounts of information from multiple sources, alter it to produce a different type of signal and fire a burst of electricity only when needed — just as biological neurons do. As a result, neuromorphic devices require less energy to run. Nature (8 minutes)

Craftsmanship

I’m kind of sick of reading about ‘life hacks’ or ‘business hacks’ that promise minimum effort for maximum return. I think what bothers me is that it overlooks the importance of craftsmanship. To be successful over the course of a career requires the application and accumulation of expertise. For any given undertaking you either provide expertise or you are just a bystander. It’s the experts that are the drivers—an expertise that is gained from a curiosity, and a mindset of treating one’s craft very seriously. If you are to optimize for anything, optimize for the long term. Use the challenges of your business today to build mastery in your craft. There is no guarantee that any one venture will succeed, but that mastery will bend luck in your favor over the long course of your career. Hackernoon (ironic… I know) (5 minutes)

Inner Scoreboard

Nick Saban (who just coached his team to the college football national championship) has a question he asks players and coaches: How good do you want to be? That is: What is a player or a coach willing to demand of themselves? What mark are they aiming for—pretty good, really good, the best? His question is not: How many games do you want to win? It’s how good do you want to be? He focuses on the inner scoreboard rather than the outer scoreboard. What you become with this attitude is outcome-independent. What you care about is the process—of getting better, of being the best version of yourself given the circumstances. Each one of us, whether we’re an athlete or an athletic director or an investor or a stay at home parent, would be better to step back from the binary world of winning and losing to instead focus on how good we are capable of being. Thought Catalog (8 minutes)

From the Community

I first met Catherine Hoke, founder of Defy Ventures, when we were mentors at Praxis. This week she was featured on the Tim Ferriss Show, the conversation is fun and does a great job featuring her hustle and compassion.

My friend Adam Braun just published a piece about how a cold email landed Pencils of Promise a $1 million Bitcoin donation.

Phillip Haid wrote an article about how companies can take an activist stance without making a mess of it in Fast Company.

Ever been interested in how refugees finance their journeys and manage their money en route? Kim Wilson authored a (very in-depth) paper entitled The Financial Journey of Refugees.  

Feedback Loop

I had a lot of excitement and good feedback from the crypto / blockchain articles last week. See some below:

“Good briefing, as always. One thought- on your opening question: for blockchain to save the environment, we have to first address the fact that as is, it’s currently bad for the environment.” – John Kluge

“I loved the “Blockchain & Child” link. Midway through I started getting the jitters, realizing it won’t be just humans that trade, but also machines! That came as a surprise, but it’s so logical. I’m still feeling butterflies – good and bad – thinking about how this will affect our future. I also get concerned about how some people will keep up with this pace of change. It’s on the edges of radical, at least at first glance. Also, I didn’t think any one explanation stood out, but it started to make more sense as the levels changed. Thanks for this great resource!” – Akshay Kapur

Weekend Wisdom

“Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with your family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them.” – Alastair McAlpine, a pediatrician who works with terminally ill kids, asked his patients what they have enjoyed in life and what has given it meaning. The result is a must-read tweetstorm. Have tissues on hand.

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway – Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose.