Niki looks back at the last two years of Tech’ed Up and shares some of her favorite moments from the podcast. This episode highlights engaging clips from episodes featuring Bloomberg reporter Ashlee Vance, US presidential candidate and former Congressman Will Hurd, Washingtonian Tech Titan 2023 Amy Gilliland of GDIT, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), Denelle Dixon, CEO of the Stellar Development Foundation, and many more.
Listen in as Niki and guests explore all things tech: covering emerging technology from AI to crypto, speculating about government regulation, and geeking out about the future of tech in general.
Niki: I'm Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up. You'll notice that we have some new music. And that's because today Tech’ed Up turns two! We've had 62 guests, 32,000 downloads, and listeners in 27 countries. Great Britain, I'm looking at you: you're the greatest. I thought it would be fun to mark the occasion with a look back at some of my favorite moments from the pod.
My team dug through a backcatalog of conversations, and it was honestly super hard for us to choose just a few to highlight. But I hope you enjoy it. And on our next episode, we'll be back to our regular programming. For now, thank you as ever, for listening and keeping this independent show up and running.
Niki: Okay, I'm not trying to brag, but one of the very first people I ever invited onto the show, joined me to talk about 2023’s favorite topic: AI. That was two years ago when Will Hurd, former open AI board member, CIA operative, and cyber expert, and Congressman came into the studio to chat all things artificial intelligence.
In recent weeks, you may have heard the term FOBO, that's “fear of being obsolete.” And this episode stands the test of time. I got a kick out of hearing just how smart and predictive Will’s analysis was.
Will: There’s two parts of AI, like how we use AI now. If you're listening to this show on Spotify and it says, “You would like this other thing” - guess what, that’s AI that’s being used. If you’re using a mapping software that gets you from point A to point B in the quickest way, there's some AI behind that.
There’s another thing called artificial general intelligence, AGI. And this is a state where the, the, algorithm is going to be smarter than most humans on most things. And this is a reality, we're going to get there. And so, AGI is really that thing that is going to be super, super powerful, but to get to that, you have to have computing power. So you need, you need, some fast computers that can tabulate all that data you're putting into those algorithms that have millions of lines of codes. Right?
And so, you need that compute power; compute power requires energy. I also think another element that we should be thinking about is the policy around how artificial intelligence can be used. And so, those are the elements you have when you think about AI and AGI.
A couple of years ago, Vladimir Putin said, and I'm paraphrasing, “Whoever masters AI is going to master the world.” [Niki: Yes] That’s probably one of the few things, that's probably the only thing I agree with ol’ Vladimir Putin on.
Niki: There is a lot to unpack in what you just said. [Will: Mm-hmm] So first of all, I don't even like it that Mark Zuckerberg knows that I want to see photos of cats stuffed into pitchers and fridges, refrigerators. Literally, they show me these photos on Instagram and I don't like it. It makes me feel- it feels invasive, even though I do enjoy a good cat photo.
Will: Who doesn’t, who doesn’t. Yeah.
Niki: So, I want to talk a little bit about the average person and how they're interacting with this because I do think there is potentially a generational divide. There are these positive use cases of AI, but there are also ways in which the private sector, which has a lot of that compute power. These are the people that have the data centers that can run these algorithms, which can then serve us things we want to click on and capture our attention. The private sector right now is dominating this. And it makes me, I'm curious what you think, part of me thinks that this is why people are uncomfortable with it. It feels like a privacy invasion.
Will: Sure. And, and, these are all valid questions, right? So, we can't tackle this question about privacy and data privacy without talking about- that we're in a race. And I do believe that we're in a new cold war with the Chinese government.
Niki: One of the main reasons I started this podcast was because two summers ago, I could not [chuckling] understand a CNBC headline about quote, minting NFTs. I know I'm always joking that listeners are fed up with the crypto conversations, but the data don't lie, people!
According to my editor, these are always our top listened-to shows, but if you want to hear just one smart thing we've said about digital currency on this podcast, the following clip from CEO Denelle Dixon is a fave.
She makes an astute observation about digital payments on the blockchain that really finally explains the point of the whole goddamn [chuckles] thing.
Niki: I remember I talk about this a lot, but the first time I ever used Western Union, it was to get a relative out of jail, [Denelle: chuckles] which that's like another podcast episode. [both laugh] It was a $50 fee! [Denelle: Yeah] Which I was shocked by. I had no idea. But I don't often use Western Union. It's not in my daily life. And I was stunned!
So, it's this regressive fee structure. And to your point, there are many, I'm talking about Americans cuz we're sitting in DC and [chuckling] that's what people in DC care about. [Denelle: Mm-hmm] But I do wanna move to one other pilot case that you had.
But y’know, I think about Senator Tim Scott. He comes from a district with credit-invisible voters a ton of credit invisible, meaning they don't have credit. And so, I think that this is sort of, you think about the haves and the have-nots, and your point is it's okay that it didn't get attention as long as the people who need these services are finding them.
Denelle: That's right. And that's my - part of it is, like, I just want us to focus on utility and to focus on utility you need awesome UX design. You need simplification obfuscating the technology. Nobody knows that they're using - not nobody, some people do, that they're using HTTPS every day to send transactions over the web.
Niki: Yeah [chuckles] Nobody wants to know how the network works.
Denelle: They want to know they can, [Niki: laughing] but they don't need to understand the whole thing about how the technology works, as long as it's safe and secure to them and they're, they have the opportunity to, to understand it. That's the whole thing.
What I learned in the early days of the web is that when it came to privacy, when it came to understanding the technology, notice and choice and opportunity were the most important pieces.
That is, like, not just dignifying to everybody, it's actually providing them you, you make the tool so easy for them to use that it solves their problem, and if they wanna get into the details, they can. And so, that's the way we need to think about this.
It's a technology layer people, it's nothin’ more than that.
It's no different than HTTPS or how you send email. We don't understand how SMTTP works all the time, but it's okay cuz we know the emails get to where they wanna get to.
And one of the other things that I think is really important that gets lost a lot in the shuffle is that when you're sending value from one place to the other and people talk about, “It should be free,” the fact is it shouldn't, because if you're sending cash and somebody's taking cash out, there's gonna be these mom and pop shops on that, that have their feet on the ground, that are actually the ones that are providing that the tools for people to come and pick up their cash. They need a fee, but that fee right now is increased because of all the different players participating in it.
With blockchain, you can eliminate the intermediaries and get the feet of the people that actually really need it. And so, let's like really be clear about what we're doing here. We're trying to like, not just create a world where there's a borderless world for financial [interrupting self] and in order to bring people into the financial infrastructure, but we also want the people who are actually spending the time and money to be able to provide services to get paid too.
So there's a, there are fees, there's a place for fees, but the fees don't need to be at that level.
Niki: I think that you just hit on two points that are really, really important. So, former podcast guest Kathleen Breitman, who's a co-founder of the Tezos Blockchain, talks about how crypto feels so inaccessible to people because it's a combination of computer science, game theory, and finance, [Both chuckle], which is not exactly an easy place to start. [Denelle: Mm-hmm. Yeah]
And when you don't have, to your point, great UX so people can just very easily understand how to use it, when it's complicated, you're, it's hard to get masses involved. And that's almost the flip of what we did with early web. [Denelle: Yes] Well, not Web1, but Web2 made it really, really easy and simple for people to use it without having to understand why their email went from one place to the other. They just don't need to know and they don't even have time to know. [Denelle: Mm-hmm] So, I think that's an area of improvement.
And then, I also think the second really important thing you just said is you said something intellectually honest, which is, it's not free and it's not gonna be free. There will be fees, but they'll be much lower and more targeted.
And so, sometimes in the industry when there's a conversation, again that's very hypothetical or ideological, but not reality-based, we lose some credibility [Denelle: Yes] because it's not really true that this is gonna be free.
Denelle: No! And that is so important for us not to lose credibility on these issues that, frankly, we just don't need to be embarrassed of. The fact of the matter is we're making it better.
Niki: Beyond spitballing about emerging technologies another major theme of this show is exploring the symbiotic relationship between Silicon Valley and DC. For regular listeners, you know I'm always trying to convince technical people to come join us here in Washington to work in or around the federal government.
In April of 2022, former Navy officer and current President of GDIT, Amy Gilliland joined us on the pod to make a convincing case for doing just that.
Niki: I was sitting at Google's offices here in Washington, when I got a phone call about Edward Snowden. [Amy: Yes] And, I'd never heard of Edward, no one had heard of Edward Snowden [Amy: That was the thing!] and it was kind of a thing. Right! And there was a pivot that I could see in the industry and among engineers. And then maybe even in some ways, worsened during the political, I'll just say calamity [chuckling] of the last few years…Doesn't really matter what your politics are!
I have always been, I'm not going to short the United States. I'm long on America. I've always been someone who feels that technologists should be working to help the government. But I think we're in a moment where, especially with what's happening in Ukraine, especially since we know there's going to be some sort of cyber attack on our critical infrastructure. It's a matter of when, not if, we know that what you were talking about with climate, these models are incredibly important and it is the government who tracks these things and will show up and will help.
And so, I think we have this opportunity to get people in tech excited about some of the tools we're building that maybe were dormant for a while because they were going to start-ups and going to these platform companies. And if people are disillusioned being at the Big Tech companies, for whatever reason, this really has a geopolitically critical opportunity.
Amy: It's, it's such an interesting point when I go out and talk to employees and really try to understand, I think all employers are looking at their value prop right now. Why GDIT or why Google or, or why, whatever it is. As you have the shuffling, I agree with you that being able in this moment, we haven't been at peace in the decade before this, but in this moment, right now, being able to affect the mission so quickly and you can see it, and feel it, and read it in the front.
I can give you many examples of how, what we're doing is impacting what's going on in Eastern Europe right now. That resonates. And so, we sometimes see, we have employees that leave us to go work for tech companies and there's a lot of boomerang there [Niki: mm-hmm] because it is six degrees more separation from the mission.
Our folks are oftentimes sitting at the same, in the same, office space or adjacent forward deployed we're globally, have employees everywhere. And so I, in those settings, you're right there and somebody is not telling you what the mission is, you're experiencing the mission. And I find that that really motivates a lot of people, as we all reconsider, like, why do we work? [Niki: Right?!] Why do we, why do we come to work? Why do we do what we do?
The mission is - and passionate about it myself, but it does, it does excite employees. And to the extent that they can understand that it's pretty cool technology, cutting edge technology that we are working on I hope that that will, incentivize more to come into the group.
Niki: Now I'm going to switch gears and do a lightning round of some of our guest’s best hot takes. Kicking it off is one of the biggest sleeper hits of the past two years, entrepreneur and former congressman and presidential candidate John Delaney.
John: I think, I think the facts favor the optimist.
I think technological improvement, by any measure, has improved the condition of humanity across time, full stop. And it's doing that as we speak today. There's no question about it. So, I don't think we want to be Luddites, right? We don't want to be turning the world back to a world that we thought was better when it actually wasn't.
Niki: So, one of my main pastimes since I started this show is keeping an eye out for interesting guests that I can sweet talk into coming into the studio. I was delighted when I, literally physically bumped into Bumble’s Payton Iheme back in June 2022 and she said, “Yes!” to being a guest.
We talked about how at least one dating app is working to make the internet a safer place for us all.
Payton: One, is we hope that it helps to scare off and prohibit some of the people who are doing this cyberflashing to stop. That's the main goal. Second, it's to empower the people who are on the receiving end of these to realize it is a thing. It does have a name, multiple names as you've pointed out. And there is work that can be done about it.
The internet is the economic driver of our generation and it will be going forward. Why should a large percentage of the human population have one experience on it and the others have another? Why do we have to hide on the internet?
Niki: Is it a day ending in Y? If it is, then you know I'm ranting about TikTok. Senator Mark Warner and I bonded earlier this year over our shared concerns about the Chinese Communist Party's growing influence over global tech, from apps to standards to content manipulation.
Here's a teaser of our conversation.
Senator Warner: America's always been its best when it's been future-leaning. [Niki: Yup]
One of the things that's kind of been a secret sauce in terms of America's success, literally since Sputnik, is with virtually every technology innovation, even if it wasn't invented in America, we got to set the rules, the standards, the protocols. We did that in wireless, we did it in satellite, we did it in TV, you name it, the software.
China woke up to that. And you know, in 5G, for example, in the next generation wireless, they were not only the world's leading company, but they were starting to set the rules. We've seen that as well in terms of China investing in a lot of the forums around artificial intelligence. And boy, you do not want an authoritarian, non-privacy protecting, y’know, regime setting the rules for AI on a going-forward basis.
Niki: Some of the best episodes of this show, at least for me, are when I'm learning a lot about something I know nothing about from someone super smart that I want to hang out with. DC policy woman-about-town Denise Zhang came into the studio and helped make sense out of the metaverse: what it means and where it's headed.
Denise: We need to design the metaverse so that it's human-centric, right? But from a privacy, security, and safety standpoint, we found that consumers care about that the most. And that means I think companies need to lean forward, they need to lean further forward than they have in the past and think about, y’know, what privacy controls to put in place. Not just, you know, privacy by design, but privacy by default.
Niki: And last, but never least, AI aficionado Austin Carson, founder of Seed AI and D.C.’s very own skater boi, came into the studio last summer to answer a question on a lot of our minds. Are our phones listening to us?
Here's what he said, but I honestly feel like I need him to come back on the show for a refresher to let us know if it's still true.
Austin: By the way, the computers can't actually, at this point, process your spoken word at a rate possible for them to be eavesdropping all the time.
Niki: But everybody thinks that they are!
Austin: Everybody thinks that they are, but that's because [pause] what you and the people that share your internet access, so on your wifi it aggregates those things too, right, in some way have represented your interest in this thing and that's why it feels like they're listening to you. And it's also because our memories themselves are imperfect, right?
Niki: Finally, I'm rounding out this episode with a segment from one of my favorite conversations, a chat with Bloomberg reporter and best-selling author, Ashlee Vance, about the business of space. We dropped this episode right around the Fourth of July holiday and I think it's an excellent one that some folks who were vacationing might have missed.
If you like what you hear, this is one I definitely recommend going back and listening to the full episode.
Ashlee: Planet Labs is just this incredible thing that people should know about. I mean, they, they've surrounded the Earth with, with about 250 satellites. Some of them are shoebox-sized, some of them are, like, mini-refrigerator size. Those are the old Skybox ones.
And, and, y’know, historically, imaging satellites are, like, 500 million dollars to a billion dollars is, like, the size of a school bus. It takes, like, six years to build them. They're supposed to stay in space for 20 years. They, they can only look at, really, where you tell them to look, points of, of interest. So, so even massive governments like the US or China or Russia, y'know, they have a relatively limited number of these satellites.
You have to direct them to, to whatever you're trying to spy on. And,
Niki: And I, I like that you mentioned something, but I want to sort of go even more into depth. The idea that you can monitor for climate issues, I think for natural disasters, we're seeing in real-time what's happening. This kind of imagery is essential and important globally.
Ashlee: I think, I think people - I think this is the key to making so much of whatever we're trying to do with climate change work. Because y’know, like you said, first of all, the, you, these images, if there's a volcano erupting, something like that, I mean, you get a sense of the, the scale exactly what's happening. When a hurricane hits somewhere, you can see what areas are flooded. But, but on the bigger picture, y'know, these satellites now, literally, can count every tree on Earth.
They use AI to figure out what type of tree it is. So, they figure out it's biomass. Then they calculate exactly how much carbon dioxide it sucks down. They're looking over all these oil fields in, in Texas and Oklahoma. They can see methane leaks. They can see exactly how much methane is coming out, y'know?
So, I think if we're going to, like, put real metrics around things like carbon credits where you've bought some forest in South America and you have no idea if somebody's planting something there or not, or, or you're trying to tax a company for their toll on the environment. I just think these, these satellites are, like, our only hope of, of adding actual metrics around the stuff, and we're, like, not far off at all.
So Planet’s [Labs] already doing that now. There's specialized startups that are, like, just looking at things like methane and just looking at trees and making this their business.
Niki: Yeah, so I think it's a, that's the money maker, right? You can have hedge funds and investors who wanna count cars and parking lots, and then you can have companies who are potentially either voluntarily or gonna be forced to, y'know, be carbon neutral or report on their emissions. I think it's a great, it's a great and important business model.
So, there's imaging on one side, and then the other side is this space internet. [Ashlee: Yeah] So, this is like the StarLink kind of concept. [Ashlee: Yes] Which do you wanna talk about that as a business model?
Ashlee: Yeah! I mean, y'know, like we said, the rockets don't really make much money, but these satellites potentially do. And, and there's this huge race going on, which again, SpaceX is, is in the lead on to make this space internet. And this is really what's driving this exponential increase in the number of satellites.
So, until, like, 2020, we had about 2,500 satellites in low Earth orbit. Over just the last three years, that's tripled now to about 10,000, and it's set to go to [chuckling] about a hundred thousand or 200,000 because SpaceX wants to put up about 14,000 satellites. OneWeb wants to do the same. Amazon is about to launch a fleet of, of 14,000. China's gonna wanna do the same thing every, y’know, anyone who can sort of afford this is gonna want to have a space internet system, which is essentially a telecom system that is not really bounded by geography.
And it, more importantly, I think people have underestimated this, is that it will provide this, this always-on internet just kinda washing over the Earth.
And, and like, a lot of us think that's, like, not a big deal cuz we're, like, on the internet all the time, or you have your cell phone when you're traveling around. But, y’know, there's these huge gaps of, of all, all this stuff we've heard about for years, like, the internet of things, and, like, sensors on container ships, and in farms and, like, y’know, reporting, reporting about what's happening on Earth. This really depends on some sort of, always-on kind of fabric.
And so, I think people have underestimated this. To me, it's, like, so clearly, like 1996, we're laying fiber all over the world and building data centers. We're just building this new infrastructure in this computing shell around the Earth. And I think it's gonna change - I actually think, that's to your point where the money, I think that's where the money is going to be.
And, and so far, people are kind of focused on like, “Oh, I get internet at my vacation house in the woods.” But I think it's much, much, much bigger than that. When you have this like always-on fabric, things like self-driving cars, and drones, and what have you. It just, it changes everything.
Niki: Thanks for taking a trip down memory lane today. I gotta say it was brutal trying to edit two years down into just a few clips, but I tried to focus on some episodes that might have slipped off the radar.
You can find all of our previous content on our website, YouTube channel, or wherever you listen. We've got exciting stuff planned for the future, including video content, naturally, the new music we've debuted today, so stay tuned.
And if you like what you hear, please do drop us a line, recommend us to a friend or leave a five star review. It really helps feed the algorithm. Maybe we'll even do an episode on podcast algos.
Until next time!