[Music] Welcome to “The Future is Human” Podcast, where we explore the remarkable enhancements shaping our world. Join me as we uncover the mysteries of science, technology, and innovation. Is technology finally delivering on its unfulfilled promise? We’ll delve into the boundless power of the human imagination. Discover the impact of society, ethics, and the essence of being human. Let’s shape the future together. [Music]
Hi, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the future is human podcast. Today, I have a very special guest, Mr. Charles Johnson, a colleague, a friend, and of course, a tech guru. Charles currently serves as the Director of Technology for Civicom, and I’m very excited to have him here with us today. Charles, thanks for being here. It’s a pleasure to have you on the show.
Sure. Thanks for having me. I’ve got to say, I listened to the podcast yesterday and the intro sounds a lot like the intros of a lot of the paranormal podcasts [Laughter] I listen to. I don’t know if that was by design or not.
I wanted it to be. You know, I had this conversation with Dave, funny enough, a couple of weeks ago and he was like, “You know, it’s very theatrical,” and I was like, “You have to be a little bit theatrical in today’s world, right? You have to captivate the audience.” So, that was my go at it. We may update it later. Do you like it or do you hate it?
I like it. It’s cool, yes.
Cool, [Laughter] yes. I want it to kind of be, you know, because technology, in some ways, is a little mysterious, right? You know, I was having this conversation with my mother the other day. I was showing her my – not to go off on a tangent. We’ll bring the conversation back in just a second, but I was showing my mother my baby monitor for my daughter who’s seven months old. It’s an app on my phone. I was showing that I can play music, I can turn on the light, and she was like, “This is crazy.” She was like, “My father would never believe it.” My grandfather is in his late 80s now. I was like, “Yes. Imagine all the other stuff that we can do.”
So, I guess that’s a longwinded way of saying technology in some ways is mysterious, right? In some ways, we really don’t know what’s going to come next, and it’s transforming and evolving at what I feel like is such a rapid rate. So, it is a little daunting, a little mysterious, a little edgy in some ways.
Yes. That’s what I always say. It’s like I don’t know how normal people do it. Like when I say “normal” people, I mean people outside this industry, unless they have somebody around the house that knows how to do this stuff, because it is - it’s all just Voodoo, right? Like I don’t get it.
[Laughter] Right, yes. I mean, and look, you know it better than myself, being a wizard of technology, being a coder, and all these other aspects of what you do. You understand the mechanics a lot better than I ever will, but in some ways, I look at it, any piece of technology, even the project that we’re currently working on; it really is fascinating how everything just kind of clicks together and what seems like magic just works, right, or sorcery. It’s just all boom, poof, it happens.
So, that’s what I wanted to dive into today. I wanted to talk a little bit about digital transformation because I feel, at least in my lifetime, we’re at what feels like, hopefully not the climax, but I feel like we’re at this point where it’s transforming so quickly. You really have to be on the edge of your seat and be monitoring all of the different updates that are happening almost on a daily basis.
With that said, I want to identify some common challenges and roadblocks in digital transformation because I think that’s something that a lot of businesses in particular are facing, and if they’re not talking about it, I think they should. If you’re not talking about transforming digitally in some capacity, you’re already behind the curve. I’m planning on titling this episode, “Become Digital or Die: Achieving Digital Transformation”.
I know that sounds a little going back to the paranormal or mysterious, it sounds a little daunting or scary, but it’s kind of like that old political art with the snake that was broken apart. I don’t know if it was Benjamin Franklin or who put that together.
“Join or Die.”
“Join or Die,” right?
It’s like it’s the ultimatum, and I really think that businesses that aren’t transforming digitally are bound to fail. They’re setting themselves up for inevitable failure. Are you familiar with the book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma”? Have you ever read that?
So, The Innovator’s Dilemma, not to keep going off on a tangent, is a book, and I forget the author’s name. I think it was, I can’t remember his name, but the concept is why do some businesses fail and others succeed, and it talks about transformation, digital transformation to a certain extent. It explains why established companies can be overtaken by upstarts.
Similar to what we’re doing with the current project that we’re working on where it’s a disruptive technology that’s coming out into a space to change the way we’re doing things. We’re seeing that now with AI, for example. Everyone and their mother seem to be talking about AI and no one wants to miss the AI train or ship, so to speak.
With all that said, Charles, I’m going to pass you the mic. What do you think? What does digital transformation mean to you?
Well, I mean, just based on what you were just saying, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “digital transformation” or “going digital”, but while you were talking there, I was thinking about Kodak as like this super example. Like Kodak invented the digital camera. They actually tasked a guy with it. They told him, in the 1970s, they said, “We want you to invent a camera that will digitally capture pictures and store them on this cassette tape,” and he did. I’ve seen it. I think it’s in the Smithsonian, or the Kodak Museum, or something. It’s like this big digital camera. They told him after he invented it, they said, “Okay. Now, destroy it, because we won’t sell any more film if people are buying digital cameras.”
Kodak was very much like the Gillette business model, right? “We’re not in the business of selling cameras. We’re in the business of selling film,” or razor blades, or whatever. They could have been the digital camera of the future and they chose not to, and as a result, they died, right? Kodak’s barely hanging on anymore.
Film still exists for hobbyists, but in general, Kodak invented the digital camera and then chose not to adopt it. So, I think that’s your -
That’s a great example and that’s such a good story to reference.
Yes, and it really is shameful because, like you said, they could have been at the epicenter of the digital camera evolution, right? It’s wild to think that they must have thought that they were saving themselves, but really, they were putting the nail on their own coffin so to speak.
Any other examples come to mind? I know there’s a few out there.
I mean, yes. Just the internet killed so many things. Just newspapers were a really big deal. I know that recently, the paper here in town, San Diego Union, they sold for $350 million, and somebody said, “Well, why would you buy a newspaper for $350 million?” They said, “Because they sit on $500 million worth of real estate.”
They bought them just to kill them just because their real estate was more valuable than the newspaper. Unfortunately, the newspapers were one of those things that didn’t figure out how to do the internet fast enough.
Right. They didn’t transform.
I think New York Times has finally figured it out and Wall Street Journal finally figured it out. A couple of them have figured it out, but in general, newspapers have not.
It took them long enough, right? [Laughter]
Yes, exactly. What’s funny is that I am not a fan of digital transformation.
Yes. I’ve been doing this since I was 13 years old. Like I started writing inventory software and selling it. So, 40 years I’ve been doing this, and I don’t like computers. Like I studied the Amish for a long time because I was interested in the way that Amish treat technology. People think that the Amish are antitechnology, like they don’t adopt technology because they shun it or whatever, and that’s not the case. When you actually do a study of it, what you learn is that the Amish consider technology and they consider its value to the community. Amish don’t have telephones because they think that it’s more valuable for the community if people go to each other’s homes to speak to one another face to face. The Amish, they allow themselves to have hay bailers but not hay loaders, and the difference is that if you have an automatic hay bailer, it doesn’t put a man out of work, but if you have an automatic hay loader, it puts a man out of work. So, they consider their technology before adopting it, and I really think that that is a problem.
Yes. So, we adopt these technologies just because they save money or do things faster, but when you’re saving money like you adopt AI, I mean “Pagealive”, which is the product we’re developing now, is specifically to have a human being answer a support call, right, or a sales call, or something like that, as opposed to going through a phone tree, or speaking with a robot, or whatever, and like, “Okay. Well, robots are cheap. I can put a robot on the other side of this chat and it’ll handle 90% of the phone calls.” Okay, but then that puts two people out of work. Who’s going to buy your product if those two people are out of work?
Totally, yes. I think you’re absolutely right. Dare I say, there is a lack of thought when implementing a lot of technology. The AI chatbot is a great example because there were repercussions and there are repercussions, right? Not only are we putting people out of work, but it’s a lesser experience for its audience. You’re putting people out of work and you’re deteriorating your customer service experience at the same time. So, it really is a net loss, in my opinion, for that business. Some organizations are starting to realize that as it relates to chatbots where they realize that they can actually increase conversion and get more business by implementing a real-life support person as opposed to an AI chatbot, and there are so many other examples just like that.
AI in particular excites me and terrifies me at the same time, because in some ways, it’s exciting to see how vast and far technology has come and our abilities and what we can do with it, but at the same time, it’s like what does that mean for the human element? I think that Amish example that you reference is great because ultimately, they calculate and they put the human first. They want to know what’s the net win or net loss for their community, for their people.
I think that’s something that we probably should do a little bit more of in the tech sector especially, and that’s something that we’re trying to do with Pagealive, hence the name of this podcast, The Future is Human, because at the end of the day, what is it all for, right? What are we transforming digitally for if not to better our lives. If it’s just to save money, is it all worth it? Probably not.
Yes, exactly. I mean people here that I work with specifically talk about how in 10 years or 20 years, all of the software that we write will be written by AI, and now a lot of articles are written by AI. I don’t know that it will ever have the same kind of, I don’t know, artistic flare that a human being will have. Like you can tell when something was generated [Laughter] by a computer. Will that get better? Yes, but it’s just copying. That just means that it’s getting better at copying the work of people. Then what happens when all of that’s being generated by a computer and there’s no more people to copy from because we’re all out of work because the computer replaced us. [Laughter]
Totally, yes. So, in your opinion, this process of digital transformation, it sounds like you’re against it for the most part. Is that fair to say?
I think it’s a tool.
Like a wrench is a tool and a hammer is a tool, it helps us do our work, but it doesn’t put us out of work. I think that’s where the digital transformation is important. I love the work I do. I think this is the best work in the world, but I don’t like the idea that computers are replacing humans because I like to work with them, you know?
I don’t want to think of computers replacing people. I don’t think it’s a good idea. A wrench never put a man out of work. It actually made more work for people.
Right, and it feels like, at least to me, that we’re losing - not to keep repeating myself - but it does feel like we’re losing that “humancentricity”, if that’s even a word. You know, that human focus. To your point, the reason a tool like a wrench was created was to make the person’s life easier, right? To better their work or advance their work in some capacity.
To give them the ability to do more work.
Yes, exactly, and I feel like we lost that focus, right? I wonder, in your opinion, how do we ensure that the human element is not lost during the transformation?
Not to toot my own horn, but I think tools like Pagealive will [Laughter] help with that kind of thing if they’re adopted, like if people see us as a disruptor in the space and say, “That’s a good idea.”
I fear there isn’t an end to it. Like I think that - and this is kind of doomsaying I think, but it’s an honest opinion - I feel like there’s going to be a serious brain drain in the country, or in the world, not just in the country, in the world, in the next 20 or 30 years because people don’t take the time to think anymore, right? Like every one of us has a supercomputer in our pockets.
Like you go to the microwave and you’re heating up your burrito, or you’re pumping gas, or going for a walk, or whatever, and those are the times when back in the olden days, when you couldn’t do anything else but sit there and think about stuff. Like you’re thinking about the product you’re working on or you’re thinking about the poetry you’re going to write when you get home tonight, or pondering things, and working through problems, and thinking about things. Now what people do when they’re standing at the microwave waiting with three minutes for their burrito to cook, they’re scrolling. “I’ve got to scroll through the AI-generated ads to get to the content that I really like.” Even if you’re out for a walk or whatever, you’ve still got your headphones plugged in and you’re listening to music or whatever, and you’re not - I don’t know. I don’t think people, are taking the time. It’s leisure time.
I’m going to go way deep here.
Go for it.
I used to tell the story when I told stories at campfires and things like that, like I worked for the Cub Scouts and for the City of Poway, and I used to tell this story about, like I would do this while I was lighting a fire with a flint and steel, so it was like all magical and things. I would tell this story about the snow-white crow who went and stole fire from the sun and brought it back down to the earth so that people could be warm. The gist of the story is that fire allowed us to cook our food so it was more nutritious. It gave us fire to keep us warm and it kept away the boogieman in the dark, but fire gave us this one thing that allowed us to become the great thinkers that we are, and that fire gave us leisure time. Because before then, all we were doing was hunting and gathering. With fire, now you have the evenings where you can’t go out and hunt and gather. You can sit, and talk, and draw cave paintings, and do all those things that you couldn’t do before.
Leisure time I think is what elevates human beings above animals; is it gives us this time to think and invent. If we fill that space with scrolling, then we’re not getting that development. So, I fear that that will become a problem in the future.
That’s a great point and that’s a great argument. Now, do you think one could argue the flipside in the sense where maybe AI can be utilized as a tool, and other technological advancements can be utilized as tools allowing us more free time to do more creative thinking, or do you fear that that’s just not going to happen?
Yes. This is funny because I will do this. [Laughter] When we’re at home and I’ve got my iPad because you can’t just have the TV on; you’ve got to have an additional screen with you.
[Laughter] Right. We’re all guilty of it.
Yes. So, I’ve got my iPad, and what I will do is like I’ll be working on a book or something that I’m writing and I will use ChatGPT, like I’ll talk to it. I actually had this huge conversation a while back and the first thing I said is, “Okay. We’re going to write a mystery novel and I need to bounce ideas off of you.” So, it’s like, “Okay. I’m ready to go.” I was able to brainstorm with it because I didn’t have any person available to brainstorm with. It was able to have a conversation with me and I was able to bounce ideas off of it, but in the end, the ideas were mine and I didn’t allow it to write anything for me. So, I think that was a fantastic use of the tool. It allowed me to brainstorm ideas, and I use it a lot for that kind of thing. Like I will brainstorm ideas by having a conversation with it in the same way that I would have a conversation with a person.
Would I rather have a conversation with a person? Yes. Was there one available for me at the time? No. [Laughter]
[Laughter] Yes. Good point.
So, I used it as a tool for brainstorming just to help me through my own thought process, but I did not allow it to do any of the work. Like in the end, the writing was mine, the story was mine. Yes.
Yes. Now, I want to say, and I feel like that’s the general vision behind tools like that; to be used as tools, as accompanying elements, as opposed to overtaking our daily lives. How do you think we as people, we as a culture and as a society, and businesses, how do we ensure that that’s how - is there even a way to mitigate it, to manage it, to ensure that it’s used as a tool and not take over our lives? I don’t know that there is. What do you think?
I don’t think that there is because there’s cost savings in using it, and in the end, cost savings wins.
I mean, I sound negative because I’m a luddite but – [Laughter]
No, but it’s a fair take. It’s a fair take.
So, it’s more fear than anything else, yes.
Look, I think that’s reasonable because I think we fear the unknown, right? We don’t know what it’s going to bring and what kind of potential catastrophes can happen at the hands of this digital transformation, but what role do you think leaders, both in organizations and maybe even in government, should be taking when it comes to digital transformation, maybe even AI specifically? Do you think there’s a particular role that they should be taking?
Yes. I think the careful consideration before adopting technologies is important.
Just like the Amish do, you know?
I think I agree with you, 100%. Now, I don’t think that it’s something that we can leave only up to government. My take is that that’s something businesses, business leaders, and government officials alike should probably be both doing, and I don’t think we do enough of that.
I actually have a good example of that, and it’s a particular thorn in my side is that the iPhone has the lightning cable, and everybody’s waiting for iPhone 15 to come out because it’s going to have the same cable as everything else, right? In the United States, Apple is able to produce a phone with a lightning cable because there isn’t any governmental organization saying that, “You have to make things easy on users.” Like everybody hates the lightning cable. They’ve got to have this extra wire, and everything else that they get in their lives charges with a USB-C cable or a micro-USB. The only reason that Apple is changing is because in Europe, the government said, “Hey. You’ve got to have the same cable as everything else. We’re wasting and we’re throwing tons and tons of cables into the garbage. People are hassled by this whole thing.” It’s like, “We’re looking out the consumer.” This is something that the Department of Commerce in the US is supposed to do, but in the US, we have more free capitalism, like we wouldn’t allow the government to tell us how to run our businesses, which honestly in the end is better, but it does hurt the consumer. That’s a perfect example of that is the government is saying, “You’ve got to have the same cable as everybody else because it sucks otherwise.”
Yes. That is an absolute great example and I agree with that.
Look at that. [Laughter]
I know. It drives me crazy, and it’s an example that hits close to home because I was just dealing with this a little earlier today where I was looking for a lightning cable and everyone was like, “I have a USB-C.” So, I totally agree. That rings close to home. [Laughter] Cool.
Now, I guess where do you think we go from here as a society? What do you think? If you had to rub a crystal ball and guess what happens in the next five to 10 years, what do you think happens when it comes to digital transformation?
I mean, like I was talking to one of our AI developers here the other day and she was talking about the large language models and things like ChatGPT, et cetera, and she’s actually working with them and trying to make them do all of the things that they promised to do. She says they’re not all that. Like a lot of what they say is hype.
Yes, I agree.
I think that’s the case. So, I think it’ll be longer before it…
Yes. Are you familiar with the physicist, Miko - I can’t remember his name. But there was this physicist, this quantum physicist that I was listening to, and that’s exactly what he was saying. There’s a lot of fear, and I think it’s reasonable fear, when it comes to AI, but he was basically saying all they’re doing is regurgitating human creation. They’ve scanned the internet, they’ve seen something that John Smith wrote, and they may be altering the verbiage a little bit, but the concept is that they’re basically just borrowing from what humans have made. Now, one of the things that this particular physicist did allude to is once quantum computing comes into the mix, that will likely become a gamechanger in some capacity and I can’t tell you why, but have you looked into quantum computing at all?
Yes. [Laughter] That’s funny because it’s so hard to understand.
[Laughter] Yes. Tell me about it.
There is no simple explanation of it. I’ve watched YouTube videos, I’ve read articles. I mean, it’s not there yet. Like IBM has it, has built a quantum computer, but it’s still not there yet. It’s not ready for primetime, but it’s just so freaking complicated; nobody has been able to explain it to me. I mean I’ve built computers from transistors, [Laughter] so I understand how they work. So, if I don’t understand the explanation -
[Laughter] Right. There’s a very limited few out there that probably do, and if you don’t understand it, I definitely don’t. Funny enough, I’m probably 10 or 15 minutes away from one of IBM’s larger facilities in the Hudson Valley here in New York. So, I might need to take a ride over there and see what they’ve got going on, but from my understanding is it needs to be suspended in like a subzero temperature. There’s a lot of elements, and I agree. I think we’re probably years away from us actually seeing it roll down, probably decades away from us seeing that roll down into mainstream, but somehow, someway, they think that that combined with AI will actually be a gamechanger.
I think quantum computing has to happen. Like there’s a problem with transistors that a lot of people don’t know about right now. They put so many transistors on a microchip, right? So, it takes 21 transistors to add two 2-bit numbers together, and that doesn’t scale. Like if you add a 64-bit number together, it’s not like you get to use fewer transistors. It’s 21 times 64. It doesn’t scale. So, you need more and more transistors to do more things. It’s something like there’s 9 billion transistors, I could be totally wrong, I’m just trying to remember this factoid, 9 billion transistors on the M1 chip, something like that. They can’t make transistors any smaller. What has happened is they’ve gotten so small that the electrons are jumping the silicon gap.
So, something has to happen. Like quantum computers has to happen in order for computers to progress even further, or something else, some other gamechanger has to come. Like supposedly, there was some breakthrough recently with room temperature superconductors that nobody has been able to repeat that experiment. That could be a gamechanger.
Definitely, there has to be some change in the physics of computing in order for it to go on.
A lingering question that I have. How does one stay truly up-to-date with technology? Where do you get your news from?
I don’t know that it’s possible anymore.
I’m in my 50s and I work with people in their 20s and they know. Writing computer software is so much more complicated than it used to be. Like if you go to a website, people expect that website to know where you are.
They expect it to know your thumbprint and all this other jazz that it used to be we’d write a website because we wanted to profess the love to a punk band or something like that. Writing software is so much more complicated than it used to be and computers are so much more complicated. I think to keep up, first of all, you have to wait for technology to settle down, right? Like I invested in home automation way before I should have, so it’s harder to do.
I remember, and this is how old I am, I remember when CD-ROM drives came out and they were a huge pain to install and make work. They didn’t work with Windows right away. You had to install all sorts of weird drivers and you had to tell it to not do disk compression when it’s using that. There were all these tricks. I have a scar right here when I installed Kerry Lee’s, like her first Christmas in when using that was a CD-ROM drive, and I installed it, and I got this scar. I took two stitches Christmas morning.
You got a hell of a story, though. [Laughter]
Yes. When you’re an early adopter of a technology, they’re so much harder to use. If you wait a while, they become easy to use. Like you remember how it used to be to hook-up to a printer or a scanner? Scanners are still hard, but it used to be so hard to do these things, and then as they become mainstream, they’re easier to work with. So, I think that’s one way to keep up is kind of ignore it until it becomes mainstream.
That’s good advice.
Maybe that’s a bad idea.
No. I can resonate with that. I agree with that. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I agree with that for sure. What other advice would you give, whether it’s to consumers or, probably even more importantly as far as our listenership goes, to companies and businesses when it comes to technology? Would you echo that advice that you just mentioned?
Yes. I think the same thing I said earlier. It’s just like be not careful but be - not conscientious. God, I wish I did. I didn’t take my Ginkgo today, so [Laughter] I’m struggling to find a word, but I guess just be careful.
Be specific about the technology you choose. Be careful about the technology you choose. Like don’t employ some technology because you think it’s going to save you money. Whether it does or it might not, but also, you could be putting your customers out of work. That’s my advice in the long-term is people need to be more selective in choosing their technologies. Technology is great. I mean, I’ve made a good living at it.
Yes, right. [Laughter] Yes. I think overall, it definitely is for the greater good or tries to serve the greater good, but I think that’s good, wise advice and wisdom in the sense where we need to be mindful, and I think careful is good as well as far as how we go about adopting it, and then probably even more importantly, implementing it.
Well, Charles, we’ve been at this for over 30 minutes. I want to be mindful of your time. So, thank you so much for coming on to the show. Is there anything else you want to add before we wrap it up?
I could go on all day, so [Laughter] just that. Like be selective in the technology you choose to use, try to be more human about things, and maybe leave your phone behind when you’re going jogging.
That is great advice. I think that is excellent advice, definitely be more human-conscious, and I agree, we can be here all day talking with each other. I’m definitely going to have you back for another episode if you’re up for it in the future. Always a pleasure speaking with you, and thanks again for coming on.
All right, man. Thanks a lot.
All right, Charles. Talk to you soon, man. Take care.
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