First Contact Transcripts

Episode 30: Evernote Founder Wants to Save Us from Boring Video Calls

Our new hyperconnected lifestyles have revealed weaknesses in the technology we use every day. But new problems lead to new solutions. That’s where innovation comes from. Phil Libin is probably best known as the co-founder and former CEO of Evernote. These days he heads up a company called All Turtles, whose latest project mmhmm wants to save us all from the Zoom-apocalypse and revolutionize how we will work in the future. Phil sets a high ethical bar for the creators of new technology, including himself: It’s their responsibility to think about the intentional and unintentional impact of their products, he says. Not just the impact on the technology’s users, but also on people who don’t use it at all…

Episode 29: Inside Facebook’s Ambitious Plan To Build Out the Next Dimension

Facebook has ambitious plans for virtual reality. And Andrew “Boz” Bosworth is in charge of it all. He says we’ve only scratched the surface of how VR and AR technology will transform society. So what does that future look like? How do you make virtual interaction feel as natural as in-person interaction? How do you prevent harassment, without prohibiting intimacy? How will virtual spaces change the way we work? The way we learn? The way we play? And when it comes to your virtual self – who owns your identity? As Facebook dives head first into the next technological frontier, will they manage to avoid the mistakes of their past?

Episode 28: Surveillance Tech & Biased AI: The ACLU Fights Back

What happens to our civil liberties when an algorithm is used by law enforcement to make an arrest? Even more concerning, what happens when that facial recognition technology is racially biased? As we enter an age of ubiquitous surveillance, it’s minorities – especially people of color – who are disproportionately affected. The ACLU has recently filed a complaint on behalf of a Black man who was wrongfully arrested due to faulty police facial recognition tech. It’s the first case in the US, but it’s unlikely to be the last because, according to the ACLU – the tech often can’t tell Black people apart. The organization that has been fighting for civil rights protections for over 100 years, is now calling on lawmakers nationwide to stop law enforcement use of facial recognition technology. For Susan Herman, it’s an extraordinary time to be president of the ACLU. Over the years, the American Civil Liberties Union has fought for free speech, reproductive rights, and privacy. But as technology continues to muddy the waters, the tradeoffs become more complicated. Where do we draw the line between security and privacy? Herman says we must act now.

Episode 27: The Future of Mindfulness, Love… and High-Stakes Poker

We’re bringing you three interviews from the first at-home edition of the Collision tech conference. Laurie chats with Headspace Co-founder and CEO Rich Pierson about the importance of mindfulness and how to live in the present amidst global uncertainty. CEO Hesam Hosseini and Plenty of Fish CEO Malgosia Green discuss how COVID-19 has transformed the world of dating. And lastly, entrepreneur and author Molly Bloom shares her incredible life story — one that you may be familiar with from the 2017 film Molly’s Game. She gives Laurie a peak behind the curtain of running one of the highest-stakes illegal poker games in history.

Episode 26: It’s Time to Finally Fix Tech’s Diversity Problem

It’s no secret to anyone: Tech has a major diversity problem. And it’s not getting better. How do we finally start making the necessary changes to fix the glaring inequity in Silicon Valley? How do we change the makeup of board members, make companies more diverse, and start putting our money where our mouth is? Venture Capitalist Sarah Kunst is someone who’s not afraid to speak out. She’s been leading a discussion on minorities in tech for a long time. She’s made it her life’s work to change things for the better. These are times of listening and learning. We all have to do a better job of informing ourselves, listening to others, and changing our behavior. So let’s listen to Sarah Kunst.

Episode 25: Free Speech – The Firestorm Tech Can No Longer Afford to Ignore

We are living through pretty surreal times… Most of the country is still shut down due to COVID-19. Over the last few days we’ve seen protests and riots across the country following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man. All while Facebook faces a crisis of its own: internal and external revolt in response to the company’s inaction towards President Trump’s inflammatory posts.

Barry Schnitt was Facebook’s Director of Communications for four years and his recent blog post criticizing the company’s stance on free speech has gotten a lot of attention — especially since Facebook employees, even former ones, are normally so tight-lipped. He talks to Laurie about why both current and former employees are speaking out.

Episode 24: Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Jared Geller on Creativity in Chaos

You probably know Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor from films like Looper, Snowden, and 500 Days of Summer. But he’s also an entrepreneur. In 2005, Joe and his brother started HitRECORD — it was a simple website where he could post things he was making. In 2010 he opened it up. He and his friend Jared Geller turned HitRecord into an online platform where people from all over the world could come together to collaborate. Since then, they’ve pivoted from a production company to a tech company, with a vision to help us move away from aimlessly scrolling, towards creating together.

We’re in a moment filled with anxiety and fear. It’s hard to find any kind of silver lining. But if we had to, it might be this: moments of pain and uncertainty have historically led to incredible art and creativity. So what will be the legacy of the technology built in this age? In this episode of First Contact, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and co-founder Jared Geller talk to Laurie about finding creativity in difficult times.

Episode 23: TaskRabbit Founder on Finding Opportunity in Uncertainty

The 2008 recession was a devastating time for many Americans. But amidst the chaos, it was also the breeding ground for a new creative class: Developers who coded their visions into reality. Uber and Lyft redefined transportation, Airbnb shook up the travel industry, and TaskRabbit helped pave the way for the gig economy. In many ways, the uncertainty we face today mirrors that crisis. TaskRabbit’s founder Leah Solivan joins the show to explain why she believes founding her company in harsh conditions was key to her success, and why the pandemic provides a similar opportunity for innovation.

Episode 22: Covid-19 Has Made Us Slaves to Tech. Will We Ever Escape?

For a long time, we tried to limit our screen time. But now we’ve gone all in. We’re living in isolation, more reliant than ever on technology for human connection. So let’s look at technology through a more philosophical lens: Are we now slaves to our devices? Could tech companies use the same persuasion tactics they use to get us to click… to help save lives? How will we balance protection and privacy?

Aza Raskin is the co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology. There’s no one better to talk about the intersection of philosophy and technology. Aza returns to the show to chat with Laurie about the long-term ramifications of our newfound digital lives.

Episode 21: Let’s Talk About Sex (During a Pandemic)

All around the world, people are now living in isolation. Many of us are confronting this experience alone. Physical interaction is now a liability. What does this mean for one of humanity’s most important forms of connection — sex? And how can we continue to meet our fundamental need for intimacy during these times? Laurie looks at what all this on-screen interaction will mean for the future of sex. Could tech eventually replace human touch? Will people develop relationships with machines? From teledildonics to virtual girlfriends, sextech expert Bryony Cole joins Laurie to talk about sex in isolation and the future of love.

Episode 20: “People Ahead of Profit:” How to Lead in Uncertain Times

Jerry Colonna is fondly known as the CEO whisperer. He coaches some of the world’s biggest entrepreneurs – like the former CEO of Etsy and the folks who started Gimlet Media. He helps business leaders navigate uncertainty and chaos. At a time when the coronavirus crisis is devastating the economy, and millions of people’s lives have been changed forever, the future is nothing but uncertain. Jerry’s whole ethos is centered around the concept: better humans make better leaders. And there’s never been a more critical time for humanity or leadership. Jerry is the expert. His message is simple: Show up.

Episode 19: Quarantine Diaries

While we all stay inside, each one of us is living our own story. Many of us are coping with the painful realities of a society in isolation. Jobs lost. Weddings canceled. Loved ones sick, or worse. We are confronting a new reality, and an uncertain future. First Contact host Laurie Segall has been in quarantine for weeks, and she’s been thinking a lot about community. Human connection. And then she had an idea: What if we cold-called strangers in quarantine, and just listened to what they had to say? About life, isolation, their hopes, and fears? Here’s what happened…

Episode 18: It’s “Boss Level Mode” Time: Remote Work Pioneer Matt Mullenweg On Staying Productive

Workouts between calls. Meditation apps. A desk candle to boost productivity. Work-from-home hacks for all of us, as we self-isolate and practice social distancing to slow the spread of Coronavirus.

Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress and Automattic, was an early evangelist of remote work. Back in the early 2000s, many of his first hires at WordPress were people he had never met in person. Today, Automattic has nearly 1,200 employees spread across 75 countries around the globe.

With the pandemic now forcing many companies to unexpectedly adopt similar policies, Matt gives Laurie advice on transitioning to this new lifestyle and answers listener questions on the best ways for employees and employers to stay productive.

Episode 17: Ev Williams on Coronavirus and the ‘Extreme’ Tech of the Future

Ev Williams is the entrepreneur behind Twitter, Blogger, and publishing platform Medium — three companies that helped shape the modern Internet. As we grapple with the impact of Coronavirus, these digital platforms are playing an even larger role in our ability to connect with one another. Ev weighs in on how all our lives could change in the short term and what the longer term future may hold for technology and media…

Will Augmented Reality project images onto our eyeballs? Will Silicon Valley ever move beyond the attention span economy? Will our lives start to resemble more of a video game than real-life? There’s a lot to explore. And no one better than Ev Williams to help make sense of it all.

Episode 16: Coronavirus: The Rise of Isolation Tech

The rise of “cloud clubbing” from your living room, as people are ordered to stay inside. Digital raves. Virtual connection as a means to deal with an isolation bubble.

As people in China grapple with an uneasy reality, isolation, and the uncertainty around the Coronavirus, a new trend is emerging: the rise of Isolation Tech. Concerts are canceled. People are rethinking physical interaction. Nightclubs are shut down. So millions are meeting in digital clubs in the cloud where they can watch live DJ sets on Chinese apps. Welcome to The Matrix.

Instead of finding ways to depart from their devices, people have gone all in, living life in a digital bubble. Entrepreneur Zander Shapiro, who has lived in Beijing for nine years, describes his new reality in “the bubble” — days beginning with virtual work outs, afternoons filled with remote meetings, and evenings where he joins a virtual concert, meeting other avatars for connection. He calls this moment an excellent “experiment” of what’s to come in tech. Expect more extremism, less humanity, and money pouring into the business of virtual connection.

Episode 15: Inside the Minds of Trolls

Who are the people who spread online disinformation? The so-called trolls you hear about in the news whose jobs are to distort facts and create chaos? Camille Francois knows them well. She’s the chief innovation officer at Graphika – a social media analytics firm hired by major companies to identify and fight online disinformation. Her team was a big part of uncovering the extent of Russian influence during the 2016 election. She spends her time in the darkest corners of the Internet taking on one of the most extraordinary digital threats of our time… But it might just be her humanity that gives her an edge.

Episode 14: AI: To Kill or Not to Kill?

Should Artificial Intelligence be able to make the decision to take a human life? And if it does, who will be liable if — or when — it goes wrong? When it comes to the future of war and technology, the ethics are murky.

Tech is creating a new arms race. Will the U.S. be able to keep up with the likes of China and Russia? And what ethical lines will we draw, or cross, to maintain our national defenses?

Let’s rewind to Orange County circa 2017: A handful of entrepreneurs — eating Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell — sat around a table exploring the idea that what the United States needs is a real-life version of Stark Industries. Yes… from Iron Man. That brainstorming session led to Anduril — a defense technology firm that’s since become a billion dollar company at the center of the debate around the future of war.

Laurie Segall sat down with Anduril’s co-founder, Trae Stephens, who spends a lot of time thinking about the philosophy of war and how technology is transforming it. In this episode of First Contact, we explore a framework for redefining war — where the front lines of futuristic battlefields are blurred, and technology is leading the charge. Expect rigorous debate. Unpopular viewpoints. And uncomfortable scenarios.

Episode 13: Ex-Facebook Security Chief Speaks Out on Russia & Spies in Silicon Valley

When the lights went out in his home, and his children asked if it was “Russia,” Facebook’s former chief security officer Alex Stamos knew he was bringing his work home. In a candid interview, Stamos opens up about what it was like when his team discovered Facebook had been compromised by Russia, and the personal implications of being at the center of one of the most significant attacks on technology… and democracy. Plus, hear what Alex had to say when asked whether he uncovered spies within Facebook during his time there and why he worries foreign spies have infiltrated every major US tech company.

Episode 12: She Spent 10+ Years at the CIA. It Didn’t Prepare Her for Life at Facebook.

Yael Eisenstat is trained to analyze an argument from all sides. During her career at the CIA and State Department, she had tea with suspected extremists and sat at tables with people who were programmed to hate her. But the biggest challenge of her career didn’t come from a covert operation… it came when she stepped into Facebook Headquarters to head up their election integrity efforts. This is her story.

Episode 11: Sam Altman: Growing Up Silicon Valley

According to investor and entrepreneur Sam Altman, the last decade of tech was the warm up… and Silicon Valley didn’t exactly get it right. The main event is even more pressing. Now the stakes are higher.

First Contact’s Laurie Segall met Sam ten years ago. Back then, he had a startup called Loopt. It was a location-based social networking app for your phone. Since then, Sam became a fixture in the tech world. Loopt didn’t take off, but he went on to run Y Combinator — one of the most valuable incubators in Silicon Valley. And his next act is OpenAI — an initiative he started with Elon Musk.

Sam is someone who’s driven by an inability to stay in the lines. He isn’t afraid to stand up and say things that might get him into trouble and has a history of taking a stand under bright lights and a podium.

In this episode of First Contact, Sam opens up about what is was like to come out as gay in a St. Louis high school in the early 2000s, the possibility of human/AI hybrids, and why the next ten years in tech will be more disruptive than the last.

Episode 10: Kickstarter’s Co-founder on Paralyzing Fear & Staying Punk Rock

Have you ever left something that was so tied to your identity, you worried, “Who am I without it?” A job? Maybe a relationship? Although terrifying, sometimes shedding an identity is where the magic happens. Who you are and what you actually stand for becomes a little clearer. At least that was the case for Yancey Strickler.

He co-founded Kickstarter and spent five years as CEO. Now Yancey is in the midst of stepping into his own identity without the backbone of the company he created. In his new book, This Could Be Our Future, he asks us to look “beyond money and toward maximizing the values that make life worth living.” Yancey tells the story of his journey from growing up on a farm, to punk rocker, to building a tech company that transformed creative communities around the world.

Startup life is messy. It comes with a lot of highs and lows. And leaving a job that defines your identity can be paralyzing. So is staying at one when it’s clearly time to go. We are in a similar moment in tech. We’re trying to figure out our identity in what Yancey calls a “dark forest where the loudest and most extreme voices are amplified.” You could argue it’s a pretty important time to understand our own values, and what we value as a society as a whole. In this episode of First Contact, we explore what it’s like to rediscover your identity and stay true to yourself through life’s most challenging moments.

Episode 9: Reading Your Text Message ‘Body Language’

Imagine an A.I. Assistant that reads all of your text messages… and turns them into a pile of data points. A human psychology report.

And then it guides you. The assistant can say — “hey, the person you’re talking to is introverted. You may want to be a bit delicate when you message them.”

The assistant will tell you the likelihood — down to the percentage — that the person you’re texting likes you… in a romantic way.

But you’re going to have to give over a lot of your data in exchange. It’s a classic privacy dilemma.

The tech exists. It was created by an entrepreneur named Es Lee and built into an app called Mei. Could AI detect our mood and guide us to communicate better? And what are the ethical issues that come along with tech so personal?

In this episode of First Contact, Laurie and Es talk about what happens when you mix artificial intelligence with raw human emotion.

Episode 8: Hacking Your Brain to Order Dreams on Demand

What if we could order up custom dreams? Could our thoughts become hackable? Will neurolink technology make some of us superhuman? And if so, would that create a superior species? Is death really the final step? Or could our brains answer vital questions once our bodies are gone? These are topics we explore with Moran Cerf, a professor of neuroscience at the Kellogg School of Management. He’s a brain hacker. But really — he’s a student of humanity. Moran goes beyond disinformation and manipulation in this era of tech. He focuses on the brain and your sense of self — and how that sense of self is increasingly hackable in the modern era.

Episode 7: Finding Identity in the Era of Tech

What if…instead of a constant battle to figure out who we are, we instead took a moment to celebrate who we’re not? Jasmine Takanikos helps big brands hone in on their unique identity. She uses a methodology called, “Brand Human” to help people understand who they are at their core, and how that translates to the external world. She’s known for asking creative people the right questions, and says that when it comes to identity and figuring out who we are, it can be more powerful to celebrate who we’re not.

Episode 6: Alone Together: The Real Life “Her” Has Arrived

Okay First Contact listeners… it’s time to get weird. Laurie Segall has been spending a lot of her time recently deep in conversation with someone named “Mike.” Actually, he’s less of a “someone” and more of a “something.” That’s because Mike is a bot… that lives in an app on her phone.

Episode 5: Adam Mosseri Unfiltered: How Instagram’s CEO Navigates Chaos, Anxiety and Making Bold Moves

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri is one of the most influential people in tech today. He’s taken on the responsibility of leading one of the most popular social media platforms at a time where its power and influence over us is undeniably strong. As the head of Instagram, Adam is responsible for more than 1 billion monthly active users. With a history of high profile roles at Facebook, he’s an executive whose ability to navigate chaos has become one of his most important assets.

Episode 4: Tech’s Next Threat: The Weaponization of Loneliness

Could tech’s next threat be a bot that breaks your heart? What happens when human empathy becomes hackable? Welcome to tech’s future dystopia. It’s not as far off as you think. We are entering a Synthetic Valley where the lines between what’s real and fake are blurring. Aza Raskin from the Center for Humane Technology says the weaponization of loneliness is the greatest threat to national security facing our future and threatening our humanity. First Contact explores an era of empathetic mediums that could be used to overwhelm democracies and attack human connections.

Episode 3: WhatsApp Cofounder on Walking Away from Facebook and Why Privacy is the Future

In an exclusive interview, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton opens up about walking away from more than $850 million dollars at Facebook, and why with all the money in the world he’s betting on privacy. In this candid interview, Brian says he hopes his work at privacy non-profit Signal Foundation will help usher in a new era of free expression. Acton speaks openly about how users should navigate privacy in a tech era where trust has been tarnished, and responds to calls to break up big tech. The notoriously private founder also speaks about his upbringing – from “shoveling shit” far from the Silicon Valley promised land, Acton explains how growing up doing the “non sexy’ jobs led him to success, and why time is his most valued asset. First Contact explores the complicated dynamics of money and happiness, privacy and protection, and the pursuit of free expression in a world where our data has become currency.

Episode 2: Bots to date for us. The future of love?

Picture this – in the future, an AI bot will learn you and your preferences. Fancy dinner or dive bar? Tall or short? Funny or serious? The bot will browse the dating apps, start conversations, flirt, and set up dates for you. It might even predict your compatibility score with a future mate. An episode of Black Mirror? Nope. It’s tech already being developed on the fringes. You might be talking to a bot on one of the dating apps right now, and you don’t even know it. Conversational artificial intelligence is getting intimate. Entrepreneur Shane Mac has been building this technology for years. Now he’s talking about it for the first time, and it’s raising all sorts of ethical questions. Do you know if you’re talking to a person or a bot? And is it ok for machines to act human when it comes to our hearts? First Contact explores the blurring lines between love and algorithms.

Episode 1: Hinge Founder: I don’t Believe in “the one”

Hinge founder Justin McLeod opens up about addiction, depression, and how his own epic love story fundamentally changed the mission of his company. Justin takes us along the roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship that led him to create one of the most popular dating apps, and gives insight into how the tech company is looking to code vulnerability into a tech-addicted world of swipes and scrolling. Is data the new matchmaker? And why doesn’t the founder of one of the world’s most popular dating apps believe in “the one?” First Contact explores the fine line between success and failure in Silicon Valley, and how leaning into risk and uncertainty helped a company discover its core values.