The New Polymath: Interview with author Vinnie Mirchandani

Polymath is Greek for renaissance person; someone with the ability to do many remarkable things because they are experts across many disciplines. In this interview, Vinnie Mirchandani, talks about his new book,The New Polymath.

Polymath is Greek for renaissance person; someone with the ability to do many remarkable things because they are experts across many disciplines. Think Leonardo Da Vinci or Ben Franklin.  A polymath can also be viewed as the ultimate to what design-thinking-for-business expert Roger Martin calls a T-shaped person.

In his first book, The New Polymath, Vinnie Mirchandani, founder of Deal Architect, unleashes a barrage of examples of innovation across industries, countries and technologies.  It all adds up to a compelling case for business strategy based on cyclical learning and reinvention. The book has so far been warmly received by tech insiders (see links below).  I recently met Vinnie in San Francisco. I had four questions for him:

1. What implications does your book have for venture capitalists, policy makers, and futurists?

The book is about the next generation convergence of technology where infotech meets cleantech means healthtech meets nanotech. So it has clear implications for business executives as their products and markets morph in many exciting and scary ways. It will also lead to interesting partnerships. In the book I describe how GE is collaborating with Eli Lilly on cancer diagnostics and therapies, Schlumberger on carbon sequestering, Chevron on subsea electrification and Konica Minolta on organic LEDs.

The talent pools I describe around the world, and emerging communities and crowds will make them rethink talent strategies. In turn that will have significant impact on what we traditionally considered a "job". That in turn will influence government policy in terms of investment, job prospects etc. So, the book talks about significant German investment in what is called Solar Valley which has rejuvenated parts of decrepit East Germany. They have also had subsidies for "negative energy" where homes and farms actually sell back to the grid the surplus they are creating with their solar panels and wind turbines. We can argue whether the quantitative benefits justify the huge investment, but you cannot deny the pride many Germans feel about the new "clean" jobs the investment has created and the self-sufficiency many Germans now savor..

I could see industry analysts rethink "categories" that cut across infotech, cleantech etc. I can see VCs not pressure their portfolio companies to "focus" too much.  VCs and Silicon Valley broadly will have to accept that what we traditionally considered "buyer organizations" are increasingly embedding these wide palettes of technologies and becoming vendors themselves. Silicon Valley will have to accept that it is "first among equals" - innovation is happening around the world, and leapfrog means any leadership is fleeting.

The book is overwhelmingly a celebration of technology enabled innovation - I profile over 150 innovative people, places, products. But I do have a sobering chapter where I contrast today with the European Dark Ages - where there was plenty of living, but not much forward movement. Today, in information technology, there is lack of nutrition — much of the spending is wasted. In sustainability, there is lack of agreement — there is rancor in spite of so many global concerns. In health care, it is about lack of availability — much of the world does not have access to all the advances in technology — or even basic health care.

2. What is it about modern polymaths like those featured in your book that separates them from the rest of us? Are they essentially a cross-breed of technologists and design thinkers with a propensity or desire to overachieve?

In terms of tech individual polymaths I have profiles of Bill Joy, Nathan Myhrvold, Steve Jobs among others that many readers are familiar with. But I also spend time discussing the less well known ones. So, Francisco D'Souza, CEO of Cognizant is a polymath in my book because he can effortlessly find talent pools around the world. The BP CTO group - small group of 12 - can easily glide from sensory networks to predictive analytics to 3D visualization. The GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna, NY manages close to close of thousand scientists, most with Ph.D.s in every obscure science known to man. While there is no glib "secret sauce", most of these enterprises have over time developed innovation methods that work for them - like GE's Session T, BP's Game Changers etc.  In terms of individuals I profiled like Myhrvold or D'Souza, a common pattern is they saw plenty of diversity early on in life. Francisco's father was a diplomat and the family moved countries and continents just about every year. Myhrvold did theoretical and mathematical physics and mathematical economics at Princeton. He studied geophysics, space physics and math at UCLA. He started college when he was just 14 and worked as a postdoctoral fellow under the famous Stephen Hawking. So, clearly they had the innate raw material but they were given encouragement to diversify - or not blocked from doing so. That is an exception in our society where we are encouraged to focus, specialize in college, by our formal job descriptions etc.

I cite Isaiah Berlin in the book comparing foxes who know many things to hedgehogs who know one big thing. The polymaths I cite are the foxes with the curiosity and confidence to roam free across the hills.

3. In Chapter 14, "Singularity: Human – Machine Convergence," you present five paths that could lead to superhuman intelligence, two of them AI scenarios along with a biomedical, Internet, and "Digital Gaia" possibility. Which of these do you think has the best chance of reaching the goal first, or will these forms mutate and intermix as they mature?

The 5 scenarios you mention are from Vernon Vinge, the computer scientist and for many, the sci-fi author. As you know Ray Kurzweil has his own, in fact better known, perspectives on Singularity. And of course, we have James Cameron's vivid view in the movie Avatar of our potential future genetic and telepathic capabilities. They are all projecting a convergence of man and machine, so one of my chapters deliberately contrasts progress around each. My realistic assessment is that we are making far more progress with our machines - our armies of sensors, smart dust, robots etc., than we are with human body evolution. In medicine and human advances, as David Watson, former CTO at Kaiser Permanente points out clinical innovation has historically been difficult to take mainstream - takes decades. Regulatory overhead and the method of dissemination of knowledge — master to apprentice, for example — and other factors conspire. So, yes we can fantasize about Singularity scenarios but unless we can reinvent how to scale and speed testing, training and rollout of medical innovation, we may end up with a handful of individuals who can extend their lives and their intelligence, but in the mainstream it will stay a fantasy and we will continue to depend on advances in our machines.

4. A decade ago, Bill Joy warned us about the potential dangers of unethical applications of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR technologies). Is this concern still relevant? What would an updated view on ethics in the context of today's developments look like?

The second E in the book's R-E-N-A-I-S-S-A-N-C-E framework is about Ethics. And I use the Bill Joy Wired article you mention and Eric Schmidt's comments during Google recent flap with China as bookends. What is remarkable is in the decade in between few technology executives have felt comfortable publicly discussing ethical issues - other than on privacy - the "Middle East of ethics" since it is seems always around the corner and never gets resolved. That chapter lays out several scenarios for readers to ponder and debate - like the impact of GPS routing traffic through neighborhoods with young kids; proactive, some would say premature, prophalytic medical procedures based on projections of genetic marker analysis, food/biofuel trade-offs. The chapter also has fascinating, sometime contradictory, perspectives from academics, attorneys and folks like your fellow ZDNet blogger Brian Sommer who asks "Where are the Ten Commandments for technology?"

We don't have a good framework in the industry to debate ethical issues that are popping up at alarming rates. Many hospitals can convene an ethics committee at short notice - usually has a doctor, a nurse, a local pastor or rabbi, an attorney, some lay representatives and they can help  doctor or a relative of a patient think through thorny issues around life and death. We don't and increasingly regulators themselves are the causes of new ethical issues as they increasingly put their growing technology savviness to aggressive use. Many polymaths of old were also respected philosophers in their societies - and some influence us centuries later. Today’s polymath enterprises should similarly factor ethics as integral components of innovation processes.

The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-Technology Innovations is shipping the first week of July.

Additional Reading:

Global CIO: 'The New Polymath': 12 Reasons CIOs Must Drive Innovation

Polymath, Renaissance person - Why we all must become one

The New Polymath, by Dennis Howlett

A 21st Century Renaissance

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