This might seem an unlikely station for the Los Angeles-based Cenname, who majored in economics and studied graphic arts at Colby and later got his M.B.A. from Harvard. Management consulting gave way to a successful career in advertising photography and TV commercials. That eventually led him to an executive role at a virtual reality startup, Kite & Lightning, and he became increasingly immersed in the tech world.
His current consulting work and interview show have given Cenname a front-row seat as computing expands beyond our desktops and into our phones, appliances, and even our bodies. It’s an exciting time, but it can also be unsettling for anyone concerned about just how plugged-in we’ve already become as a society.
Technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence “are going to radically transform everybody’s lives,” Cenname says, “yet very few people are in on the conversation.”
Add gene editing to the conversation, and you can understand why he sees Mind & Machine partly as an effort to expand that discussion, exploring not only the wonder of these advances but also the pitfalls. In the show’s second season, which rolled out last August, he plans to include ethicists, sociologists, and other thinkers who can look beyond the technology itself and focus on the human impacts. Here are three areas Cenname sees as particularly worthy of attention.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
“AI is definitely going to happen—it is happening,” Cenname says, calling it “the mothership that is going to touch everything.” He thinks the term itself, which essentially describes computers’ ability to find patterns amid large datasets, will eventually fade because AI will suffuse every aspect of computing. That trend is visible in virtual “assistants” like Siri and Alexa and also in machinery that can diagnose and fix problems without human help.
We’re already used to a world filled with sensors that dispense hand soap, for example, or turn on lights when prompted by human movement. These sensors are getting smaller, smarter, and more ubiquitous, able to live in our appliances and on our bodies. “The big theme here is eliminating the line between the digital and physical worlds,” he says. Why? He points to revolutionary gains in speed and efficiency for businesses, and also new conveniences at home (a refrigerator, to use a prosaic example, that senses you need milk and can order it for you).
The creation of high-tech physical materials is not on the radar for a lot of people, Cenname says: “It sounds mundane, but it’s important.” He points to graphene, a super-strong form of carbon that gained prominence with Nobel-winning experiments within the last two decades, and the possibility that it and other materials could be 3-D printed, creating a radical shift in how and where products are manufactured.
These examples make it clear that massive disruptions in the status quo, already so pronounced today, are far from over. While he’s endlessly fascinated by this moment in history and the opportunities it presents, Cenname is also mindful about the unsettling questions it raises.
“The massive new abundance from our tech innovations should be an incredible windfall for society,” he says, acknowledging that isn’t a foregone conclusion. Who will be left behind as computers displace humans in the workforce? How much privacy should we trade for convenience? Who will be in control?
His answer: “It’s totally up to us.” And our responsibility to follow the conversation.