A word from Leela Gantman, Corporate Relations and Sustainability Director at Spark



This month we explore the themes of technology, sustainability and community. Future State speakers Danielle Krettek Cobb, who founded Google’s Empathy Lab, and Dr Jonnie Penn, a professor of AI Ethics & Society at the University of Cambridge, share their insights.



Danielle Krettek Cobb

Danielle is a trailblazing force in empathic design, with two decades of work grounded equally in science and soul. Her work has transformed some of the world's largest organisations and tech companies. At Google, Danielle founded Google Empathy Lab. She works with teams from AI and BARD to ATAP, Devices, Inclusion and Crisis Response.

Jonnie Penn
University of Cambridge

Dr Jonnie Penn, FRSA, is a professor of AI Ethics and Society at the University of Cambridge. He is a historian of technology, a #1 New York Times bestselling author, and a sought-after public speaker. He was formerly a MIT Media Lab Assembly Fellow, Google Technology Policy Fellow, Fellow of the British National Academy of Writing and a popular broadcaster.

Critical thinking, creative being

Nike, Apple, Google. What these companies, these brands, have in common is they find out how people tick and then use that knowledge to create products that become intrinsic to how we work, play, and present ourselves. From a tagline like 'Just Do It,' to a powerful computer that slips into your back pocket, to instant access to all the information in the world. 
Danielle Krettek Cobb has been on the inside of how these companies tick. She was at advertising agency W+K when Nike was a client and on the design team when Steve Jobs was reinventing Apple, eventually landing a role at Google X. This is what she found when she got there: "Our brightest wildest minds at Google, these insane inventors, with like brains the size of planets, were just thinking cognitively, behaviourally about what people are doing. But they weren’t really addressing the 'messy wetlab' of what a human being really is, all the deep social and emotional stuff."
Danielle founded the Google Empathy Lab in 2015, a place where they brought together a whole raft of thinkers - scientists, artists, ecologists, indigenous leaders, human rights and land activists, in what she describes as a "radical collaboration".
"For me, it’s relationships," she says, pointing out that gathering insights from a diverse group of people creates better, more sustainable products and projects. It also pushes the conversation beyond what makes people tick to how communities tick, as Danielle explains.
"There is actual science around this now… if you create these spaces where people can move in unison, so to speak, this effervescent creativity shows up."
The meeting of science and soul can be powerful in business today. In a world where all the data from the past and present can be conjured up by AI trained chatbots in a minute, only the future is undiscovered. It follows then, that what has yet to be imagined, is where the competitive edge lies, and that isn’t an individual vision, it’s a collective insight.

Tuning AI into nature

Can you speak humpback whale and honeybee? For Danielle Krettek Cobb, the answer is a tantalising 'not yet'. 

When in Auckland to speak at the Future State event, Danielle discussed the potential of AI to help us understand the natural world. By applying AI’s huge computational power, we might one day eavesdrop on a Humpback whale singing nursery rhymes to her calf or a Queen Bee sweet talking her drones.

Danielle cites the technologist and scientist Karen Bakker, whose book The Sounds of Life explains why the combination of bioacoustics, AI and digital tools means we can start to listen and decipher the communications of plants and animals. Conversations in nature that are often occurring in frequencies that humans can’t hear. 

Paraphrasing entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, Danielle says the wisdom and the science are here, they just aren’t evenly distributed. She says, once we tune into what they are saying, we might care more, and understand better, how to live more sustainably. 

Danielle’s latest venture is GRANDMOTHER, a non-profit women’s collective based in Hawai’i, co-founded with Kea’a Davis, a Stanford-trained researcher and designer and Ashley Ono, a physician at Queens Hospital. GRANDMOTHER is a council of experts including neuroscientists, technologists, cultural practitioners, journalists, movement-builders, artists and farmers, supporting and resourcing social healers of all kinds. 

Danielle points to generational wisdom as the carrier of the codes of powerful human learning through transmission. She shares that ancestral science is data-rich and full of methodologies relevant to the most poignant crises we face right now, from mental health to climate. 

"There are many people on this planet that know how to live in a good way with nature, that know how to solve these problems. The whole field of biocultural restoration is about this, this is where I think we should be looking for answers," she says. 

GRANDMOTHER gives grants and gifts to indigenous social healers and advises businesses and startups to become meaningful agents of social healing.


AI’s rocky relationship with climate change

AI is one of the biggest contributors to climate change.

AI will help mitigate the impact of climate change. 

Both of these statements are true, according to Jonnie Penn, a professor in AI Ethics and Society at the University of Cambridge. 

Penn spoke at the Future State event, where he reflected that “we live in a world that accommodates us, that could change. AI can be useful, but it will still be subject to climate change.” 

Solutions found in nature 

While Penn notes the open-source movement is finding ways to look to distributed techniques that are less taxing than current centralised models, the solutions may lie in nature, not technology.

“I think the exciting part about the future of AI and climate is less about technology and more about society. We should look to indigenous communities for the leadership they bring to the world about what it means to relate to nature, that this is not just a planet to be extracted from,” he says.

AI to the planet’s defence 

There are examples of where AI is being deployed in climate change mitigation, such as in the realm of Earth observation. That is, using satellites to detect the emissions of individual factories in the world and how these emissions conform with what countries are allowed under international agreements. 

“Using satellites, we can actually measure exactly what is coming from where, so there is promise there,” Penn says. 

“The interesting thing about AI and climate will be this competition for resource in the short term. An example is there is a major ammunition manufacturer in Europe that is competing with a TikTok data server for electricity in Norway. These sorts of contests will unfold more and more as we rely on these tools.” 




The future of AI in building curiosity and wonder

AI are deep learning models. Danielle explores how humans must also learn alongside technologies like AI, and explore our own curiosity and wonder.

To learn the skills Danielle uses to prepare herself and her team for moments of innovation, watch the video and check out the tools below.


Radical collaboration

Danielle shares her 3 steps to the ultimate meeting in the age of AI.

View the exercise

Rediscovering the sense of wonder in your team

Explore the difference between Lantern Awareness and Spotlight Awareness, and how you can use these concepts to rediscover a sense of wonder.

Read more

Future State: New Realities

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