We will eventually be able to print food: Inventor Pablos Holman

Intellectual Ventures Lab’s Pablos Holman on his role as an inventor, his love for hacking, and his passion for 3D printing

Pablos Holman, an inventor with Intellectual Ventures Lab, has worked on Hackerbot, and is passionate about 3D printing and 3D food printers. Photo: Getty Images
Pablos Holman, an inventor with Intellectual Ventures Lab, has worked on Hackerbot, and is passionate about 3D printing and 3D food printers. Photo: Getty Images

Mumbai: Pablos Holman never went to college. Yet, at the US-based Intellectual Ventures Lab, run by former Microsoft Corp. chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold, he has among other things worked on a brain surgery tool, a machine to suppress hurricanes, a self-sterilizing elevator button, a gun that shoots laser beams at malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and 3D food printers.

Holman, who is in Mumbai as a keynote speaker at the three-day Nasscom Leadership Forum beginning Wednesday, speaks about his role as an inventor, his love for hacking, and his take on the future of technology in an interview. Edited excerpts:

You say you look at the world differently. What’s your world view?

My way of learning is to try everything and see what works. And that is what hackers do--they see what is technically possible and not what others tell them. That is a really important mindset because that is how you get your new inventions and new technologies. I think of hackers as being really good inventors. I care about inventing technology that solves problems. This cannot happen with people who are not comfortable with failure. Most people like the predictability and security of doing a job well.

Ant that’s what you do at Intellectual Ventures Lab?

We have about 150 people in the lab and they come from different streams. We tried to hire one of every kind of scientist like biologists, palaeontologists, nuclear physicists, laser experts, chemists and computer hackers. A lot of times our inventions are on the border of science and technology, hence it is important to have a team like that. We try to come up with about 500 inventions a year. At that scale, you may only come up with one that works. But it may be big enough to pay for the other ones.

Any inventions that you treasure?

Among the things the lab has worked on, I think the TerraPower nuclear reactor is very important because it can solve the energy problems of the world if we succeed. It is now a separate company. On my part, I tried to print food (with a 3D printer). We will eventually get there. The most important thing is that the data that will help us to reduce waste, teach us how to prepare meals and how we must feed people, etc. This will be important for the health of humans going forward.

Today’s increasingly connected world does pose an increased security risk. Your take.

Every time we deploy new software, new technology, there will be security issues. We have to fix the problem. That’s the game we consistently play. The only way to lose this game is not to play it. You have to be diligent and improve things. We are never going to be done. We can never make things perfectly secure--we have no idea how to do that. It’s impossible to anticipate everything that can go wrong. What I worry about is people getting paralysed by these fears around security.

How do you think the future of technology is shaping up?

I’m an inventor so I look at a 5-10 year horizon. I only see what is technically possible in my life time and near term. Nevertheless, I think we are at the very beginning of figuring out what computers are good for because we are no longer constrained by processing power or low memory. We are at a point, now, where we have more computational power than we have imagination. We are just getting started with artificial intelligence (AI). Every time you get people talking about AI, they are mostly referring to machine learning. It’s kind of AI 1.0.

Why did you not attend college?

Universities were teaching the science of computation--that was what computer science was in those days--and I knew a lot about that by then. I’m sure there were some colleges that I could have learnt from but I was more interested in the applications of computers. So I skipped college and it has worked out pretty fine for me.

Obviously, you are not scared by the progress of AI...

You could have said that about (fearing) the steam engine, the hammer, etc. These are tools that humans have developed. It is up to us how we want to use that. AI and machine learning are like that--we have to choose what we want to do with it. I do believe there is a huge risk in humans making poor choices. But you can’t blame that on computers. Humans have to get better in taking responsibility for their actions.

How do you perceive the debate around net neutrality?

We were always trying to build a free internet, which means anyone should be able to have free access to deploy services, make an app, publish whatever they want, etc. The internet is good because it is free. It is not advisable to control different aspects of the internet. These are threats to the freedom of the internet. I don’t want America or any one country controlling the internet or any aspect of it. I don’t want anyone deciding what I can do, or not do, online.

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