Mu­si­cian, pro­ducer, de­signer, phi­lan­thropist, tech en­tre­pre­neur, fu­tur­ist and op­ti­mist: Will.i.am is not be the kind of celebrity we’re used to, but may be the one we need. By Noelle Faulkner.

VOGUE Australia - - CONTENTS -

Tech en­tre­pre­neur Will.i.am is not be the kind of celebrity we’re used to, but may be the one we need.

Ac­cord­ing to the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, the fu­ture is a dark, bleak place. It’s rare to find a film, tele­vi­sion se­ries or a novel that of­fers a fu­tur­is­tic, ma­chine-driven world you’d ac­tu­ally want to live in. And the mu­sic in­dus­try? That seems to treat the fu­ture as a gim­mick. We have thought lead­ers like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and the late Stephen Hawk­ing sound­ing the alarm for a ma­chine-driven apoca­lypse, and tech fear gen­er­ated by un­in­formed politi­cians and shock jock con­spir­acy the­o­rists. So I bet you didn’t ex­pect AI’s big­gest celebrity cham­pion to be the seven-time Grammy Award-win­ning pro­ducer and en­tre­pre­neur who came up with the phrase “my lovely lady lumps”. Alas, it is.

Will.i.am might be mostly known as the front­man of the Black Eyed Peas and a pro­ducer for the late Michael Jack­son, Ri­hanna, Usher, Justin Tim­ber­lake, Nicki Mi­naj, Brit­ney Spears and Mi­ley Cyrus, to name a few. But he’s also a man spin­ning myr­iad plates at a mil­lion miles an hour. To start, he’s the founder of eco brand Eko­cy­cle, a part­ner­ship with the Coca-Cola Com­pany, Adi­das, Beats Elec­tron­ics, H Broth­ers, Levi’s, MCM, NBA, New Era and W Ho­tel, of­fer­ing up­cy­cled PET-bot­tle fab­ri­cated ap­parel and life­style prod­ucts. He has a suc­cess­ful high­end op­ti­cal range, Ill.i Op­tics (ini­tially co-de­signed with ex-Ksubi de­signer Ge­orge Gor­row) and, as part of an ex­ten­sion of that, a new 17-piece af­ford­able eye­wear line with Spec­savers. It’s a part­ner­ship that has be­come quite im­por­tant to him be­cause of the com­pany’s ac­tive char­i­ta­ble out­put (such as its close work with the Fred Hol­lows Foun­da­tion) and his be­lief that ev­ery­one should have ac­cess to af­ford­able eye health and “dope frames”.

That com­ment brings us to his hu­man­i­tar­ian pas­sions, namely, the I.am.an­gel Foun­da­tion, which funds a num­ber of STEM (science, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics) tu­tor­ing and men­tor­ship pro­grams for low-in­come pri­mary-aged school kids. Still with us? He’s also a pub­lished au­thor: one of his books be­ing a young adult sci-fi novel, WaR: Wizards and Ro­bots, aimed at getting young peo­ple in­ter­ested in STEM. And then there’s a lit­tle thing he helped co-found called Beats Elec­tron­ics, which was fa­mously bought by Ap­ple in 2014 for a cool US$3.2 bil­lion.

It was the sale of Beats that al­lowed Will to fuel his pas­sion for wear­able tech, mov­ing him to de­velop his own ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware, I.am.+ (along with his Blue­tooth head­phone range, But­tons), and build his own cre­ative in­cu­ba­tor/stu­dio in the mid­dle of Hol­ly­wood – where we meet him to­day. Like a Willy Wonka mu­sic fac­tory of the fu­ture, the all-white space, with sculp­tural, geo­met­ric shapes hang­ing from the ceil­ing and long, twist­ing hall­ways, is not only home to his mu­sic stu­dios and a huge re­hearsal space, but buzzes with teams of coders, pro­to­type de­vel­op­ers and a small fash­ion pro­duc­tion team.

If you’re slightly shocked by the sheer amount of side hus­tles one man can have (no, he doesn’t sleep – “Na­ture of be­ing a start-up,” he says), then know that in 2012 Will.i.am and team also cre­ated the first smart watch. It was an un­teth­ered mo­bile phone ac­ti­vated by voice, a gamechanger at a time when Siri was still in the womb. “Our in­vestors told us that the prod­uct was not the hard­ware, but the soft­ware,” he says. “So now, we’re mov­ing away from wear­ables on the wrist and imag­in­ing it else­where, like in bags and jack­ets.” One of those key in­vestors? None other than François Henri-Pin­ault, CEO of Ker­ing, par­ent com­pany to Gucci, Saint Lau­rent and Ba­len­ci­aga. Con­sid­er­ing Henri-Pin­ault’s main com­peti­tor, Bernard Ar­nault at LVMH, has also since voiced in­ter­est in AI, it makes one cu­ri­ous if Will.i.am’s vi­sion might in­flu­ence how we’ll soon be in­ter­act­ing with our wardrobe.

“Your bag should be your com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vice,” says Will, charm­ing, funny and sweet, but with what seems to be a thought process like a cat chas­ing a laser. “It needs to do more than just store stuff. It should store your data, it should be con­ver­sa­tional, it should do ev­ery­thing your phone does, but eas­ier and you just speak to it.” And your jacket as well: “I should just be able to just put on my jacket and have some ear­phones and say: ‘Jacket, where am I go­ing at 4 o’clock?’ ‘You have a meet­ing with such and such, I sug­gest you leave now be­cause you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to be late. I’ve al­ready left a note that you’re run­ning late. They’re aware of it. Uber should be here, pulling up right now. Li­cence plate num­ber duh duh duh.’” He adds that your phone doesn’t know what’s im­por­tant, bom­bard­ing you with ev­ery­thing. His so­lu­tion? “That sys­tem doesn’t care about you be­cause it’s not your sys­tem. Now if it’s yours, it would be mind­ful of your time. It would be cour­te­ous of when you’re sleep­ing or, say for ex­am­ple, if you’re hav­ing re­la­tion­ship prob­lems and you get a freak­ing email no­ti­fi­ca­tion at 2am! These sys­tems have all of that kind of in­for­ma­tion about you.”

Imag­ine a sys­tem that em­ployed em­pa­thetic ma­chine learn­ing. And, re­ally, that’s the fu­ture of AI, a sys­tem that in­ti­mately knows you, that you wear on your per­son. Will’s sys­tem, Omega, is al­ready highly con­ver­sa­tional and is al­ready used by Deutsche Telekom as a chat­bot. His ide­al­is­tic vi­sion is AI that talks to ev­ery­thing – your searches, your diet, your pho­to­graphs, your com­mute, your in­ner cir­cle, your minute in­ter­ests – vast amounts of data that you prob­a­bly give to other apps al­ready. “Just like how you can ask Siri di­rec­tions to a point. You’re go­ing to be able to say things like: ‘Give me di­rec­tions to weigh­ing 170 by Jan­uary 15, 2019!’ ‘Give me di­rec­tions on how to grow my money!’ It’s go­ing to give you di­rec­tions to life!” he pauses. “But in or­der to do that, it has to un­der­stand you … No gov­ern­ment, no king­dom, no coun­try has ever un­der­stood its cit­i­zens to that level. Like France and Amer­ica had their in­de­pen­dence days, this new so­ci­ety that’s be­ing built right now, there’s go­ing to be an equiv­a­lent in­de­pen­dence day, where there’s data in­de­pen­dence, away from the data monar­chies.” What Will is talk­ing about, the free­dom and democrati­sa­tion of data, is a heavy dis­cus­sion among fu­tur­ists right now.

You see, Will has been study­ing AI tech­nol­ogy for decades. His first in­tro­duc­tion came while on tour in Bos­ton in the early 2000s, when a friend sug­gested he drop into Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and sit in on a lec­ture by Pro­fes­sor Pa­trick Win­ston, Ford Pro­fes­sor of Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence and Com­puter Science. He’s been a pas­sion­ate stu­dent ever since. “As far as AI in the fu­ture, Will is way out in front,” Pro­fes­sion Win­ston says. “When many see noth­ing but threat, Will sees op­por­tu­nity; when many see noth­ing but tools for evil peo­ple, Will sees tools for cre­ative peo­ple. When many see a fu­ture in which we are less hu­man, Will sees the means to take our hu­man­ity to an­other level.” He adds: “He sets the stan­dard for cre­ativ­ity. From cloth­ing to tech­nol­ogy, he is al­ways about what’s next.”

“We have mil­len­ni­als, the face tatt cats, they’re cool and do­ing awe­some stuff. But I do have con­cerns for Gen Z,” he says when asked about how he sees the next gen­er­a­tion grow­ing the fu­ture. “My con­cerns about Gen Z is that the men­tor­ing and fund­ing for ed­u­ca­tion does not match the fund­ing for STEM and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence … For ev­ery sin­gle adult that’s like: ‘AI is go­ing to take jobs’, it’s go­ing to take a Gen Z per­son that’s like: ‘Ac­tu­ally, I’m go­ing to vi­su­alise this.’”

As we en­ter this so-called fourth revo­lu­tion, one that you can ei­ther get on board or hide away from, Will with all his in­flu­en­tial ideas (who wouldn’t want a Gucci jacket that also did their ad­min?) has a vi­sion for an idyl­lic and op­ti­mistic revo­lu­tion, be­cause the al­ter­na­tive is dark­ness. “It’s like when Henry Ford made the car and ev­ery­one was like: ‘Woah, can we trust this? There’s no horse or buggy!’ We’re see­ing the same thing right now and so far we’ve had it all for free and that in it­self is crazy,” he says. “So now we’re ask­ing: ‘Can you trust the ma­chine?’” He pauses, thought­fully, be­fore dart­ing into an­other idea. “But I know there’s go­ing to be some kid who cre­ates an awe­some new way of us­ing AI that we can­not imag­ine. And the only way that hap­pens? We have to men­tor and cel­e­brate the kids. We gotta do them right.”

Will.i.am’s ex­clu­sive eye­wear col­lec­tion for Spec­savers is avail­able now.

“Will sets the stan­dard for cre­ativ­ity. From cloth­ing to tech­nol­ogy, he is al­ways about what’s next”

The artist in Will.i. am for Spec­savers W05V glasses.

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