Pablos Holman Keynote: Innovate or Die Trying #ILTAKEY1 #ILTACON

Session Title and Description: Innovate or Die Trying: From the Mind of a World-Renowned Hacker

“If you’ve been to an ILTACON keynote presentation before, you know we’ve featured futurists. To start off our 40th ILTACON, we’re turning up the dial with a futurist, inventor and notorious hacker who has a unique view into breaking and building new technologies, which leads to new approaches to solving world problems. Pablos works on projects that assimilate new technologies and make wild ideas more practical. What are computers yet to accomplish? What advancements will legal technology experience? ILTA members are concerned with disruption by legal startups and the need for innovation. Pablos will help us think differently about how we could solve some of our legal technology challenges. Katie DeBord, Chief Innovation Officer at Bryan Cave, LLP will join Pablos at the end of his talk to ask him some questions — her own and those the audience posts in the mobile app during the session. Then we’ll open the floor for live audience questions.”

[These are my notes from the International Legal Technology Association’s 2017 Conference. I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, so they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Today’s objective.  To help us start thinking like hackers. In Holman’s view, “no one ever invented a technology by following directions.” What it takes is not just thinking outside the box, but actually taking the box AND its contents apart to figure out how they work and how they might work differently or better.
  • Computers are the key. The key to prescience is to look around the environment to find functions/areas that do not yet leverage computers. Then, find a way to apply computing logic/power to that. This is a great way to come up with fabulous new interventions.
  • Malaria is a great opportunity for hackers. Malaria is one of the greatest causes of death of children. And it is entirely preventable. The prior methods for dealing with malaria (e.g., DDT) are neither scalable or sustainable. So he hired hackers to hack the mosquito/malaria system. They “bought some junk” on eBay and then six weeks later, they were able to track bugs and show that tracking on a computer. Next, they developed a laser that can identify the characteristics of each mosquito tracked. Finally, they use a lethal laser to kill the malaria-carrying mosquito. This is an example of using hacking mindset + computing power + imagination to tackle a wicked problem.
  • Imagination Constrained. Holman says that for years we were technology constrained. (Just think about the processing power of early computers.) Now we have tremendous processing power in smartphones. Yet we use these phones to play games, make rude noises, exchange photos, etc. In his words, “we used to be resource constrained. Now we are imagination constrained.”
  • The Nuclear Challenge. Current nuclear reactors were designed in the era of the sliderule. They are only 7% efficient. The rest of the uranium is waste and generates tons of nuclear waste that is simply being stockpiled until our children can figure out what to do with it. Holman and his team ran Monte Carlo simulations to figure out every possible reaction inside a nuclear reactor. Then they redesigned the reactor to be 100% efficient. Plus, the genius part is that they use all that stockpiled nuclear waste as the fuel.
  • Rapid Iteration. Software is eating the world today because of rapid iteration. The tech sector continuously A/B tests critical aspects of the software and then upgrades on the fly. This continuous deployment is far faster than the 18-month production cycles in old-school manufacturing.
  • It’s a New Era. Biological evolution allowed the human species to survive and win. The name of the game was basic survival. Now, however, if we do not have to worry about mere survival, what should we do? We need to use our brains, our imaginations, our technology to evolve to the next level — beyond Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (at least with respect to the lower parts of the pyramid, the quantity of life issues). But, is technology really helping us with the higher levels of they pyramid? Social, Self-Esteem, Self-Actualization? Technology is not solving the problems related to these higher levels, the quality of life issues.
  • Humans must make choices. We have to make better choices about how we use our tools. And we need to make better choices about how we interact with those tools. Robots do only what we train them to do. Unfortunately, humans are very bad role models.
  • “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”