One thing is certain, whurley – the technology entrepreneur, quantum computing expert, speaker and author – certainly knows how to make an entrance. At one TED talk, for example, he arrived on one of his most famous inventions: a mind-controlled skateboard called The Board of Imagination. Wearing a special headset, he simply stood on the board, imagined the direction in which he wanted to go, and the wheels took him there – much to the amazement of his rapt audience.

The Board of Imagination is just one example of the mind-bending, ground-breaking products whurley developed at Chaotic Moon Studios, the creative tech company he co-founded in 2010. Other inventions include The Smarter Card, an autonomous shopping cart; The Helmet of Justice, a bicycle helmet fitted with seven cameras that start filming when triggered by the impact of a crash; and CUPID, a taser-firing defense drone. “The great thing about tech is that it changes dramatically all the time, whether you want it to or not,” says whurley, who was born William Hurley, but is now best known by his shortened computer username. “That means you have to keep learning, just to keep up. I'm a big fan of that.”

Born in the U.S. state of Virginia, whurley moved to Austin, Texas, in 1993, working first for Apple in research and development, and then for IBM where he became Master Inventor. After getting involved with various startups, he became chief architect at tech company, BMC Software. He then founded Chaotic Moon Studios (later bought by Accenture), followed by the financial tech company, Honest Dollar (which was later acquired by Goldman Sachs), where whurley served as managing director. Earlier this year, whurley launched Strangeworks, a quantum computing software company, during a SXSW Convergence keynote. “Quantum computing – computers that take advantage of quantum-mechanics – is going to revolutionize technology, and make a big difference to industries like materials science, pharma, finance, energy and aerospace,” he says. “Quantum will help us build better buildings, advance drug discovery, and find new cures for diseases – for example, think about how it could be used for route optimization.”

Quantum computing is whurley’s latest passion, and is the focus of the book he’s currently working on, titled “Endless Impossibilities.”

But then whurley fizzes with enthusiasm about technology in general, and the impact it can have on our world all of the time. “In terms of incredible innovation,” he says, “this is the best time to be alive. Ever.”

Why are you so excited by innovation?

It can solve a lot of real world problems. Take the “trash collector for the ocean” idea, which is basically a bucket that traps plastics floating in the sea; or the stationary bikes (developed by entrepreneur Manoj Bhargava) in India that you pedal to generate electricity for your home. Innovation doesn't have to be about going to Mars to make a dramatic impact.

What was the last innovation that made a big impression on you?

I'm a big fan of Google Home, and the work Google is doing now with AI. Their latest technology is the Google Duplex – a virtual assistant that can make phone calls on your behalf. If you tell it you need a haircut, it places a phone call to the hair salon and makes an appointment for you. That's pretty epic. However, it does bring into question the ethical challenges we face as technology advances.

Which of your own innovations are you most proud?

A lot of people talk about the mind-controlled skateboard and The Smarter Cart – and, yeah, I'm proud of those things. The primary function of innovation is to capture imaginations. And some super-cool things that I was involved with actually did that. The skateboard, for instance, was a literal manifestation of capturing the imagination. If I can inspire people with innovation, that's exciting and gives me a real sense of accomplishment.

And while I’m proud of those past accomplishments and innovations, I can’t wait to see what we can do next with quantum.

You've said “innovation is a risk.” How can companies best approach that risk?

“To live is to risk it all. Otherwise you're just an inert chunk of randomly assembled molecules drifting wherever the universe blows you.” (This is a quote from whurley’s favorite show, “Rick and Morty,” which you can find him quoting more frequently than not.)

No, but really – companies can only learn how to mitigate risk by taking risks. You're never going to be able to edit all the risk out of a situation by planning it on a spreadsheet beforehand. Things will go wrong as part of the innovation process. Companies have to start pushing boundaries – otherwise their competitors are going to push them instead. Yes, you should mitigate risk as much as you can when you innovate. But I would argue not innovating is more dangerous. However, as I mentioned earlier, there are ethical challenges with technological progress. For example Google’s duplex demo was met with some backlash from people questioning it on several fronts. These ethical challenges should be addressed by the innovators during the creative process, but they should also be prepared to take feedback after the release and quickly iterate to address any potential issues. Rapid iteration is a major key to innovation.

In its early stages, how do you tell a meaningless, over-hyped innovation from one that could be successful and significant?

That's an interesting question. I don't have criteria for that because it could potentially inhibit innovation. And the one thing I don't want to see is an innovation standard. I don't want any guidelines when it comes to creativity. I want people to have complete freedom and the autonomy to do whatever they want. Innovation is about instinct. You experiment, and you fail. Then you experiment again.

Are people right to be wary about Artificial Intelligence?

There's this fantasy around AI and killer robots, which I don't subscribe to. Until we have amazing battery technology, I think we're good. The truth is, AI technology is just not “there” yet –and, in fact, AI isn't truly AI right now. But I would love it to be. It would be amazing. The reality is that right now what we call AI is really just advanced automation, and nothing more.

What do you say to people who worry about technology taking their jobs?

It’s inevitable that the continuous rise of technology will take jobs. What people don’t discuss enough is the amount of new jobs that will be created as a result. A report by Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) put out last summer looked at the “false alarmism” around automation, citing 150 years of historic examples where innovation and automation actually created jobs (and didn’t just eliminate them).

Drones need drone technicians and handlers, right?

What are your tips for anyone who wants to stand out in business?

It's not about standing out. It's about knowing yourself and being yourself. You stand out when you stop trying so hard to fit in. Everyone is trying to conform – but for me, it's about non-conformity and doing things that you think are instinctively right. Tony Greenway

Published: September 2018

Images: Moyo Oyelola