Real Leaders

An Interview With a Hacker, Futurist, Inventor and Badass

  • Pablos Holman is a futurist, inventor, and notorious hacker with a unique insight into breaking and building new technologies.
  • Currently working at the Intellectual Ventures laboratory in Washington, he’s hard at work helping to invent a range of futuristic solutions to seemingly impossible problems.
  • Some of his projects include a fission reactor powered by nuclear waste, a machine to suppress hurricanes, a system to reverse global warming and a device to shoot down malaria-carrying mosquitoes with lasers.
  • Holman is hired to imagine inventions which could exist, but don’t exist yet. He spoke to Real Leaders about his work.


You’re best known as a hacker. Is this a misunderstood pastime?

Hackers have become high profile from all the security breaches publicized in the press. For me, it’s not about online security challenges anymore, because it’s not something you’re ever going to win. That’s a game that’s not fun to play anymore.

Show your mom a new gadget and she might ask, “what does this do” and you could easily explain. But give a gadget to a hacker and the first question is “what can I make this do.” A hacker will take it apart, take out the screws, break it into pieces and then figure out what can be built from the rubble. They violate the warranty before the shrink-wrap is even off.

This kind of thinking is fundamental to invention and innovation, yet we haven’t formalized it in the workplace yet. Hackers are still seen as a liability. 

Today’s CEOs are told they must innovate or die. They must realize they’re at a major disadvantage when it comes to innovation – because they’ve spent their entire careers learning to read the instruction manual. You obviously don’t want your CEO to become a hacker, that just tries random stuff, but we have to figure out how to bridge that gap.

In the 1980s we had corporate R&D departments who hired upstanding scientists to invent the next generation of technology. They got their butts kicked every time by two guys in a garage, with no money or resources. You might hate the way we work but you do need us. We’re not trying to solve a problem, we’re looking for problems; trying to figure out what’s possible.

I would assume that hackers don’t work well in a team?

The stereotype of a hacker is of the lone wolf. In America we have tried to create an educational system that turns out bunches of people who are the same, as if all people with MBAs are interchangeable. People suck at being all the same and if you hire somebody and try to make them do a job the last guy did, he may or may not succeed. If you let people do what they’re uniquely good at, and don’t try change them, you’ll get a lot further. Hackers are effective because they don’t care what anybody thinks.

Hackers have exposed serious weaknesses in systems and been criticized for going public. Is this because they are embarrassing large corporations and exposing their weaknesses?

In the 1990s computer security wasn’t an issue but after 9/11 everyone suddenly got “security” as a line item on their budgets. It didn’t make anything more secure, but did result in everyone spending more on security – most of which you might call “snake oil.” There’s an industry now, trying to sell people stuff, and most of its crap.

There’s a saying in security: if you’re being chased by a bear you don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than your friends. Not being the low-hanging fruit is the new game for corporations, wanting to be perceived as being diligent by customers and investors. 

Should we be afraid of technology?

That’s like saying we should fear Mother Nature. Technology is part of progress. The only thing we should be scared of is a human’s decision-making ability. If a new technology comes along and it ain’t good, don’t use it. That’s been true for weapons since we were cavemen. 

The reason you and I exist today is because technology has solved the many problems that have kept humans from thriving. This has resulted in seven billion people on the planet, but technology now needs to solve that problem too. In my lab I hire hackers to attack every one of these problems. I collect problems that plague humans and I cram them into my brain – every new chip, sensor, new algorithm or scientific discovery – and ask myself “does this change anything humans have done before, can we do it better, in a more human fashion?” There’s a giant Rubik’s cube in my brain that matches them up. Sometimes I get a hit.

I’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars in my career on companies that don’t even exist anymore, that’s an education. Many people in Silicon Valley have wasted good brains making fart apps for the iPhone, and not solve a big world problem.

The lab at Intellectual Ventures looks like something out of a James Bond movie. What you are currently working on?

Among our many projects we have one called Global Good, where we invent with a humanitarian goal in mind. It’s a fund with Bill Gates, who hangs out at the lab and we invent with him. I’ve worked on a brain surgery tool, a machine to supress hurricanes, the cure for cancer (which didn’t work), and even self-sterilizing elevator buttons. We bought one of every tool in the world on eBay and have a warehouse with over 8,000 tools. Anything I need it for a project is always right here.


Who identifies the problem to solve next and how do you go about solving it?

I’ll go anywhere in the world if I think I can learn about a problem. I have more inventors at my disposal then anyone on earth and more patents than anyone else on earth. What I really need are good problems. 

When I find someone with a problem, I sit them down and surround them with a nuclear physicist, a laser expert, a chemist and a computer hacker. Collectively, we have cutting-edge knowledge in every area of science and technology. We’ve turned invention into a team sport here at the lab. That’s how we got the crazy idea for using lasers to shoot down malaria-carrying mosquitos. If you were in Africa for 20 years working on malaria, you would never consider lasers.

How do you turn the title “inventor” into a career choice for someone?

You’ve probably never been given a business card that says “inventor” on it. It’s not a legitimate career choice and many think it’s an abomination.

We’re trying to turn an inventor into an entrepreneur – much like the story of Apple, Google and Microsoft. When we were kids, everybody knew that investing in a company that had never shipped a product was a ridiculous idea. But it turned out to be a good idea for one – venture capital. There’s still no one investing in the inventor before the invention exists. We call this “invention capital” and are looking at how to support inventors at an early stage and scale it up.

What are you most proud of?

Bill Gates asked us to work on a solution for transporting vaccines in the developing world. Sometimes $20,000 worth of vaccines failed because they don’t stay cold enough. A quarter of a million kids were dying every year from vaccines that didn’t work. We invented a type of super-thermos as a solution. We left one out in the Sahara Desert, with no external power, and a couple of months later the vaccines were still cold.

What inspires you to keep going?

I’m inspired by anyone with an inner truth. It might be James Brown or Nicola Tesla. It might be Beyoncé, Michael Jordan or Elon Musk. What I love about all these people is that they found a way to stay true to themselves, a way to advance their vision. It’s rarely pretty, with lots of problems, hurt feelings and divorces along the way. We’ll complain that they’re not well balanced humans, but I see many well-balanced people around, and I don’t need more of them. What I need are a couple of extraordinary people who are going to stay true to their vision and make it happen. That’s what inspires me.

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