A special event will be hosted at the Athens Concert Hall in November: the SingularityU Greece Summit. It will be the first such event to be organized in this country under the auspices of Singularity University, the Silicon Valley think-tank founded by digital technology pioneers including Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil and based on the latter’s theory of “technological singularity” – a hypothesis based on the creation of artificial superintelligence whereby ordinary human intelligence is enhanced or overtaken by artificial intelligence.
The person behind the synergy in Greece is Niki Siropoulou. Following a successful career in marketing, at Greek companies as well as multinationals, and after bringing the popular TED talks to Greece at the beginning of the financial crisis, she now aspires to expose Greeks – entrepreneurs, researchers and students of all social strata – to exponential technologies.
We met at the cafe of the Benaki Museum on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue in the city center for a breakfast of sorts. We sat inside due to the sultry atmosphere outside. A storm was brewing. Greece is finally securing its place on the Singularity map. “But what does this really mean for the country?” I ask her. Siropoulou instantly switches into sell mode.
The Singularity Summit, she explains, will focus on “how technological progress in the past 30 years has changed society and entrepreneurship, and how all that has impacted Greece. The world is moving ahead fast and if we fail to catch up, we will find ourselves at a huge disadvantage. The deck is being redealt. The fourth industrial revolution has changed the conditions [which determine what country] can have a real impact, thereby creating new opportunities for Greece and Greek entrepreneurs.”
The director of the Singularity Summit speaks about the democratization of the economy, a symptom of the advent of digital technology. She tells the story of Jan Koum, a computer programmer from Ukraine who at the age of 16 and with no money in his pockets moved with his mother to California in 1992. In 2014 he entered the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans at position 62. It was the year that WhatsApp, a popular mobile message application that he founded, was acquired by Facebook.
“His father had stayed back in Ukraine, and they could not communicate, it was too expensive,” she says. “It was this experience that sparked his interest in telecommunications – he believed that the non-privileged also had a right to be able to communicate with their loved ones. Why am I telling you this story? Because it shows how things have changed. There was a time when in order to succeed as a businessman you had to have access to capital. Today, technology gives you so many tools that you can materialize your business idea by yourself.”
How can Singularity University help Greece’s startup ecosystem? What more initiatives can we expect apart from the November conference? And how accessible really is a conference when tickets cost more than 500 euros?
“Let me start from this last point. First of all, we are serious about saying that the conference is open to everyone – we want to escape the silo logic – i.e. conferences which address a single profession or industry. Everyone who is involved in innovation and the business potential of innovation must all look at the same picture, the landscape of the future. The cost of attending the event is considerable, although it is a quarter less than similar events held in Milan or Berlin. Meanwhile, we shall be handing out scholarships and free tickets – we call them ‘impact tickets’ – to certain categories, such as researchers, students, teachers, government officials, young entrepreneurs and female entrepreneurs.”
She says that the conference will be livestreamed without charge to any university or research center that is interested. Furthermore, Siropoulou says that Salon Events are taking place throughout the year that will focus on and delve into specific subjects and sectors of the economy. “These events are held in cooperation with Demokritos [the National Center for Scientific Research], which proposes one of its own researchers or an independent expert. We have already held sessions on energy, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, the Internet of Things, big data. As of January, we’ve been hosting one session per month.” Siropoulou makes no secret of her ulterior motive, which is to promote Greece as a Singularity University partner country.
This would practically mean “the establishment here of a training ground similar to Silicon Valley where one can attend their US$14,000 one-week executive program in fewer days and at a lower cost.”
But how did a business-oriented Thessaloniki girl, after a career in marketing – a “professional liar,” as she says in jest – evolve into her current role as a high-tech ambassador in her home country? “I’ve always been interested in unlocking the world, to understand how it works,” she says. The daughter of a self-made businessman who owned a boiler factory, she set up her first business at the age of 17: It was a windsurfing club. “I soon realized that I hadn’t given it too much thought and that I knew nothing about running a business. And I understood that I had to study the subject.”
The problem was that she was not really a good student. “So I went to night school in a bid to enter the Law School’s economics department. I remember I had to get top marks in sociology. I used up all the available paper and time. The professor who came to sign my paper said, ‘You didn’t do well kid: You wrote too much.’ But I received top marks and I narrowly made it into the school.” Subsequently, after making a bet with her father, she worked her way into becoming a model student, getting top marks in almost all subjects – “I set goals, this is how I did it – and working two jobs” (at Chase Manhattan and as an assistant to two of her professors).
Thirsty for more
But she was thirsty for more. “I was getting bored, I was looking for something more.” She traveled to China and Japan – she visited China several times as an executive with Greek consumer product company Sarantis, and saw all the stages of the Asian country’s rapid development – and decided to pursue a postgraduate degree in business administration in the US.
Her father was not happy with her decision. “He said, ‘I have money for your dowry but not for a postgraduate degree.’ He asked me if I knew any female CEOs. I told him, ‘Well, yes, me in 10 years.’” It was not easy, but she finally managed to persuade him. “Thankfully, I was raised with a ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality. So I insisted.” After obtaining an MBA at Texas University, Siropoulou was hired by Procter & Gamble’s marketing division. From there she moved to Sarantis, because “I would rather be working for a Greek company. I did not like the fact that profits were going to the US. We in Greece can also innovate.”
Her American-style can-do attitude was also fed by her ongoing training parallel to her career. “I managed to negotiate attending an innovation program every year: Harvard, MIT, Northwestern. This gave me a different mentality – I appreciated the importance of meritocracy in the field of innovation and rejected the negativism of ‘Nothing happens in Greece,’ ‘The bureaucracy is to blame,’ ‘It’s the taxes,’ and so on. We need to get away from this, we must not allow ourselves to be taken over by what applies, the conviction that things cannot change. We must move according to our own pace.”
The founders of Singularity can be described as cyber-utopians (a term coined by Evgeny Morozov) who believe that technology will solve humanity’s big problems. However, in recent years a series of scandals and revelations has cast light on the dark side of digital utopia. How aware are the founders of SingularityU of the risks to our privacy, communication, independence and freedom? “It’s fully aware. Technology is morally neutral. People are not. They are either moral or not. Dynamite can be used to break a rock, to open a road and send aid to a village – or it can be used to make a bomb that will destroy an entire village.”