VOGUE, November 2018 (PDF)

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.

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 high-end 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.