Atlantic Council Global Citizen Awards 2019
Monday, September 23, 2019
New York, New York
will.i.am, founder of the Black Eyed Peas, founder and CEO of I.AM.+, and founder and president of i.am.angel Foundation
H.E. Omar Sultan Al Olama, minister of state for artificial intelligence, United Arab Emirates
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence of the United Arab Emirates His Excellency Omar Sultan Al Olama. (Applause.)
MINISTER OMAR SULTAN AL OLAMA: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s an absolute pleasure being with you all here today.
I’d like to say that I was inspired by some of the speeches that were given today. And I was actually inspired and I’m happy for two things in specific. The first was something that was discussed in Brian Grazer’s speech, which is I thank God that I did not barf when I saw will.i.am – (laughter) – and that he wasn’t a doctor. The second is that I thank God I did not need to compete tonight for the title of the handsomest prime minister in Europe. (Laughter, applause.)
It’s wonderful to be part of this special night, a night that celebrates the best of us – c citizens that inspire change, that take the initiative to make the world better for generations to come. Less than 58 years ago, my country did not exist. And my country was a country that was one of the harshest places on Earth to live. It was a country that had less than a handful of university graduates, a country that did not have running water, and a country that did not have paved roads. That was where we came from, and today we celebrate world-class infrastructure and world-class people – people from 200 nationalities working and thriving together to create a better future for everyone, everywhere.
This reality was created for many reasons. Some may think it’s because of the resources that we were blessed to have, but I would argue there are countries that are richer than my – than my country that still struggle to provide basic necessities to their people, whether it’s from our region or the rest of the world. The secret that got us from where we were to where we are today is individuals. It’s leadership. It’s those who challenge the status quo and those who felt that whatever we had was not enough, and that we need to reach for the stars. This is specifically why it is extremely crucial for us to celebrate individuals that accelerate change, individuals that go against the flow, and that are not satisfied by what exists today.
We went from less than 40 graduates in 1971 to having the highest number of female enrollment in universities in the world. We went from no roads to having an astronaut program and a program to go to Mars. That is what vision gives you.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is no scarcity in bad news. There is no lack of challenges in the world, but there is a deficiency in leadership. There is a deficiency in individuals who take it upon themselves to create change and advocate for it. That is why I think that will.i.am is the perfect recipient of this award. Some of you might know Will as an artist, someone who inspired generations through his music, and that he rightly did. But Will is much more than that, and allow me to just mention a few things that he is.
Will is an artist. He’s an actor. He’s an author, an innovator, an investor. He’s a philanthropist, a composer, a coach, a creative director, and a fashion designer. He is a philosopher and he is a genuine human being. What he isn’t yet is a Nobel laurate and an Oscar winner, but I think that will come soon enough. (Laughter, applause.)
You might even say he’s a fusion of Mozart and Leonardo da Vinci, with a hint of Elon Musk. But I would say I don’t think he’d advocate for Elon’s music yet.
Will has contributed to the advancement of music, technology and engineering through the numerous posts and awards that he has received. He has also worked tirelessly to advance STEM education in the United States and the rest of the world through his foundation, i.am.angel.
With the help of will.i.am and Dean Kamen, we are bringing schoolkids from 190 countries to the UAE to compete and cooperate to find robotic solutions for saving our oceans. That initiative wouldn’t have come to life without the support of will.i.am.
I would like to conclude by saying that Will represents the best of us. He represents the potential of what it means to be a great, positive and global citizen. And that is what it’s all about.
Please help me in welcoming will.i.am to the stage. (Applause.)
WILL.I.AM: So thank you so much, your excellency Omar.
Thank you so much, Atlantic Council, for acknowledging the work that we do from our heart.
Thank you so much, Professor Klaus Schwab and Hilde, for acknowledging the work that we do and welcome me into the world of the World Economic Forum. Thank you so much.
Acknowledgement goes a long way. I come from a very poor neighborhood in East Los Angeles. And kids like me were acknowledged to get a shot towards an education. And somebody had a bright idea a long time ago to send kids from poverty-stricken areas in a bus to a good neighborhood and get an education. I was a recipient of that program, and all the folks that fought hard to keep programs like that alive.
If I didn’t go to school outside of my neighborhood, I don’t know what I would have become. My mom thinks and believes, boy, you still would have been you. (Laughter.) But it was my mom’s courage. Imagine being 27 years old and sending your little one at seven years old on a bus two hours away from home and no car to come pick them up if there was an earthquake, living in California.
So as I got older, I was like, Mom, why did you send me out when you didn’t have a way to pick me up? She said, Willie, what are the odds – an earthquake happening or you getting caught up in a gang or getting shot or getting, you know, in and around the drug activity that was here in the neighborhood? I would pick any day to send you off to Brentwood and Palisades to go to school.
And that changed my life, you know, being acknowledged by my teachers – Miss Walker (sp), first grade; Miss Taylor (sp), second grade; Miss Holland (sp), Miss Fox (sp), Miss Rich (sp), Mr. Wright (sp), Miss Montez (sp) – all of my teachers that encouraged me to take control of my ADD, my hyperactivity; being acknowledged and encouraged to use your talent to speak.
And yeah, music – people think music is like, oh, you’re a musician. Music is like the truest form of communication in people. In the day and age where people trust nothing, they still trust music. And corporations and governments can learn about trust. That’s the only true currency, especially with these technologies coming that compromise news. AI is exciting, but AI will bring problems like deep fakes. Fake news was last year. Deep fakes is going to make you not trust the screen. When you can’t distinguish an event from some computer-generated event that sounds exactly like the person and looks like the person doing things that they’re denying they didn’t do, that’s right around the corner. And as a society, we aren’t up to speed with that. If fake news crippled us then, whoa, deep fakes is really going to stumble us, paralyze us.
But acknowledgement goes a long way. And what we are not doing is acknowledging how fast we need to bring people from inner cities and poverty-stricken areas up to speed with technology. So because people acknowledge the music that I make, I was able to move my family out the ghetto and travel the world and meet different types of folks. Before we had a career in America, our career was in Australia, in New Zealand, in London, in Germany, in Holland, and Slovakia, and Czech Republic, and Thailand, in Philippines, in Korea. And then we had some success in America.
But seeing the world taught me about why I was raised the way I as raised the kind of group that we started. I don’t believe it was accidental. I think it as all meant to be, because of the gap and the way my mom raised me, the way my grandmother raised my mom. And being from a single parent family, I’m blessed to have a mom who is my dad, who is my shepherd, and my guardian, and my best friend. But we need to do a better job acknowledging women in society. (Applause.) And when you get acknowledged, like I acknowledged when I went to Banda Aceh in 2005. My mom’s, like, what are you going to do for your birthday? Let’s have a party. I was like, no, Ma, I think I’m going to do Banda Aceh and do tsunami relief. She’s like, boy, you crazy. (Laughter.) Well, you better take some disinfection. Take these – take – my mom’s sweet.
So I went to Banda Aceh and I realized that there’s a tsunami every day in my neighborhood. It may not be water, but it’s neglect, no opportunity, drugs, gangs, a path to prison, distortion, and a zoning setup to where there’s check-cashings next to liquor stores, next to strip clubs, next to elementary schools. And you can’t have that zoning in Brentwood, because they acknowledged that that’s not a good configuration. But for some reason, they didn’t acknowledge that in my neighborhood. So when I left Banda Aceh I said: I want to do all that I can for my community now that I have a little bit of elbow, and magnetic arms to pull people together.
So one day I was sitting next to General Colin Powell, right after Obama was elected. And I said, what do you think I should do to – you know, to keep this momentum going? And he said, if I were you, I would focus on my neighborhood, because that – you could have some real say in that, regardless of who’s president. Long after Obama’s, you know, term, you could still have a foot in directing, you know, kids that you point out. So I did that, 11 years ago. And five years into that, I started an AI company when a company that I was proud to have equity in, Apple – I mean, Beats – when Apple bought Beats I started my own tech company and focused on AI.
It might seem random that a kid from the projects in East L.A. could grow up to start a group that’s global and then put together an AI company that’s deployed in, you know, Germany, helping Deutsch telecom with their call centers. But that’s what happens when you acknowledge passion and you acknowledge your inner compass and bring people together.
But my life changed when I met a person by the name of Dean Kamen. And I realized after I watched a documentary called “Waiting for Superman” – and that title just crushed my heart because the title suggests that you’re waiting for a fictitious character to solve real problems. And my mom went to one of the schools that was highlighted in that film, and that’s a school that I would have went to had she not sent me to Brentwood and Paul Revere in Palisades. And the movie didn’t say “waiting for Bill Gates” or “waiting for Obama” or “waiting for,” you know, “Steve Jobs.” They said, we’re waiting for Superman. And that’s sad because Superman doesn’t exist.
But Superman does exist. It’s in people like Dean Kamen and Marc Benioff and Laurene Powell Jobs. So I asked him: Hey, do you mind bringing your program to my neighborhood, and do you mind if I take your college prep program and mix it with this robotics program? And that was, you know, 11 years ago. And since then, we started with 65 kids; now we have 720 kids. A hundred percent of our kids graduate to go off to four-year colleges, 70 percent of which go to school for robotics and computer science. And these were failing kids. (Cheers, applause.)
These kids were just like me. Statistically, you would think that we’ll fail just because the configuration of the zoning that was done. That’s inhumane to have that configuration in neighborhoods, but that’s the reality. And so we tried to change that reality by competing business with business – OK, guys, there are these jobs that unfilled; maybe you should, you know, get your guys’ dreams set on trying to fill these holes, learn this computer science program, learn this robotics program.
So now I’m proud to be on FIRST Robotics’ board for FIRST Global. And Dean is – if there’s any solution out there that should be in every single school, it’s FIRST. That’s not my program. I didn’t start it. When I met Dean he was like, you need to help us make it cool. I’m like, Dean, I can’t help you make it cool; I can help you make it louder, though. (Laughter.) I was like, why don’t you put it on TV? He’s like, we’ve been here for 20 years; we’ve never had it on TV. So I called ABC. I said, hey, how much does an hour cost? So they sold me an hour worth of time. So I made a TV program and said, hey, Dean, here’s your TV show. I got the time, back-to-school program 2009. No one’s ever thought of doing that. It’s like, people want to do it but nobody wants to shed their own skin or the take the risk.
So for me, I know what it’s like being poor. Been there, done that. Came out of that. I want to go back to my neighborhood and get the kids booted, suited, ready to go, because guess what? 2030, coalminers now are drivers, cashiers. All these jobs are going to go away because of the autonomous world in AI. And you know what? We’re making AI too. But the kids in my neighborhood are the ones that are going to create the jobs that we can’t even imagine. And so if we could create AI, those kids could create the jobs of tomorrow. And that’s the link.
And I thank you guys for acknowledging our work and my kids’ dedication. Thank you guys so much. (Applause.)
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage, from NBC’s “The Voice,” Rayshun LaMarr with the American Pops Orchestra. (Cheers.)
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome back to the stage Atlantic Council President and CEO Fred Kempe.
MR. KEMPE: So, Rayshun LaMarr, thank you so much. Fantastic. What an amazing performance. (Cheers, applause.)
So what all of our awardees had today that unifies them is a conviction that individually and collectively they can make a difference. These are optimists. There’s no cynicism there.
Thank you for coming tonight. We hope to see you at the event next year. In the meantime, engage with us and help us – help us shape a better world. Thank you so much. (Applause.)