Adina PopescuFrom: Bucharest. Citizen of Berlin. Born on: 20 December Occupation: Founder & CEO of ÆRTH.LIVE.
Adina Popescu moved to Germany when she was five years old. Wanting to escape the dictatorship of Ceaușescu, her mother left the country, the husband and the daughter behind, determined to build a new life for them elsewhere. Although, their dream destination was the US, life kept them in Germany. It took her mother 2 years to get her family out of Romania and into Germany, where she had attained residence.
Adina had a language, memories even since 3 years old, she had already an identity when her feet met the foreign ground. As an emigrant, she felt that she never quite belonged. “It doesn’t matter how white you are, it doesn’t matter how well you know the language – you are just not from this culture, but not from your culture either. You just become a hybrid.”
Growing up, she tried to fit into this new world at first. She studied Philosophy in Germany, in German language, worked as an assistant on Friedrich Kittler’s “Music and Mathematics” and moved finally to NYC, where she received a grant to continue her studies in Philosophy. While doing so she published a theater play called “The Ethics of Pirating”, started to write, publish and exhibit her artist friends and was an art critic for Art Form in New York. In 2010 she decided to blur the lines and started to embark onto her own art career with shows at Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea NY, alongside Richard Prince, at the Moscow Biennale, Venice Biennale amongst many other places.
“My parents always told me that New York was this glorious place, so when growing up this image started to shape in my head, believing that this was where life was happening. My parents never made it to New York – so I felt that I had to.
Adina lived on and off in NY and in Los Angeles. The people in the US forced her to strengthen her goals. It was there where she understood what she wanted to do, what she can achieve and how to professionalize her work. “I understood that nobody is going to help me. The US teaches you determination and clarity, which helped me so much, as it taught me that if you want to get something done, it is in your hands only. I have no problem working 16 hours a day and to follow the steps in order to reach my goals.”
After living a life in the art world, the world of art fairs, galleries, biennales and swanky collectors, she stopped feeling free in her expression as an artist. The strong co-dependency that ties most artist to their exhibition rooms and the financial dependence on collectors and galleries made her feel uncomfortable. “I didn’t like that.” she says with a smile. At this point, Adina had discovered Virtual Reality and started to play around with the idea of creating imaginary worlds in fictional spaces, in example visualising music as Data in VR.
But over time she wanted to reach more people, have an impact and the art world felt to small to do so.
Today she is the founder of the ÆRTH.LIVE. – a platform for environmental and climate- action, visualised on a virtual model of our planet – on mobile and in XR. (VR & Augmented Reality = EXtended Reality)
Adina fights for the global good and wants to give people the tools to protect their own environment. Her mind-set has changed since her time as an artist. She feels that if she isn’t doing something with an impact, she is wasting time considering the current state of the world and of our planet. “When you see how things could be better, it be a shame not to try.”, Adina told me.
At the end of the day she is a philosopher. She looks at things from a meta- level, “because otherwise it is hard to have an overview over complex issues like our climate crises for instance.” Sometimes she is definitely too much for some people. “Adina, what you want is too complicated to solve.” they say. “Most people look at parts of the system in isolation. Some are machine-learning specialists, some are VR specialists and some are specialists for Blockchain. I am not inventing the wheel here. To me they are all tools in a toolbox, needed to create the platform of the future. To me these are not separate fields, but are all moving parts of a system.” She needs all the pieces in order to create ÆRTH. “I never became a Blockchain specialist, a VR specialist or a machine learning specialist. If you generate VR (or XR) you will eventually need machine learning, as it is a real time medium – ideally generative. In that case you do need a form of Blockchain and Self Sovereign identities*, as you need to start thinking about how to secure the personal data of the users and their avatars. Everything to me is systematic and I think that this is what philosophy taught me, because there isn’t a philosopher that is not also a systemic thinker.
* Self Sovereign identities – is a term used to describe the digital movement that recognizes an individual should own and control their identity without the intervening administrative authorities.
Photo: Adina Popescu, MindChain conference in Cluj – “Who owns the Future”
MS: Why did you choose philosophy?
I think none of my choices in life where really chosen by me. I always felt that I was on a path pulling me forward with not much alternative or choice. In a strange way I never second-guessed my impulses. Things came to me in a way as if they needed to be perused without question.
At 16 I knew that I want to study philosophy. I remember I had a Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that I didn’t really understand then, but I loved reading it. I was also reading books on political activism in German history. I was interested in these kind of subjects. My mother’s friend was a very well read academic psychoanalyst. He came over for dinner often, so he became my to-go-to person. Him I could ask all the questions that I had. My parents didn’t understand why I wanted to study philosophy. As emigrants, they wanted for me to be financially safe and to go to medical school. I said no. I packed my things and moved to Berlin.
In Berlin I meet a woman who told to me: “You are an ambitious young lady; I work at the BBC. If you are ever in London – come see me.”. And that was it. I packed my things again, put everything I owned into my little blue car and drove to London. I forgot that they drive on the other side of the road there, so I had difficulties driving there at first. 😊 I found a room with friends in a sharing community and took a job in a bar taking night shifts. I was determined to visit the woman at the BBC, and so I did. She was so astonished when I showed up at her office, that she gave to me a small job as a researcher. I was 19 years old back then. Dressed in a suit, I went every day to the BBC offices just opposite of the Big Ben and worked on research on the monetary union.
After half a year I returned to Berlin in order to start my studies in Philosophy.
MS: Were you scared?
No. The good thing about me is that I am never scared. It feels to me as if I act out of my own impulse, my instinct, and sometimes I wake up and ask myself: ”What are you doing?”
Seriously! I woke up last night and asked myself: “Am I really doing ÆRTH? So crazy! Then I fell asleep again.” 😊 I never really question it though, as I see ÆRTH so clearly. So it has to be done.
I love the new. I am more excited about the future then about the past. Over the latter we have no control, but the future we are creating every day. Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware that we all are creating the future daily – within our present! There is no future except the one that we allow to happen. People say: “Oh, it is too late, it was already decided.” But, there is no rule that says ”this is how the future is going to be”. The future is being created in each second, by us. If we all collectively decide to have a different future, we can. It makes me sad when people just give up, or run away from the responsibility of shaping their own life.
MS: You call yourself a futurist.
Yes. And there are 2 ways to understand the term:
- Some people are called futurists and they tell you: ”This is how the future is going to be”. I don’t trust these people because they often have some kind of stake or are embedded. “AI is coming and there is nothing we can do about it”. Which is not true. We have created democracies, regulatory bodies etc. If we want our politicians to pass a bill for us to better control our own data and to open up the data silos, we can campaign or fight for it. But for now we just slave labor away for a few large global companies, who keep developing their machine learning capabilities based on our personal data.
- The way I understand a futurist is someone who understands the present and the mechanisms behind it and can extrapolate into the future, understanding which paths we have in front of us and can help advise which path to choose in order to maintain our democratic societies.
Photo: Adina Popescu, at the energy transition dialogue, invited on behalf of the German government.
MS: You mentioned the AI. Will the AI take only our boring jobs or also the creativity based ones?
AI will take almost all the jobs. 😊The large companies are in a race to develop the best AI. They don’t have a plan in place. It is this mere blind trust and the idea that the world will self-regulate. But to what cost?
I’m not against AI, but I believe in making publicly relevant data open, so that we can collaborate on data models, rather than keeping the machine learning algos inside silos. In this way we can maintain our democracies. Because it is our democracies that our parents fought so hard for that is at stake here. AI is generated from data models that are taken from all of our behavioural, as well as physical response and genetic data. This data should be in the service of humanity and not inside of a black box of one company. It is a very powerful tool to forge.
A lot of the data models that we work with come from data sets that have an inherent bias in them or are just spotty. It is garbage in, garbage out: and yet, some countries want to implement AI into their jurisdiction – which is a total nightmare, as no one checks the data entries and if the statistics are based on race – or gender bias.
I find these black boxes extremely problematic. When a company can control the way an AI will be used, then we will be less and less empowered to do anything other than to react or to consume (or provide more data). We have only a few large conglomerates controlling the AI capabilities – and of course only in their interests. I don’t want to be a part of that future. I want another one. 🙂
* Garbage in, garbage out – a computer science acronym that implies bad input will result in bad output.
MS: What should we do?
We have to work on platforms that give their users (or better contributors) the power over their own data. If you want to sell it – fine. If you want your privacy, that should be fine too: End-to-end encrypted on decentralised databases.
I am on Facebook, I am on Instagram, I am absolutely complicit, because for the moment there are not many alternatives for us to stay connected. And I like being connected, But I do work with people who build a better, more egalitarian structure of our internet. We still have a long way to go, but at last, we need to be aware of the fact that this possibility exists and is doable. People should know about their options. This is my understanding of capitalism: giving people multiple options to stay competitive as a marketplace.
* End-to-end encryption (E2EE) – a system of communication where only the communicating users can read the messages.
MS: It is hard for us to get there?
There is no other monetization for Internet businesses then monetizing their user’s data. Everyone knows that it is data theft, but the truth is that right now there is no other way to monetize such expensive platforms. It is also important for people to wake up and to demand more privacy, more transparency on the side of power and more control over their own data. I have high hopes. Today I find that the 16 years old have sharper minds and are more determined than ever before. They grew up with the Internet and they know when they are being manipulated. Most of them are turning their backs to everything that is fake.
MS: What do you think about the Instagram or Facebook influencers?
I have not much interest in most of them unless they stand for something real. Unfortunately, everything turns fake when you have a brand that pays you to post “authentic posts”. Maybe you start off authentically, but when you become an influencer and you have a certain amount of followers, it shifts and you start being instrumentalized. It’s the only way to get cash out of it.
I think there are better ways to claim your purpose and to put a good message out into this world. Instagram reinforces the identification with the wrong values, wrong things – this is especially true for women. It is the oldest trick in the world; women using their body, with big sacrifices (plastic surgery) only to compete in the beauty market. I am also on Instagram. But I am trying not to get pulled into it too much. It is addictive in its own way.
Photo: Adina Popescu, NASA Live Mars at JLP in California
I think 16-year-old Greta Thunberg is a wonderful example. She does not give a flying f.. about how she is dressed or which “brands” she is wearing – as she is fighting for a cause. I think in general this is a role model that women should be looking into. Us, women, can advocate for social justice, for equality and for the protection of our resources, our planet and our dignity. We can go out there and stand for something larger than ourselves.
MS: Is this why you decided to put yourself out there for ÆRTH?
I know that only I can use my voice and put my vision out there the best way possible.
MS: How will ÆRTH work as a platform?
The idea is to help people everywhere in the world to support a cause that is important to them, or to all of us. As an organisation you can place a call to action, let’s say Boyan Slat (the founder of the big ocean clean up – who, when he was only 19 years old, created a system of digital nets that can take the plastic out of The Great Pacific garbage patch, managing to clean up large areas and removing plastics down to 2mm) needs help. His work puts all the large corporates, responsible for producing this trash to shame for not putting any effort in cleaning up an island of plastic in the pacific that is as large as 1.6 million square kilometers!!! If a 19-year-old managed to find a solution, then I want to create a platform that makes people like him and all those solutions exponentially visible and possible.
MS: The use cases on ÆRTH can go into multiples directions: sustainability, climate action, implementation of clean technology. How will you put them together?
I only create the tools and then people decide how to use them. I will not control it in any direction. The only thing I make sure off is that the data is not controlled by one entity (not even by myself) by decentralising the system, and by creating a trust score that allows for all the organisations to know quickly if they are dealing with a trusted party or a deep-fake.
MS: Is VR/XR (extended reality meaning a new form of augmented reality) the design of a feeling?
This is such a nice sentence. Thank you Marta. I think it is. It is a feeling. XR is emotionally more engaging as a display. But it is not central for ÆRTH to function. Most importantly: ÆRTH has to work on every smart phone in order to reach as many people as possible. I am trying to find companies that create inexpensive smartphones for 3rd world countries, so that they can participate on ÆRTH in a self-sovereign way and to have their voices heard
When are we ever connected directly to the people on the ground, who are either cleaning up the garbage in the pacific or are fighting for the Amazon not to be deforested. We need to hear them speak – and not the press. People react to direct storytelling best and I think that we lost that, as everything is mediated now. ÆRTH is giving you the possibility to do exactly that.
When Adina and I spoke in the 3rd week of June, she told me that her main personal pursuit in life is “to understand myself better, when I am acting out of ego, fear, or when I am acting out of a pure and free impulse. I think that we are truly free when we get rid of these thoughts that come from fear, mistrust, vanity or the need to be acknowledged.”
In Berlin, her life happens near Kreuzberg/Neukoelln (an area frequented by tourists, but who managed to keep its unique and offbeat flair). After she wakes up, she walks 3 minutes towards the canal and sits in her favourite café besides little Turkish shops (“shops with fruits, flowers, everything really”). “I just sit there and drink my coffee before the day starts to take over. I feel so blessed.”
She works a lot, as a female founder of a company in this high tech area. She says that it is much easier for a woman to have a safe job at an institution or a company where she can prove her contribution. But it seems much harder to go out and to create one’s own vision in life – may it be as a movie director, as an artist, as an entrepreneur. “It is harder for women who have their own vision and their own claim, because people with a vision succeed only because other people believe in them. Unfortunately, not many women believe in themselves first and foremost – and men often just don’t see us – I mean, they SEE us, but they don’t really see us. I was in rooms where I had o lot to say, but nobody saw me, as I was only there for decoration. I had to learn to make myself heard. I am extremely self-determined as a woman and I have to pay for it every day. But the men fortunately are changing, with a generation of man who decided to think and to be different to their fathers.
More about Adina Popescu’s projects and activities can be found on her Facebook page, on Instagram profile, on creatives-catalysts.com or on Linkedin platform. ÆRTH is not live yet as her and her team are working on a first test implementation, which will be announced soon.