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Nick D'Aloisio: Yahoo's teen star on the digital future -- without footprints

By Irene Chapple, CNN
updated 5:23 AM EST, Thu December 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nick D'Aloisio, now 18-years old, sold his app Summly to Yahoo for a reported $30 million
  • He is now working for Yahoo as a product manager, as the company continues its acquisition drive
  • He sees a future where apps like Snapchat, where information disappears, as reflecting human biology
  • That could set up a clash with the heavy digital footprint of other apps

Editor's note: Irene Chapple of CNN and Alanna Petroff of CNNMoney are at Le Web, Europe's biggest tech conference, in Paris December 10 to 12. Follow Irene and Alanna on Twitter and see all their coverage here.

(CNN) -- Nick D'Aloisio is tapping intently on his smartphone, his slight frame bookended by a dark mop of hair and bright blue sneakers.

Curled into a VIP couch, he appears oblivious to the fuss going around him. Upstairs, a young blogger desperate for face time is stalking the corridors trying to catch him between interviews. Meetings are running over and a spare room has to be found for the overflow.

You are taking human behavior, and interaction and distilling them down
Nick D'Aloisio

The 18 year old is a phenomenon of the tech world, and a star speaker at this year's LeWeb conference in Paris.

D'Aloisio created Summly, an aggregation app, from his bedroom before selling it to Yahoo for a reported $30 million in March.

He initially explored the idea to help him with his studies, identifying a need to deliver concise and accurate representation of text.

In a deal that made headlines around the world, Yahoo folded the app into its own, and hired D'Aloisio as a product manager.

For D'Aloisio, Summly has created a concept which can be expanded into fields like multimedia, which he's now exploring at Yahoo.

He's also fascinated by the popularity of what he calls "ephemerality reacting to human interaction," as represented by Snapchat, the app in which content vanishes after it's been viewed.

For D'Aloisio, this reflects human biology and could be a natural progression for technology. "When we have a conversation, we forget what we say in an hour, in 24 hours, and there is this really nice retention curve, it decreases to I think 5%," he says.

"There are certain kinds of conversations which you don't necessarily want to be permanent, and it's an interesting concept."

As Summly crunches information, apps like Snapchat reflect the transience of human interaction -- concepts which are more intertwined than are immediately obvious, D'Aloisio says.

App maker explains who helped him
This teen is a Yahoo millionaire

"When I am telling you a story, I do try and summarize it," he says. "I won't tell you everything word for word, so again like a lot of these concepts are more intertwined then you think. You are taking human behavior, and interaction and distilling them down."

How a 17-year-old became a tech giant

But while Snapchat evaporates content, others leave deep data footprints, seemingly setting up a collision of ideas. "You have wearables on one side of the spectrum, and that's almost encouraging permanency by its very nature, this idea of archiving everything and filming everything," D'Aloisio says.

"Then you have almost like the antithesis, which are these very ephemeral, disappearing message services, and Snapchat, and IM and group chat...and I don't know how they are quite going to collide. They are coming from different sides of the spectrum."

D'Aloisio now spends the bulk of his time at Yahoo, although he structures his life to keep order around priorities including continued education and driving lessons.

His best friends and girlfriend remain the same and as close to D'Aloisio as before he was catapulted onto the global stage. His 18th birthday last month consisted of a surprise dinner with family and friends, a low key celebration for someone who might have been tempted to reach for the finest champagne.

Trying to understand something as complex and transcendent as infinity actually ends up solving of lot of problems
Nick D'Aloisio

D'Aloisio gesticulates rapidly as he articulates ideas on topics that range from linguist theory, philosophy, biology and mathematics.

But he calls himself a hobbyist; someone who wants to learn. He idolizes figures like Leonardo da Vinci, whose extraordinary talents allowed him to straddle intellectual and artistic disciplines.

D'Aloisio's current intellectual hero is Georg Cantor, a German mathematician who, in the late 1800s, proved infinity came in different sizes.

"I'm fascinated by this form of maths, because to me trying to understand something as complex and transcendent as infinity actually ends up solving of lot of problems to do with artificial intelligence and knowledge," D'Aloisio says.

Then he slips into teen talk, for a second. "These figures are just kind of cool, for me anyway, obviously not cool, in like, cool, cool, but cool as in intellectually cool."

Read more: Ray Kurzweil reveals what your future will look like

Read more: The revolution coming to a screen near you

Read more: Siri says 'dump him'

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