Conf Recap: MIT EmTech 2013

This year I had the cool opportunity to attend the annual EmTech (Emerging Technology) Conference sponsored by MIT Technology Review, and held at the distinguished MIT Media Lab in Boston. I’ve always wanted to visit the Media Lab, as celebrated hallowed ground technical wizardry, and took full advantage via the event ;-) Not only were the various TED-style conference keynotes held on the topmost floor of the Media Lab, but there were also behind-the-scenes tours of MIT’s many labs with demo stations and models/prototypes, as well. 

Conference attendees even got to test drive hybrid Porsches out front for 20 minutes! (clearly a sneaky ploy by one of the big corporate sponsors–I had fun ;-) 

Mit collage fw flat mini


MIT Tech Review’s media roundup of EmTech citations:
Below are my top highlights & takeaways from the 3-day conference. 
1. Steve Case: The legendary founder of AOL did an on-stage interview with Joi Ito, the Media Lab director. Case emphasized taking a “long slog” view of building Internet-driven companies (citing his own history with AOL, hitting IPO after seven years, but not reaching critical mass until 8+ years after IPO, achieving 150 billion valuation). He’s currently focused on Wash DC policymaking, fostering entrepreneurial contacts, backing immigration policies, etc.
– Look outside the usual areas for investment opps: examples are Chobani, Zip Car, Zappos, Under Armour (not all hi-tech either)
– Build a “flywheel of innovation” via Talent + Network Density effects. Hmm.
– “Constructive Engagement” with government is vital, they are “the largest customer”! Can’t just ignore govt.
2. Deb Roy: MIT prof, founder of Bluefin Labs, which was sold to Twitter. He’s now Chief Media Scientist at Twitter, described his “love of words”, using various data visualizations to show correlations of Twitter key phrases to TV watching patterns (shows, movies, live events). Basically an analytics platform that defines a “Content Graph”. Described Twitter as a “public live conversational medium”. Interesting…
3. Kate Crawford from MS Research on “Big Data”: Described three areas we should all ask about “Big Data”:
– Doubt the myth of objectivity: All data is subject to complex context, data is a function of human interpretation (which involves personal creativity)
– Data discrimination: How does data modeling predict behaviors fairly?
– End of anonymity: we are in a new era, where the corporate selling of data is common, understood, well-known. Personally identifiable info is pervasive & inescapable.
4. Human-Computer Symbiosis: Speaker from Palantir spoke of his personal belief of achieving “intelligence augmentation” via cooperative strengths of humans + machines. Handling resourcing allocations (factory) to adaptive complex situation (war) to Rogue trading and credit card scheme tracking. Ultimately, the UI that people use must be familiar, performant (fast), and expressive of our desires. 
5. Brain-inspired computing / Neural processing: A set of talks dealing with this fascinating space about “the brain”. Qualcomm speaker spoke of their efforts at neural processors and architectures that replicate human brain, with software tools (IDE, debugger, runtime simulations) now available to use! “Zeroth” computing inspired by Asimov.
– Others spoke of “neuro-engineering”, which involved cognitive implants and very heavy talk about memories, dreams, realities. A synapse is actually a tiny powerful gap between neurons. Cognitive prosthetics for helping brain damage persons, replacing sections of the brain (hippocampus). Mathematical representation of the brain’s memory functions. Seems very Inception-y!
6. Shell Oil speaker: Standard “sponsored speaker”, rather defensive about Shell’s innovation programs. He spoke of the “stress nexus” among food, water, and energy as all being interconnected and having multiplier effects on human pop and climate changes. Described various “clean tech” innovation efforts from Shell, via “TechWorks” program with MIT. Hmm. Skeptical.
7. Healthcare Policy: Chief Economist from GE Healthcare described using Maps, Models, and Games to intersect “Big Data” with huge wicked problems beyond human capabilities.
– Maps: to visualize and understand an abstraction
– Model: to project an interpretation for discussion
– Games: to solve with “fun” angle of competition and cooperation
“The metrics you choose will determine your goals/outcomes” Be careful! Hmm.
8. New tech mishmash: Various talks on topics like Digital Currency (Bitcoin in particular), 3D Printing (self-assembling entities via sensors and motors–very cool), Smart Cities (via IBM) about sensors everywhere for tracking and modulating conditions like traffic, water systems, road repair indications, etc. (MIT has the “Senseable City Lab”–very cool urban data viz featured)
Also notable: There were several short 3 min talks by “Under 35” inventors sprinkled about. Here’s the full listing: (Coolest one: 28 yr old MIT grad created a nuclear rector the size of a beer keg for processing nuclear waste back into usable fuel! )  
— Very disappointed in the talk about “future of education” which was focused on “Gamification” trends. Snooze. Seems like a tired meme, nothing groundbreaking in terms of methods and models. 
— Surprisingly disappointed in the talk by Google’s Mary Lou Jepson, head of Google Glass. Basically a PR talk about how cool Glass is, nothing about the process and motives or prototype failures along the way. She also had a slide saying (no joke) “ID and UX are mostly styling”. I quickly chastised her on Twitter for that. (Oops, there goes my future job at Google! ;-) 

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