Humans and machines: this was the central theme of this year's Technology Frontiers, a two-day conference where technologists and thinkers from all walks gathered to speak to an audience of businesspersons in the underbelly of a London hotel. For those that didn't catch the live stream, Gizmag has collated the stand-out quotes that raised IQs, eyebrows and laughs among those assembled.
“Why do people deserve a penny when they update their Facebook status? Because they'll spend some of it on you.” – Jaron Lanier, computer scientist, musician and authorJaron Lanier's opening keynote at Technology Frontiers was an advocacy of the micropayment: payments of mere pennies, usually online, for bite-sized morsels of content and media. Friction has hampered the proliferation of the micropayment – friction from the cost of online transactions (which have seen the definition of micropayment balloon out of impulse-buy territory into double-digit dollar figures); and friction from the mental barrier that can exist in the mind of the buyer, however small the fee.
Not for the first time, a follow-up QA session with Conference Chair Tom Standage would reveal more, Lanier asserting that people will change their minds about micropayments when they became beneficiaries. People should be paid whenever their data is used by companies collecting data, Lanier argues, be that a Facebook status update or an appearance on CCTV camera (to borrow an example from Standage). The size or accruement of the payment would be commensurate with how useful that data turned out to be.
Like all good talks, Lanier's raised more questions than answers, but one suspects that, talking to a roomful of businessmen, the idea of micropayments as a two-way street might have a been tough to sell.
“I love that the world is data intensive … unfortunately, it's called 'Big Data.'” – Werner Vogels, VP and CTO, Amazon.comOn a day when ideas came thick and thicker, you'll forgive us if we missed the precise wording of a few of the choice quotes, and so we'll take
The Amazon CTO's apparent criticism of big data turned out to be one of the big stories of day one at Technology Frontiers, but really, Vogels was simply calling for nuance. Arguing that the web's gigantic companies are just as exposed to uncertainty as are startups, he argues that the quality of data and how you use it is essential to survival.
“Every day you spend becoming an expert in a field, you become more useless in that field.” – Naveen Jain, entrepreneurAnimated and engaging in equal measure, entrepreneur Naveen Jain stuck it to experts and governments, the former for their lack of big ideas, the latter for being "in the way." When asked about the technological foundation behind his MoonEx moon-mining venture, Jain described the enterprise as a "last mile solution," pointing out that the tough problems had already been solved by NASA, a government agency positively riddled with experts.
It's perhaps unfair to expose Jain's scattergun delivery to too much scrutiny. The central message was to embrace unfamiliar territory, and daring to think big. The secret to becoming a billionaire, he argued, was picking a deep-rooted social problem and solving it. Jain made execution sound positively straight-forward, predicting (in fact, "guaranteeing," though perhaps the word was used off-the-cuff) that a cure to cancer would be found in five to 10 years. Should that prove to be the case, one imagines one or two experts will have chipped in along the way.
“We are the dumbest possible species that can maintain a technological civilization.” – Nick Bostrom, philosopherSpeaking on the theme of what it means to be human in the machine age, University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom points out that the human condition changed enormously after both the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions – a shift towards the sedentary that one inevitably extrapolates, as Tom Standage did, to the brain-in-a-jar scenario.
Bostrom discussed possible routes to machines with human intelligence. Whole-brain emulation, Bostrum argues, is the more straightforward path, requiring fewer conceptual barriers to be broken than building a human-intelligent AI from scratch.
In context, this sobering assessment of humanity came as a partial explanation for a lack of contact with intelligent life from beyond our solar system. Bostrom seemed to be saying that though we are complex, if simpler lifeforms (our non-human ancestors, for instance) were capable of building a technological society, they would have done so. Contact with alien worlds requires advanced technology, which requires an advanced evolutionary state, and advanced evolutionary states are rare.
“Programming will make you a better doctor.” – Eben Upton, founder of the Raspberry Pi FoundationEben Upton's account of the need for and development of the Raspberry Pi was both compelling and, crucial for a talk just before lunch, easy to follow.
“You don’t want to have the same keyboard enabling you to buy oven gloves” – Will Self, writerWill Self is not a luddite, he would like us to know, though Carlota Perez can be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Self used his opening keynote on day two to express anxiety, in his inimitable engaging and vocabularied way, about the effect of the web and associated technologies on human society and cognition.
You've heard it before: social media is making us stupiderer, but Self's take on the issue was considered. He drew a clear distinction between those born into the digital world, so-called digital natives, and those that have had the digital world thrust upon them: digital immigrants. The later, Self argued, are more likely to read Plato's The Republic, while the former will tend to look up the gist on Wikipedia (and, if they're writing about it, plagiarize what they find there.)
Carlota Perez had herself spoken on Tuesday about the next Industrial Revolution: or the enabling technology which will lay the new infrastructure required for a new golden age, just as train tracks and wires did the Industrial and Information Revolutions (or irrigation and the Agricultural Revolution, for that matter.) She questioned Self's pessimism with respect to social media, citing its ability to empower young people in the developing world. Self happily conceded the point, probably because doing so in no way contradicted his arguments.
Self told the gathered audience (which he complimented for turning up in person, but suggested that was because it was composed largely of digital immigrants) that he prefers to write with a typewriter. “You don’t want to have the same keyboard enabling you to buy oven gloves,” he said.
Another useful tip: if you wish you to prevent those annoying sorts that conduct loud mobile phone conversations on public transport, simply read aloud from your book at the same pitch and volume, Self suggests. “It’s amazing how much it aggravates them,” he said, recommending Kierkegaard as particularly effective.
“Yeah, it's okay for you to laugh. You're on the better side of the glass.” – "Station Jim," by way of Matt Webb, CEO, BERG“Slough railway station has an ancient taxidermied dog in a glass box. He's called Station Jim and is on platform 5. Welcome to Slough” – so
Though Webb's anecdote provided a rare moment of levity in the proceedings (prompting spontaneous applause), his subsequent discussion on the Internet of Things and the implications for human interaction wasn't short of mental nourishment, likening the current rise in 'net-connected products with the advent of electrification.
Smart companies are cottoning onto this, Webb asserts, citing the example of Nike, which has become "an activity company which happens to sell trainers," thanks to products like Nike FuelBand.
This was interesting, not least because the thinking of Webb and others operating in similar areas suggests a very different path for web-enabled technology than the connected screens that Will Self had just decried. This is a future where objects do intelligent and delightful things, but without us needing to stare and poke at them for hours at a time.
In the round-table discussion that followed, Self was not enthused by this possibility, calling it a return to animism. Why this would be truer of 'net-connected products any more than other animate objects (such as television, or jacks-in-a-box) isn't clear – this was a clever observation, but not, I think, an accurate one. If Internet of Things things become ubiquitous, one hopes that will continue to instill joy, but one doubts they will often instill wonder – certainly not to the extent that we seek to explain them as magical (and even if we do, their makers will presumably be on hand to point out the idiocy of doing so.)
“I now very comfortably sit in that gap between reality and fantasy.” – Mark Pollock, adventurer and authorExperts came in for a second beating on day two, though Mark Pollock's case for the prosecution was more compelling. Pollock became the first blind man to reach the South Pole in 2009, having lost his sight entirely in 1998 at the age of 22. A tragic accident in 2010 left Pollock paralyzed from the waist down. “I went from being a human to being a category,” he said.
Refusing to listen to the frankly hopeless prognosis of medical experts, Pollock is trying Project Walk's experimental physiotherapy which, combined with assistive technology like Ekso Bionics' exoskeleton, he hopes will enable him to walk again. Pollock's "fantasy" is that walking with assistive technology will stimulate a rerouting of the nervous system that could allow him to walk unaided – a scientific impossibility, he has been told.
Joking that exoskeletons would make him only partly bionic, Pollock is testing technologies such as BrainPort, a sort of vision-system-via-the-tongue which Gizmag reported on in 2009. Talking to Standage afterwards, Pollock softened somewhat on the subject of experts, admitting he'd gone hard on them for the purposes of his talk.
There were other speakers at Technology Frontiers at 2013, and lack of sound bites (that I noted down, anyway) in no way implies lack of insight. MIT Media Labs' Hiroshi Ishii's talk on day one (we've covered his work before) was a particular standout, more on which anon …