EmTech 2013 day one: Futures of hope

Guest Blogger: Doña Keating is President and CEO of Professional Options, a prominent innovator in the leadership, policy and management consulting industry which provides solutions for businesses, organizations and governmental agencies.

It’s hard not to love Cambridge and the greater Boston area. An elegant skyline draping itself across the Charles River, surrounded by world class academic institutions. A highly innovative, collaborative, and solutions-driven climate which promises refinement and an irreverent insistence that the world’s problems will be tackled and changed by its inhabitants.

Nay, this is not a Frommer’s testimonial, but a prelude to my hearty endorsement of EmTech 2013, day one.

Since 1999, MIT Technology Review’s mission of  identifying important new technologies and deciphering their practical impact has manifested in EmTech, a gathering of the sharpest minds in the technology, engineering, academic, startup, and management communities to provide insight into the innovations that shape the world and business. Held at MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, MA, this showcase for emerging technologies with the greatest potential to change lives continues to attract worldwide interest and attendance. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to glimpse the future, drive the new global economy, and inspire.

My expectations were high regarding this event, and I wasn’t disappointed.  MIT Media Lab was stunning, and there were three distinct feels to the main meeting room (absorbed, dynamic, attentive), Winter Garden Area (casual, sometimes loud, interactive), and Connections Lounge (quiet but relaxed university classroom). Attendees enjoyed the outside deck during breaks, and sat in huddled but independent groups on its floor during lunch.

Morning presentations began with a Big Data panel which included Deb Roy, Associate Professor at MIT and Chief Media Scientist with Twitter; Mitchell Higashi, Chief Economist of GE Healthcare; Kate Crawford, Principal Researcher with Microsoft Research; and Ari Gesher, Senior Engineer with Palantir Technologies.

With the overarching premise that science and technology were absolute goods but dependent upon ultimate use and purpose (further supported by open debate and conversation as a proctoring agent), Roy described how a personal life experience drove his curiosity in infants, language, and physical/social contextual development. After capturing ten hours a day of activity, he described how wordscapes held predictive power in why and where certain words and language were acquired. The extrapolated analysis ultimately led Roy to Twitter, where he created the analytics platform of people in the USA and a content graph which helped television stations understand what people were saying and when. A virtual tidal wave of content-driven impressions (and thus, conversations),cemented the guiding idea that conversation around a shared event could wield considerable influence, allowing companies like ESPN to create parallel paths to tweeters who did not see their show but could nonetheless be recruited to additional engagement via relevant video or audio stream.

My unspoken question was whether re-tweets and responses were the measurement, or simply being a subscriber to a Twitter user where one might rarely see a post. But what do I know? Roy’s company, BlueFin Labs - which analysed online chatter about TV shows and companies then sold its findings - was eventually sold to Twitter for nearly ninety million dollars.

Higashi made valid and interesting points about an industrial internet, designing society with cutting-edge healthcare systems, using big data to help policymakers to solve problems, and guiding behaviours with positive nudges which increase participation. Ari Gesher wrapped up the session with a presentation about intelligent augmentation, using the strengths of humans in concert with technology and computers, and a touching example of how his company (Palantir) partnered with Team Rubicon to improve workflow automation and facilitate work orders during Hurricane Sandy.

But Kate Crawford stole the show with her cheeky anti-big data ‘possible world’, where information is filtered and our decisions are virtually made for us. For our own safety and in our best interests, of course…

Crawford deconstructed Big Data Fundamentalism and its self-professed goal of objective truth with three counterpoints regarding the myth of objectivity, risk of data discrimination/redlining, and the end of anonymity. She left us with the poignant thought that data is both precise and coarse, and that both inaccurate and accurate predictions on its basis can be deleterious…particularly if we are not diligent about protections which arbitrate and regulate.

The Neuroengineering panel was fascinating and a personal highlight, as I drifted into a Zen state of absorption whilst Ed Boyden, Associate Professor of the MIT Media Lab, Steve Ramirez, Graduate Student at MIT, and Theodore Berger, Director of the Center for Neural Engineering at University of Southern California explored topics such as neurochemistry, electrical impulses, 3D robotic neurosurgery, memory creation/installation, neural and motor prostheses to mimic input/output functions, and opportunities for collaboration between disciplines to determine and understand the biochemical implications of memories. I was so enthralled with Borgen’s detailed description of hippocampal spatial/temporal activity and how to predict and measure, then recover memory function and learned behavior with a biomimetic neural prosthesis. So much so that it took everything I had to resist an urge to ring my husband at a nearby hotel, and announce my intention to move back to the area - stat. EmTech MIT 2013 invigorated a sense of "coming home," and being in a community where everyone "gets it" is a highly intoxicating experience.

The afternoon continued with a stellar and impressive lineup of Innovators Under 35, who discussed climate change, geo-engineering, triple bottom line nuclear reactors, wind power, rainwater harvesting, air quality, MwangaBora solar lamps, DIY laboratory equipment, soft bio-integrated electronics, the Leveraged Freedom Chair, and anticipatory prevention of Mendelian disease.

Scot Osterweil, Research Director for the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, spoke about the use of games to inspire invention, social interaction, playfulness, problem-solving, and language proficiency with children. His insights and cautionary tales about the benefits and drawbacks of narrowly-focused STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curricula resonated, as was his suggestion that community education and exploration leads to an empowered youth.

The Emerging Technologies in Health Care discussion with Jonathan Bush, Cofounder and CEO and President of Athena health, was equally informative and entertaining. This bloke was wired for sound, and his machine-gun humor about the trials and successes of his cloud-based "healthcare internet" was the stuff of lore. His high energy and passion were infectious, kept the crowd engaged, and provoked thought about a future of information transparency.

Marco Tempest captivated the audience with an "Open Sourcery" magic show using his version of Google Glass, and the day’s agenda was appropriately wrapped up with a fireside chat with Angela Belcher, MIT Professor and winner of the 2013 Lemelson-MIT prize. Her clearly brilliant innovative efforts were the perfect closing remarks about the critical need to continue challenging the mysteries and possibilities of science, and to inspire the next generation of student inventors, innovators and technologists.

Though I couldn’t stay at the reception as long as I would have liked, I had a delightful conversation with Sheila Danko, Professor and Chair of Design and Environmental Analysis,  College of Human Ecology, at Cornell University. We both agreed that leadership and strategy were important for creating cultures which supported disruptive technology and innovation. And as a nearly perfectly timed backdrop to our discussion, my newly nine year old daughter arrived to share her experience with Mandarin, and a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) camp in which she participated this past summer.

Day two can’t come soon enough.

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Doña Keating is President and CEO of Professional Options, a prominent innovator in the leadership, policy and management consulting industry which provides solutions for businesses, organizations and governmental agencies.

EmTech MIT is where technology, business, and culture converge. It’s the showcase for emerging technologies with the greatest potential to change our lives. It’s an access point to the most innovative people and companies in the world. Most of all, it is a place of inspiration—an opportunity to glimpse the future and begin to understand the technologies that matter and how they’ll change the face of business and drive the new global economy.

This entry was posted in Guest Blogger on Sun Oct 13, 2013 by MIT Sloan Executive Education

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