This is the third of three posts covering the fourth annual GeekWire Summit, held October 2 – 3, 2015. GeekWire Summit 2015, like its predecessors, featured talks and panel discussions from leading figures in technology and business in the Pacific Northwest. You can find our previous coverage here and here.
This year, the conference had a specific focus on the future of business and technology, particularly looking at current technology and its possible applications in the future. Here are some of the highlights from this year’s GeekWire Summit.
The second day of the GeekWire Summit, in addition to focusing on the near and distant future, featured discussion and talks that highlighted how technology can empower us to change the world for the better.
GeekWire moderators asked guest speakers to predict the technology that will rise to prominence in 2018, three years away. Several themes emerged, including the tremendous power and influence of mobile devices — a power that can be leveraged for social and civic good, if we so choose.
Social Media as a Platform for Crisis Communication
Between Glowforge’s (@glowforge) home unit laser-cutting 3D printer and simple technology that provides quick and easy access to clean water with a bit of salt and electricity, the audience was well primed to think about localized solutions to large-scale problems. Assistant professor it the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design and Engineering program, Kate Starbird (@katestarbird), provided some examples of technologies that can help in times of crisis, as well as what role social media can play in the event of a natural disaster.
Starbird used Hurricane Sandy in 2012 as an example of our capacity to use social media for information sharing in a crisis: every second, 10 photos associated with the disaster were uploaded to social media sites.
In times of crises, individuals Starbird calls #Voluntweeters come together to address and amplify the emerging needs of grief-stricken areas by participating in social media. During Hurricane Sandy, these volunteers became a touch point for other people seeking ways to help with the disasters, as well as the victims in need.
“Disasters are inherently social … After a disaster, people will convene, among other things, to try to help,” Starbird explained. The constant presence of media devices such as phones and tablets enables connectivity between victims and volunteers, allowing that convening to happen on the internet as well as on the ground.
Telephone numbers of supporters on the scene were passed up a spontaneously organized system, so that donors could add minutes on their cellphones, allowing those impacted by Hurricane Sandy to get in touch with family members and emergency services. Later, the same network was used to communicate about the victims’ other immediate needs well before first responders arrived on the scene.
The people Starbird refers to as #voluntweeters and #crowdsorcerers can even successfully move thousands of people by sharing information on optimal routes using hashtags and established social media networks. Far from being the altruistic paladins one might expect, these individuals are merely regular users of the internet who have spontaneously organized themselves and created a culture of ownership and accountability to help those in need. Starbird imagines that we can come together through technology to share and support those in need during crises, using social media platforms such as Twitter, YikYak, or mesh networks for a localized area.
Mesh networks are an ad hoc network infrastructure, arranged in a way that allows data to be transferred across various nodes in the network either simultaneously or in a particular sequence. This can be used to help spread and vet important and time-critical information to a large population who may be in danger. Mesh networks of users who agree to be nodes can be used to provide an alternative to the internet, at least within a localized area. Local attempts at meshnetting include seattlemesh.net, whose infrastructure could save lives if the predicted M9 earthquake would to strike the Pacific Northwest. Starbird reminded the audience that a massive M9 earthquake is overdue to our region, and when it happens, people are going to try to survive.
In times of crises, people appropriate technology in unconventional ways, hoping to seek or provide assistance. This is the ultimate demonstration of mankind’s innovative tendency to adapt and survive. Even in times of extreme stress, Starbird reiterated the need to “focus on the positives so people come together to help each other.”
Envisioning the Future through Science Fiction
GeekWire contributor Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) sat down with former NASA astronaut and CEO of the B612 Foundation Ed Lu (@astroEdLu), award-winning sci-fi author Nancy Kress (@nancykress), and futurist and author Ramez Naam (@ramez) to discuss the role science fiction plays in thinking about the future. Drawing from the panelists’ expertise and knowledge of both real and imagined technologies, the lively discussion covered a broad range of topics and led to some thought-provoking insights.
Asked what they believed the role of science fiction was in shaping the future, the writers on the panel had some surprising views.
“When sci-fi writers write a story about the development, we often portray it going wrong,” Kress said. “We tend to present things in the worst possible light.” While a science fiction author might actually feel positively about a certain technology or development, it often makes a more compelling story to explore the possible negative outcomes of that technology. Still, Naam noted that pessimism has its role in science fiction, notably in depicting outcomes that people want to avoid. “Because of science fiction like [George Orwell’s] ‘1984,’ we have this meme in our head that a surveillance state is bad. So pessimism can be good.”
One of the most interesting parts of the panel was a lightning round of questions where the panelists were given hypothetical future scenarios and asked to evaluate if each would be a utopia, dystopia, or “it’s complicated.”
The panelists unanimously voted “utopia” for a vision of the future where Uber became a sustainable, viable alternative to transportation, and another where driverless cars became the norm. They cited reasons such as saving more lives with automated driving, solving parking congestion problems, and being able to reduce emissions with fewer cars on the road.
One topic they felt more ambiguously about were robots crossing uncanny valley and becoming more human-like. While Naam felt like it had the potential to increase empathy, Lu was more cautious, saying it would probably change the way humans interacted with technology. Kress had a more wry response: “It depends on what aspects of humanity are incorporated.”
In case of the Internet of Things becoming the new norm, where everyday objects are embedded with the ability to communicate with each other to provide constant connectivity and data collection, the panelists were conflicted. While they saw huge potential benefits in sectors like health, energy, and transportation, all three saw security as a huge risk factor. Implementing failsafes for basic utilities, if not done properly, would mean that “we get hit with one good EMP [electromagnetic pulse generator] and there goes the bobby,” Kress said.
Finally, the panelists shared their concerns about the value of science itself versus becoming proficient in technology, engineering and math. While several initiatives for STEM education continue to be promoted, one often overlooked discussion is whether the population itself is sufficiently educated about the value of science as a pursuit, and what can be done to improve scientific literacy.
“There are people out there who think of science in negative terms and only negative terms,” said Kress, attributing this shortcoming to, “We do badly at teaching scientific facts and how to research them and verify claims about science.”
Lu believes the way forward is to do more big things to get more people excited about science. As a former astronaut, he joked, he is guaranteed the attention of any child in the world for a whole five minutes, but there is some truth to that: encouraging children to pursue science can be as simple as showing them what is possible.
Naam wrapped up the panel on positive note: “Many people think science is great as long as it doesn’t challenge their personal beliefs, but the world is changing.”
Whether we like it or not, the future is already here, and we will all have to find a way to live in it.