Techonomy Events

Reflections from Ross at 33,000 feet: Techonomy’s Program Chief on This Weekend’s Conference

The program book for the Techonomy2015 conference opening Sunday.

The program book for the Techonomy2015 conference opening Sunday.

I’m writing this from the last cone of silence I’ll have before Techonomy15. The 6 hours it takes to get from NYC to SFO is a good time to review the program, and see how we’ve done.

It takes months to put together the program for our main conference. What we think is relevant in February or even September, may not be by now, so it’s a constant exercise in balancing ideas and opinions (and egos!). But the goal is always the same. A smart, relevant program.

The theme for TE11–the first conference put together by our little team–was Revolutions in Progress. It examined the revolutions underway in mobile, social and analytics and what they meant for individuals and the institutions, corporations and governments that serve them. We’re still seeing all of that play out. This year we call TE15 Re-Humanizing Society, and it may be our most relevant theme since 2011. We all immediately agreed on it as soon as we started to think about this year’s conference.

So how can or should tech and the tech industry credibly assert itself as a truly re-humanizing force and influence on the world? Can we reap the supposed benefits of being reduced to 1’s and 0’s and becoming mere data generators without losing what makes us human? Clearly we don’t have the full answer to such questions, but we’re good at creating a conversation that explores them.

The conference kicks off with Human Values for a Technologized Age , a session with Erica Kochi, the co-founder of UNICEF Innovation, Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship Julie Hanna and Rev. Michael McFarland, a Jesuit computer scientist and the former president of College of Holy Cross (read his article on Tech, Power and Social Justice).

One of my favorite sessions, Gods in Boxes: Almighty Algorithms and Hidden Values, will dig into the increasingly relevant question of how much we’re handing over to algorithms and is it wise to do so?

Self-Assembling Societies: Organizing for Action (with panelists from Impassion Afghanistan, Local Circles, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Qatar Computing Institute) will look at how tech enables online communities to convene in the physical world to share ideas and drive action.

Smart Data, Better Credit examines the problem of how those who most need credit scores can’t get them…and how platforms are emerging to change that. Moderated by Tilman Ehrbeck of the Omidyar Network, it includes Brian Forde, the Director of Digital Currency at the MIT Media Lab, Nmachi Jidenma of Facebook’s Global Payments Partnerships, Jonathan Hakim, CEO of Cignifi, and Jeff Stewart, CEO of Lenddo.

Angela Benton of NewMe Accelerator will talk about why the current model for accelerators doesn’t work for minority communities. She’ll also join a session called Digging for Diversity, which will ask whether tech can truly tamp out bias. (For more, check out this from Techonomy Detroit 2014 and Unitive CEO Laura Mather’s talk from TE14 on the Science of Diversity.)

Another driver of change ought to be voting. Larry Norden of the Democracy Program at the NYU Law School Brennan Center for Justice will present some alarming facts about voting systems and the crumbling infrastructure of American democracy. (What is it about America and crumbling infrastructure?)

While the immediate benefits of the Brainworks track may be somewhat further out, it’s another one of my other favourites for this year. What are the implications for humanity as neuro-tech improves and artificial intelligence becomes less “artificial”? How close are we to a symbiosis of humans and machines? The brains exploring those questions include DARPA head Arati Prabhakar, neuroscientist and philosopher Sir Colin Blakemore, Terry Sejnowski who directs the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute and Babak Hodjat of Sentient. No doubt Jaron Lanier and Steve Jurvetson will have something to say too in their joint session with Blakemore. (I had hoped to have Sejnowski debate Ray Kurzweil on the Singularity but we weren’t able to pull it off.)

The conference closes with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and his colleague, engineer Adam Bosworth, talking about the promise of the Internet of Things. As a leader, Benioff exemplifies an industry based on values.  He’s currently shifting from just being a business leader to being a civic leader.  With his recent announcement that Salesforce spent $3 million last year on pay parity and his very vocal opposition to Indiana’s anti-LGBT law he’s showing that perhaps you can be both.

There’s plenty more. Check out the program for the full agenda! And check out the Livestream starting Sunday 3.30pm ET here on the Techonomy.com homepage.

Tech is changing things so fast that no one can really keep up. If anybody tells you otherwise, they’re not being honest.

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