Techonomy Events

Techonomy 2017: Optimism Tempered with Concerns

Techonomy 2017. Photograph by Paul Sakuma

Techonomy 2017 opened Sunday with a mind-bending array of possibilities coupled with an equal number of ethical quandaries.

The opening day looked at the convergence of man and machine, raising the prospect of neuro-technololy that will bypass the need for language itself.

“It is both exciting and worrying,” was a common refrain throughout the sessions.

Techonomy17, taking place through Tuesday in Half Moon Bay, California, is an executive retreat examining how tech changes everything, how to harness it for good, and how to keep it from overwhelming society. This year CEOs from Aetna, Campbell Soup, Oscar Health, and Verizon, as well as John Chambers of Cisco, Beth Comstock of GE, are all participating.

Before the opening session David Kirkpatrick, Techonomy’s CEO, set the stage by outlining what he called the company’s ethos.  Among them are:

  • Business has serious responsibility to society;
  • Tech is a force for good – but only when good is the goal;
  • Big tech companies need to proactively collaborate with government;
  • Business must take a global view in all things.

Against that backdrop, Kirkpatrick moderated a discussion with Rohit Prasad, VP and Head Scientist, Alexa Machine Learning, at Amazon, Tessa Lau, Chief Robot Whisperer and CTO at Savioke, Mary Lou Jepson, Founder and CEO of Openwater, and Benjamin Bratton, a professor of visual arts and philosophy at UCSD.  The discussion highlighted a range of examples of man and machine coming together, from the now commonplace Amazon Echo, to robots that are providing room service in hotels, to wearables that use infrared light and are a billion times more powerful than a conventional MRI.

A presentation from Justin Sanchez, Director, Biological Technologies Office, DARPA, highlighted the possibilities for the injured.   DARPA has developed an interface direct to the brain that allows paraplegics to control robotics with their minds – and to actually feel what the robotics feel.

But, while consumers are already getting comfortable with talking to Alexa, the commercialization of artificial intelligence raises critical questions.

“We have to decide what it means to be responsible,” Jepson said.

Imagine a wearable that can tell you if you are in love, or can read your thoughts and communicate them to others, or can write that piece of music that is your head, or can communicate with animals.

According to Jepson, we’re less than 10 years away from commercial applications that could transcend language.

In a later discussion, Beth Comstock, Vice Chair of GE, raised the question of whether business is equipped to keep up with the pace of technological innovation.  Her point was underscored in a different discussion focused on the impact of Amazon, Facebook and Google – both for good and for bad.

“Technology has outstripped the law,” said Joyce Vance, a law professor at The University of Alabama.

Facebook and Google may stand as cautionary tales as tech moves to commercialized artificial intelligence.

“I worry about the unintended consequences and think businesses are not set up to deal with the issues,” Comstock said.

On the other hand, the possibilities are impossible to ignore:  “We might stop eating animals,” Jepson said, “And start collaborating with them.”