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kottke.org posts about Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

A report from the 2017 New Yorker TechFest

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2017

Last Friday, I attended the New Yorker TechFest, a one-day, single-track conference about technology, an accompaniment to the larger New Yorker Festival. Overall, I thought the conference was really good, a sentiment echoed by other attendees. What follows is my impressionistic take on the interviews and talks.

Siddhartha Mukherjee. Author of The Emperor of All Maladies, one of my favorite nonfiction books of the past five years. He mentioned therapeutic nihilism, a view of medicine which went out of fashion due to effective medicines and procedures. They talked about the progress in medicine (and accompanying complexity), which is all relatively recent: in 1945, there were three treatments available to patients with heart problems (give them oxygen, drain fluid through the feet, and morphine for the pain) but now there are 90 available treatments. That complexity is an area where AI can help…using machine learning to read chest x-rays more effectively or suggest courses of treatments for a given set of vitals/symptoms.

But Mukherjee warned that “new diagnostic techniques almost always over-diagnose” and that, in relation to CRISPR, extraordinary technologies require extraordinary public response…i.e. we need to have a public conversation about how/why/when these technologies are used. Mukherjee is also involved with biotech startup Vor Biopharma, which is attempting to modify human immune cells to attack cancer cells.

Garry Kasparov & Daniela Rus. Kasparov was one of the world’s best chess players (prob still is tbh) and Rus is the director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. Kasparov’s face was injured from a taxi accident the day before, an accident that would not have occurred had he been in a self-driving car — he said car accidents due to human error will look ridiculous and barbaric to our children.

(Quick sidebar: I’ve been teaching my 8-year-old daughter a little about cars. She’s been helping me pump gas and after we filled up a low tire the other day, I popped the hood and explained how the engine and cooling system worked. And she said something like, “Daddy, when I’m old enough to drive, cars probably won’t have a motor in them because they’ll all be electric.” From the mouths of babes…)

Kasparov talked about his Deep Blue match, noting that it was the first time in his career that he knew that an opponent was better than he was and that today, free iPhone chess apps are more powerful than Deep Blue was. At one point when talking about tech’s effect on vastly improved medicine and healthcare, he quipped that without technology, old people wouldn’t even be around to complain about new technology. Rus and Kasparov both emphasized the role of AI and robots in society, namely that “robots can do predictable work in predictable situations”, machines will dominate closed systems but open systems are different, and “The machine has a steady hand. It will always prevail.” At times, these pronouncements sounded either comforting or like warnings. Both also noted that education has not kept pace with technology; Kasparov said the current paradigm of kids sitting and listening to a teacher is “antique”.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Ginsberg is a designer and artist who explores synthetic biology in her work. One of her projects is E. chromi, in which color-producing bacteria could, for instance, turn your poop purple if the water you’re drinking is polluted.

E Chromi

Ginsberg is also trying to work out what it means when people try to make things “better”.

Along with the first two sessions, this conversation really underscored how no one at the conference really talked about technology, which has become something of a meaningless word. Instead, the discussion was about the ethics, politics, and philosophy of technology (whereas at other tech conferences, the talk revolves mostly around business and investment). How does the political conversation keep pace with the increasing speed of technological innovation? Interviewer Michael Spector noted that humans have never developed a technology and then never used it, and that sometimes the tech world’s approach is “I just hope something good happens before something bad happens”.

Jaron Lanier. One of the best sessions. They could have given Lanier a microphone and let him go on for an hour or more. As an 11-year-old, he designed the geodesic dome house that he and his father lived in — “people went through dome phases in my generation” — but it later collapsed, leading Lanier to say that you should definitely let your 11-year-old design your house, but just don’t actually live in it. “When you code, you start thinking of everything as code. You want to optimize and debug people and the world.” He credited Norbert Wiener with the idea of the computer as a potential ultimate Skinner box and said that Facebook is a fantastically effective real-time Skinner box. He chided FB and Google in particular for this, saying that we are not their customers, that we’re the rats in the cage, pushing levers to get treats while they make billions skimming our attention off to advertisers. Silicon Valley is well-meaning, but power corrupts.

Lanier told the story of an apocryphal early-80s Silicon Valley service called Rent-A-Mom, that would take care of all mom-like duties for the archetypal socially inept male programmers of the era and that the startups like Uber, Blue Apron, and Stitch Fix have essentially made the service a reality. Except that “sometimes your mom tells you the truth and we haven’t done that service yet”. Lanier’s newest book, Dawn of the New Everything, is out in November.

The Future of Food. Not very interesting. Felt like paid placement for large food service companies. Although Dan Barber did tell an interesting story about harvesting a carrot at just the right time (after the first frost) so that it converts all the starches to sugar and is super-sweet. Oh, and the sushi at lunch was pretty good.

Jony Ive. In retrospect, Remnick was perhaps not the best choice to interview Ive. I can’t think of who else from the magazine would have been better, so maybe they should have gotten an independent outsider who has followed Apple extensively for the past 20 years — John Gruber for instance.

That said, while Ive said very little about what he’s up to at Apple, he did speak about his process and how he thinks about creativity, particularly about the tension between curiosity (being open, creative, child’s mind, anything goes) and focus (the need to make this one thing work and ignore everything else). Ive called Steve Jobs the most focused person he’d ever met.

Carrie Goldberg & Brianna Wu. Another excellent session. Listening to these two women talk about their desire to publicly stand up against some of the most reprehensible and dangerous behavior imaginable was inspiring. Goldberg was almost levitating on stage because one of her clients’ stalkers has just been arrested for online harassment, a rare event that Goldberg is working on making more common. Goldberg talked about her taxonomy of offenders in cases like these: assholes (jilted ex, revenge porn), perverts (who do it for sexual gratification), trolls (they love feeding the flames), and psychos (are actually mentally disturbed).

Wu said while Twitter bears most of the brunt of the online harassment backlash, Facebook is “much much much more of a problem” and they care much less about fixing it than Twitter does. She also called the failure to prosecute Gamergate one of the biggest mistakes of the Obama administration and that there are more consequences for bad acts in Grand Theft Auto than there are IRL for women who get threatened online.

Gina McCarthy. Excellent. McCarthy was the head of the EPA under Obama. A very impressive person…I had forgotten what an extremely competent public servant sounded like. I don’t have much beyond that…I didn’t take notes because I was too enthralled as she deftly explained how politics intersected with the law. McCarthy for President? Sign me up.

Michael Lynton. Chairman of Snap. This did not make me any more interested in signing up for Snapchat. Or confident that Snap can remedy their poor start as a publicly traded company.

Gabriella Coleman & Thomas Rid. I didn’t take too many notes for this talk either…was too busy paying attention. I do remember Coleman saying that a big reason why Wikileaks took off was that they made it easy for both journalists and normal people to easy search through the leaked documents. The inherent importance of the documents is significant, but making it accessible increases their relevance.

Bill Maris & Thomas Rando. Maris discussed the concept of longevity escape velocity, the theoretical point at which human life expectancy increases faster than passing time, resulting in a scenario where you can live forever (assuming you don’t get hit by a bus…which would be less likely if all future buses are self-driving).

Van Jones. CNN commentator and author of Beyond the Messy Truth (out today). I don’t watch cable news so I didn’t know much about Jones, but I came away impressed. His comparison of poor rural whites who get dinged for voting against their own economic self-interest and wealthy coastal liberal who are lauded for voting against their own economic self-interest was particularly apt. Jones talked about the central tension of the US, trying to reconcile the founding reality of America vs the founding dream of America. He also called Bernie Sanders “a 143-year-old political Muppet”. Oh, and they should have paired Jones with someone other than Adam Davidson…or just let him do a 30-minute talk (which he pretty much did anyway…the man knows how to commentate).

Keller Rinaudo. Rinaudo is the CEO and co-founder of a company called Zipline. Zipline engineers national-scale medical delivery systems via drone. When he first started to explain how it works, I was like, oh that’s a cool concept, I wonder how far off something like that is. And then it became apparent that Zipline actually works, now. WAT? In Rwanda, Zipline has cut blood delivery times to remote areas from several hours to 15-30 minutes.

Really impressive. And a good note to end on: technology that truly does make the world better.