Dare Mighty Things Conference Interlinks Technology and Humanity

IMG_8256Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre is a building that invites you to simultaneously look backward and forward. Dating back to 1889, the beautifully restored venue has hosted a range of events over the last century – speeches by presidents, indoor baseball games, symphonies. The lobby boasts pictures of legendary artists like Bruce Springsteen and Prince on the theater’s stage in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and in the 21st century, international bands like Radiohead – themselves famous for reflecting on technology’s relationship with humanity – book multiple dates there.

All of this made it the perfect place for the Dare Mighty Things conference, which took over the theater for a full day on November 3. From 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Dare Mighty Things hosted 10 rapid-fire, half-hour presentations from tech innovators; all of whom quickly mapped out where we’ve been and where we are in their respective spaces before telling us where we’re going. Dare Mighty Things’ speakers had an engaged audience looking way inward and way outward – moving from copy-pasting sections of DNA to eradicate disease to carefully mapping the face of the entire Earth via satellite and beyond that to exploring Mars at scale through VR headsets.

New York to London and Back in a Day

As online communication has grown and evolved over the last couple decades, people have tried to assert that it’d make travel obsolete, and the emergence and move toward maturity of virtual reality helmets is the latest in this space. The idea is if you can experience seemingly anything from your home, why go anywhere?

Josh Krall, CTO, Boom Supersonic, came to the conference with the point that these tech tools connecting the planet only strengthen the public’s appetite for the real thing – human interaction. “We’re living in an age of frequent, reliable, safe access to any corner of the planet,” he said. But Krall asserted that, despite the worldwide change the Jet Age brought about, air travel still takes too long, and making it more luxurious isn’t the answer, as this isn’t the reason people fly.

In the 20th century, aviation tried to move into a new phase of travel via the Concorde supersonic jet, but this was an economic failure. It consumed too much fuel, so a round-trip seat was prohibitively expensive ($20,000 or more). It was loud, and its advanced engines, which by design produced fire via afterburners, frightened passengers and people on the ground.

Moreover, it was a collaboration between the British and the French, so the U.S. was not too enthused. Boeing tried to respond with its own supersonic jet, but Congress deemed it too expensive, pulled its funding, and set a speed limit above land, limiting the Concorde to flying from New York to London. The plane was retired in 2003.

Boom is returning to the idea with the Boom Supersonic Airliner. It will boast advanced aerodynamics arrived at via computer modelling, will be built with carbon-fiber composites allowing the aircraft to easily expand and contract in flight and will be powered by turbo-fan engines. Krall said it will be able to service 500 routes versus Corcorde’s one.

The bottom line is this will make for flights that are 2.6 times faster. Using this craft, people could reasonably travel from New York to London and back in a day, which would have large business applications.

Boom doesn’t expect to have these planes in service until the mid-2020s but Virgin has optioned some. Krall said the Boom Supersonic Airliner has 76 pre-orders across airlines. So it looks like the world will continue becoming a smaller place.

Is This a Road?

Meanwhile, we’re getting better and better at seeing the planet we’ll be traversing more quickly. Devaki Raj, CrowdAI founder and CEO, interviewed by Forbes Science Editor Alex Knapp for a “fireside chat,” walked us through how her company is teaching satellites to map the planet; resulting in a form of artificial intelligence.

Knapp challenged Raj with the question, “If I’m in business, why do I care about satellite imagery?” Her answer was that a lot of commercial markets could open through this technology. It can be used to monitor different forms of shipping as well as throughput levels at retail, assist with disaster relief and inventory natural resources.

She termed this “machine learning.” People train satellites to recognize things like roads and differentiate them from other paths, as well as teach them to avoid clouds and see through smog. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. “Sometimes it’s fairly difficult for a human to decide ‘Are these roads?’” Raj said. “It becomes an iterative process between us and the team to say ‘Is this a road?’ because if we can say that, then the machine can.”

Challenged to say what’s most exciting about this, Raj said, “The frequency with which we can photograph the Earth increases use case.” Basically, we as humans are getting a much better picture of the planet we live on.

Life on Mars

Moving from the Earth to the skies out to space, Vic Luo, NASA VR/AR lead, presented on augmenting space exploration. As many presenters at Dare Mighty Things did, Luo first moved us through the history of his topic, starting with people just looking up, through the advancement of telescopes up to the Mars Rover program. Historically, Luo said, space exploration has been largely flawed as it has trapped astronomers behind telescopes and screens, limiting people’s ability to use their natural intuition in exploring a planet and causing confusing in judging for scale.

NASA is now using VR headsets to allow itself to explore Mars hands-on via data gathered by the Mars Rover and other mapping technology. This program is called OnSight. It’s even opened this up to the public via the Destination: Mars exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center and now through Access Mars, a version of the program that can be accessed on any device.

Jordan Evans, engineering director at NASA, also presented at Dare Mighty Things to tell us about what’s next for NASA on Mars – specifically a new rover called Mars 2020 set to launch in the year 2020. Evans noted that the Dare Mighty Things event is named after a quote from Theodore Roosevelt from a speech he gave in 1912 at the Auditorium Theatre, right where he was standing. The full quote goes, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure.” This philosophy on failure is much in line with the spirit of dogged innovation that drives tech today.

From the Finger to the Voice

One such thinker was Steve Jobs, and Andy Grignon, who worked with Jobs on the first iPhone, spoke at Dare Mighty Things, pressed to tell us what is the future of mobile. He quickly admitted, “I don’t know.”

When they first came out ten years ago, it seemed like the idea of an iPhone was an iPod that could make phone calls. Grignon revealed that at first it literally was this; the old click-wheel on an iPod functioned like the dial on a rotary phone in the first, experimental versions of the phone. Only 200 were made and he termed these “awful.”

So, he said, Apple asked itself a question, “What if you could use your finger?” meaning what if small, touchscreen tech was possible here. To make this happen, every single piece of the iPhone had to be custom designed. It ran on a Mac OS that was not intended to work in such a small device.

Grignon mined a lot of humor out of the mess that followed. “Steve was a huge [jerk],” he said, adding that Jobs routinely referred to him by an obscene nickname, which he was given during a demonstration in which he was working to fix a bug in front of the iconic Apple head. “Don’t fix a bug during a Steve demo, for future reference, not that it matters,” he joked. As Grignon describes it, the development of the iPhone was a project characterized by “big egos working toward an impossible deadline.” He witnessed two employees get in an explosive argument about who had seen their kids less during the project.

But Apple did get the iPhone out, and once it did, mobile began to evolve significantly. “At first we didn’t want to allow any app developers into the app store,” he said, because that would destabilize its code and detract from its core use. “It’s number one job was to make and receive phone calls – in Steve’s eyes.”

Grignon asserted that today phone calls are a marginal use of the device, and that the future of mobile is the device itself going away entirely. “We’re moving from the finger to the voice,” he said, envisioning a future in which people will use a computer as often seen on the television show Star Trek. They just talk to it.

Skynet Not Imminent

And hopefully these conversations with computers go well. Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, speaking on the future of robotics, reassuringly told the audience, “If you look at the development of AI, killing you is way in the future. We have to teach it to drive first.”

Fetch Robotics primarily develops robots that work in warehouses. She admitted this wasn’t the flashiest thing in the world, but aimed to manage the audience’s expectations of robotics. Asked what is the timeline on robots becoming ubiquitous, Wise said, “I’m going to crush your dreams. Not in my lifetime.”

Wise explained that while robots are technically purchasable, they are not in a way that is commiserate with the cost of value one would assign to it. In other words, the average person would not want to spend the money necessary to buy a robot for their home when “it can’t even clear your dinner table.”

Nevertheless, Wise noted so much is going on in robotics now that it’d take a week to cover. This includes mapping human movement so that robots can imitate it, training robots via computer-animated simulations, and developing neural nets so robots can better recognize things and each other. Wise said, “It’s important to build determinism into robots so they won’t stab you.”