Thursday, October 30, 2008

Some Notes from Ideas Boston 2008

I spent the day at the Ideas Boston conference, held every fall at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. It's a really interesting slice of what's happening in our town across the realms of science, technology, the arts, non-profits, and academia.

It's a fun event, in part, because of who you see and meet -- an unusual cross-section of Bostonians. I ran into Bob Krim from the Boston History and Innovation Collaborative, several folks from the Museum of Science, a number of Boston Foundation people, a programmer from Microsoft, the guy who runs the Lemelson-MIT program, Northeastern University roboticist Joseph Ayers, John Lester from Linden Labs, Julie Graham from YPO, Denise DiIanni from WGBH, Joyce Plotkin from the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, and Don McLagan, formerly CEO of EqualLogic.

Some of the talks I enjoyed most were those that had nothing to do with technology... like the artist Paul Goodnight talking about the monument to the Middle Passage he is trying to build in Boston and guy Noah Feldman talking about the future of Iraq and Afghanistan...Paul Watanabe talking about immigration and the way that America has treated Asian-American immigrants specifically (like his own family)...photographer Robin Bowman discussing her travels around the country to talk with and photograph American teens...and Sara Seager of MIT talking about what earth-like planets in other solar systems will be like (and predicting that we'll find one within the next five years.

IBM researcher Martin Wattenberg got the most laughs of the day by showing how he has been trying to create useful and surprising ways to visualize words information, instead of just numbers. He showed how various baby names have waxed and waned in popularity (the 1970s were a great decade for "La" names like LaTonya, LaToya, and Lakeisha.) He analyzed the Presidential candidates' word choice in the debates (not surprisingly, when John McCain uttered the word "my" it was most often followed by "friends.") And, preceded by the disclaimer that this particular Web site was not built using IBM dollars, he talked about a personal project to analyze the body parts most often mentioned in song lyrics. Jazz lyrics tended to focus on "eyes," and gospel lyrics the hand. Hip hop lyrics? Very obsessed with the behind, he found.

Wattenberg was followed by MIT prof Dava Newman, who is designing a next-generation space suit for voyages to Mars and a return to the moon. The suit, she said, was less like putting someone in an air-tight Zip-loc bag and inflating it (that's been the approach thus far with NASA's space missions) and more like "shrink-wrapping someone." It's designed to offer the wearer far more mobility and dexterity than current models -- which will be important when we go prospecting on the red planet. She said that some of the suit's "exoskeleton" features (like helping the wearer move or lift things) might be useful on earth, for people who suffer from diseases like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. Newman had one of her grad students model the tight-fitting suit on stage, and on a walk through the audience, and I am sure no one at all was thinking about hip hop lyrics.... at all. At all.

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, ended the day by talking about simplicity, design, technology, and humanity. He suggested that we've arrived at a moment where we've had a big too much of technology -- like gorging on meatloaf -- and we are ready for more humanity and authenticity. There was a lot of nodding in the audience.

The event was sold out this year, by early October. They'll need a bigger venue for 2009. By way of disclosure, I served on the advisory board, which involved suggesting a few speakers.

The main thing I'd improve for future editions is subtracting one or two speakers and making way for a few questions from the audience and moderator Tom Ashbrook after each presentation. Also, a live Webcast would be great (though I do think the event gets recorded for eventual viewing on WGBH online.)

Update: Here's the Globe's coverage of the event.

[ Photos: At top is John the middle is the spacesuit. ]

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