A look into the future

EmTech conference highlights future tech

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Ann Marie Sastry spoke at the Emerging Media (EmTech) conference on Wednesday. Sastry, professor of engineering at the University of Michigan and founder of Sakti3, was one of the many distinguished speakers at EmTech. She discussed her initiatives to double the range of electric vehicles by producing solid-state battery systems. EmTech is MIT Technology Review’s premier conference that focuses on emerging technologies and their impact.
Jaswanth Madhavan—The Tech
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Ann Marie Sastry spoke at EmTech about doubling the range of electric vehicles with solid-state battery systems.
Jaswanth Madhavan—The Tech
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EmTech attendees heard about technologies which may come to define our world.
Jaswanth Madhavan—The Tech

It’s now official: the information age will drastically change the world. Emerging technologies converged at MIT this week in a showcase to demonstrate how untapped industries could radically shape our future.

Dozens of companies flocked to MIT’s Media Lab last Tuesday and Wednesday for MIT Technology Review’s 11th annual Emerging Technologies (EmTech) Conference. Throughout the conference, more than 60 presentations were given, addressing a wide range of topics including selective genetics, open source platforms, cloud technology integration, mobile healthcare, and more.

Steven B. Johnson, author of the best-selling book Where Good Ideas Come From, kicked off the conference with a talk that set the central theme of the conference: community innovation. Johnson says that he has been studying the science behind what makes environments innovative for most of his life. What he learned was that while large-market companies like Microsoft and Apple have conquered the technology landscape, they are not hubs of innovation. Instead, the most innovative environments are non-market communities where ideas are continuously shared. “It is more than just a technology space,” Johnson said.

This was no secret to the companies present at the conference. Many are already using open data platforms for the purpose of enabling such communities.

Johnson concluded his speech with an important definition of invention: it is a culmination of quick innovations that, through failure, evolve into highly tested and successful platforms for the future. “It’s not a miracle, but it is nothing short of miraculous,” Johnson said.

Ford is one company working on building an open platform. Dr. K. Venkatesh Prasad, Ford’s “What’s Next Guy,” is designing next generation cars that will provide an open platform for community development of car applications. According to Prasad, he is working on “more than just a car.” Modern vehicles are platforms that can be embedded with around 30 sensors, 40 actuators, and up to 80 microprocessors.

One of the next forefronts for automobile development is also cloud connectivity. “[The] industry is at an early stage of creating these reservoirs of data,” Prasad said.

For example, by using the sensors within the car, it will soon be possible to detect road potholes all around the world by aggregating the data from travelling vehicles. Such data could be used by city planners to help upkeep roads.

According to Prasad, the opportunities are limitless. By democratizing the technology, new platforms and applications will emerge from cloud connected cars. Prasad envisions a platform in which communities will build apps for cars just like today developers build apps for the iPhone and Android.

EmTech was not all about the big companies, though, attracting a plethora of startups.

Basis, a startup from San Francisco, is working on a product that they hope will revolutionize the mobile health industry. Their product, called the Basis B1 band, will be going on sale later this year as the first continuous heart rate and health tracker. The Basis B1 band passively monitors a user’s activity level throughout the day.

“You can’t improve things until you start measuring it,” said Jef Holove, CEO of Basis. What makes the Basis B1 band different is that it uses optical technology to measure heart rate — a method used in hospitals.

Instead of outputting onto a monitor, however, the Basis B1 Band is connected to the cloud; it will send data that it collects to the cloud where it can later be accessed, analyzed, and reviewed.

According to Holove, continuous monitoring enables people to accurately quantify the amount of exercise they have done throughout the day. “There are things in our everyday life that do contribute [to our health]. You’re just not aware of them,” Holove said.

Holove says that when he started wearing the device, he became more conscious of his activity level, whether it was going for a run or taking out the trash. By taking all types of exercise into account, the Basis B1 band will allow people to monitor the number of calories burned, sleep patterns, and overall physical activity. According to Holove, even small chores that require physical activity can add up and appear as exercise on the Basis monitor.

Emerging life science

Another central, recurring theme that emerged at EmTech was advancements made in the life sciences industry.

Juan Enriquez, founding director of the Life Science Project at Harvard Business School, challenged the audience with an unnerving question: how many species of human live on Earth today? According to Enriquez, genetic technologies have enabled us to sequence enough human genomes today to find genetic patterns. By investigating such genetic patterns, it will be possible to identify common genetic patterns that may differentiate the human race into separate segments.

Enriquez said that today’s technology is getting us closer to answering such questions.

Jonathan Rothberg, founder, CEO, and Chairman of Ion Torrent, invented a technology that aims to democratize and make DNA sequencing a routine part of medicine. Rothberg, who was recently featured in Forbes Magazine, envisions a future in which doctors will own their own DNA sequencing devices. According to Forbes magazine, such an industry could “ignite the next $100 billion technology market.”

Rothberg’s device, the Ion PGM Sequencer, is the fastest-selling DNA sequencer in the world. It is currently on the market for $49,000.

While the device does not sequence the whole genome, it does sequence genes that are believed to be essential for diagnosing critical diseases, including 200 cancer genes. According to Rothberg, the current bottleneck for finding cures to diseases like cancer is finding the correlations between genes and phenotypes. However, Rothberg plans to publish open-source data to enable the community to join in on the effort for finding cures. “Over the next ten years, starting immediately, we will have a more and more comprehensive view of how to treat people and what the outcomes will be. But it will be […] 20 years before we understand cancer at the same level we understand HIV.”

While gene sequencing will provide valuable information for enabling personalized medicine, it will take time to determine when someone should take medicine based on what genes they do and don’t express.

Greg Sorenson, former Professor of Radiology at MIT and current CEO of Siemens, is overseeing the development of new MRI scanning technologies, including innovations in cross-sectional scanning. According to Sorenson, cross-sectional technology was ranked by physicians as the number one innovation that they couldn’t live without. The technology enables doctors to look inside the body of patients.

During his talk, Sorenson passed around a brain made out of ABS plastic that was constructed using a 3D printer and MRI images. While such technologies are “cool,” Sorenson was more concerned about making such technologies profitable.

“I think [the critical challenge of innovation is] figuring out how to take these kind of innovations and translate them into something that really benefits people to the degree that someone will pay for it … ideas are a dime a dozen,” Sorenson said.

Sorenson says there needs to be more innovation in the healthcare system to address inefficiencies. “Much of the costs of our healthcare system are expended on very few people over a short period of time. Something like a third to half of healthcare costs are spent in the last few months of life and on relatively small number of patients.”

Other companies are approaching healthcare through the social realm. Technology Review Humanitarian of the Year, Paul Wicks, is acting as the R&D Director at the company PatientsLikeMe, which provides an open forum for asking and answering questions about diseases and conditions.

“It’s the patients that do all the work,” Wicks said. “The energy in the system is created by the links between these people.”

New media meets old

Deb K. Roy PhD ’99, co-founder and CEO of Bluefin Labs, is using social media in a different context: television. Roy describes the technology they are inventing at Bluefin as the “TV Genome.” Bluefin Labs is currently working on a technology that will measure what people watch on TV by analyzing what people are talking about online.

“People talk about what they watch on TV, … impressions drive social expressions,” Roy said.

According to Roy, TV is alive and well. Pundits declared TV to be dead, but Roy says the content of TV has adapted by moving to the internet.

Roy envisions that one day, all TV impressions, or user views, will be semantically labeled and measured. Not only can impressions be measured, but they can also be tracked by how people share them on the internet. According to Roy, in the last 30 days, Bluefin has recorded impressions in 200,000 shows and 2,000,000 advertisements.

Shadman Zafar, Senior VP of Product Development at Verizon, describes how the experience of watching television has become more of an interactive experience through the development of mobile phones. Recently, Verizon released a mobile application that enables the user to control TV media, lighting, security devices, and personal media.

“It’s a personal remote control; I got my own, my wife got her own,” Zafar said.

Instead of television ads reaching out to viewers, viewers can now pick and choose what they want to watch as a result of the increased interaction.

Overall, the barrier of entry to television watching has dramatically decreased. “The best user experience is the user experience where there is not user experience; it disappears, it gets out of the way,” Zafar said.