Future in Review (FiRe) 2008 Recap

Future in Review (FiRe) 2008 Recap

It is not every day that you get to hang out with Noble prize winners, top climatologists, renowned science fiction authors, CTOs of Fortune 100 companies, top researchers in medicine, broadband, environment, and fuels, #1 VC on the planet, friend of every Chinese leader since Mao, and more – and all within 48 hours. Well, Future in Review (FiRe) conference last week in San Diego provided such a thrill.


FiRe is organized by Mark Anderson, CEO of Strategic News Service (SNS). Mark has this uncanny ability to consider economic, technology, financial, political, and global trends to multiangulate and come up with some specific and accurate predictions for the IT and telecom markets. His highly acclaimed newsletter is read by who’s who in the industry.

FiRe 083 With Mark Anderson

The setting for the conference was at the beautiful Del Coronado in San Diego (everything was great except the cellular signals, where are the five bars when you need them). This note summarizes the views gathered at the event.

The event started with a keynote on Energy from Vinod Khosla and I was blown away by his grasp on the issues and analysis in depth of the energy industry – now and 30 years from now. He had already proved his mettle in the high-tech industry, by having such a command on another critical sector is truly amazing. His analysis is based on solid facts and economics. He rightly suggested that the energy solutions that don’t take into account the economics that will enable India and China to adopt such solutions will not work long-term. For example, hybrids are both expensive as well as emit more carbon, a non-starter in the developing world. It wasn’t until Vinod took a stand and started investing in energy that investing in “Green” became fashionable. His leadership and work is going to have a real material impact on the energy crisis.

The next three days were a collection of rapid fire engaging sessions from 8 to 5. Guests were noble laureates, scientists, and influencers from their respective fields. These are the doers in the industry who make this happen. It was a treat to watch BBC World News Service’s Stephen Evans host four “hotspot” sessions where he threw questions at technologists talking about things to come. My favorites: Jim Marggraff’s Livescribe pen that recognizes handwriting, records and synchronizes voice with handwriting and oh yes, translates into different languages including Chinese and Arabic; and the discussion Donald Jones of Qualcomm had about disposable Band-Aid sensors that record vital signs and use phones to transmit data (yes! wireless band-aids coming on a body near you).

 With Hugh and Gary (Source: Tom Krazit/CNET News.com)

I had the privilege of hosting and moderating a session on “Future of Wireless: From Mobile Advertising to Mobile Payments.” The distinguished panelists included Hugh Bradlow, CTO, Telstra, Gary Roshak, VP – Advertising, Yahoo!, Jonathan Bulkeley, CEO, Scanbuy, and Rajeev Chand, Managing Director, Rutberg. We covered a number of important issues. Rajeev suggested that the tremendous amount of traffic being generated on mobile social networking sites and the movement of eyeballs from online to mobile suggests that mobile web is here to stay. Jonathan who spent the nineties with AOL recounted how the mobile industry exactly feels like the AOL days and the advertising and commerce market in mobile is going to be enormous. Gary who has been active in the mobile data industry for almost two decades said that after due consideration, his team at Yahoo! came to the realization that Open is the only viable business model in mobile. Hugh who has a keen pulse on the market said that operators can increase their value in the ecosystem by providing context-rich personalized content and services however the handset fragmentation could hold back all the progress. (CNET coverage of our panel here)

James McCarthy, a leader of the 2007 noble prize winner intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) and Richard Carson, Professor at UC – San Diego elucidated the perils of the rising temperatures and CO2 levels and dangers of doing nothing. Politicians who used to run away from the climate change discussion like one would from a plague are trampling over each other in declaring themselves “green.” The awareness is there but the solutions and policies being developed are not in sync with the rate of damage.

William Haseltine, founder of Human Genome Sciences talked about how Indian healthcare system is using technology (including GPS and mobile) to improve delivery of healthcare and as they are mastering the process are turning their learnings and infrastructure into a global business by providing similar services to overseas markets. He estimates if similar procedures and processes were implemented in California, the state would save enormous sums of monies.

A unique feature of the conference was its “CTO challenge” where a group of technologists from HP, Symantec, Calit2, Microsoft, Avanade, and others collaborated to solve the real-life problem given to them within 72 hours. The topic was “How to build solutions to tackle wild fires?” (The Santa Ana winds in San Diego are notorious for inflicting havoc on the neighborhood every year) The team took input from the executives from the San Diego fire department and came up with a well-thought-out plan and solution. The resulting proposal and recommendations will be available on the FiRe website. Emergency response is a problem not only in the developing countries but also in the developed nations. Technologies and systems are not integrated and by the time people try to figure out what to do, valuable lives and property are lost – which is a shame.

Sidney Rittenberg has known every Chinese leader of his generation including Mao, Deng Xiaoping, current president and premier. His perspective on China and how the western world views China was quite interesting especially in light of the recent unrest in Tibet.

FiRe 069 A journey through space at Calit2

FiRe 027 Video Conferencing with profs at University of Melbourne. Yes, this is a ginormous screen.

FiRe 045 Virtual Mars tour. Next best thing to being there.

One of the much anticipated event was a visit to the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at UC-San Diego hosted by Larry Smarr, Director at the institute. By the time we were done with the engaging tour, our definitions of what “broadband” is and what it can do, changed dramatically, and yes, we all wanted those fat pipes and big screens at our homes. Under Larry’s leadership, UCSD has created a 10Gbps network with leading universities around the world from Amsterdam to Melbourne to Mumbai to Tokyo. The fat pipes enable live collaboration amongst academics and scientists. Imagine a cinema screen with Ultra-HD resolution. The resolution is so clear that you can follow the minutest flicker of candles on the screen, hear the faintest beats in a symphony. Other applications – well, how about looking at the images from Mars Rover in a 180 degree panorama that makes you feel you were right there or a journey into the universe so intense and so (sur)real that will make any sci-fi movie director go wow! Or zoom into an enzyme or my favorite – zoom into a Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece to discover that there are more images and faces beneath what meets the eye and adds a zing to art forensics. The enormous amount of data that can be transferred and processed leads to many interesting applications beyond cool toys in a lab. Curtis Wong of Microsoft gave a cool demo on the big screen of the recently launched Worldwide Telescope. For the skeptics who say “who needs more bandwidth?” – baby! You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

One of the things that impressed me about the conference was the eagerness of participants to engage and help out. Unlike other events where keynotes and speakers are whisked away right after their talks, at FiRe, one was able to discuss and question the participants making each conversation at the table worthwhile. One of them went out of his way to help me out on a couple of questions I had.

FiRe 095 With Sally Anderson, Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling, the renowned science fiction author gave “scenario development” a new meaning. The novelist who lives in three countries, has a penchant for Bollywood movies, is just a great guy to talk to, envisions that the climate change issue in 30 years will be like what nuclear issue is now – go in the background. Btw, he was writing about current climate crises almost 30 years ago. His new novel on Ubiquitous Computing is coming out soon.

There is some interesting research going on in the area of battery technology. UC Berkeley and Stanford are duking it out. Prof Nitash Balsara at Berkeley and Prof. Yi Cui at Stanford are both looking at different compounds as electrolytes. Both are aiming to improve longetivity by 50-100% while keeping the rest of the parameters same, and yes by reducing carbon. It will be interesting to track their progress.

“Sustainability” is the new arrow in the strategy quiver. By making your products more “environment friendly,” one can not only do the earth a little good but make some bucks along the way. Prith Banerjee, SVP, HP discussed how sustainability is one of the core components of their product development strategy going forward.

FiRe 099 Dr. Lee Hartwell

Larry Brilliant – the man who on the encouragement from his guru in India helped eradicate smallpox and has had a profound impact on the response to infectious diseases around the world. He is now executive director at Google.org. Larry talked about the need to coordinate efforts in collecting data so we understand the emergence of diseases – a point also echoed by Lee Hartwell, 2001 Noble Prize winner in Medicine. Instead of resorting to “faith” based medicine, he is pushing for “evidence” based science where you collect data at each (micro) step (marker) to see how patients are responding to drugs but getting funding for basic research continues to be a problem (however, several charitable organizations have been stepping in lately).

FiRe won’t be complete without some predictions. Here is one for you. Mark predicted that if Sen. John McCain wins the upcoming election, the price of Oil will be at $125/barrel and if Sen. Barack Obama (I know Sen. Clinton is still in the race) wins, the price will be coming down to $95/barrel.

The breadth of topics was truly amazing – from environment to climate change to quantum computing to wildfires to healthcare to cancer research to battery research to science fiction to economic affairs to globalization, each conversation added to your thinking and worldview.

It was a different kind of conference. Something that will get your neurons fired up. Don’t believe me, the registration for 2009 is open now.