May 07 2015

EMC World 2015: Two Futurists Stoke Our Wildest Technology Dreams

Jason Silva and Jake Porway led an adrenaline-pumping session on the cultural revolution that technology is leading.

By the late afternoon on the third day, most IT conferences hit a lull.

EMC World's organizers must’ve taken notice of this (perhaps they used a little Big Data to gain this insight?) because the “Guru Session” Jason Silva and Jake Porway led on Wednesday at the Las Vegas event was the sensory equivalent of a shot of Red Bull for the geek brain.

Silva is a multi-hyphenate. His title for his presentation described him as a media artist-futurist-philosopher-TV personality. He’s the host of National Geographic Channel’s Brain Games and was recently honored at the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. So if futurists can be considered credentialed in any way, Silva’s certainly got a few noteworthy accolades to put toward that.

His presentation at EMC World, which was punctuated by kicks and punches in the air, essentially worked like a TED talk on the evolution of technology and humanity. Silva broke up his speech with video shorts from his Shots of Awe YouTube series. His reflections on technology and society were writ large and reached as far back as the Stone Age.

“Here’s the thing about technology. It’s a part of who we are. We’ve been using our tools to extend our reach for a hundred thousand years,” said Silva. “We’ve been using our tools to extend the boundaries of our agency, to extend our will. That’s what it means to be human.”

When Sensors and People Unite

The philosopher part of Silva’s title was clearly being put to good use. But grounded in much more concrete and contemporary terms, he opened the audience’s eyes to the explosive impact that Internet of Things could have on our world.

“What does it mean when you extend sensors into everything? What does mean when objects become enchanted objects?” asked Silva. He then played an IoT-focused Shot of Awe clip that waxes on about the possibilities.

And when it comes to the Quantified Self movement to use data to self-monitor aspects of daily life, Silva believes that Fitbits and Apple Watches are just the beginning of something much larger and more significant.

“We’re becoming algorithmic cascades of data," said Silva. "And if we can start finding patterns in that data and start extracting insight, meaning and knowledge from that data? Talk about an upgrade on what it means to be human!”

Doing Good with Data

If Jason Silva was the "Macho Man" Randy Savage of futurists, Jake Porway was an equally engaging, if much more subdued, Milhouse-style futurist.

Porway currently works as the executive director of DataKind, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people and organizations do good with data. Prior to founding DataKind, he worked as a data scientist in The New York Times’ R&D lab, unraveling the mysteries of why people consume the media they do.

While Silva’s presentation highlighted the high impact that technology could have on society, Porway’s presentation focused on the individual and community-level effects that data and technology could have.

“Where can we actually go to start doing data for the greater good?” asked Porway.

We could start by helping meet the needs of our poorest schools.

New York City-based was set up essentially to be a KickStarter for teachers, said Porway. The site provides a platform for schools and teachers to ask for investments in field trips and costly classroom technology. But what the nonprofit discovered was that the schools in more impoverished areas across the nation weren’t asking for funds for tablets, they were asking for basic things like paper.

Eventually, as the platform grew its user base, realized it was sitting on a pile of data that pinpointed the needs of public schools across the country. So the nonprofit’s leadership decided to make use of it to help the U.S. public education system.

“Now they’re going out and talking to lawmakers and policymakers about this because they have this data that no one else had. So think about that, a local nonprofit as a policy-driving data owner,” said Porway.

He then made a plea to the room full of technologists as they contemplate the Internet of Things future that awaits us.

“There’s gonna be a real trend toward the Internet of Things for good in the next couple of years and we’re gonna need the help of the people in this room to figure out how to handle it,” said Porway.

By the time the session wrapped, attendees swarmed both Silva and Porway, asking them for selfies and complimenting them on their guru session. You could say that these futurist prophets successfully converted a room full of enterprise IT workers into believers.

Ricky Ribeiro