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MIT Summit covers birth, death, and everything connnected

Even bees are getting tagged with tiny chips in today's increasingly connected world.
Even bees are getting tagged with tiny chips in today's increasingly connected world.

When MIT holds its technology conferences, you can be sure the room will be filled with lots of very smart people, willing to engage in honest and candid discussion. So it was no surprise yesterday when the very capable Jason Pontin, Editor of the MIT Technology Review, turned to Phil Libin, founder and CEO of Evernote, and asked, “What do you suck at?”

For the record, Libin replied that he felt his company (which build apps and products to keep you organized) needed to do a better job of making decisions based on reliable data. And it was this kind of open and candid dialogue that blew through the St. Regis ballroom yesterday in San Francisco at the MIT Digital Summit like a bracing wind off the bay. After what seems like endless months of babble in 2014 about the “Internet of Things,” it was refreshing to see a conference where the participants felt willing to challenge prevailing wisdom, sometimes even at the expense of their own business models.

“Computing is essentially disappearing into the things around us,” said Pontin in his opening remarks. He cited examples such as the connected diaper (the Huggies TweetPee), connected sewers (a project in New York City), and even the connected bee (a project in Australia to tag bees with really tiny chips and discover their patterns).

Not surprisingly, wearable computing featured prominently on the conference agenda, starting with yesterday morning’s appearance by Thad Starner. The Georgia Institute of Technology professor is widely regarded as the inventor of Google Glass. It was his chance conversation with Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page in 1998 (before Google was formed) that led to the Glass wearers we see today.

Starner created his first prototype computer glasses model so he could more easily take notes while he was a student at MIT. He offered attendees this week a few tantalizing hints at the future of Glass, including a captioning technology tied to a cellphone that allows the hard of hearing to “see” a conversation as its being spoken. This also has the capability to do language translation as well, according to Starner.

In the field of medical wearable computing, David Albert, founder of AliveCor, showcased the use of a smartphone that serves as an EKG when placed on a patient’s chest. “The smartphone will become the world’s healthcare portal” said Albert.

Although the AliveCor app and smartphone technology has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Albert cautioned that there were many apps in the market that had not been thoroughly screened. “I’ve seen an app that would take a picture of your mole and (someone) will tell you whether it’s a melanoma,” said Albert. “That’s death.”

Of course, reliance on cellphones or wearable tech devices takes battery power. And the tech industry is grappling with the sobering fact that battery technology has not been keeping up with the wave of technology change. Battery life has not increased in more than 20 years.

Researchers at Microsoft have been working on this problem. They weren’t prepared to announce any major breakthroughs at the MIT conference. But according to Microsoft’s Ranveer Chandra, there are clues to where the solution may be found. “We need to start building software into our mobile devices that can intelligently decide how much power to draw from the battery,” said Chandra.

As to the vexing problem of how to get devices to communicate with each other, a new open source protocol developed by Qualcomm and others in an alliance offers hope for solving the problem of what their senior director, Liat Ben-Zur, called the “Internet of Thing.” The product - AllJoyn – is designed to let smart devices in the connected home share information across multiple technology platforms.

As much as the digital revolution is built on sharing huge amounts of information fueled by technology tools, human nature remains the same. The attendees were reminded of this by Genevieve Bell of Intel Labs who spoke of the growing anxiety she is beginning to see as tech devices learn our habits.

“We’re not really sure what it’s going to mean to have a world that is potentially smarter than you,” said Bell. At least for this week in San Francisco, the smarter humans had the advantage.

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