The Hub Goes To Scifoo 2009 – It Was Awesome! (scifoo09)


I just wrapped up an amazing weekend participating in the fourth annual scifoo gathering at Google headquarters (the Googleplex) in Mountain View, CA.  The 2009 scifoo camp boasted a fascinating and stimulating array of stars from the science/tech community: Dean Kamen, Marvin Minsky, Bill Nye (the science guy!), Elon Musk, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, George Church, and many, many more.   Best of all for Hub readers is that I was able to dig up some amazing scoop about science and technology breakthroughs that are in the pipeline.  Stay tuned for several posts to follow in the coming weeks!

For those who don’t know what science foo is, here is the quick rundown: each year an informal, open format gathering of about 200 leaders and innovators in the sciences are brought together at Google headquarters to share ideas, network, and debate.  Scifoo is the creation of O’Reilly, a leading publisher of books on information technology (foo stands for friends of O’Reilly), and is now sponsored by O’Reilly, Google, and Nature.  As part of the ‘unconference’ genre the event has no predetermined schedule or agenda, but rather the attendees figure it all out spontaneously at the beginning of the weekend long event.

Charlie’s Cafe and the large accompanying dining area in building 40 is ground zero for scifoo.  As a former Google employee, it was quite a trip for me to be back at the Googleplex.  I hadn’t eaten in Charlie’s Cafe since I left the company in 2005.  The area was decked out with free books from O’Reilly and Nature, tents and chairs were laid out in homage to the original O’Reilly foo camp in which they actually do camp outside, and tons of gadgets and demos from attendees were on display.

The experience at scifoo camp is mind blowing.  Hour after hour you are immersed in debates and discussions, sometimes one on one with a person of interest, other times in larger sessions with ten or even one hundred people.  Immediately when I entered scifoo things got rolling as I bumped into Delicious founder Joshua Shachter and Esther Dyson.  It turns out that Joshua is well versed in the singularity meme and we had an interesting discussion.  Hopefully Joshua will soon be writing a guest post for the Hub.

As a former high school physics teacher, I was especially psyched when I sat down for lunch at a small table and sitting before me was Bill Nye the science guy.  My students in high school used to go absolutely crazy when I would play clips from his show.  So what did we talk about?  Well, science of course!  Sitting with Bill and me at the table was Per Peterson, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California Berkeley, and a lively discussion of thorium and nuclear energy ensued.

On the first day of scifoo the schedule and content is created by the attendees on a whiteboard with sticky notes in a process that against all logic turns out to run pretty smoothly.  The result is a packed schedule of discussions/presentations that one can choose from every hour from morning to evening, excluding of course lunch and dinner which is provided by Google’s renowned chefs.  One of the common dilemmas faced by attendees is the inability to be more than one place at once as each hour often presents multiple discussions/presentations that you want to attend.

Larry Page hosted a discussion titled “how do we create AI” that was one of the most talked about sessions of the weekend.  The discussion was attended by easily half of the scifoo campers, and such a discussion simply can’t be beat when people like Marvin Minsky are on tap to take the stage and deliver their viewpoint.

As you might imagine, consensus on how to create artificial intelligence, or even on how to define it was impossible.  My own takeaway from the discussion matched the thoughts of Page and Minsky, who both argued that creating human level artificial intelligence may not be as hard of a problem to solve as many people think.  It seems one of the biggest obstacles to success is not the difficulty of the problem, but instead the simple fact that hardly anybody seems to be working on it.  Sure there are neuroscientists trying to understand synapses and neurons, but very little work is being done in the algorithmic and theoretical realm because everyone thinks it is too hard.

Theodore Gray, cofounder of Wolfram Research, gave a very interesting presentation on the current status of the Wolfram Alpha service.  I was quite amused/intrigued by the attendance of several Google bigwigs and engineers at the presentation.  Google employees comprised at least half of the twelve or so of us that were in the room.  The major takeaway from Theodore’s presentation is something I have already posted about here at the Hub: Wolfram Alpha is the real deal!  These guys have a novel service that is backed by serious brains and technology, and I am excited about their future.  I will write much more about what I learned and saw in a followup post as soon as I can.

Here at the Hub we are big fans of the emerging movement for do-it-yourself  bio-engineering, so I was thrilled when I got the chance to roll up my sleeves and  join  DIY bio cofounder Mac Cowell as he busted out a session on genetically modifying E.coli.  In a demonstration of the power and ease of the DIY bio movement, within just 30 minutes we had used biobricks, agar dishes, thermometers and a few other simple tools to genetically enhance standard E.coli with the ability to glow in the dark (well in theory at least…24 hours later we were still waiting for the E.coli to culture).

With guys like X PRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors Elon Musk, and director of NASA Ames Research Center Pete Worden hanging around there was no way to avoid the topic of space at scifoo.  Elon Musk lead an interesting discussion about how and why we should colonize the moon.  Musk was optimistic, but sadly my takeaway was that the political, financial, and even the technological hurdles are pretty formidable near term.  On a completely separate topic, Elon will be happy to see that I am posting here his very strong argument against the near term feasibility of extracting solar energy from space.  According to Musk, even if we could teleport solar panels into space for free, it still wouldn’t make sense because of the huge difficulty and inefficiency of transmitting the converted energy from the space panels all the way down to earth, not to mention the enormous heat sinks that would be required.  The discussion is moot, of course, because getting the panels up into space is about the furthest thing there is from free, right behind American health care.

Russell Seitz stirred quite a bit of buzz (not all positive) about his idea of creating hundreds of trillions of tiny bubbles in large swathes of the ocean to deflect significant amounts of sunlight back into space, thereby countering much of the global warming caused by carbon dioxide.  Whether or not the idea carries any weight, many were quick to point out that the idea only addresses the heat consequences of greenhouse gases without addressing some of the other major issues, such as the acidification of the ocean.

Plenty of demonstrations and neat devices were on display throughout the event.  One of the coolest things was the holodeck, which was a 360 degree implementation of Google maps.  The user stands in the center of a circle of 8 high definition televisions, each showing 1/8 of the 360 degree view.  An impressive joystick was positioned for the user to easily zoom in or out and turn in any direction.  Also on display was a bike equipped with enough cameras to take 360 degree photos of everything around as the bike travels.  The purpose of such a contraption?  You guessed it – this camera bike goes where cars cannot go to capture footage for Google maps.  Science Toys founder Simon Fields also offered table full of all sorts of cool science toys available from his website.  My favorite toy – a chocolate liquid with low viscosity suddenly turns into a solid clay when exposed to a magnet.

Overall scifoo 2009 was an awesome event and I was honored to be a part of it.  There is so much more I could say, but this post is already getting pretty long.  Instead, keep an eye out for several followup posts in which I will give some serious detail about new products and new ideas that I uncovered at the event.

Most of the photos for this post plus tons of others (even from previous years) can be found here.

The Scholarly Kitchen has a review of day one here.  I took the “ground zero” photo from there.

Duncan Hull has a review of day two here.

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