The 2015 Defrag Conference is happening on November 11-12. Early bird pricing ends tomorrow.
For a taste of what you’ll get if you attend, following is a guest post by Ramez Naam, the author of 5 books including the award-winning Nexus trilogy of sci-fi novels. I’m a huge fan of Ramez and his books – they are in my must read near term sci-fi category.
A shorter version of this article first appeared at TechCrunch. The tech has advanced, even since then.
The final frontier of the digital technology is integrating into your own brain. DARPA wants to go there. Scientists want to go there. Entrepreneurs want to go there. And increasingly, it looks like it’s possible.
You’ve probably read bits and pieces about brain implants and prosthesis. Let me give you the big picture.
Neural implants could accomplish things no external interface could: Virtual and augmented reality with all five senses; Augmentation of human memory, attention, and learning speed; Even multi-sense telepathy – sharing what we see, hear, touch, and even perhaps what we think and feel with others.
Arkady flicked the virtual layer back on. Lightning sparkled around the dancers on stage again, electricity flashed from the DJ booth, silver waves crashed onto the beach. A wind that wasn’t real blew against his neck. And up there, he could see the dragon flapping its wings, turning, coming around for another pass. He could feel the air move, just like he’d felt the heat of the dragon’s breath before.
Sound crazy? It is… and it’s not.
Start with motion. In clinical trials today there are brain implants that have given men and women control of robot hands and fingers. DARPA has now used the same technology to put a paralyzed woman in direct mental control of an F-35 simulator. And in animals, the technology has been used in the opposite direction, directly inputting touch into the brain.
Or consider vision. For more than a year now, we’ve had FDA-approved bionic eyes that restore vision via a chip implanted on the retina. More radical technologies have sent vision straight into the brain. And recently, brain scanners have succeeded in deciphering what we’re looking at. (They’d do even better with implants in the brain.)
Sound, we’ve been dealing with for decades, sending it into the nervous system through cochlear implants. Recently, children born deaf and without an auditory nerve have had sound sent electronically straight into their brains.
Nor are our senses or motion the limit.
In rats, we’ve restored damaged memories via a ‘hippocampus chip’ implanted in the brain. Human trials are starting this year. Now, you say your memory is just fine? Well, in rats, this chip can actually improve memory. And researchers can capture the neural trace of an experience, record it, and play it back any time they want later on. Sounds useful.
In monkeys, we’ve done better, using a brain implant to “boost monkey IQ” in pattern matching tests.
Now, let me be clear. All of these systems, for lack of a better word, suck. They’re crude. They’re clunky. They’re low resolution. That is, most fundamentally, because they have such low-bandwidth connections to the human brain. Your brain has roughly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion neural connections, or synapses. An iPhone 6’s A8 chip has 2 billion transistors. (Though, let’s be clear, a transistor is not anywhere near the complexity of a single synapse in the brain.)
The highest bandwidth neural interface ever placed into a human brain, on the other hand, had just 256 electrodes. Most don’t even have that.
The second barrier to brain interfaces is that getting even 256 channels in generally require invasive brain surgery, with its costs, healing time, and the very real risk that something will go wrong. That’s a huge impediment, making neural interfaces only viable for people who have a huge amount to gain, such as those who’ve been paralyzed or suffered brain damage.
This is not yet the iPhone era of brain implants. We’re in the DOS era, if not even further back.
But what if? What if, at some point, technology gives us high-bandwidth neural interfaces that can be easily implanted? Imagine the scope of software that could interface directly with your senses and all the functions of your mind:
They gave Rangan a pointer to their catalog of thousands of brain-loaded Nexus apps. Network games, augmented reality systems, photo and video and audio tools that tweaked data acquired from your eyes and ears, face recognizers, memory supplementers that gave you little bits of extra info when you looked at something or someone, sex apps (a huge library of those alone), virtual drugs that simulated just about everything he’d ever tried, sober-up apps, focus apps, multi-tasking apps, sleep apps, stim apps, even digital currencies that people had adapted to run exclusively inside the brain.
The implications of mature neurotechnology are sweeping. Neural interfaces could help tremendously with mental health and neurological disease. Pharmaceuticals enter the brain and then spread out randomly, hitting whatever receptor they work on all across your brain. Neural interfaces, by contrast, can stimulate just one area at a time, can be tuned in real-time, and can carry information out about what’s happening.
We’ve already seen that deep brain stimulators can do amazing things for patients with Parkinson’s. The same technology is on trial for untreatable depression, OCD, and anorexia. And we know that stimulating the right centers in the brain can induce sleep or alertness, hunger or satiation, ease or stimulation, as quick as the flip of a switch. Or, if you’re running code, on a schedule. (Siri: Put me to sleep until 7:30, high priority interruptions only. And let’s get hungry for lunch around noon. Turn down the sugar cravings, though.)
Implants that help repair brain damage are also a gateway to devices that improve brain function. Think about the “hippocampus chip” that repairs the ability of rats to learn. Building such a chip for humans is going to teach us an incredible amount about how human memory functions. And in doing so, we’re likely to gain the ability to improve human memory, to speed the rate at which people can learn things, even to save memories offline and relive them – just as we have for the rat.
That has huge societal implications. Boosting how fast people can learn would accelerate innovation and economic growth around the world. It’d also give humans a new tool to keep up with the job-destroying features of ever-smarter algorithms.
The impact goes deeper than the personal, though. Computing technology started out as number crunching. These days the biggest impact it has on society is through communication. If neural interfaces mature, we may well see the same. What if you could directly beam an image in your thoughts onto a computer screen? What if you could directly beam that to another human being? Or, across the internet, to any of the billions of human beings who might choose to tune into your mind-stream online? What if you could transmit not just images, sounds, and the like, but emotions? Intellectual concepts? All of that is likely to eventually be possible, given a high enough bandwidth connection to the brain. Very crude versions of it have been demonstrated. We’ve already emailed verbal thoughts back and forth from person to person. And the field is moving fast. Just this month (after Apex came out) Duke researchers showed that one rat can learn from another, directly via implants in their brains.
That type of communication would have a huge impact on the pace of innovation, as scientists and engineers could work more fluidly together. The same Duke research I just mentioned also showed that multiple rats or multiple monkeys working together via brain implants could sometimes achieve results better than a single animal. The mind meld is here.
Neural communication just as likely to have a transformative effect on the public sphere, in the same way that email, blogs, and twitter have successively changed public discourse.
Digitizing our thoughts may have some negative consequences, of course.
With our brains online, every concern about privacy, about hacking, about surveillance from the NSA or others, would all be magnified. If thoughts are truly digital, could the right hacker spy on your thoughts? Could law enforcement get a warrant to read your thoughts? Heck, in the current environment, would law enforcement (or the NSA) even need a warrant? Could the right malicious actor even change your thoughts?
“Focus,” Ilya snapped. “Can you erase her memories of tonight? Fuzz them out?”
“Nothing subtle,” he replied. “Probably nothing very effective. And it might do some other damage along the way.”
The ultimate interface would bring the ultimate new set of vulnerabilities. (Even if those scary scenarios don’t come true, could you imagine what spammers and advertisers would do an interface to your neurons, if it were the least bit non-secure?)
Everything good and bad about technology would be magnified by implanting it deep in brains. In Nexus I crash the good and bad views against each other, in a violent argument about whether such a technology should be legal. Is the risk of brain-hacking outweighed by the societal benefits of faster, deeper communication, and the ability to augment our own intelligence?
For now, we’re a long way from facing such a choice. In fiction I can turn the neural implant into a silvery vial of nano-particles that you swallow, in and which then self-assemble into circuits in your brain. In the real world, clunky electrodes implanted by brain surgery dominate, for now.
That’s changing, though. Researchers across the world, many funded by DARPA, are working to radically improve the interface hardware, boosting the number of neurons it can connect to (and thus making it smoother, higher resolution, and more precise), and making it far easier to implant. They’ve shown recently that carbon nanotubes, a thousand times thinner than current electrodes, have huge advantages for brain interfaces. They’re working on silk-substrate interfaces that melt into the brain. Researchers at Berkeley have a proposal for neural dust that would be sprinkled across your brain (which sounds rather close to the technology I describe in Nexus). And the former editor of the journal Neuron has pointed out that carbon nanotubes are so slender that a bundle of a million of them could be inserted into the blood stream and steered into the brain, giving us a nearly 10,000 fold increase in neural bandwidth, without any brain surgery at all.
The pace of change is so fast, that every few months brings a new cutting edge technology. The latest is a ‘neural mesh’ that’s been implanted into mouse brains via a single injection through the skull.
Even so, we’re a long way from having such a device that that’s proven to work – safely, for long periods of time – in humans. We don’t actually know how long it’ll take to make the breakthroughs in the hardware to boost precision and remove the need for highly invasive surgery. Maybe it’ll take decades. Maybe it’ll take more than a century, and in that time, direct neural implants will be something that only those with a handicap or brain damage find worth the risk to reward. Or maybe the breakthroughs will come in the next ten or twenty years, and the world will change faster. DARPA is certainly pushing fast and hard.
Will we be ready? I, for one, am enthusiastic. There’ll be problems. Lots of them. There’ll be policy and privacy and security and civil rights challenges. But just as we see today’s digital technology of twitter and Facebook and camera-equipped mobile phones boosting freedom around the world, and boosting the ability of people to connect to one another, I think we’ll see much more positive than negative if we ever get to direct neural interfaces.
In the mean time, I’ll keep writing novels about them. Just to get us ready.
A little over eight years ago, Eric Norlin and I decided to start Defrag. It all started with an email exchange, wherein Eric thought one of my posts would make a good conference, I told him how much I disliked tech conferences, and we resolved to go build one that was done the right way.
Since that point, Defrag has grown into what I think is one of the most influential conversations in technology. Several years back, we consciously decided to limit Defrag’s size (number of attendees) because we were afraid of losing the intimacy of the networking. The result has been the growth of a community that gathers every year at the Omni Interlocken for two days plus of really amazing ideas, relationship building, and conversations.
Along those lines, just take a look at some of this year’s speakers:
Chris Anderson, 3D Robotics (ex-editor of Wired)
George Dyson (author of “Turing’s Cathedral”)
Amber Case (Esri)
Penny Herscher (FirstRain)
Helen Greiner (CyPhy Works)
John Wilbanks (Sage Bionetworks)
Shireen Yates (6Sensor Labs)
Paul Kedrosky (Bloomberg)
Kin Lane (API Evangelist)
Laura Merling (AT&T)
Danielle Morrill (Mattermark)
In short, drones, robots, APIs, big data, mobile, and history all coming together in one compact place.
Defrag is a unique experience, and if you’re local to Colorado, it brings some of the most influential names in tech into your backyard.
Lastly, I’d like to recognize how much work Eric has put into achieving some level of gender parity on the agenda, especially at the keynote level. Far too many conferences these days are doing a horrible job at this. Defrag has been out in front of this issue for a long-time, and I know that we work every year to get better at it. And, if you’d like to apply for a “Women in Tech” scholarship to Defrag, you can do so here.
Don’t miss out. Register now. Use the code “brad14″ to get $200 of the registration.
The agenda is now about 90% complete (check the google doc for real-time updates) and Eric tells me that he’ll be finalizing everything in the next week or so.
For those of you who attended two years ago, you may remember my “Resistance is Inevitable” talk about the rise of the machines. This year, I’ll be leading two different sessions.
First, Jerry Colonna and I will be having a discussion about the emotional challenges of entrepreneurship. I’ve written about Jerry many times on my blog. He’s a huge resource to entrepreneurs, a great mentor and confidant of mine, and I’m looking forward to a public conversation about some topics near and dear to both of us.
Second, I’ll be having a conversation with Boris Sofman of Anki. Hopefully he’ll bring some toys for us to play with.
For a taste of some of the other topics, ponder:
Add in great WiFi, amazing people, an intimate and welcoming atmosphere, and three days of impact-filled ideas, and you’ll quickly find out why Defrag is one of my favorite events of the year.
If you register before Friday, the code “brad15” will take 15% off of your registration.
See you there!
Defrag is entering its seventh year of existence. That’s kind of amazing to me. What started as a simple email exchange between myself and Eric Norlin almost eight years ago resulted in a conference that has grown in importance, had meaningful impact on my thinking (and that of many others), and spawned other shows, most notably Gluecon. Most tech conferences don’t last seven years, and they certainly don’t get better with time. Defrag has and is.
Eric has been outlining his thinking for this year’s agenda here, but let me point out a couple of things of note:
This year’s Defrag is covering everything from drones to robots to the cloud to APIs to big data. The full Defrag 2013 agenda is here (and it will continue to evolve) but topics will include the following:
Jerry Colonna and I are also going to have a special fireside chat about surviving the startup life.
Use “brad12” to take an additional 10% off of the early bird pricing (which ends September 20th).
I just found out that Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City made the Amazon Top 10 Business Books of 2012.
I’m not a huge “made that list person” but as a writer this is a very cool thing, especially when I look at the other books, and writers, on the list. I’m downloading all of the other books right now and taking them on my two week vacation which is coming up.
I’m at Defrag this morning listing to Kevin Kelly explain how the global super organism already exists and why it is different than the Kurzweil defined Singularity. Awesome – and extremely consistent with how I think about how the machines have already taken over. Kevin’s intellectual approach is clearer and deeper – which I like, and will borrow heavily from. Kevin’s book, What Technology Wants, is also in a swag bag and I’ll be reading it next week.
One of the powerful concepts is that the “city is the node.” As I’ve been talking about Startup Communities, I’ve been explaining the power of “entrepreneurial density” and why everyone is congregating around cities again (intellectually referred to as the reurbanism of American). It’s really cool that he’s using the Degree Confluence Project to “show” (rather than simply “tell”) this.
A few of the books on the Amazon Top 10 Business Books of 2012 touch on this theme – I’ll be looking for it as I read a lot on the beach the next few weeks.
In approximately seven weeks, Defrag will be happening again. It’s the sixth incarnation of Defrag, and over time it seems to have become an annual Fall rite of passage.
This year’s Defrag is no different: an intimate gathering and great conversations. Speakers like Kevin Kelly (founder of Wired Magazine), Jeff Ma (inspiration for the movie, “21”), Bre Pettis (of Makerbot), and many, many others. Topics like mobile development, identity management, social business, big data, and APIs.
One key difference with this year’s Defrag, though, is the addition of Blur. Defrag and Blur will overlap for half a day. This means that in three days time, you can get the experience of Defrag, and then stick around for robots, 3D printing and all kinds of cool HCI stuff at Blur. Two shows in three days in one place. (Note: we’ll also be having the Boulder is for Robots meeting at Blur, and opening up some “hacking space” to build stuff.)
In short, you should plan to be at Defrag and Blur (November 14-16). Early Bird registration expires this Friday, and “brad12” takes an additional 10% off. See you there!
We’ve been investing in our Glue theme and Protocol theme for a long time – well before we started Foundry Group. Many of our Glue investments and our Protocol investments are growing quickly and becoming integral parts of the Internet and web software infrastructure.
It made me smile to see a recent post from Promoboxx titled We’re Powered by TechStars Companies. It’s a great post about focusing on what matters for your product while leveraging great technology infrastructure from other companies. Several of the companies we are investors in are mentioned, including SendGrid and FullContact, each which are TechStars companies that we invested in after they finished the program.
For as long as I’ve been involved in writing and creating software there has always been a deep philosophy of creating building blocks that you can leverage. Something magical happened around this with the web and in the past five or so years there have been a number of amazing companies created that are easy to quickly integrate, either through a little bit of code or an API. It’s part of thing that has changed the dynamics of creating and launching a web software company, dramatically lowering the price of just getting something out there so you can start getting real feedback from users and customers.
When I reflect on this year’s Glue Conference, it feels like we’ve finally reached a tipping point where this concept is ubiquitous. I expect we’ll talk about it at Defrag and Eric Norlin’s post from yesterday titled The 20 Year Cycle hints to some of the deeper ideas about how this affects enterprise software and corporate IT, in addition to all the obvious consumer implications.
It’s a great time to be building software – the innovation curve is speeding up, not slowing down, and I expect when we look back 20 years from now we won’t recognize what we were doing in 2012.
At this point I’m literally getting invited to a conference a day. I’ve never enjoyed going to conferences so I pick them carefully and am particular about the kind of things I go to. I regularly get asked how I choose which conferences to go to and I rarely have a good answer. So, after getting asked for the 4,317th time, I sent an email to Eric Norlin, who puts on three conferences that we have helped create and participate in (Defrag, Glue, and Blur) how he thinks about it. Eric’s thoughtful analysis – aimed at startups (and the entrepreneurs at startups) follows.
One of the natural consequences that comes with being in an “up” part of the tech boom/bust cycle is that there are an almost overwhelming amount of tech conferences, trade shows, and events that a startup could attend. These events offer opportunities to network with potential business partners, users, venture capitalists and customers, but they can also place a huge demand on a startup’s always scarce resources of time and money. So, the natural question is: which events should you attend and/or sponsor?
First, let’s understand the landscape (hat tip to Phil Becker for discussing this bit at length with me back in 2005): Imagine the entire range of tech trade shows and conferences on a spectrum. On the left hand side of the spectrum is the pure “expo/tradeshow” – you know the type — held at Moscone or in Las Vegas, hundreds of exhibitors on a concrete floor – think CES or Dreamforce. Sure, there’s often content at a “pure expo/trade show,” but normally the “expo floor” is something you can walk on to for free or very cheap ($100 bucks – usually less if you snag a discount code). The easiest way to identify an expo is to ask: who is the event organizer’s customers? If you’re walking around for free or nearly free, then it sure isn’t you (the “attendee”) — it’s the exhibitors. That’s important to note.
On the far right end of the spectrum is the “pure conference.” The purest conference format I’ve ever seen (and, unfortunately, it doesn’t exist anymore) was PC Forum. PC Forum was Esther Dyson’s legendary event. 500 people, ZERO sponsors (and zero sponsor dollars), one room full of keynotes — and at it’s height, you had to have an invite. And – oh yea – every single attendee paid. PC Forum was not cheap. But, the model was very clear: Esther didn’t want any sponsor dollars involved, and thus, the attendees were the only customer.
Between those far, end points of the spectrum, you get a mix of stuff. The three shows that we run (Defrag, Glue, and Blur) are at various points along the spectrum. And in truth, most shows are a blend these days. But the spectrum is useful because it can help a young startup understand what *kinds* of shows to think about attending.
So, with that in mind, what do you attend?
Let’s start with your “industry.” Are you a big data infrastructure company? Then write down all of the big data events. From this list, I’d begin with your goals. Are you seeking funding? Customers? Brand awareness? Business partnerships? Press? It’s really hard to find all of these in one event, so you’re probably going to have to pick and choose.
Next consider the type of interaction you’ll need to accomplish your goals. Example: if you’re a very early startup (seed/Series A), and you’re in enterprise software, then you’re most likely going to need more “hands-on” time with a customer prospect, as your product won’t be developed to the point where you can simply have people walking themselves through demos at a kiosk. That is to say that, in this case, quality of interaction outweighs quantity of leads. You’ll then seek out events that offer you intimacy of atmosphere over the sheer bone crushing flow of attendees on an expo floor. As you grow, you may find this dynamic changing, and thus you’ll change the type of shows you attend. (Sidenote: I run Gluecon – which is a smaller, more intimate show when compared against expos. I’m in no way suggesting that you shouldn’t attend expos – they absolutely have their place. It’s simply a matter of where your startup is in its lifecycle.) On the other hand, if you’re a consumer facing app that’s trying to make a splash ala Twitter, then you may forgo the smaller event in favor of trying your luck as SXSW.
Once you’ve a) created a list of events in your niche; b) considered the goals that you’re trying to accomplish with your event attendance; and c) considered the *type* of interaction you need to accomplish those goals, your list of events should be down to – say – 15-20 possibles.
So, how do you choose? First, ask around. Who do you know that’s been to what? What’s the reputation? Second, give yourself some geographic “spread.” If you have 12 events on your list and none of them are outside of Silicon Valley — well, maybe take a look at something in New York, or Boston. Third, break your list down into quarters — as a startup you have to balance how much time you spend on events versus on building your company. In the early days, you just won’t have the resources. I’d argue that a seed stage startup should be doing no more than 1 or 2 events per quarter (not including local meetups, hackdays , etc) MAX.
Checklist: Industry, Goals, Interaction, Reputation, Geography, No more than 1 or 2 per quarter (for Seed Stage; 1 per month for A/B round) — and you’re down to roughly 4-6 events for a seed stage company and roughly 10-12 events for an A/B round company.
“But aren’t there some conferences that I should just avoid?” you ask. Rather than speak badly about my competitors, I’d rather turn it around and say “which conferences should you always consider?”
I have always found the gang over at O’Reilly to be “straight-shooters” that put on awesome events. Start there. Throw in the company-run events that are specific to your case (Google I/O, Dreamforce, Microsoft’s events, Oracle OpenWorld, Adobe, etc), and then add in some independently run events (BigOmaha, Glue/Defrag, 360 Conference events). If applicable, add the monster shows (CES, SXSW) and the networking/startup shows (Launch, Disrupt). And, if you want an international flair, toss in LeWeb for good measure. There’s your starting point.
“Should we sponsor?” This is a tough question. If you have the resources and can make a clear case, then it can be very beneficial. If you do sponsor, avoid the larger expo events, you won’t have the dollars to throw at it to get noticed (attend those and take people out for drinks instead.) Stick with smaller venues where you can be seen and truly interact. And seek out conference organizers that will customize their packages for you (discounting, creating speciality packages, etc) — you shouldn’t simply be buying off of an inventory list like you’re shopping at Wal-mart.
That’s the beginning primer on picking conferences to attend if you’re a startup. Maximizing the value of attending or sponsoring is a whole other post for a whole other day.
James Altucher is brilliant. Everyone on the planet should buy a copy of his new book I Was Blind But Now I See right now. You’ll likely hate some of it. Other parts will annoy you. Still others will seem simplistic, counterproductive, or just plain odd. But every page will make you think.
I met James for the first time at Defrag this year. Eric Norlin invited him. A few of my friends told me I had to see his talk. It was awesome. Now – a bunch of the Defrag talks were superb but James was early in the first day and he set the tone. I can’t remember whether he was before or after Tim Bray but they were back to back and all I remember after they were both done was exhaling a deep breath and saying to myself “fuck – that was great!”
James’ book was in my Defrag swag bag (legendary – one of the best anywhere) and I finally emptied it out the other day. I’m reading a book a day over the next two weeks and this was my book today.
It was perfect timing. On my 90 minute run today alone (no humans at all) in the mountains behind my house in Keystone, I kept thinking about SOPA. I’ve been incredibly agitated the last few days by SOPA after watching three hours of the House Judicial Committee hearing on Friday. SOPA is such an evil thing at so many levels and the people in the House that want it to happen appear to refuse to listen to facts or logic, and – when they talk about what they are confronted with – claim the facts and logic aren’t actually factual or logical. The noise in my brain about this kept drifting away as I thought to myself “how strange that there is snow only on the left side of the trail” or “I wonder if there will be any good movies next weekend since all the ones this weekend are shit” or “how awesome is it that there are no other humans out here” but then would be interrupted by angry thoughts about the chairman of the house judiciary committee who is the sponsor of this bill, the people on the house judiciary committee that are clearly “the henchman”, the absurd process that is unfolding – and then I’d start thinking about my breathing again and the fact that my heart rate was above 160 and that felt good.
James takes us through his chaotic mind, his successes and failures, his struggles and depressions, as he gets to the point where he very clearly tells us that only one thing really matters – one’s own happiness. He proceeds to describe a series of completely fucked up things that get in the way of it. He prescribes a very simple way to be happy, which includes a number of things I do and often suggest such as don’t watch TV, don’t read newspapers, exercise daily, get plenty of sleep, stretch your mind every day, ignore all the crappy people in the world, don’t worry about things you can’t impact, recognize that many parts of the macro (government, banks, education) are irrelevant to your well being, and don’t roll around in the mud with a pig.
But most of all he reminds us to just be honest all the time about everything. In my experience, this is the most liberating thing of all on the quest for happiness. Anyone who spends time with me knows I try to always do this regardless of the implications.
Be honest. Be happy. We all die eventually.