I’ve decided to stay down here at Emerging Technologies for another day. My experiments are languishing back at the Buck, but it’s hard to stay away from a concentration of diverse intellects, especially when they are buying me lunch.

I love listening to bright people talk, in part because I always have ideas at a more rapid rate myself while I’m sitting in the audience. Rather than blog coherently about the rest of the conference, I thought I would record those thoughts here, in no particular order:

  • Chris Luebkeman of Arup gave a talk about urban environments. During a bit about sustainable urban centers, he asked: What happens to the elderly who can’t ride bicycles? That got me thinking about the idea of “segmental” longevity therapies — I’m using the term in the sense of “segmental” progerias, conditions in which an organism expresses some but not all component of accelerated aging. What if the first longevity therapies are much better at dealing with one aspect of the aging process than others? For example, imagine a therapy that kept brains completely intact (no Alzheimer’s) but was lousy at maintaining the musculature — or even more problematically, vice versa. Obviously we’re not going to design therapies to ignore specific systems, but on the other hand, we’re not in tight control over what sorts of technologies are going to emerge (or come into wide use) first. The first longevity therapies may well be segmental, whether or not they “ought” to be. What are the ramifications of that?

  • John Wilbanks of Science Commons gave a talk on Uncommon Knowledge and Open Innovation; it looks like he’s blogged a bit about it here. He started by espousing the view (which I share) that science has been “under-revolutionized” by progress in connectivity on the web: in his words, it has become “digitized but not digital”, i.e., we’re creating electronic images of printed papers rather than creating genuinely new forms. He went on to lament several problems in science (legal, labor, and institutional) that conspire to create what he calls “uncommon knowledge,” i.e., knowledge that does not lend itself to sharing. But, Wilbanks argues, the Web is a place where “rivalrous resource” assumptions don’t apply: I can have a copy of a paper, but that doesn’t stop you from having a copy to that paper. Copyright law and disincentives against sharing create a “tragedy of the anti-commons” in which scientists are forbidden by cultural tradition and legal constraint from forming a “crowd” in the most modern sense (“crowdsourcing,” “wisdom of crowds”). The Science Commons movement, then, is an attempt to create an infrastructure wherein sharing is easy, straightforward, and legal.

    Best line: “Right now, scientific database users don’t have the power of Facebook users.”

  • Jane McGonigal of Institute for the Future spoke about Superstruct: How to invent the future by playing a game. (The Superstruct project combined a game setting with wisdom of crowds to try to make interesting predictions about the future.) At Sci Foo last year Jane talked about ways in which we might harness the power of massively parallel multiplayer online games to help do science (e.g. by creative gamelike incentives for large groups of users to perform complex image-processing tasks), which I thought was a cool idea. She gave a good creative talk but didn’t say much about the use of games in science this time around, however (I left a little early, for the record).