The Aspen Ideas Festival Got Me Thinking…

July 12, 2018

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Aspen Ideas Festival, hosted by the Aspen Institute, as a scholar. This organization is well-known for gathering diverse, thought leaders, scholars and members of the public to address some of the world’s most complex problems. The ultimate goal of the group is to take these ideas beyond the conferences and bring them into the world.

There were so many amazing ideas, discussions and insights shared by some really brilliant minds, that it’s difficult to compress it into a few key paragraphs.

One thing was certain, however, the four days of sessions I attended in late June, got me thinking of things I may never have previously considered. While the conference was not tech-specific, It also made me realize that to be a true technologist today, you need to have a much broader and well-rounded mind-set. Things that appear to have absolutely no relevance to technology, such as civic equity, gender equity, energy and the environment, and even health and sports, all have direct bearing on how we build technology into all aspects of daily life. We need to keep listening to these stories and learning from them.

Attending lots of really cool presentations at the Aspen Ideas Festival got me thinking – in no particular order:

  1. AI is the most transformative technology that we’ve had in the last 15 years. A common thread throughout many of the talks was the disruptive power of AI to do good. John Doerr, venture capitalist and chairman of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers summed it well when he said that every 15 years a digital transformation has occurred, and we are now in the throes of the most recent one with AI and Deep Learning.
  2. The middle class is eroding in the U.S. From sessions led by politician John Kerry and others I realized how a huge chasm is developing between the wealthy and the poor in the U.S., and I’m seeing this first-hand in Puerto Rico. We need to build up the middle class with employee savings options, advanced training and other ways to help them remain relevant in a market quickly becoming automated.
  3. Software developers have not had their atomic bomb. AI has clear benefits, but it could also be a dangerous thing if left unregulated. Will we see dire consequences or stop ourselves before it happens?
  4. Getting ideas is easy, creating companies is very hard. That’s why in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, professionals are moving from one start-up to the next.
  5. Persuasion for profit is becoming the next stranger danger. There is an arms race for attention and some of the big tech and media firms are taking all kinds of persuasion measures to keep kids and adults alike on their platforms for profit. From auto play features to Counter for Messenger, kids are being glued to their devices and unwittingly being held hostage by tech.
  6. Animals and emotions. I would be remiss if I didn’t include one additional really interesting session, led by author and MacArthur Fellow, Carl Safina, who discussed how animals truly think and feel, and how it brings into question what should and what does make us human.

We can all learn from the great thinkers that explored these topics, as well as from peers, and yes, even animals. But one thing is clear, exploring the vast universe of broad disciplines, regardless of our profession, can make us better leaders, visionaries and human beings.

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