A big part of being a business person in the new global economy is attending conferences with other globally minded businesspeople. Whether in Davos or Aspen, New York or London, these conferences are jam-packed with activities that must be prioritized accordingly: sessions (important), networking between and after the sessions (very important), and telling everyone you know for weeks before and after that things have just been crazy lately because you are either soon leaving for this conference or have just returned from it (extremely important).
So it was with great interest this week that I took a seat in a ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for a session at the Milken Institute Global Conference entitled: “Things That Will Blow Your Mind.”
After three exhilarating days wandering the hotel’s windowless innards, as isolated from time and nature as if inside a Vegas casino, the session title alone was refreshing. Other workshops pitch themselves with restrained names like “Blockchain: It’s Not Just About the Money” and “Speed Bumps Ahead: China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” but you can tell that deep down they want to be the kind of session people walk out of shaking their heads and saying, “Wow. That just blew my mind.”
“Three visionary entrepreneurs will let you in on their breakthrough technologies—and they will blow your mind,” the program promised. As a person who lives life on technology’s razor-edge—I was on Spotify as early as 2017, and once used Snapchat—this was very exciting. After a brief introduction by moderator Paul Daugherty of Accenture, who reminded us that technology is moving very quickly and there were no cell phones 100 years ago and pretty soon we’re going to be 3D-printing everything, the blowing of minds began.
If you’re not a mover/shaker in the global economy, or if you were too busy doing actual work to attend this conference, here’s a summary of the breakthrough technologies that may be exploding heads near you soon.
What the company does: Encodes digital information inside synthetic DNA
What the company might actually be doing, if it turns out to be a giant Theranos-style fraud: Soberly handing clients Tylenol gelcaps with the lettering scrubbed off and just telling them it’s data inside DNA
Presentation notes: Catalog co-founder and CEO Hyunjun Park’s presentation made clear the problem Catalog is tackling, and its fascinating solution: The world produces a mind-boggling amount of data, and current storage technology requires an unsustainable amount of land, energy, and risk. Catalog proposes to stuff it all into nature’s original thumb drive: DNA, the minuscule molecules that contain the whole of our genetic code.
The rest of the presentation underscored the problem with these cutting-edge technologies: They are complicated as hell. “This is kind of similar to hard drives in that the linear sequence of the magnetic polarization, the orientation of them stores the bit values,” Park explained. What does that mean? Are all the other important people in navy suits in this room frowning slightly because they don’t understand, either, or because they’re really interested, or because they’ve heard spiels about magnetic polarization a thousand times before? It can actually be really hard to tell if your mind is being blown or not!
Key quote: Park concluding his description of the technology with “simple as that seems,” followed by laughter in the room. Nobody else understood either! Huge relief.
Mind-blowing rating: 💥💥💥💥
What the company does: Uses microbes to create new chemicals and materials for industry
What the company might actually be doing, if it turns out to be a giant Theranos-style fraud: Quietly buying materials from China to deliver to clients; answering “uhh . . . microbes” when quizzed on their provenance
Presentation notes: As CEO Joshua Hoffman explained, Zymergen uses industrial fermentation to create new substances. “What if we could make surgical glue that uses the same set of molecules that a barnacle uses to hook onto a rock or a ship?” he posited. “What if we could make cell phone cases out of the mother-of-pearl ceramic on the inside of an abalone shell?” Do those things sound awesome? For sure. Is the technology by which Zymergen is promising to deliver them realistic or feasible? No idea.
Again, as Hoffman reminded the audience several times: This stuff is really complex. So is distressed debt, cryptocurrency, income inequality, the opioid crisis, the future of banking regulations in Europe, and so many of the other topics these global conferences take on. Fortunately, I’ve perfected (I think) an “I understand what is being said right now” face, for use even when I don’t.
Key quote: “It turns out that reprogramming DNA to get it to do what we want to do is incredibly, deeply complicated.” Well, yeah. Did we learn nothing from “Jurassic Park”?
Mind-blowing rating: 💥💥💥💥
What the company does: Applies AI to enhance human performance, education, augmented intelligence, and data analysis
What the company might actually be doing, if it turns out to be a giant Theranos-style fraud: Exactly what co-founder Vivienne Ming said she does, at the start of her talk: “I am a professional mad scientist. It is the coolest job in the world. I’ve been able to trick a lot of venture capitalists into thinking I’m an entrepreneur, but really I take their money and I run experiments. And it turns out as I long as I pay them all back they keep falling for it, over and over again.”
Presentation notes: Park and Hoffman each had slides accompanying their presentations. Ming took the stage slide-less and said, “No pretty pictures. I like the flexibility of actually having conversation with my audience,” which actually did blow my mind, because that is the best possible thing you can say in a presentation when you ran out of time to make slides.
She then talked about the extreme edge of her company’s research: human intelligence augmentation, and the thorny ethical questions it raises. What happens if we artificially create a positive feeling about an experience or a product, where none previously existed? That’s great for a person with severe depression, but what if it’s in the hands of a power-crazed political leader? Who controls this intelligence? Who gets access to it? Is augmented intelligence just another thing that will crack wider the privilege gap between the people at these conferences and the many people whose lives we’re discussing in the abstract?
Key quote: “Imagine you had a little app on your phone where you could say, ‘Right now I really want to be attentive [in this situation] and decrease the emotion, and I want to be focused and analytic here. But later I’m gonna go see The Avengers . . . I’m gonna up the emotion, I’m gonna push down the the rationality’. . . Being able to redefine who you are at any given moment is an amazing power.” Downside: The end of authentic human connection. Upside: The ability to stay calm while listening to a scientist talk about humanity’s dystopian future.
Mind-blowing rating: 💥💥💥💥💥
At the end of the session, people left the ballroom a little quieter than when they’d come in. Maybe having your mind blown is kind of like a concussion: It leaves you a bit dazed. I find myself wondering how much of these conferences are games of ego-driven brinksmanship: No one wants to distill their presentations into understandable language, lest they be seen as too ordinary, and no one wants to ask for more understandable language, lest they be seen as the same. I strained to hear what my fellow global businesspeople were saying to one another. Two British accents caught my ear.
“It’s hard to visualize what theyre talking about,” one man said.
“Yes. Theres something intangible about it, isn’t there?” his friend replied.