Field Notes from the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT

Big ideas and lots of confidence, but no big announcements

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| | MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, site of the conference|

No big announcements or publicity stunts at the first day of EmTech, which is what Technology Review’s Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT is now being called. That’s certainly not to say nothing happened.

Yesterday I had the good fortune to watch small groups of geniuses take the stage and talk about, for example, the Human Microbiome Project, a “second human genome project” that aims to genetically catalogue every microbe found in the human body. (Our bodies are 90 percent microbes, by the way). I heard grown men who don’t work for NASA say things like, “Well, if you were on an outer solar system mission you could dip down into Jupiter’s atmosphere and use some of the kinetic energy to compress your fuel.”

So there are plenty of big ideas floating around, but this doesn’t seem to be the place for press-grabbing announcements. Rather, it’s about bringing together thinkers and researchers from disparate fields and letting them strut for one another—oh yeah, and potential investors.

Yesterday the conference began with a denim-and-Converse panel of Web 2.0 entrepreneurs, including Digg founder Kevin Rose. Then a trio of computing big shots from Intel, HP, Cisco. Then a keynote address from Charles Simonyi on the dysfunctional relationship from the business managers who commission software and the programmers they hire to write said software.

Along the way, attendees fumbled through live voting experiments using electronic nametags by nTag, which makes “the world’s first interactive name badge.” (As I write this, my nTag appears to have died….)

In the afternoon, a panel on the “New Space Race” was notable for the sheer confidence of the panelists—Eric Anderson of Space Adventures, Franklin Chang Diaz of Ad Astra Rocket, Frank Taylor of SpaceDev, and George Whitesides of the National Space Society and Virgin Galactic—a bunch guys who don’t doubt in the least that the financial and logistical challenges facing privatized space flight are mere blips in the big picture, and that before long we’d be mining asteroids and taking honeymoon trips to see the rings of Saturn. “We live in an amazing point in human history,” as Whitesides put it. After listening to each give an impassioned sales pitch for their piece in the commercial space race, it’s hard not to feel the same.

Coming today: panels on biofuels, “engineering the brain,” and a closing performance by what may very well be the world’s geekiest band, Ensemble Robot. Stay tuned. —Seth Fletcher