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My MIT adventure: The 2005 Emerging Technologies Conference


November 1, 2005
By Dick Morley


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Last year I attended the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium in Cambridge, Mass. The conference showcases leading-edge technologies and the markets served. It was a great experience, so when they announced the conference for 2005, I didn’t hesitate to sign up again.

This time, I thought I would write this column for my friends in Canada to share my two-day MIT conference experience.

Day 1
The first lecture I went to was about neuron models and how the brain works. I was a little disappointed. It reminded me of the Freudian hypothesis. Freud, as many of you know, put together tremendous lectures. He was a great speaker and had interesting hypotheses (not theories). None of those hypotheses about dreams, self, id or ego were at all substantiated nor researched appropriately.

Although I do believe that Freud was serious and his work had merit, the lack of backup and substantiation always bothered me.

Most argue that the brain is not so much neuron dependent as it is system dependent, and that it’s a bottom-up process and not a top-down process. This mostly top-down lecture was interesting but unsubstantiated with experiment.

The next session was about “edutainment” – using games for education to get a college degree in half the normal time. That hit a strong chord with me. Kids can focus when it comes to games, so the idea of using games to encourage learning really made sense to me. The speaker strongly recommended that we use games to improve learning. Sometimes the less travelled road is indeed the better road.

Next, inventor Dean Kamen, of Segway fame (Segway develops personal transportation products), gave an interesting talk about safe water for developing countries. He designed a way to make any water safe water. According to Kamen, it takes about 500 watts to make any water safe. His design sucks up bad water and puts out potable water.

In his presentation, Kamen also discussed the future of engineering; the future, of course, being children. He said that many of today’s kids are more interested in going to university or college for sports management, rather than engineering. He feels as though we’re underselling engineering and science, and he wants to make sure that today’s kids are aware of how important engineering and science are. He wants to make sure that our children, at least some of them, learn how to build things.

In another talk, an MIT professor in biological research discussed using materials research for biotech, and designing non-obvious materials for medical uses. For example, using a polymer to replace burn-damaged skin and scaffold nerve insulation with polymers. The thrust is intelligent design of biological materials. Solve the problem and don’t let history be your guide.

There were, of course, many sessions in biological and nanotechnology. There is a thrust to manufacture nano wires and nano clusters for whole systems, devices and circuits; the major markets being electronics, photonics and medicine.

Day 2
On Thursday, a venture capitalist spoke about his business. He gave some advice to the startup lovelorn: Submit a one-sheet executive summary; explain the business impact clearly; and don’t use tech gibberish.

His Q&A session was lengthy. Someone asked if government should invest in the underpinnings of venture capital. His answer: He is skeptical of any single entity, including the venture capitalists, “taking charge”. We should look to England or Western Europe if we wish to learn to fail.

Eastern Europe seems to be thriving, but England and Western Europe have a strategic governance overlay that suppresses risk investment. (I’ve noticed the same issue with Canadian venture capital.)

He points out that 30-hour work weeks tend to focus on relaxation and holidays rather than construction, building and investment. He also says that bankruptcy laws should be made easier.

Open source seems to be boiling down to be an actual, viable investment (I was skeptical). Temporary benefit with tax codes is not a good long-term situation.

The speaker had never worked for a high-tech company. He could evaluate companies without being “in love”. There is too much money in the venture capital business and too many look-alike companies degrading the chance of success.

In fact, he recommends that people in general do not invest in a venture capital partnership because the return is less than standard no-load funds.

When asked, “What’s next?”, the presenter said he didn’t know. “That is where the challenge, the fun and the money are.”

My angel investing experience correlates perfectly with his, so I couldn’t agree more with his comments.

All in all, the conference was well worth it, and I recommend it for next year. Maybe I’ll see you there!


Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at morley@barn.org.