Upcoming Geek Fun: Alone Together and the Implications of IBM’s Watson

by Andrew McAfee on October 13, 2011

I wanted to let everyone know about two upcoming events of great geek interest.

The first is a panel I’m moderating at this Saturday’s Boston Book Festival. The BBF has been a runaway success since it started in 2009, and has always had a couple sessions devoted to technology (perhaps because Nicholas Negroponte, I, and some other nerds have been on its advisory board). And it’s free!

This year we’re lucky to have snagged Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other . A lot of us have heard talk of this book and Turkle’s thesis that, as she puts it, “I think when we’re texting, on the phone, doing your e-mail, getting information, the experience is of being filled up. And that feels good. We assume that it is nourishing in the sense of taking us to a place we want to go. And I think that we are going to start to learn that in our enthusiasms and in our fascinations, we can also be flattened and depleted by what perhaps was once nourishing us.”

We’ll be joined in the panel discussion by Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks and psychologist Sue Hallowell, author of Married to Distraction. I’ll have the chance to ask all three of them questions (one of which will be “So what, if anything, needs to change?”), and so will you. We’ll leave time for questions from the audience, so if you’re curious about what ‘always on, always on you’ technologies are doing to people’s emotions and relationships, please come to our session. It’ll take place this Saturday, October 15 at 11:15am in the Back Bay Events Center’s Quincy Suite (180 Berkeley Street, Boston). If you can’t make it, audio and video of the session will be posted at the BBF site.

The second event will be, if possible, even geekier than the first. On Halloween my Center for Digital Business at MIT is hosting a morning of talks and panels on IBM’s Watson and other recent technical advances. I’m going to moderate the morning’s first panel, where we’ll try to understand how science fiction is being converted into business reality so quickly these days. Computers are now driving cars, flying planes, automatically translating among human languages, and winning Jeopardy! tournaments.

I want to understand the sources and limitations (if any) of these advances, and also explore where technology might be headed next. I have the best possible panelists for these topics: IBM’s David Ferrucci, the head of the Watson team; Google Research VP Alfred Spector; and Rodney Brooks, who’s retired from MIT and is now trying to disrupt the industrial robotics industry with his new venture Heartland Robotics. These guys understand the unfolding digital revolution because they’ve been contributing to it for a long time. I know I’m going to learn a huge amount from them.

My colleague and coauthor Erik Brynjolfsson is then going to lead a panel on the economic implications of these technologies. What new opportunities, industries, and jobs will they create? Which ones will they destroy? How will workers, organizations, and institutions change in reaction to today’s digital advances, and tomorrow’s? Erik will be joined by superstar economists David Autor and Frank Levy of MIT, and Irving Wladawsky-Berger, formerly with IBM and now at MIT. Each panel will include time for questions from the audience.

This is going to be a unique opportunity to absorb cutting-edge thinking about the intersection of technology and economics, and I can’t wait. It’ll happen at the new MIT Media Lab building on October 31, starting at 9:00 am. Space is limited, so if you’d like to attend please email Joanne Batziotegos (jtegos at mit dot edu) to reserve a spot.

If you have any questions or comments about these events, please leave them as a comment to this post. And if you’re at all interested, please do come. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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