This week I went up to Newcastle for Thinking Digital.
It was the seventh Thinking Digital, but my first.
I’d seen a bunch of references to it being the UK’s answer to TED, the tickets aren’t cheap, videos from previous years look slick and professional, it’s held in The Sage which is a hugely impressive venue, they manage to get a great line-up of speakers, and the logistics in the run-up to the event were more organised than any event I’ve been to before.
So… I was expecting a cool and geeky, if faceless, serious, formal, and intimidating event.
I’d read it completely wrong. It’s absolutely a professionally run event. And there was no shortage of cool geekiness. But, more than that, the organizer, Herb Kim, has created a real sense of community in it. There’s a feeling of almost familial warmth amongst attendees who come year after year after year.
And they do it without being too cliquey. Everyone I spoke to was very friendly and welcoming, which made the few days a lot easier for an introvert like me. A few days being surrounded by and trying to talk to and socialise with several hundred smart brilliant people is the kind of thing I normally find hugely draining and more than a little daunting. But the crowd at TDC make it easier than most.
They value their time there, too. More than one person told me they’d paid for their own ticket and expenses to attend. I’m used to corporate-run conferences where everyone is paid for by their employer, or barcamps where people moan about being asked for a five pound deposit, so this surprised me.
The talks made for a fascinating and thought-provoking couple of days. I can’t do them justice here (when videos of the talks are available I’ll embed/link them here instead) but I want to give an idea of what the programme was like.
Jeni Tennison – Open Data Institute
Talked about the potential impact of open data on society, giving examples of how open data could be used to inform and widen access to debate.
Maik Maurer – Spritz
Demonstrated their speed-reading technology – streaming one word at a time in a fixed place, for fast reading on mobile and wearable devices.
Gerard Grech – Tech City
Talked about the role of Tech City as a feedback loop between Government and the tech community.
Meri Williams – ChromeRose
Talked about the lessons that people managers could learn from artificial intelligence in how to inspire, motivate, and enable geeks to achieve great things.
Aral Balkan – indie Phone
Gave an impassioned and stirring talk entitled “Free is a Lie” about the conflict between advertising-led business models, and user’s privacy and other interests.
David Griffiths – foam
Talked about using his background in the video game industry to combine crowd-sourcing and gaming to perform impressive citizen science projects.
Chi Onwurah – MP for Newcastle Central
Talked about the parallels between technology and politics as driving forces for change, and the aims of the current Digital Government Review.
Mariana Mazzucato – University of Sussex
Argued that the image of the private sector as entrepreneurial and public sector as meddling and restrictive is an unhelpful myth and made the case for a bolder, entrepreneurial state.
Erin McKean – Wordnik
Talked about the limitations of search as a model for accessing data and the need for discovery engines to find what you don’t know you want.
Blaise Aguera y Arcas – Google
Described the history of machine intelligence and his predictions about what the future of machine intelligence might look like.
Carl Ledbetter – Microsoft
Outlined the history and evolution of digital entertainment, and described the process that went into the design of the XBox One.
Jennifer Gardy – BC Centre for Disease Control
Described our progress in increasing our understanding of the human genome, and where it’s complexity lies.
Peter Gregson – Cellist
Gave a representation of the genome work that Jennifer had described. Instead of a data visualisation, it was a sonification. Using a cello.
Sean Carasso – Falling Whistles
Told an inspiring story of how he came to learn about the terrible things happening in Congo, and how he went about trying to bring peace.
Conrad Bodman – The Barbican
Argued for recognition of the impact of digital tech on the arts, and described his projects to exhibit and showcase video games, animation, and digital effects.
Mark Dearnley – HMRC
Described the challenges and need for technology in what HMRC do, and their digital ambition for the future.
Xavier De Kesteller – Foster + Partners
Talked about an amazing project to build a base on the moon, using autonomous robots with 3D printing heads to print a building out of moon dust.
Susan Mulcahy – Imperial College London
Gave an energetic performance to describe the role of the red blood cell, and the science behind understanding brain injury.
Carlos Ulloa – HelloEnjoy
Showed what was possible using WebGL, bringing native 3D gaming to the browser without the need for plugins.
Jonathan O’Halloran – QuantuMD
Described his work to create a mobile genetic-testing device, and the potential that real-time epidemiology from a mobile device could bring.
Blaise Aguera y Arcas – Google
Talked about changes needed in society when more jobs are replaced by technology, and his observations about changes in gender dynamics.
Steve Mould – BBC
Gave an entertaining talk about how he discovered, and tried to understand the science behind, the bead chain fountain.
Tom Scott – Us Vs Th3m
Ended the conference with a fantastic performance showing what the impact of technology might be like in 2030.
Dale Lane – IBM
And I did a Watson talk. I really didn’t want it to seem like a sales pitch, so I tried to put it in a bigger context of being a step forwards in changing how we use computers. I talked about why I work on Watson, what motivates and inspires me about it, and why I think what we’re doing is difficult but hopefully valuable. And I walked through a short demo to explain the value I see in where we are even now. Annoying technical issues (Keynote + clicker + multiple screens = fail) aside, it went okay. It was a lot to try and fit into 20 minutes, so I talked fast.
It was a fantastic event, and one I’d wholeheartedly recommend.
If you can get to a future Thinking Digital, you absolutely should.
It’s one of the most thought-provoking and interesting couple of days I’ve had in a long time.
Full-diclosure: As a speaker, I didn’t have to pay for a ticket to attend this event. My travel and accommodation costs were paid for by IBM.