FiRe 2010: Two more days into the future

FiRe isn’t just a technology conference. After all, we live in a world where technology is only just part of the picture.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

FiRe isn’t just a technology conference. After all, we live in a world where technology is only just part of the picture. It’s affected by the world around us – and in return, it affects the world. If you focus on technology alone, you’re going to be left looking at only part of the picture. That’s why the second day of FiRe started with a look at the global economy, and how banking and economic policies are shaping the world.

Analyst and futurist Mark Anderson (the man behind FiRe) sees the world as spit between two opposing economic camps, one of globalism and one of mercantilism. It’s a complex scenario, but one where mercantilism has the edge, as it can use its technocratic roots to dictate where it deploys its capital – giving it the ability arbitrage jobs and location to dodge tariffs and to absorb intellectual property. Anderson sees a link between this and the role of the superbanks in the recent economic meltdown, one that he points out is still going on, with short sellers using similar arbitrage techniques to manipulate stocks, commodities and currencies.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s hope in what Anderson talks of as an alliance of countries with strong intellectual property protections. The resulting trade block would be able to innovate globally, and grow new markets – markets that would be focussed on green and clean technologies. The threat to the planet from CO2 is one that needs a concerted effort to switch to new, renewable and sustainable approaches – an effort that’s going to be comparable to that needed during the Second World War. But it’s not going to be all sacrifice, and there’s money to be made in doing good.

A panel of venture capitalists looked at the current state of the VC market in the US and the rest fo the world. Despite some sobering figures (with over 50% of VCs having pulled out of the business along with their funds), there finally seems to be hope of profitable exits. Investments are now longer term, with one business needing $140M over 7 years of investment, and another $120M over 10 years. There are other, quicker and cheaper, routes to value too, building on top of existing infrastructure and processes, adding technology to solve problems. Getting these types of company profitable takes a much smaller investment, typically around $20M or so.

That’s why FiRe also showcases new companies, trying to expose new businesses that have the opportunity to change the world positively. Calling them FiReStarters, this year’s tranche of companies included one that offered good healthy food at relatively low cost, and another that provided dynamic power management tools for next generation data centres – promising significant power and cost savings. One offered social integration with email, helping display relationships and relevant information, adding context to communication. Green and clean technologies were also prominent, with one company using sensors and GIS tools to provide dynamic maps of pollution and pollutants, helping clean-up projects see just what effects they were having on the environment.

Health and health technologies are important, and two of the startups showed intriguing new approaches. One, Neurorepair, is experimenting with growth factor stimulation of adult stem cells in the brain. Experiments are promising, and there’s hope that this approach can actually help the brain repair after significant brain injury – and not just for recent injuries. Another, Mobisante is developing low cost ultrasound equipment that can be used with mobile devices. Field health workers in developing countries will be able to use these tools for pregnancy triage, providing that vital first scan, and referring problem pregnancies quickly.

The world is a complex and dangerous place, and the online world is rapidly catching up. Cyberwar may be one of the current media buzzwords, but it’s very real. Networks of botnets are conducting military and economic espionage, with the worst of them operating with at the very least state-level deniability, and often with state sponsorship – as third parties can give governments deniability. Incidents like the Estonia and Georgia cyberattacks are disturbing, but they’re more of a distraction. Yes, infrastructures have vulnerabilities, but the real threat is espionage. There is some hope, as there’s an international framework of legal cooperation and law enforcement finally coming into shape – but it really needs international treaties, and there are significant political hurdles still to be overcome.

Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs is in an interesting position, with the company’s Snapdragon ARM-based system-on-a-chip powering netbook-like devices and many of the current and next generation of smartphones. He sees this type of device as something that will fundamentally change computing – giving real time, always on access (and he’s also, like Jen-Hsen Huang, excited by augmented reality). But there are a lot of things that need to be done in silicon to deliver that lag-free, immersive, collaborative world. The processor needs to be adaptive, able to work in different power regimes, and at the same time, it needs to be responsive so that things happen when users want them to. He’s enthusiastic about cloud services, pointing out Microsoft’s Office Web Apps as a bellweather of the move to the cloud. Even so, Jacob’s remains realistic about the role of desktop software on mobile devices, and is encouraging Microsoft to port Windows to ARM as well as Intel…

Power is important, and Jacobs has been investing in an alternative to today’s power-hungry LCD panels. Qualcomm’s Mirasol MEMS mirror displays are about to enter production, with 5” displays shipping later this year. As they’re reflective, they use a lot less power – and work extremely well in bright daylight. They’re also more responsive that electrostatic e-paper.

Devices using the next generation of Snapdragon will need plenty of bandwidth, and Australia’s National Broadband Network is an example of the type of network needed to deliver that bandwidth. A panel of ISP and government representative from Australia talked about the roll out of the country’s high speed fibre network – and its role as a neutral backbone for commercial, academic and government services. It’s a radical model, and one that finally delivers that early vision of an information superhighway…

Networks like that will also be needed to deliver the backbone for a world full of sensors – on and under the oceans, as well as on land. High speed connections change the way science can be done, with more information and higher resolution views of the world. Arrays of sensors with gigabit connections are being laid across the seabed, trying to give a picture of the last great unknown on this planet. The same networks are also being used to work with high resolution data from offworld, sharing the data from the current generation of Mars probes (determining if it was a planet that had conditions that could have harboured life), and helping design the next generation (which hope to determine if there’s life there now).

With a final look at the future of quantum communicatiions from physicist and SF writer John Cramer, FiRe wrapped up its look into the future for another year - a most fascinating event, with a very different look at the world


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