Last night I attended my first NY Tech Meetup at FIT
Big crowd and a lot of interesting companies and people
I was there in the audience to support Whistlebox – who came out with their augmented reality games for kids. CTO Chas Mastin demoed their first project The Do Crew (see here) and got a great round of applause from the crowd – and a ton of interest afterward. If you have kids – let them play around with the app and see what they think. Send Chas some feedback – or send it here and I’ll pass it on. I think they’re onto something big, but I’m biased.
At the end of an evening filled with demos – from the recently hacked to the more polished and ready for prime time – Anil Dash took the stage to talk about his involvement with Expert Labs (here). His basic pitch was that with so much intellectual brainpower out there more and more interconnected by social networks – we should be able to harness this collective intelligence to work on big scientific projects. He then exhorted the crowd to do something about this – and send in submissions to the White House for their Technological Challenges program.
As I was sitting there listening to Anil (who is a very good speaker) it got me thinking about the big technological challenges that we face as a country – and whether we were even close to dealing with any of them – and contrasting these with what I had seen as a representative sample of projects going on.
I view big technological challenges as things like alternative energy, better scrubber technology, cleaner nuclear technology, agricultural science to make sure out food supply is secure for years to come, better desalination techniques so we never run out of water, cheaper more effective housing solutions, medical breakthroughs, better and longer lasting roads, technology making airline travel easier, more effective video conferencing to facilitate quicker and easier communication – basically: how to make everybody’s lives better without destroying our world – you know – the big challenges.
Contrast this to what we see every day and read about – and in fact saw last night – which is more and more iterations on social media. No doubt social is hot, it is being funded, it is being written about, and people are looking for the next big breakthrough in it. Fred Wilson talked about this today on his blog regarding Twitter as a platform (see here), and Anil referred to it when he showed his over 300,000 Twitter followers and exclaimed that he and all the others were addicted to social media like drug addicts. At the Tech Meetup there was one social media derivative after another, trying to get people to figure out better and weasier ways to hang out, hook up, meet up, etc… and I was wondering why so many people are interested in these sort of problems as opposed to the ones Anil professes he wants to devote his time to.
I think one reason is that many programmers are young guys in college (sorry no gals on the stage) for whom most of the big issues are just not germane. Scraping data from Facebook, or Twitter or foursquare is easy (at least to them) – whereas developing new materials and processes is not only hard – but quite costly. You need labs and real world testing areas – as opposed to dorm rooms and cloud services. It also probably takes a ton of time to generate the necessary expertise to start to challenge some of the bigger problems in life – whereas anybody with some programming experience and an idea can start a social media company. they may not be successful, but they can credibly try.Try starting a new nuclear reactor company and see how far you get.
Yet these bigger problems are exactly what we as a society should be willing to fund, with the experts in the field.
If the White House is to take any advice on the subject – let the government decide on some of these large priorities – and then figure out a way to get funding to these bigger projects – and get some of the big VC’s and smart investors out there focused on it – rather than sifting through one social network after another.