Month: October 2014

Fusing Compassion and Technology. Notes from Siggraph 2014

Siggraph crowd shot

In his opening address Siggraph 2014, Dave Shreiner said “this event is all about technology to enhance peoples lives. But more importantly it’s also about compassion.” Being at conference that was putting people above the technology was a revelation. For the chairman, compassion is the narrative that matters.

Siggraph Dave Schreiner

He introduced everyone to Paulo Henrique Machado from Sao Paulo, Brazil. The computer animator attended Siggraph for the first time despite being confined to a bed and hooked to an artificial respirator 24 hours-a-day. Shreiner’s own iPad adorned Machado’s telepresence robot that allowed him to experience the people, the sights and the sounds in real time.

Machado shared with the SIGGRAPH team that the robot, “gives me the freedom that I physically can’t have.” Shreiner offered to the audience. “SIGGRAPH is a community. Paulo is part of our community, and we take care of our own.”

You can learn more about Machado from this BBC feature story.

The compassion theme was further amplified in keynote speaker Elliot Kotek. As chief of content and cofounder of Not Impossible Labs he’s a storyteller of the highest order. But he’s also a driving force behind a team whose core belief is that technology has to exist for the sake of humanity.

Read also: Not Impossible Mobilizes the International Maker Community to Save Lives

Kotek highlighted a number of projects the Not Impossible Labs team is currently tackling, as well as their commitment to a philosophy of shared innovation. He highlighted stories where open source platforms, hackers and do-it-yourself makers are fusing a community together and improving the lives of others with a mindset of “permission-less innovation.”

The genesis for Not Impossible Labs was the Eye-Writer project. For Tempt, a world renowned L.A graffiti artist fully paralyzed because of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), this amazing “hack” now allows him to draw and communicate using only his eyes. It worth watching Kotek’s partner Mick Ebeling’s TED talk.

Time Magazine proclaimed that it’s “hard to imagine any other device here doing more to make the world a better place,” as Kotek’s team leveraged open source CAD files and 3D printing technology to meaningfully transform 14-year-old double-amputee Daniel’s life. Living in war ravaged Sudan, Daniel lost both of his arms during an air raid.

Siggraph Elliot Kotek (1)

Kotek spoke of Daniel despairing about his future and about being a burden to his family and village. By creating a 3D-printed prosthetic arm the impact of seeing Daniel simply feed himself for the first time in two years was massive. Project Daniel was born. Now in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains they have set-up what is likely the world’s first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and training facility.

The team’s goal was to teach and empower the local community to use this technology and help the too many victims of similar tragedies. Kotek credits Richard Van As for making the  prosthetic hand an open source file. At a cost of about $100 in materials, the needed hardware a little teaching time with people whose education is the equivalent to about the 4th to 6th grade learned in fours days the process to make these prosthetic arms. He pointed out that this is “proof of a process transcending the tech savvy. Most importantly the project lives on!”

Even with an exhibit hall overflowing with the technology that’s driving the visual brilliance we’ve come the enjoy from our games, movies, and animation, as Shreiner later shared with me, “for the Paulo’s, the Tempt’s and the Daniel’s of our world, this is what it’s all about, we make these marvellous things so we should be using them for good.”

There was no shortage of inspiration at Siggraph 2014. Seeing the very tangible results by fusing compassion with technology will hopefully be a catalyst to transcend inspiration into mobilization.My imagination goes into overdrive thinking about what this collection of exceptionally talented people will do in creating an even richer human experience.

 

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A Big Nerd Talking Data. Meet DataHero’s Chris Neumann

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There’s no escaping the fact that data is a hot topic and big business. However, so much of the buzz about data is usually prefaced with the word “Big” these days. Somehow, the conversation has moved from the fact there’s this huge proliferation of data and the fact there’s potential gold attached to mining it, to the size matters story.

There’s also no escaping it: Chris Neumann, founder of Vancouver’s DataHero is a really big nerd. With almost a ten year lens on the business, Neumann can talk about data in the sense of size really not mattering.

His data lineage goes back to being employee number one with AsterData (acquired by Teradata in 2011 for $263 million)  and saying “I’d argue that Aster Data had the single strongest overall teamever in the data world.  To-date, Aster Data alum have raised over $300 million for companies they subsequently founded, including Nutanix, Instart Logic, ThoughtSpot, and ClearStory Data. That network has remained extremely tight, with many of us helping each other out over the years in a wide variety of ways as we navigated our post-Aster Data endeavours.”

dashboardLooking back on his experience he said, “in 2005, we knew that volumes of data were growing and were on the verge of exploding.  The problem was, databases couldn’t handle such large volumes of data, and the larger data warehouse software that existed was designed for relatively basic workloads (figuring out simple metrics, aggregates, etc.).  Companies large and small were starting to hit up against the limits of existing products and were forced to choose between complex analytics on insufficient amounts of data or insufficient analytics on larger volumes of data.”

It isn’t only big companies generating large volumes of data. Even small internet companies are generating significant amounts of data. The business challenge is making sense of it. So much of today’s focus is on “Big Data,” and figuring out how to keep pace with the increasing amounts of centralized data being generated by a relatively small number of companies.

“What almost no one is talking about is the fact that at the same time centralized data is increasing in volume, enterprise data overall is becoming decentralized as services move to the cloud,” said Neumann. “This has the potential to be an even more significant shift in how enterprise data is managed.”

“My experiences at Aster Data had a significant impact on how DataHero has evolved from its earliest days,” he added. Seeing firsthand the increasing demand for answers to data questions from people outside of the traditional data organizations, and how those departments were quickly becoming a major bottleneck to enterprise efficiency has led him to get past the size conversation. “Those experiences helped me to appreciate how important access to data is to business users and how much need there is for tools to empower users of all technical levels to be able to work with data.”

Entirely new groups of people are working with data. Until now, you had to be a data analyst, a statistician, or a data scientist to be able to get insights from data. Neumann’s all about the democratization of data, and that anyone who has access to data and wants to ask questions of that data should be able to without having to rely on someone else for help.

He shared that “the biggest challenge in building a product designed to empower everyone in an organization is walking the tightrope of having all of the features people need to answer their data questions, while keeping it easy to use and accessible to the largest possible group of users. Data products have historically been designed for technical users, so we’re really focused on the capabilities we’re trying to bring to business users.”

DataHero meetup

This democratizing access to data is about pulling, processing, and analyzing it from SaaS services, cloud storage drives, online spreadsheets, or even files on a laptop.  Neumann said DataHero has expanded its partnerships to include:

  • Pardot
  • Highrise
  • Zendesk
  • Zuora
  • Recurly
  • Mixpanel
  • Keen IO

For marketing, sales, customer service, and software development professionals, there’s less and less friction to working with data today than ever before. It’s about redefining our relationship to the speed of business. Having data in context it’s now more possible for insightful and impactful decisions to be made. and proving ultimately that the size really doesn’t matter.

Top photo by BusinessNewsDaily

Story originally featured in BetaKit

General Fusion Wants to Deliver on the Promise of Clean Energy

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When we talk tech moonshots, it’s likely Google X , or maybe Elon Musk’s Hyperloop will jump to mind.
But tucked away in a nondescript Burnaby, BC business park is a project of massive global implications. General Fusion is in the race to transform the world’s energy supply. (Though you really can’t call this a moonshot because they’re building a fusion reactor that’s essentially harnessing the Sun’s fuel.)

Imagine a world with abundant and clean energy with no pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. The team of 65 people at General Fusion can.

john1Recently the Telus Science World Equity Giving Committee invited some of BC’s tech community leaders to share an evening with Dr Michel Laberge, founder and chief scientist for General Fusion as well as a TED2014 presenter. This event also represented an evening of educational alignment between today’s leaders who care about helping foster the development of tomorrow’s technologists and scientists.

It’s important noting that Science World is a non-profit organization playing an important role in the growth of the technology sector, by engaging youth at an early age. They’re inspiring a love of science, and showing them that sciences, engineering and technology offer an exciting and rewarding future. Science World is about helping generate the talent that will invent, innovate and lead companies in the future.

The Equity Program is working with British Columbian technology and health science companies and their principals – professionals who know the pivotal role that science and technology play in developing the province – the program allows for individuals and their companies to either donate securities or to grant stock options to Science World.

It’s been a journey about finding a solution to global melting because of our fossil fuel dependence that made Dr. Laberge a great fit for the evening. As well, having PhD from UBC in plasma physics, and using the mid-life crisis moment of turning 40 as a good reason to leave his position as a senior physicist and principal engineer at Creo Inc, adds to his story too.

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In terms of startup stories and basement science experiments (actually an old garage on Bowen Island, BC), it doesn’t get much better than this. Laberge shared how he started it all with a seed round from family, friends and the federal government, to build the first prototype.

It was about the size of your kitchen stove. The key thing was that he managed to make something happen with the plasma reactions, as “the sensors detected excess neutrons, suggesting at least a few hydrogen atoms had fused.”

He only somewhat jokingly called them “my marketing neutrons.”

This is a David versus Goliath story too, as Laberge pointed out a variety of other Fusion projects are being worked on around the globe. Those projects also have considerably more money behind them, but a boatload of cash doesn’t always buy a winner, as Maple Leaf fans only know too well.

The challenge with fusion power, and the reason we don’t yet have it, is rooted in creating a system where less energy goes in than the amount of energy it generates. The science aside, there’s also the business considerations of building such a reactor to scale, and getting the energy onto the grid to actually power our neighborhoods. It’s about transcending scientific theory into reality, and delivering a clean energy solution that’s only pennies per kilowatt-hour.

I’ve toured General Fusion and seen the prototype reactor. Needless to say, very complex engineering is needed to solve a very complicated science experiment. Rather that trying to describe how the technology works, it best to watch Dr. Laberge’s TED talk, or read Michael McCullough’s feature in Canadian Business.

To date they’ve raised in the neighborhood of $50 million. It’s worth noting Amazon founder Jeff Bezos venture capital group, Bezos Expeditions, is an investor. I was told that Bezos has a keen personal interest in the company.

There was nothing “pie-in-the-sky” about Laberge’s vision of the future. Progress is being made, but the day our cities will be powered by the sun’s fuel is still at least 10 years and billions of dollars away.

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*Disclaimer – I serve as a member of the Telus Science World Equity Giving Committee.

This article originally appeared in BetaKit