For these innovators, the sky isn't the limit

Monday , May 23, 2016 - 12:06 PM

(c) 2016, The Washington Post.

On May 18, The Washington Post held a live event called Transformers, where some of the most innovative minds in the country shared their visions of the future. The speakers excerpted here and at are upending commerce, medicine, space exploration and art.


Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and chief executive of, founder of Blue Origin and owner of The Washington Post:

“I want to build the heavy-lifting infrastructure, which gets done slowly and at great expense, build the highway to lower Earth orbit - make the cost of access to space so low. That would be my job. Then the next generation of people will be able to use that heavy infrastructure that I put in place so there can be a huge dynamic entrepreneurial explosion in space. This planet, this Earth, is really extraordinary. We really want to protect this planet.

“It’s inevitable, in my opinion, that we will move all heavy industry and a large fraction of the population will choose to move into space colonies and throughout the solar system. This will happen over the next few hundred years.

“With all the heavy industry in space, you will have better access to resources. You have better access to energy. We will make, for example, our computer chips in space with these gigantic factories that are environmentally unfriendly. Just send the little chips down to Earth where we can use them. Then Earth will eventually be zoned, residential and light industrial, so we’ll just have universities and housing and parks and waterfalls.

“My friends who say they want to move to Mars one day, I say: Why don’t you go live in Antarctica first for three years and then see what you think. If you want to do Mars, think about it. There are no waterfalls, no nature of any kind that you’re accustomed to. No blue skies. No getting in a sailboat. No friends or family. No restaurants. No universities. No bacon. No whiskey.”


J. Craig Venter, co-founder, chairman and chief executive, Human Longevity:

“People are so concerned about the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. The reality now is if you have changes in those genes and no family history, your chance is only 50/50 for getting breast or ovarian cancer.

“That’s not what most physicians have been telling patients, because when those genes were first discovered, they were discovered in people where every member of the family had breast or ovarian cancer, so everybody overly extrapolated from that data.

“If, like in Angelina Jolie’s case, every woman in the family having breast or ovarian cancer, plus having those genetic changes means your odds go way up. What that actually means is there are a lot of other genetic changes we don’t know how to measure yet.

“BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes aren’t the actual causes of cancer, they’re sort of a message link to it. The genes that are in the families [in which] every person has breast or ovarian cancer, those are the ones we want to look at to find out, so we can tell you whether your odds are 100 percent or zero.

“We think of the human body and the genome as an orchestra score, not just a single player. The whole genetics and genomics community thinks of genes as the central unit and thinks of disease as a one-letter change in those genes.

“That’s not how your biology works, that’s not mine. It works by having this constant symphony going on in a hundred trillion cells, second to second in our bodies. It all works together so we have to understand that degree of complexity to know how to change things in the future if we’re going to rewrite it and how to read it so that we can make intelligent predictions.”


Martine Rothblatt, chairman, United Therapeutics:

“We’ll be able to create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs through the modification of the pig genome so that there will be a supply of hearts, livers, kidneys and lungs that can be tolerated by humans without the need for life-long immunosuppression.

“We are on schedule to have our first clinical procedures, which means using these organs in people by the end of this decade. We hope for regulatory approval less than 10 years from now, and I’m pretty confident that by the end of the 2020s there will be literally tens of thousands of people a year receiving organ transplants as a result of xenotransplantation.

“When you make a genetically modified organ, it’s like a drug. But unlike medicines for other diseases, this drug has a 24-hour half-life. We all know that you can’t just put an organ on a shelf and keep it waiting there for a year. We can’t ship it to Walgreens.

“I know as a technologist that if you can have a drone that drops a pile of books on your front yard today that you’re going to be able to have, within 10 years, a drone that is going to be able to land, very softly, on the hospital heliport and have a person roll the organ out of the drone and to the surgeon’s table, where they’ll take it and implant it. We’ve placed this order for 1,000, what we call manufactured organ transport helicopters, or MOTHs, and these will be delivered within the next 10 to 15 years.”


Neil Harbisson, cyborg artist, Cyborg Foundation:

“It’s a neurosensory organ, so it’s a part of my skeleton. It allows me to extend my perception of color beyond the visual spectrum. It picks up light frequencies and then it gives me vibrations depending on the color.

“I’m using the Internet as a new sense, not as a tool, and I’m using technology not as a tool either but as a body part, as a sensory extension. I don’t feel I’m using or wearing technology, I feel that I am technology.

“My aim is to use the Internet exclusively to perceive colors from space. We can use the Internet to send our senses to space so instead of physically going to space, we can actually feel that we are there without having to go through the struggle of physically going there.

“I consider myself a transspecies because I’m adding senses and organs that other species have. You can add many, many more senses that other species have and organs that other species have.

“Now cyborg surgeries are being done a bit underground but in the end, bioethical companies will also accept that cyborg surgeries should be allowed for everyone that wants to extend their perception of reality at least to the level of other species.”


Arati Prabhakar, director, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency:

“Social science is being reinvented because of the massive availability of data coupled with these very thoughtful techniques and the methodologies that are developing.

“I think that is going to allow us to ask questions that have been dead ends in social science for a very long time. We have a new program called Next Generation Social Science that is specifically about building the tools and the methods that would allow for a new generation of social science research. Research that could be done on a different scale than graduate students that are getting paid 20 bucks to do an experiment. Research that could be reproduced and scaled.

“The question we’re posing is: What are the key factors in collective identity formation?

“I don’t think we have very good answers to that. Certainly we don’t have practical answers that can help anyone who’s trying to do something on the ground today. Our hope is [that] through developing these techniques we’ll get some new insights in that area but also develop methodologies that scale across many more areas.

“I think it’s actually very hard to imagine an area that’s more important to national security than understanding societal behavior. The fact that we have vast new opportunities to do that, I think, is where we definitely want to tap into.”


Charles Bolden, NASA administrator:

“NASA has never built a big rocket. That’s a misconception. . . . We owned the rocket. We don’t own the rocket anymore. We buy a service.

“The International Space Station “is a human-made structure that has a lifetime. Today we think it’s maybe 2028, so we are working feverishly to help others build this low Earth orbit infrastructure that is commercial so that NASA doesn’t have to invest taxpayers’ money in building and maintaining this infrastructure. That’s the deep hole from which we’re going to go to deep space. But that should not be NASA. That should not be government. Commercial entities have full capability to do that today.

“The very first things on the surface of Mars are going to be robots. I imagine there’s going to be a fleet of robots. Maybe humanoid. They don’t have to look like humans. They’re going to establish the habitat. They’re going to go in because with 3-D printing, we can put a fleet of robots on the surface of Mars. We may find, based on what we know about the radiation environment, that we want to go underground. . . . It may be that robots go subterranean and establish the habitat.”


Andy Weir, science fiction writer and author of “The Martian:”

In real life, I’m sure in our first manned mission to Mars everything will probably be put into low Earth orbit by commercial space industries via government contracts. It will be a large multinational effort. It won’t look anything like it looked in the movie.”


Steve Huffman, co-founder and chief executive, Reddit:

“A big mistake I made when I returned was thinking what Reddit needs is a very clear content policy. This is what’s allowed and this is what’s not. We went through this whole effort, rather publicly actually.

“I Iearned this very important lesson I wish I could go back and tell myself, which is that it is impossible to draw a line.”


Vinton G. Cerf, chief Internet evangelist, Google:

“When the original Internet was designed, we assumed that we should allow anything to talk to anything else. But you didn’t have to talk. You could receive a packet and say, ‘I’m not going to talk to you because you haven’t authenticated yourself adequately for my preference.‘

“Some of those things have to be built into the Internet of Things and all the other things that are connected to the Internet in order to make sure that only authorized parties are actually communicating.

“This doesn’t stop us from having anonymous communication, which I think is an important part of our society as well, but you can also say, ‘I refuse to talk to you unless you strongly identify yourself to my satisfaction.‘ We have to span that full spectrum.

“The thing I worry more than anything about is not the hackers and the people who are attempting to somehow change the function of the Internet. I’m much more worried about software mistakes, bugs, because over the last 70 years or so, we have not learned how to write software that doesn’t have bugs.

“Some of the worst problems that happen on the Internet are not because somebody deliberately caused the problem. It’s because somebody made a mistake. We’ve lost half the networks ability to transport traffic or route it to the right destinations because somebody made a configuration mistake. Now we quickly recognize those things.

“The idea is we need to have much better tools for writing software to avoid some of those stupid mistakes that cause problems in the Internet. I can tell you lots of us in the technical side of the world really care a lot about that.”


Helen Greiner, founder and chief executive, CyPhy Works:

“There’s an early adoptive community for driverless cars and drones that I think would be so enthusiastic to get the first packages delivered.

I’m worried mostly that the regulation doesn’t keep pace with the technology and the industry continues to go overseas. The FAA is pushing it, but not really fast enough for technology.”


David Strickland, counsel, Self-Driving Car Coalition for Safer Streets:

“There have been a number of polls that have asked people, coldly, with no usage or ability to touch or feel the technology, ‘Would you be interested in purchasing or riding in a self-driving car?‘ The majority of people are like, ‘I’m not.‘

My concern is how do we get an ability to proselytize and show the benefits of this technology to a broad group of people in a timely fashion so that we can have that deployment, those benefits and that ramp up.”


Wendy Schmidt, president, the Schmidt Family Foundation:

“Philanthropy came to me kind of by necessity. After Google went public, we had a responsibility to think, ‘What do you do with this? How do you not just make contributions to things but how do you help to transform the world?‘ That’s the motivation.”


David M. Rubenstein, co-founder, the Carlyle Group:

“I’m trying to get people to learn more about our history and our heritage so they can be better citizens. . . . I’ve bought historic documents, like the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and put them in places where people can see them.”


George Whitesides, chief executive, Virgin Galactic and the Spaceship Co.:

“It is an extraordinary time. A lot of credit goes to [NASA] Administrator [Charles] Bolden and the president but also to Congress and others for taking smart moves to open up innovation in the American launch industry.

“We’re getting started on a cycle of innovation that should feed on itself over time. That is to say, hopefully we can get the price lower to space access. That then leads to more activity in space, which then drives lower cost and we start getting on this wheel of innovation.

“The true space boom will happen when the price point to going into space is within the reach of middle-class Americans.”


Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of advanced space and launch business, Aerojet Rocketdyne:

“Everything we throw off the planet now has to go on a rocket that costs quite a bit of money. The smaller you make it, the cheaper it gets. We have solar electric propulsion that we’ll be putting on these next missions. . . . We’re 3-D printing whole rockets.

“It’s a transformative time. We’re building off the things that we put in place the last few decades. But now we can actually take them that next step.

“We’re on the way to Mars now. . . . The country’s putting in place all that infrastructure right now and it’s a lot closer than you think. We will launch in a couple of years.

“The plan will be: Go put stuff around it and go control from circling Mars first, before you go down. It’s really within our reach. It’s not that far away.”


Emmett Shear, founder and chief executive, Twitch:

“A CEO of a community-based product is like a gardener. You’re trying to make sure you have the right balance of sunlight and water that the community can thrive and grow.

“You can’t force people to want to engage, want to connect, want to communicate. You can only provide favorable conditions and then hope it happens in a good way.”

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Video: In a wide-ranging interview at The Washington Post, Post executive editor Martin Baron asked Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos about machine learning, Donald Trump, the decision to buy The Post, privacy and security in the modern age, the future of space travel and the tech CEO’s style of leadership. (Washington Post Live)


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