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TFF Highlights: Imagination Day Lacked The Innovation That’s Most Needed

I sat in on a couple presentations on Imagination Day:  Jon Iwata, IBM: From Metropolis to Her, Artificial Intelligence in Film and the Real World, Dr. James Canton, Institute for Global Futures: The Extreme Future of Medicine: From Prediction to Longevity, and Meredith Perry, Ubeam: World Withough Wires.

This turned out to be my least favorite event at TFF. But, I readily admit I missed a huge portion of it.

Meredith Perry was the favorite. She’s an extraordinary person with big things to say about imagination and innovation. Perry discovered how to create wireless power from a light-bulb moment in her college dorm room. Though Ubeam is still in development and hasn’t been tested on the market yet, it’s making massive waves in the technology world. She discovered that not being an expert can cause great leaps in innovation. Meredith kept asking “how could this work?” rather than “why won’t it work?” By having no preconceived ideas about what was already decided by experts as impossible, she was able to see things they missed. Perry’s message was that anyone could come up with the next big idea and that shutting it down because it’s not something you have any background or experience in is a mistake. She shared how initially because the idea came from her, she assumed it wasn’t a viable solution. How could someone with no background in digital technology solve a major technology problem? But, she stressed that the average person could have advantages in innovation over experts too steeped in rigid thinking. Her $24M funded company came from doodling one day in her notebook, day-dreaming about the disappearance of all those gadget wires. “Don’t ever shut down an idea because you don’t think something that great could come from you. We all have genius in us. Keep asking questions and looking for how it could work no matter what the experts tell you.” But, there are critics who are concerned about the health and environmental risks of this technology. I wish that would have been addressed in her talk.

The other two presentations felt  a bit more like  infomercials rather than educational opportunities. I was especially frustrated with The Extreme Future of Medicine. The phrase “it’s up to you as the consumers to demand this technology now! I give you this challenge!” was repeated several times. Presenting medical innovations where melding the human body with machines and custom-designing your baby’s DNA with evangelical fever left me even more uneasy about the technology then I was before. There was also a tendency towards labeling critical thinkers as jaded and fear-mongering. It left out any acknowledgement or solutions for the current medical innovations that need radical improvement. And, not addressing the controversial role that corporations now play in modern medicine felt short-sighted.  I am sure many of these innovations in medicine will be incredible, saving lives and radically reducing suffering. It’s just that with valid privacy concerns at the forefront of technology conversations, I’m not ready to get excited about a corporate funded microchip inserted into my body. Presenting bio-hack medicine as if the modern medical system is only populated with kind-hearted people who are guided purely by wanting the very best for all humanity and will only use major advances in bio-hacking for the good of all humanity is either naïve or a bit dubious. I am a little too old now to hear about corporate medical innovations with starlight in my eyes. I need to talk about the fly in the ointment too for it to resonate in a substantial way. And, aside from all of that, I have no idea what it all had to do with movies and why this talk was in a film festival in the first place.

John Iwata is a brilliant man with an in-depth understanding of artificial intelligence.   And, it seemed like a biased talk towards inviting AI into our lives on unprecedented levels. The tone seemed geared to make AI seem endlessly positive with very little cause for concern. Critical thinking again seemed waved away like an irritating nat standing in the way of progress.

The main issue I had with the talks I saw at Imagination Day is the lack of imagination in solving the problems that our modern innovations are already causing. There was a push towards the fever, the frenzy, the romance of huge leaps of imagination in technology. And, there is a lot to be said about the tremendous positive advances modern day inventors have created for the world. And, there’s also a lot that needs to be said about the dark side of progress, especially in regards to serious environmental concerns. The innovations we already have are far from perfect, creating major planetary distress on levels our ancestors also could never have dreamed of. I was hoping Imagination Day would be bigger, wilder, riskier, and more grounded in the real world that’s being left to the next generations.