At Solid San Francisco, you could see all the way to the future

Making sense of the intersection between connected devices, accessible hardware, and synthetic biology.


Register for Solid Amsterdam, October 28, 2015 — space is limited.

I don’t usually describe conferences as “mind expanding,” but in this instance, the description is justified. At O’Reilly’s Solid 2015: Hardware, Software & the Internet of Things, held recently at Fort Mason in San Francisco, I encountered startling views of the future, thoughtful presentations on creative combinations of exciting new technologies, and warnings about what might happen if somehow it all goes wrong.

Dozens of speakers and presenters covered topics ranging from synthetic biology to augmented reality helmets to 3D printed automobiles. The audience was a mix of software developers, hardware designers, traditional manufacturers, digital manufacturers, academics, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists keen to spot the next major tech trends.

The conference was organized around multiple tracks and themes, including data, design, software, hardware, product development, manufacturing, biology, security, technology, and startups. What follows is an overview of my key takeaways.

The big picture: Focus on interdisciplinary learning

If I had to summarize the conference in one sentence, it would be this: For the foreseeable future, progress will depend on interdisciplinary research and learning. The days of separate fiefdoms and zealously guarded areas of technical expertise are over. If we want to reap the fruits of the nascent Internet of Things (IoT) economy, we’ll need to get serious about collaborating and sharing knowledge.

  • Conference co-chairs Jon Bruner (O’Reilly Media) and Joichi Ito (MIT Media Lab) painted the big picture and detailed the profound implications of combining software, hardware, manufacturing, and biology at industrial scale. Printing genes onto silicon wafers, creating biological computers, and using cells to manufacture new products will become routine.
  • Astro Teller, leader of GoogleX, walked us carefully through the painstaking process of developing Project Loon, a global network of high-altitude balloons designed to provide Internet connectivity to the world’s most remote locations. He advised us to focus on learning, not on short-term progress. Don’t plan for success, he said, plan to learn.
  • Researcher and entrepreneur David Rose (Ditto/MIT Media Lab) showed how ubiquitous cameras are reshaping culture, communications, and commerce, creating new disciplines such as digital ethnography and spawning niche industries providing vast libraries of surrogate experiences.

Design: Don’t ask people to do too much

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and vaguely dehumanized by a lot of the new technology emerging around us. Product developers need to temper their enthusiasm for novelty with empathy and a real understanding of how people relate to new technology.

  • Designer and author Robert Brunner (Ammunition) taught us four incredibly useful rules for designing great products for the digital era: focus on purity of purpose; make it better; don’t ask the people to do too much; and integrate design and data early on, not as an afterthought.
  • Designer Marcelo Coelho (Marcelo Coelho Studio) revealed the fascinating development of the Budweiser “Buddy Cup,” arguably the world’s first socially connected beer cup, and described his collaboration with David Cranor (Solid,Formlabs), Mengmeng Chen (Seeed), and Will Walker (Formlabs), in creating a pop-up factory in the exhibit hall at Solid to produce wearable technology for social networking.

Manufacturing and product development: Interoperability = Value of IoT

The IoT economy is real, and it’s growing fast. Ignoring the potential of the IoT isn’t merely counterproductive; it could be an extremely poor business decision. The IoT will draw resources from many sectors of the existing economy, which means there will be opportunities for practically everyone. Will your products and services fit in? Will they “work and play” well with emerging IoT environments?

  • Michael Chui (McKinsey Global Institute) reminded us why the Internet of Things is more than just another buzz phrase: McKinsey expects the IoT to generate between $3.9 and $11.1 trillion in economic value annually by 2025. The IoT’s economic potential might be higher than the hype suggests, he said, adding, that it’s actually a much bigger phenomenon than most people think it is. Interoperability of diverse systems will be the key for unlocking the IoT’s value, Chui said.
  • Investor Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures) reflected on planned obsolescence as a strategy. Planned obsolescence killed Detroit, he said, but it’s more complicated in the modern age of cloud computing, digital manufacturing and overnight global competition. Despite the shades of gray, it’s always a bad idea to screw your customers, Coneybeer said.
  • Educator, entrepreneur, and “engineer of the future” Kipp Bradford (Kippworks) shared the concept of “frictionless frameworks” for accelerating innovative product development, generating value from new products more quickly and staying focused on creativity. Predictive is okay, but prescriptive is the real goal, Kipp said.
  • Product designer and investor Ben Einstein (Bolt) spelled out the complexity of developing, manufacturing, and marketing new products. Top takeaways from Einstein: If you’re planning to make your product in China, remember that most companies will want 50% of the cost paid upfront; don’t forget to factor in the scrap rate; shipping by boat is slow, but shipping by plane is really expensive; duties and custom fees can add 5% to your costs; you’ll probably need to buy liability insurance; retailers say they will pay you in 90 days, but 150 days is more common; and remember to price your product at least 2.5 times the cost of materials required to make it.
  • Inventor, designer, entrepreneur, and author Mickey McManus (Autodesk, Maya Design) described how digital manufacturing, machine learning, and the IoT have combined to create a new “primordial soup” that is dramatically and fundamentally altering human existence, for better and for worse. Moore’s Law, he said, means that any technology that’s in your car today will be in your shoes tomorrow.

Bio: The new digital

The walls between “wet” biology and “dry” technology have fallen, and a new field of digital biology is transforming the relationship between the living world and the worlds of software, hardware, and manufacturing. This is a truly revolutionary trend that will fundamentally change all of our lives.

  • Synthetic biologist, artist and community organizer David Sun Kong (MIT) explained why “biology is the new digital,” and how biological processing units (BPUs) can produce molecules on demand for performing a wide range of useful activities such as targeting and killing cancer cells. If you think the idea of fecal transplants is weird, he explained why it just might be the next important wave in health care and why researchers are working to make 3D artificial intestines to manufacture a better breed of gut microbes.
  • Chemist and researcher Gwendolyn Graff (Wrigley) took us on a journey of flavor, demonstrating how the flavors we experience are actually combinations of taste, aroma, color, texture, and reactions from our trigeminal nerve. In addition to explaining why we’re all programmed to like sweet and salty flavors, she shared the secrets of creating spearmint-flavored chewing gum.

Securing the IoT: Mad Max vs Star Trek

Despite the conference’s light-hearted atmosphere, there was an undercurrent of concern and apprehension over where all of the cool new technology is taking us. Not everything we think up should necessarily be turned into a product; there’s a whole universe of unintended consequences that should be considered first. We’re at an inflection point in our history as a culture, and the choices we make today will likely echo for decades ahead.

  • Author Cory Doctorow (Electronic Frontier Foundation) warned of the dangers of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which created a perfect storm for “crimeware, spyware, and malware” to run amok in “privileged environments” and severely restricts our ability to protect our devices from spying on us. “We’ve reached a level of peak indifference to surveillance,” Doctorow said, predicting the emergence of “a new kind of tenant farming for everyone” in which everyone is constantly watched and every device we “own” can be controlled remotely.
  • Cyber security expert Hugo Fiennes (Electric Imp) delivered the bad news about the brave new world we’re creating: no application is safe, every connected device is a node that can be hacked, one hacked device can cause major problems in a network, and hackers are only beginning to focus their attention on the IoT.
  • Techno-archaeologist Dennis Wingo (Skycorp) shared the wonderful story of saving irreplaceable data and restoring images of the moon’s landscape from NASA’s Apollo space missions. “We face a choice between Mad Max and Star Trek,” Wingo said, urging us to choose the latter as our blueprint for the future.
  • Programmer and game designer Henning Diedrich (IBM) explained the significance of IBM’s ADEPT project and walked us through the complex technical, legal, and social challenges of designing “trust-less” networks in a world where every device “phones home” and can be controlled remotely.

Those were only a handful of the many speakers and presenters. You can learn more about the conference and see the complete schedule of presentations here; many of the keynote speakers are also available on the Solid Conference (2015) San Francisco playlist on O’Reilly’s YouTube channel.

I came away from Solid 2015 with a much stronger grasp on the challenges and opportunities emerging from the intersection of hardware, software, biology, manufacturing, and the IoT. It’s not just hype; it’s real, and it’s already influencing many of our most basic perspectives on technology. The O’Reilly Solid conference moves to Amsterdam on October 28, and will return to San Francisco April 20-22, 2016.

Public domain image on article and category pages via The Internet Archive on Flickr.

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