At Collision 2019, technology finds its purpose: Doing good

The Collision Conference logo
Jeremy Kaplan / Digital Trends

Collision 2019 is ostensibly a startup show, with nearly 1,100 fledgling companies, 26,000 attendees, and conference tracks for pitching venture capitalists called “Growth Summit,” “MoneyConf,” and simply, “PITCH.” I spent half an hour last night marveling at a 16-year-old who had charmed his way into the show on sheer chutzpah; he had four “billion-dollar-ideas” he’d come up with last night alone, running from better nuclear power plants to drones to solar panels and more.

But another theme from the 2019 Collision conference quietly linked the smug VC guys in slick suits to the fin-tech startups and the A.I. companies and the data scientists: fixing the world’s woes.

“When you start seeing those digital divides of people excluded, that’s when we get into trouble as communities and as a society,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on opening day.

It started with the show itself, which was 45.7 percent female, making it the most diverse in the show’s short history and representing a huge shift from the rest of the tech world. Collision put women front and center through a dedicated Women in Tech section spotlighting female leaders, as well as a collection of high-profile female speakers. It was a welcome change from Mobile World Congress, which had so few women this year that merely seeing one in the corridors of the Fira Gran Via convention center in Barcelona, Spain, was like spying a leprechaun.

It ran through panelists, who were often bluntly dedicated to doing good. On Tuesday, during a section called Planet:tech, the CEO of Oceana joined Canadian Parliamentary Secretary Sean Casey to discuss how Canada can continue to be an example for conservation. A highlight from Wednesday: Christiana Figueres, the architect of the Paris agreement on climate action, talked about the intersection of tech and global good.

But even speakers on other topics were clear that tech has a role to play in changing the narrative around tech. Dan Doctoroff, the former president of Bloomberg and now CEO of the Google-funded Sidewalk Labs, pitched his idea for urban development and smart cities of the future, which is centered on affordability, accessibility, and inclusion, as well as creating a digital blueprint for better urban areas. Part of the agenda: A radical rethink of urban data, and how data from downtown gets used. For example, Sidewalk Labs could push for cheap cameras above doors and facial-recognition tech to identify who’s walking where. Which is already happening, after all. And it shouldn’t.

“That’s not appropriate,” he said bluntly.

Ev Williams, CEO of Medium and co-founder of Twitter, is also a frequent investor in startups, he told noted journalist Kara Swisher. But he doesn’t invest in just any old company.

“We invest in what we call world-positive investing”

“We invest in what we call world positive investing, things that address big systemic problems in society,” Williams said.

One example: Beyond Meat, one of the first companies he invested in, which makes a meatless burger that’s taking the country by storm. “People are paying attention to this plant protein company that most people wouldn’t predict would make such a big blip,” he said. Other investments are in sustainability, solar engines, an electric bus company, supplements — it’s a portfolio far from the typical VC.

Doing good means more than just supporting the right companies going forward; it also means changing the existing landscape where problems exist, and no problem is more clear than Facebook. Alex Stamos, the former chief information security officer for Facebook, had a number of ideas for how to fix it, including bringing in a new CEO (he suggested Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft). The name of his fireside chat: “Move slow and fix things.”

Stamos also offered a clear warning about the 2020 election, if nothing changes on Facebook. People have been using social media to manipulate crowds for years, and will continue to do so. And with the Russian playbook from the 2016 election so easy to copy, there’s a real risk that the 2020 election will be influenced by a similar campaign, whether by the Koch brothers or George Soros or whoever.

“Pick your billionaire,” Stamos said. “It’s easy to say we want to stop the Russians. It’s a lot harder to say we want to stop some sort of political super-PAC.”

I interviewed Jean-Francois Gagne, the co-founder and CEO of Element AI on Wednesday, during a panel we called “Putting the Heart Into the Machine.” Gagne’s a proponent of developing responsible artificial intelligence (A.I.) as a way not just of preventing Skynet from taking over but also of ensuring that A.I. doesn’t pass over people for loans or jobs because of systemic bias built in from the get-go by pools of young, white developers. A.I. is modeled after us, right? So development teams need to be diverse, or else our A.I. will simply inherit our own assumptions, both good and bad.

Indeed, the “do the most good” attitude seemed so prevalent that Digital Trends Managing Editor Nick Mokey felt compelled to ask the following question: “Is purpose a punchline?

I hope not. Technology companies have become juggernauts with the power to shape our lives. If conferences like Collision can help steer them toward good instead of greed, the future might look a little rosier. And we can use all the roses we can get.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Smart Home

GE-backed startup brings crystal-clear ice to fans of bourbon and other spirits

Spherical, crystal-clear ice to water down drinks used to be the purview of innovative bartenders, but a startup called FirstBuild, backed by GE Appliances, has a new device that will produce it in mere hours.
Cars

This ’60s Ford Mustang EV has Tesla-like specs and a Rolls-Royce-like price

British startup Charge Cars planted its flag where electric cars and muscle cars meet when it unveiled a battery-powered 1960s Ford Mustang. Starting with a reproduction shell, the firm added an electric powertrain and modern electronics.
Emerging Tech

This humanlike synthesized speech could be the future of audiobooks

You probably wouldn't want Siri or Alexa reading you an entire audiobook. A new startup called DeepZen has developed a text-to-speech A.I. that sounds impressively human. Check it out.
Home Theater

Netflix Recommended TVs: What does it mean, and why do you want one?

Netflix Recommended TVs will have faster startup and playback. Our guide gives a quick breakdown of Netflix's criteria for recommending current TVs and explain what this means for you.
Emerging Tech

U.S. Navy is working on making its fleet invisible to computerized surveillance

The U.S. Navy’s ever-innovative Office of Naval Research is working on a way to turn the United States military fleet invisible. Well, to cutting-edge image-recognition systems, at least.
Computing

The MacOS Catalina public beta is live. Here’s how to download it

Apple's latest MacOS update, known as Catalina, is finally available for developer preview, which means if you're willing to pay a little for the privilege, you can be one of the first to try it out.
Mobile

Researchers sent a fake, unblockable presidential alert to a 50,000-seat stadium

A group of researchers was able to send out fake, unblockable presidential alerts to phones in a 50,000-seat football stadium. The team from the University of Colorado Boulder figured out a way to spoof the alert and send it out.
News

Cyberpunk 2077 will feature romance options beyond heterosexual relationships

CD Projekt Red’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 will feature a gender-fluid character creator, and the game’s lead quest designer reveals that the romance options will be more diverse than The Witcher 3's.
News

Apple’s new Seattle campus may mean big things for Siri, artificial intelligence

Apple plans to hire 2,000 more employees for a new Seattle campus, the company announced Monday, with a significant number of those jobs focused on Siri and artificial intelligence.
Outdoors

The best new gear from the Summer Outdoor Retailer 2019 convention

At the 2019 summer Outdoor Retailer convention in Denver, Colorado the top gear manufacturers revealed the latest and greatest camping, hiking, and backpacking products to keep us safe and comfortable.
Emerging Tech

How to watch SpaceX’s most difficult Falcon Heavy launch ever

SpaceX will launch a Falcon Heavy rocket Monday evening in its most challenging launch yet. The launch is scheduled for Monday June 24 at 8:30 p.m. PT, but is dependent on weather conditions. You can watch NASA's livestream with coverage…
Cars

U.S. firm plans to power soccer stadiums using aging Nissan Leaf batteries

We've heard of aging EV batteries being repurposed to power homes and other facilities, but how about an entire sports stadium? An American firm is already doing just that, and now has plans to expand its system across Europe.
Deals

Amazon announces Prime Day 2019 date: Prepare for 2 days of deals

The once one-day event is slated to span a whole 48 hours, with the best deals beginning as early as midnight on Monday, July 15, and carrying on through July 16. This is the longest Amazon Prime Day ever.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX launches Falcon Heavy but loses core booster in crash landing

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy blazed spectacularly through the Florida sky early Tuesday local time as the world’s largest operational rocket embarked on its third and most challenging mission to date.