The Human Spirit: Thinking next

Like most of us who grew up with typewriters, racing along with the fast-moving digital world is an ongoing challenge.

March 17, 2016 18:25

Microsoft [File]. (photo credit: REUTERS)

I’m embarrassed to take out my pad and pen. I’ll look antediluvian. As it is, there aren’t too many grandmothers among the 2,000 participants here.

No one else is using paper, the stuff produced from pulp of trees. There aren’t even brochures to collect at the exhibit tables.

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If you’re interested in knowing more about a product, look it up online. Snap a photo so you don’t forget the name.

I’m at Microsoft’s Think Next 2016, celebrating creativity in technology at a hangar in trendy Tel Aviv Port.

I get my badge with its digital picture code, which will allow me to download photos later, and walk in.

Part 1 is an exhibition. A digital screen says that if you take a selfie at your favorite booth and post it on social media, you’ll get a free T-shirt. That’s easy enough. I pick up my T-shirt , choosing a white one in my oldest grandson’s size. Not sure I’ll walk around in a shirt that says “Look I am Your Founder, Microsoft Accelerator.” Within seconds of posting on Facebook, I get a flurry of WhatsApp queries from my young adult offspring wondering what I’m doing at this hyper-techy event.

Here’s what I’m doing: trying to stretch my mind. In addition to the fascinating exhibits, there will be lectures from leaders in this important technology company about what the future might bring. To be exact, the terminology used is “what will disrupt the future.”

Established in 1975 and headquartered in Redmond, Washington – near Seattle – Microsoft develops, manufactures and sells computer software, hardware and services. The giant multinational company has provided much of the way we live our computer-based life, from MS-Dos to Windows to Cloud technology, not to mention the X-Box, a game I bought last Hanukka, when five grandsons in one household decided to pool their Hanukka gifts.

The non-Microsoft exhibits are chosen as leading start-ups. One of the advantages of having a main component of Microsoft in Israel is the proximity to creative local tech companies, some of which Microsoft buys.

Like most of us who grew up with typewriters, racing along with the fast-moving digital world is an ongoing challenge. But hey, here we are, a little haltingly perhaps, making the transition to phone-based, appbased communication and daily life planning.

I’ve just signed up for an app called ZCast from a company called ZULA, in which I can broadcast my own radio station from my phone to people around the world, updating on our dynamic lives in Israel, not just the crises but the marvels of our achievements.

Among those achievements are specific contributions to Microsoft. Not only is the Think Next Conference itself an Israeli invention, but Microsoft Israel is celebrating 25 years of its research and development center.

The Israel center is the first branch that Microsoft founder Bill Gates set up outside the United States. Speaking on a wall-sized screen from Seattle, Gates explains why. Despite their success in the United States, brilliant Israeli engineers working for him yearned for life back in Israel. The gamble paid off. He says: “The technology produced in Israel has more than justified the decision.”

Returnee Moshe Lichtman, a pilot and the former head of Microsoft’s Israel development division, once explained Israel’s advantage in an interview in a local newspaper.

“The combination of Israeli technological culture with Jewish heritage – which is inquisitive by nature – helps as well. I am not ashamed to say that one of the center’s objectives is also Zionist. It has helped draw Jews back to Israel – hi-tech people who couldn’t see how they might realize their potential here.”

Today, there are close to two dozen Microsoft development centers outside the US, but only three are strategic development centers: in India, China, and the considerably smaller country of Israel.

It’s commonly accepted that major parts of Windows software, antivirus programs and cybersecurity have been developed here. The chip behind the Kinect, which uses body motion instead of a control pad to interact with X-Box 360 game console players was developed by the Israeli startup PrimeSense. It has reportedly brought in more than $2 billion to Microsoft, and – as I see from the exhibits – connecting with your computer via gestures is the way of the future.

Most of the people I’m browsing alongside are tech leaders, developers and managers, researchers. The majority are men. The vast majority are young.

So are the salespeople at each booth. I ask each one to explain the product. It would take a magazine supplement, not a column, to describe the wares, so let me just say that the chosen Israeli companies highlighted robotics, 3D technologies and health devices.

There’s a mouse to wear on your finger and a range of devices to keep track of how efficient you are, not only with your appointments but also for your personal exercise requirements, based on your age group.

Speaking of age group, at one interesting booth a charming young man invites me to look into a camera so the computer will guess my age and generate music that it thinks I’ll like for my phone.

He doesn’t realize that grandparents might not like their ages guessed. What if the computer thinks I’m much older than I am and offers me a selection of early rock and roll like “At the Hop” and “Hound Dog,” or even worse, “Mack the Knife”? Being a young person, it has never occurred to the host at the booth that age might not be something we’d like a computer to guess based on wrinkles. Being a young person has its disadvantages, too. Likewise, a featured app to reduce household falls for the elderly requires a long computer-based input.

Young persons grasp technology quickly, but when it comes to content, we grandparents still have the edge.

A buzz of excitement fills the hall. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, a rock star in this crowd, is browsing. The 48-year-old Indian- born executive isn’t a college dropout.

He has an electrical engineering degree, a graduate degree in computer sciences and an MBA. He’s married and a father of three.

At the podium, Nadella talks about this computer-based age being the fourth industrial revolution. There will certainly be more computing and lots of screens of all sizes in our future. But he believes we cannot be sidetracked by recreational devices. Technology must service humankind. The only limited commodity, he reminds us, is our time and attention.

The enhanced ability to “reason over large amounts of data” should enhance intelligent decision-making. Nadella sounds like a kabbalist when he speaks of “mirror worlds” (prepare to stretch) in which we “enlist metaphors in an analogue world and create digital artifacts.” The technology of the future is the hologram: a physical structure that diffracts light into an image. “For the first time we can bring digital artifacts into our field of view in the analogue world and create the mixed reality of the holographic world.”

I think of the first hologram I’d ever seen: in the Tower of David Museum, the First Temple is created in a hologram. Maybe that’s what the Third Temple will be, a hologram, diffracting light from a Divine image without a need for physical space we need to fight over.

Nadella predicts that a country like Israel, “with so much human capital,” is going to change not just Israel but the whole world.

Indeed, the final speaker is aerospace veteran Raz Itzhaki Tamir. He shows a world map, where dark spaces represent the places in the world where there is no Internet.

Tamir wants to connect them. In his hands, he’s holding – no bigger than a bread box – a nanosatellite produced by his start-up Skyfi, which is competing with Google and Facebook, which are trying to develop balloons and drones to accomplish the same.

The Skyfi antenna is shaped like a parachute.

It deploys in space and adjusts itself when necessary to get a stronger signal.

And there – in that techy emporium – Tamir uses a term I’m more comfortable with than “digital artifacts.”

His object is tikkun. Repairing the world.

Indeed, he wants to disrupt a future of tribal warfare and exclusion from ideas and literally bring the light of knowledge to all. That’s something worthwhile for all of us to be Thinking Next about. 

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.

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