TEDxSiliconAlley “Rise of the Machines”: An Interview with Chris Grayson its organizer and host

TEDxSiliconAlley takes place December 3, 2012. Chris Grayson, its organizer and host, talks with Humanity+ Chair Natasha Vita-More about what he has planned for its theme “Rise of the Machines” and headliners Ray Kurzweil and Juan Enriquez.

Chris Grayson is a long-time trouper of the New York digital media and advertising scene. As a bit of history, Chris worked with some of the city’s most recognized ad companies, as well as representing some of the world’s most recognized brands. To add to his high-level qualifications, he has been honored by The Ad: Tech Awards, The Abby Awards, The Web Awards and The OneShow.  But let’s dig a little deeper into Chris’ contributions to the world of idea-making. Chris has an eclectic background, and one that I can easily identify with—from interests in fine art to filmmaking, advertising and hanging out at MoMA and links to Young & Rubicon in Manhattan and Pratt Institute.  (I should also mention that we both went to high school in Memphis (along with Kathy Bates and Cybil Shepard.)  Chris’ “GigantiCo” blog is an entrepreneur’s favorite, as an intersection of art, technology and business. And to add to his valued contributions to the arts, he is a Director of Digital at Humble.

What I love about Chris is his joie de vivre.  He is a positive exemplar that people simply want to be around. It is my pleasure to have had an opportunity to chat with him about the upcoming TEDxSiliconAlley.



As organizer and curator of TEDxSiliconAlley, how were you inspired to produce this event? Is there one concept or image that sparked the idea?



I am involved with another event on the west coast, ARE: Augmented Reality Event, held in the spring in Santa Clara, CA (the world’s largest business convention for the AR industry). Having been involved with ARE, and a lot of industry event speaking engagements as well, I decided I wanted to launch an event locally — something broader than the augmented reality niche, and geographically specific to New York City — as a vehicle to champion the city’s exploding tech sector.



What I see as unique about TEDxSiliconAlley is the array of artistic practices –from music, to film, to visuals.  What are you hoping to achieve through this strategy?



I wanted to do something in a forum and in a format broader than a typical business conference. That is something the TED brand brought to the table. TED is about ideas. Most tech conferences are about networking, raising money, and selling a product. With a TEDx license, while all of these things can be done around the margins, we are able to keep ideas in the forefront.

It is also worth noting that much of the artistic side of the event comes as a direct extension of my time writing for H+ Magazine, during its brief run as a print publication when Ken “R.U. Sirius” Goffman was Editor. For the art exhibit, I first interviewed Christopher Conte for issue #3, when his Cynthetic Cross Section sculpture graced the cover. I subsequently interviewed Sophie Kahn for a four page feature in issue #4. Even the inclusion of the Sundance award winning short, TOMO, grew out of a dialog I’ve had for several years with director Paul Catling, first initiated as an unpublished piece for H+ Magazine (due to changes then taking place with the option rights on a feature length film, Paul had requested that we suspend work on the article).

Jon Carin’s involvement came about through chain of circumstances and coincidences. I had wanted a musical performer to participate and one angle I had on my agenda to pursue was Kurzweil Keyboards. I was also exploring channels to see if I could obtain the rights to use the Pink Floyd song, Welcome to the Machine, at the event. It turned out that Jon Carin, Roger Waters’ keyboard player, exclusively plays Kurzweil Keyboards, and has never met Ray Kurzweil. Jon was remarkably approachable, enthusiastic and generous.



In what ways does the “Rise of the Machines” reflect the idea of humans evolving into computational beings? And how is the scope of the event linked to the philosophical worldview of transhumanism?



TEDxSiliconAlley 2012 has the somewhat provocative theme, “Rise of the Machines.” Different speakers will interpret this in different ways. Not all are associated with transhumanist views, nor should the event be explicitly labeled as such. But it is a prominent thread that weaves through the day, culminating with Ray and Juan. As a member of Humanity+ myself, clearly I have my point of view. But the transhumanist perspective is one among several harmonious threads.

If we look at augmented reality, my interest is primarily in the mobile space, and emerging trends in wearable systems. One of this year’s TEDxSiliconAlley co-organizers, Heidi Hysell and I gave a lecture together earlier this year at SXSW, on some of the ideas that came out of ARPA’s IPTO (Information Processing & Techniques Office), with a focus on department Directors, Ivan Sutherland, Bob Taylor and especially Founding Director, J.C.R. Licklider, author of Man-Computer Symbiosis. We also highlighted a few of the significant recipients of their research grants, most notably Douglas Engelbart, author of Augmented Human Intellect and Director of the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute. The premise was that much of what is being done in the augmented reality space today is a direct extension of the ideas put forward by the early ARPA pioneers in the 1960s.

I believe Transhumanist ideas, and the Singularity theory espoused by Kurzweil, at this time most visibly manifest themselves in mobile computing, the already ubiquitous precursor to human-computer convergence. The computational apparatus is not yet embedded within our person, but has certainly become embedded in our pocket. Wearable systems will move the visual interface directly to our eye. The optic nerve is the primary input device to the brain. The sensory stimuli received by our eyes account for up to 90% of all brain input. Moving the interface between the human and the machine directly into our field of vision is the natural next step.

We had originally planned for Amber Case to be a third headliner. Ray and Juan were very difficult to schedule dates around, and it is unfortunate that the December date that worked for both of them conflicted with Amber’s pre-existing obligations. If you’re familiar with her TED talk titled, “We Are All Cyborgs Now,” she makes the case that the cyborg transition has already taken place.

Have you ever misplaced your smartphone for a day, left it at home, or had to go without it for a few hours having lost its charge? It does, in fact, feel as though you’ve lost a part of your cognition — your supplementary memory system has been taken offline and left you with a temporary cognitive impairment. Things that were once at easy mental retrieval leave us with that sense of tip-of-the-tongue syndrome, searching our minds for the elusive piece of information. It is not there, but in external storage or the cloud. Licklider made the case that computers were not in fact “tools” that we use to extend our capabilities, but truly symbiotic, and henceforth would shape the path of human evolution, as they evolved alongside us in an ever more intertwined symbiosis.

In addition to the headliners, and prominent keynotes, we have eight speakers from New York based tech startups, all from the geo-mobile space. If there is any overarching agenda I have for the event, it is to evangelize New York City as a natural launchpad for mobile startups. I would like to use my energy to help turn New York City into a mobile hotbed, nothing short of the international capital of the mobile tech world. This is wholly apart from any transhumanist agenda — it is simply a combination of local culture and business sense. The United States is the world’s largest smartphone market, and New York City is the largest mobile market. This is not just in sheer numbers, but on an individual user basis, New Yorkers use more data on their smartphone data plans than any other US market. There is a cultural reason for this. In an otherwise car-culture country, New York is an anomaly as a walking culture city. When Americans are out driving around in their SUVs, they have a wide array of input stimuli at their disposal: their dashboard display, their entertainment console, their GPS navigation system, OnStar, etc. But when one is on foot, the smartphone must assume all of these roles. “Smartphone” is a poor name for an otherwise multipurpose mobile computing device that, among other functions, can also be used to make phone calls. More and more often, it is used for other data services, and it is a fact that nobody in any other market, utilizes them for those data service as much as New Yorkers do. Among last year’s TEDxSiliconAlley speakers we had Siobhan Quinn of Foursquare. There is a reason why a company like Foursquare emerged from a market like NYC. Foursquare is a geo-mobile service most applicable to users out and about on their feet (for the service to really take off across middle America, they will need to integrate it into the dashboard console of cars). It behooves New York’s tech community to embrace its walking culture. Mobile is the fastest growing computer market. Smartphones already outsell desktop and laptop computers by volume. New York City is in an enviable position, and I’ve made it my personal agenda to evangelize this point of view.

The fact that this also dovetails nicely with the view that mobile wearables are the evolutionary stepping stone in our ever evolving symbiotic relationship with our technology is a happy correlation that aids well in keeping the day’s program cohesive. One can attend the event purely to explore new mobile technologies with little interest in the technological singularity, and hear from a solid collection of actors in the New York mobile tech space. Conversely one can attend the event as a purely philosophical, intellectual pursuit, and have an equally rich experience. Either way, it will be hard to avoid seeing the correlation.



Overall, what would you like to see happen as a result of TEDxSiliconAlley?



I hope to provide a spectacular experience for those who attend, the kind of experience that years from now makes people say, “I was there at TEDxSiliconAlley when …”. I hope many attendees gain new perspective into the relationship between our species and our technology, in a way that is philosophically enriching to their lives. I hope to bring more attention to the significance of mobile within New York City’s growing tech economy, and the strategic advantage New York’s walking culture gives us.

There will be surprises — things not officially on the agenda. Some big, some subtle. People should plan to attend for the full day to take in the full experience.

TEDxSiliconAlley will be held on December 3, 2012, at Terminal 5 on West 56th Street in Manhattan, New York City. Several weeks away, the event is already half sold out. This will be Ray Kurzweil’s first public appearance in New York City after the release of his new book, How to Create a Mind, his first book since his 2005 New York Times best seller, The Singularity Is Near. If you wish to attend, do not wait until the last minute, get your tickets now. It will sell out, and you will not be able to attend.

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