Mikey Tom September 15, 2016
TechCrunch's Disrupt conference runs three days and is a whirlwind of panels, interviews and presentations about the most talked-about topics in tech. While many different subjects were covered, we pulled out three that came up again and again.
Without a doubt the most talked about topic was self-driving cars, specifically where the technology is currently, where it could go and what needs to happen for it to get there.
Uber’s recent roll out of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh had the topic on everyone’s mind. While it's exciting to see the technology being used in actual business scenarios, it's worth noting that the cars Uber is using aren't completely autonomous, but rather have a person in the driver’s seat to assist in certain situations. Kyle Vogt, CEO of Cruise, warned the audience that there's a rather large development gap between “a fancy cruise control” and a completely self-driven car.
Fully autonomous vehicles aside, there were other interesting developments revealed in the space over the three days. Day 1 saw Sebastian Thrun of Udacity announce his online learning startup is partnering with companies including Mercedes-Benz, Didi and Otto to launch a self-driving car engineering nanodegree. Thrun pointed out that one of the main problems in the self-driving car space, and the technology industry in general, is a lack of talent, a point that many in the audience agreed with. He hopes that the new course will play a role in democratizing opportunities to learn, as well as speed along the development of the emerging tech.
Comma.ai also announced that it will be releasing an autonomous driving add-on priced at $999 by the end of the year. The startup’s CEO George Hotz was sure to point out that the add-on would not make a car fully autonomous, but rather offers car owners similar capabilities to Tesla’s autopilot feature without buying an entirely new vehicle.
So, although we probably shouldn’t hold our breathe for wide-spread adoption of fully autonomous vehicles in the near future, it’s still very much an exciting space with lots of innovation and activity.
In a similar vein, opinions on AI ranged from extreme excitement to a more bearish attitude.
Some argued that current attempts to apply the tech have been underwhelming and frustrating. Jeff Lawson of Twilio pointed out that, in his experience, messaging bots are still not quite at the point of being useful. Slack’s Leslie Miley echoed that sentiment, saying the tech is still a bit too early.
Although certain current applications may be less than ideal, there was an air of optimism regarding the future of AI. As software continues to disrupt new industries, opportunities to apply artificial intelligence to the data generated will arise. Marc Andreessen pointed to industries like healthcare, life sciences, finance and transportation that could all still see AI applied in innovative ways.
You can find a bit more on what was said about artificial intelligence in my Day 2 recap.
Silicon Valley has the reputation of being very gung-ho, building what they think will better the world (being only mildly tongue-in-cheek here) and innovating at a speed that's the envy of many cities around the world. This bias for action and speed is not without its drawbacks, however. Focusing on building these companies, some argue, leaves important issues as an afterthought.
One question that has made headlines recently is, 'What should a company’s role be in censoring certain content from its platform?' Facebook recently ran into this when it removed an iconic photo from the Vietnam war as it claimed the image violated its community guidelines. Twitter seems to deal with this every day, but most recently came under fire for not better controlling its users as they mercilessly tormented actress Leslie Jones, eventually driving her from the platform for some time.
We did hear from Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook's newsfeed team, on how the company thinks about what to include in your feed. Sadly, most of his answers were boilerplate responses. He reiterated that Facebook isn't a media company, but rather a tech company that offers its users what it thinks is the most relevant content. Not to trivialize or over simplify the problem—Mosseri pointed out that the average FB user reads about 200 stories on their newsfeed each day, representing only 10% of what could be shown—but as more and more time is spent on these services, it's something that will continue to be an issue.
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These are some of the topics covered over the three days that I found most interesting. That said, there were many panels and speakers that I was not able to include in my write-ups. If you’re curious about the other talks, you can find a video library of them here provided by TechCrunch. I highly recommend the interviews of Andreessen, Lawson, as well as the one featuring Reid Hoffman and Josh Elman.