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A brief review of COSM 2021: Paradoxes of the new world of technology

While I have no previous COSM to compare this COSM to, I find myself agreeing with Panic author Richard Vigilante, who moderated the final panel of COSM 2021, that this was the best COSM yet. To qualify his assertion, Mr. Vigilante explained that a good conference must be “information-dense” and that for him, “only surprise counts as information.” To his surprise, he said, “I kept getting surprised.”

Although that thought was lurking, unarticulated, in my head throughout the three days of talks and panels and presentations, I found myself exclaiming (in my inside voice) “That’s IT!” like Charlie Brown, when Lucy finally identifies pantophobia as the cause of his malaise. I loved this COSM because I, too, kept getting surprised.

At this point, you may be asking, “What is COSM, anyway?” For starters, it’s not an acronym. Rather, it’s the Greek word for world, and here’s how the organizers describe it:

COSM is an exclusive national summit on the converging technologies remaking the world as we know it. From artificial intelligence to 5G and WiFi6, from tokenized time to blockchain, from cloud computing to the quantum revolution, from the “spatial web” to the efflorescence of space flight, it is all ascending in Seattle, and at COSM. The mission of the conference is to stimulate debate and deliberation amongst industry leaders on the unities animating these apparently divergent technology areas.

If, perhaps, you think this tends toward hyperbole, let me assure you, they are not kidding. There were discussions and talks by people whose names you would recognize (Peter Thiel, Ari Emanuel, Niall Ferguson, Newt Gingrich, Kai-Fu Lee, Bob Metcalfe, Carver Mead…) as well as by Discovery Institute luminaries (George Gilder, Stephen Mayer, Bill Dembski, Robert Marks…), but much of the head-shaking, “I did not know that” information came from names you might not know but whose work you certainly would – or will. See the full list here.

Among the notable surprises was Jim Tour’s presentation on his work using graphene and nanoelectronics to fight disease. Unlike chemical treatments, these tiny machines break through cell walls mechanically to destroy the disease from the inside. Another amazing take on an established technology (Internet search) that nearly got lost in the lunchtime clamor was Phil Parker’s brief, almost drive-by, presentation on Botipedia, a personalized, democratized approach to wiki search, which was followed by an invitation to a demo later in the afternoon. I almost passed on the demo, but decided to go and ended up sitting next to Dan Mapes, another conference panelist and founder of Verses. We didn’t know each other but spent the next hour, turning to each other, grinning, and shaking our heads. There was nothing else to say.

The days were organized in such a way that there really was no free time aside from occasional bio-breaks, but it didn’t matter. You didn’t want a break. You didn’t want to miss anything. Despite my obvious lack of reference point, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine a better conference than COSM 2021. It was, in fact, surprisingly information-dense and, once I process everything I learned this time, I’ll be back.

Gretchen Huizinga

Gretchen Huizinga
is the former Executive Producer and Host of the Microsoft Research Podcast and the founder of the Center for Digital Wisdom, a nascent consortium of cultural guardians dedicated to the qualitative search for wisdom in a quantitative world. Gretchen is a member of the board of directors of AI&F and holds a BA in English, a Master of Mass Communication, an M.Ed. in Learning Sciences and Human Development, and is currently entering the dissertation stage of her PhD exploring voices of faith in the responsible AI conversation.

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