Presentations in a botanical garden. Workshops in an actual work shop. Disco in a museum. The 2018 Thrival Festival eschewed tradition and challenged attendees to ponder: Are we asking the right questions when it comes to humanity + technology + art?
The annual Thrival Festival held in Pittsburgh PA is truly unique. It combines art, technology, philosophy, music, and yes, even healthcare, into an event that is part science fair and part theatre. Instead of holding the event in a traditional auditorium or hotel, the organizers chose the beautiful Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens as the setting for this year’s event.
Rising like a glass armadillo out of lush grass splashed here and there with colorful flowers, the Conservatory welcomed attendees with a warm scent of green leaves and rich earth. It was immediately apparent we were in for something different as we passed through the mammoth glass entryway and wound our way through the maze of monarchs and waterfalls to reach the main session room.
With sunshine and mother nature as a backdrop, Thrival kicked off with a keynote from John Battelle @johnbattelle, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of WIRED. Battelle wasted no time in setting the tone for the day. Early in his presentation he put up the following picture from National Geographic with the caption: What makes us human?
The image was from National Geographic’s October 125th anniversary issue (2013) where they photographed the new faces of America – a reflection of the blurring of traditional racial and ethnic lines. Battelle used the slide to highlight that society will soon be challenged to define humanity more broadly than before – as we manipulate our genes, embed technology into our bodies and program human-like qualities into robots.
Pondering. Challenging. Warning. Taunting. Inspiring.
— Rasu Shrestha MD MBA (@RasuShrestha) September 20, 2018
Later in the morning, the issue of do-it-yourself implantable devices and pseudo-scientific injectable cocktails was discussed by a panel of experts. Dr. Rasu Shrestha @RasuShrestha was asked: Is biohacking the future of medicine? With a smile and wink, he deftly answered the question by putting forward the notion that the original healers and physicians were themselves the biohackers of their day. Instead of nanobots they used herbs and crude instruments to try and cure our pre-industrial ancestors.
Is biohacking the future of medicine? Actually doctors and tribal healers are the OG biohackers – they were the pioneers of looking at the human body and how it could be healed/improved @RasuShrestha #ThrivalFestival cc #hcldr pic.twitter.com/YmBqsCdRr9
— Colin Hung (@Colin_Hung) September 20, 2018
*Yes, Rasu did use “OG” in his answer, to the delight of the audience.
The panel also featured Rich Lee @lovetron9000 the controversial sex technologist who not only installed a vibrating implant in himself but also recently self-injected a gene therapy that he hopes will cure him of his color blindness. Vilified by authorities, Lee was decidedly normal both on and off the stage answering questions about his motivations.
Over lunch I had the opportunity to chat with Laura Montoya, Founder of Accel:AI and Director of Women Who Code. Montoya teaches development teams to consider the ethical issues relating to AI algorithms. She posed the most interesting question of the day: Would you get into a self-driving car if you knew the algorithm governing it would choose to save the life of a pedestrian over you the passenger?
*Note to self, uncheck the self-driving option from my Uber app.
— Sunnie Southern (@SunnieSouthern) September 20, 2018
My Thrival afternoon began with a short viewing of GAPPED – a documentary from Molten Media Group. The excerpt contained powerful and moving interviews of Pittsburgh residents who were in danger of being left behind by the innovation boom that the city is currently enjoying. After the screening, the producers of the film shared that they were seeking to answer a single question: Will Pittsburgh and its people have the chance to rise together or will those unwilling to adapt be left behind?
To me the film asks a much broader question: What happens when innovation wealth is unequally distributed within an ecosystem? And I don’t mean the spoils of innovation like money, equity stakes and fancy offices. What happens when public and private programs inadvertently leave out a portion of the local population? Is it fair that 95% of the innovation seed funding goes to middle-class college graduates while innovators living under the poverty line struggle to keep afloat? I can’t wait to see the entire film when it is released later this year.
I decided to end my Thrival day by attending the Moonshot Workshop led by the XPRIZE Foundation – the people behind the space competition that spawned Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. The workshop started with a short presentation by Amir Banifatemi, AI Lead at XPRIZE. Banifatemi explained the process they go through to curate, refine and define the incentive competitions that “entice the world to take action”. It turns out that it takes the team at XPRIZE over nine months to clearly define one of their challenges.
“If we define the challenge too broadly, teams become overwhelmed with where to start.” Said Banifatemi. “Problems need to be specific enough to spark the imagination but not so blue-sky that people get lost in the possibilities. If we make our challenges too difficult, we may discourage people from entering. It turns out that coming up with the right question, the right challenge is almost as hard as solving it. But if you get the question right, magic happens.”
Banifatemi’s statement was the perfect bow on my day at Thrival Festival. Before innovation can happen, a problem or challenge must first exist. Once we understand that problem, our collective imaginations can be unleashed. Better definition of the problem leads to better innovation. The question of: “How can we look inside the human body?” begat X-ray machines. The more refined question of: “How can we look inside the human body without causing harm to the person and with sufficient detail to see tissue?” begat MRI machines (okay maybe a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea).
As the high-energy techno anthems from Veserium washed over me at the Thrival evening event, I found myself thinking about all the questions we are asking in healthcare. Perhaps we need to take a moment and ask ourselves if we are really asking the right ones.