This story was written by staff writer Dan Majors based on his reporting and that of staff writers Kris Mamula, Sean D. Hamill and David Templeton.
The journey to tomorrow’s innovations was launched in Pittsburgh on Thursday as the White House Frontiers Conference brought together some of the nation’s leading thinkers in science, technology and research for a daylong exchange of ideas.
Several hundred researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs and students took part in the conference, hosted by President Barack Obama at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. They focused on five “tracks” — Personal, Local, National, Global and Interplanetary.
The invitation-only audience was treated to short speeches, panel discussions and question-and-answer sessions of challenging topics of the future, part optimistic vision, part call for change.
PERSONAL TRACK: “What we have is ‘Star Wars’ medicine and a ‘Flintstones’ health care system.” — Freda Lewis-Hall, Pfizer chief medical officer
Tomorrow’s health care system should involve far greater participation by patients than is possible today, two speakers said during the Personal track session on the Pitt.
Steven Keating, who discovered a baseball-size cancerous tumor in his head, and Dana Lewis, who created a do-it-yourself way for people with diabetes to better control the disease, said increased patient involvement in research and treatment would bring medical innovations and faster breakthroughs than are now possible.
“I didn’t start out to be an inventor,” said Ms. Lewis, 28, who lives in Seattle. “Science is my living room in my apartment, it’s off-the-shelf computer equipment. It just works. It’s the future of health care and science.”
Ms. Lewis and husband Scott Leibrand developed a homemade artificial pancreas, which includes an insulin pump, to help people with diabetes better control the disease. The equipment and software have been used by 121 people worldwide to make similar systems.
The brain tumor that Mr. Keating, 28, of Sunnyvale, Calif., accidentally found was successfully removed in 2014 in a 10-hour operation. But the matter was complicated beforehand, he said, as he encountered barriers to retrieving his own medical information.
“I could understand better what was happening to me, and I could use that data to help me make medical decisions,” he said. “Why do patients have the least access to their own data? It’s crazy.”
LOCAL TRACK: “Wow. What if this group knew that group and they got together?” — Megan Smith, the U.S. government’s chief technology officer
Mayor Bill Peduto, the keynote speaker for this track, welcomed about 120 people with a history lesson showing why the city was the perfect place for the conference. He told of Pittsburgh’s evolution from a frontier town to a booming steel town to a dying steel town and now to an eds-and-meds economy.
“Pittsburgh’s [most recent] overnight success story is the result of 30 years of hard work and innovation,” he told those gathered in a CMU meeting room.
Mr. Peduto joined a panel of experts discussing how today’s innovations are visible and usable in daily life and where they can lead in the future.
Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar, described how shared autonomous vehicles will take people places “safely and cheaply,” a vision shared by Anthony Foxx, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, who boasted of the $350 million in federal transportation grants that served as seed money in the past year.
Tim Kentley-Klay, CEO of Zook, an autonomous car company based in Palo Alto, Calif., said he hopes people will have “a vehicle which is smart enough to understand its environment but also smart enough to understand you.”
But Mr. Peduto pointed out that even as the possibility to move forward on autonomous vehicles is looming — particularly in Pittsburgh, where Uber is widely testing such technology — there remains caution.
“When we started in aviation … there wasn’t a guarantee that there wouldn’t be times when it would fail,” he said, and now that same fear looms with autonomous vehicles. It’s a fear, he said, that the public and government have to overcome.
During a “lightning panel” discussion, innovators were given a few minutes to speak. Antwi Akom, CEO of San Francisco-based Streetwyze, shared how his company created a neighborhood-navigating app sourced by local knowledge.
Justin Hall explained how his company, Bitsource, took a simple question — “Could we teach former coal miners to [do computer] code” — and now has 14 projects under development.
“We have exported coal for years from the heart of Appalachia,” he said. “Now we want to export code.”
And Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Health, told how a combination of criminal and health data has helped address the opioid crisis there.
“We’ve started to look at data across sectors with criminal justice,” Dr. Bharel said. “We found that 80 percent of people in the criminal justice system suffer from addiction.”
But one of the problems, she said, is that much of the health and criminal justice data is often two years old by the time they can analyze it, “so we’re using predictive modeling to help.”
NATIONAL TRACK: “It’s an exciting time for being a nerd who cares.” — Andrew W. Moore, dean of the CMU School of Computer Science
Heavyweights in politics, computer science and technology law tackled the topic of artificial intelligence during the National track session. AI, they agreed, promises computer technology that can control, manage and learn, with hopes that such systems will learn without human assistance, reason better than humans, and make ethical decisions all by themselves.
The benefits seem endless in everything from personalized medicine and traffic control to creating robotic body parts and tracking elephants. But there are concerns regarding regulations, job losses, a lack of diversity in the field, and ethics.
Gov. Tom Wolf opened the discussion with a sales pitch for Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, describing the state as “an old state with new ideas.”
“We are hardwired to be innovated,” he said. “This is an old state with a young heart. Welcome to Pittsburgh. Welcome to Pennsylvania. Welcome to the future.”
The examples were plentiful. Stephen E. Smith, a CMU research professor, revealed how sensors placed at Pittsburgh intersections successfully controlled traffic lights to reduce congestion, idle time, fuel use and human downtime, with eventual goals of “allowing intersections to talk to vehicles.”
Suchi Saria, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, detailed new methods of finding biomarkers — biological signals — to indicate the presence of sepsis infection, saving lives because “every hour counts.”
A panel involving officials from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, IBM and Uber focused on breakthroughs in language and image identification, pushing AI to higher levels, with the distant goal of making machines that can learn and reason without human supervision.
Uber’s Pittsburgh experiment in developing self-driving cars represents many aspects of the AI revolution — machine-learning, regulations and safety.
Raffi Krikorian, engineering lead for Uber Advanced Technologies Center, said self-driving cars may need to avoid traffic laws to drive safely in traffic.
“One lesson is that people drive more aggressively and break laws routinely,” he said. Should self-driving cars learn to break traffic laws to better fit into traffic patterns, especially in places like Pittsburgh? That situation, Mr. Krikorian said, explains why self-driving cars need “to understand the world better.”
INTERPLANETARY TRACK: “Mars is not the last stop. It’s the next step. And we’re ready to take it.” — astronaut Serena M. Aunon-Chancellor
When will Americans begin the mission to Mars? The response at the Interplanetary discussion was, “We already have.”
More than 100 people — self-described “space geeks” — gathered in CMU’s Cohon University Center for the “Interplanetary” discussion led by leaders of NASA and the nation’s commercial space industry. The session began with welcoming remarks from Rod Roddenberry, son of the late Gene Roddenberry, creator of “Star Trek.”
“I’m incredibly humbled to be surrounded by some of our greatest scientific and engineering minds,” said Mr. Roddenberry, CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment. “I have a background in science, but not in reality. I grew up with science fiction.”
But as Mr. Roddenberry and more than a dozen other speakers said, so much of the technological achievements of today — and tomorrow — were once incredible dreams.
George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, made the point that “space is not far away.”
“We’re actually a lot closer to space in this room in Pittsburgh than we are to Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.,” he said. “But it’s not easily accessible. There’s no interstate to whisk you wherever you want to go and there’s no airport with hourly departures to fit your schedule.
“But there is a revolution in space access going on with the end result being the opening of the space frontier with more people, groups and companies being able to experience space for their benefit.”
A panel discussion titled “Not just to visit, but to stay” brought together experts on living in space.
Ellen Stofan, a chief scientist with NASA, noted that it won’t be enough to just visit Mars and bring back a bunch of rocks.
“If we want to seek evidence of past life on Mars, to study the planet, you need a lot of samples,” she said. “You need a laboratory on the planet, a sustained presence.”
Tim Hughes, senior vice president of SpaceX, said there has been “a renaissance of space.”
“We all want to go to Mars,” he said. “The intersection between the commercial and public sector needs to evolve. This mission is so big and has so many challenges, it’s going to require input from everyone.”
Ms. Aunon-Chancellor, a member of NASA’s 2009 astronaut class, said the challenges of going to Mars are not just technological. They are also physical.
“When we live on the International Space Station, we have a lot of people helping from the ground,” she said. “On Mars, we will have to be more autonomous, we won’t have that help in real time, and we’ll have to solve our problems ourselves.
“Exploration is risk, but it must be acceptable levels of risk. There are people who would volunteer to go right now. Are we ready? Probably not. But we’re getting there. First we have to figure out how to protect the crew as best we can.”