On this special episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode are joined live onstage by One Laptop Per Child founding CTO Mary Lou Jepsen. The three talk about Jepsen’s work on screens — she once designed a system to project images onto the moon — the issues surrounding women in tech and the possibilities inherent in virtual reality. All this and more, plus questions from the audience!
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Kara Swisher: We’re very excited to welcome Mary Lou Jepsen to our live edition of Too Embarrassed to Ask at South by Southwest. Welcome, Mary Lou.
Mary Lou Jepsen: It’s great to be here.
KS: Let’s start with you and your background. I met you a long, long time ago, just after MIT and some other things. One of the things I want to talk about is screens. We’re going to start talking about screens. We’re going to move to women in tech. We’re going to talk about what you’re doing in MRIs and X-rays, essentially. Let’s talk a little bit about your background. You started at MIT very interested in screen technology. One of the things when I first met you, you talked about wanting to put a screen on the moon, Moon TV, is that correct?
That’s right. I designed a system to project video on the moon for all of humanity to see. I did this sort of as therapy as I was doing my PhD in device physics.
KS: Of course, because that’s what you do, design a screen for the moon.
LG: Did you say you were doing it as therapy?
Yeah, that’s why I get into art. It’s very funny. Two people that taught my holography are in the audience. Sally taught me holography, and Craig.
LG: They’re actually holograms right now.
In 1983, I made my first hologram with Sally. It was the closest thing to a religious experience I ever had. It combined for me my interest in art and math and tech and making things.
LG: Why did you want to put a screen on the moon? I would think that would immediately become an advertising vehicle and scare the shit out of humanity, correct or what?
I did it because I was traveling. I was living in all these different countries in rapid fire. I moved from Australia to Japan, and to Germany, back to the east coast, west coast. This was before the internet and Facebook. I would just look up to the moon at night and realized that the people that I missed were looking up at the same moon. I wanted to communicate with them. I started thinking, “Huh, could you use a laser? No, it wasn’t powerful enough.” I just got onto: Could you figure out how to project video on the moon? I figured out how to do it, actually, with Megan and Natalie, using a solar energy facility in the Mojave desert. Redirecting sunlight on the earth to the moon gives you enough light so that all of humanity can see.
KS: Did you need an actual screen on the moon?
LG: Or was it just a reflection?
There’s these solar energy facilities that are mirrors. There’s these big mirrors that track the sun and focus the light on a vat of water and boil the water, make steam to drive a turbine to make electricity. Instead, with a million dollars of optics above the tower, you can focus that light a little bit higher and make a littler projector. You don’t actually need a lens, because you get to use this optical effect of the distance of the earth to the moon we can call large. As a result, you get something called a Fourier transform. You make a Fourier transform of what you want in the projector, and you get the image of that, the inversion of that on the moon. It was just a clever way to make a really, really big screen.
KS: Right, all right.
LG: I’m wondering what the regulatory issues were around that, just trying to turn the moon into a messaging platform.
Yeah, so I had a bunch of musicians, rock stars writing music for it, and MTV was sponsoring it, and Coke and Pepsi were vying for who would be the sponsor, but I got really sick during this time. I was suffering during the time with an undiagnosed brain tumor. They found it. I got better, but then I really needed health insurance. I gave it up, finished my PhD, and got with two other students $4 million to start my first company, and really had to give up art, because I’m an American, it’s pre-Obamacare, and I needed ...
KS: Now we’re post-Obamacare, apparently.
Right. I needed to give it up. I would love to revisit ... my friend Bill Gross has this huge solar facility in southern California. We’ve talked about doing it there. I don’t know if there’s a right way to do it.
KS: We’re going to get off of this, because I want to talk about screens in general and where you’re going, because that’s what you specialized in. What would be your first message on the moon? What would it be, like, “Sup?” Or what? “Laugh out loud,” “LOL”?
We talked about the earth seeing itself and running away as the first message.
LG: Can you imagine the political messaging that could go up on the moon?
LG: Oh man.
KS: “Fake news!” Sad. Okay. Let’s talk a little about screens. You have been dedicated to screen technology and where it’s going. Can you talk a little bit about what have screens become for humanity? When you walk around South by Southwest or anywhere in San Francisco, everybody is staring at these tiny screens. I have a new policy where I go up behind people right now, and while they’re staring at their screens walking down the street, I go, “Hey!” Like that, and try to stop them from doing so. You have been dedicated to screen technology for a long time. Talk about where it’s gone, because you’ve always tried to make screens smaller. You’ve always given me tiny little screens and stuff like that. Talk a little bit about that.
LG: Except for the moon.
KS: Except for the moon. Where are screens now, and what have they become in your mind?
I didn’t want screens. I feel in love with holography, which is that you don’t have to wear anything or carry anything. It is augmented reality, if you will. It’s the current term. The screens are actually ... I had to sell out and go flat to get health insurance, so I started a screen company called MicroDisplay, really tiny screens, but you could magnify them and put them into VR headsets, which we did, and wristwatch video, which we did way before the Apple Watch, and early rear projection TVs. We were working on that, honestly, because I needed health insurance. I was technical, and I had a PhD in device physics. That’s the stuff that I worked on.
I think it’s important, because 70 percent of our minds are allocated to processing visual information. We think visually, but we don’t communicate that way. We communicate by moving our jaws and our tongues and typing. We can’t get the images out of our head, but we’re really, for those that have full vision, really influenced by what we see. We now call them screens. We don’t even call them smartphones or whatever.
KS: Where are screens, because most people just stare at a small screen right now? Where have we come to? You worked at Facebook and Google on advanced screens. Talk about where we are and where it’s going, where screens are going. How is it going to be going forward, as someone who thinks about it?
Right now, we’re surrounded by these screens that are hanging from the wall. They drive me crazy. They don’t make any sense visually or architecturally. I like seeing the Nat Geo logo and so forth, but the screens really need to go into the surfaces of everything. We don’t need to carry them around. We don’t need to recharge them. I started a company called Pixel Qi and the principal of as we’re going, smartphones were happening, but as we go forward, the predictions were five devices per person. Do you want to charge each one of those every night to try to get them on a full charge when you’re walking around? Smartphones don’t even last a day without a recharge now. How can we just make it less maintenance to have them if we’re going to have them, but ultimately how do we get rid of them?
KS: Rid of screens altogether?
So you communicate with thought. We don’t need the screens. That’s ultimately ... the best screen is no screen, is being able to share the visual information with each other without the encumbrance.
LG: That’s interesting to me, because you worked at Facebook on Oculus. You were, I think, the head of engineering for that department. Here at South by Southwest, we’re hearing a lot about virtual reality. I did a bunch of interviews yesterday. Everyone was talking about virtual reality. Virtual reality right now, the experience is actually putting a screen on your face. It’s really wearing a computer.
Right, it’s like the Motorola brick phones of the 1980s. That’s where we are.
LG: Right. When you were at Facebook, what was that experience like? Where do you see that going?
They have to get a to smaller first. There’s four big areas that VR and AR are tackling. One is the device. It’s a brick right now on your face, slimming that down to at least sunglasses or contact lenses. A bunch of the patents, I can’t officially talk about what I did at Facebook, but if anybody wants to, they can read ...
LG: It’s just us. You can tell us.
... our patents on sunglasses, VR, AR with a toggle switch. A dozen of them just got published. Look up my name and patent and you can find them. Clearly there’s a direction of getting that out as a next product.
KS: So a smaller device, a smaller thing that doesn’t show.
Yeah, literally the size of a pair of glasses. That’ll help, and that’s important for mass adoption of VR is getting that bulkiness down and being able to toggle between virtual reality and augmented reality. Ultimately, I don’t think you want to wear anything. I could be wrong on that. I think it will be an embedded function. You don’t want to have to carry stuff around.
KS: What does that mean when you don’t wear something? Right now what you have are these giant things that have things off the back. You can’t move very far. The experience is ... you look like an idiot doing it. It’s not terrifically fun, because it’s not that interactive. What would it mean without anything? How would that happen from a technological point of view?
LG: Are we walking down the street and right now there’s a hologram in front of me, and I don’t know if it’s Kara or hologram Kara, or I walk up to something, and it’s actually a digital kiosk that I’m interacting with? What does that actually look like?
In the first “Star Wars,” R2D2 projected out Princess Leia. That was pretty exciting for all of us holographers. Actually, it wasn’t even holography then. I just remembered it. I remembered it wrong. That was 1977. There’s a dream of it being, why doesn’t this table just have the Pokémon on it? Why are we looking at this virtualization of it that’s not really real?
I think it’s actually because most innovations stopped in consumer electronics about a decade ago. It never really recovered from the economic crisis. Apple executed very well. We see it even now. Everybody played fast follower on smartphones. They caught up. Everyone has smartphones. It’s saturated, and we see the consumer electronics giants at half or two-thirds, one-third of their valuation 18 months ago because it feels like it ...
LG: Is that purely financial, the lack of innovation over the past decade since 2008? Is that purely financial, or are there other factors going into that?
It’s expensive to develop hardware. It’s expensive to make mask sets. I’m one of the few, I think I’m the only small entity that’s gotten access to the multi-billion dollar fabs, screen fabs in Asia, in the last 20 years. Apple gets access. They make great products, but it’s basically everybody’s become fast follower to Apple. The innovation has to come from more place than one. I think what they do is terrific, but they’ve increased the power consumption by an order of magnitude.
LG: I know, because they have this giant battery.
I say that not to insult them, but to praise them, but it’s time for other people to get back done. The fabs are empty. People are hungry. I think it’s a great time for innovation on device physics.
KS: Talk about what that innovation would look like. We are married to these phones and these particular kind of screens and experiences. In VR, we’re married to ... Facebook has Oculus. There’s Magic Leap. Samsung has their offering.
KS: Google has theirs.
KS: Always going in the opposite direction of what you’re talking about. How do you get to ... Talk about what a VR experience in a perfect place would look like. You’d sit here, and there would be VR in front of you without anything, without any ...
I think it’s the thing I’m doing now, which is Openwater. You transcend language, and you communicate with thought. We think so visually, auditorially. We think we developed language to communicate with each other, but it seems ...
KS: Right, so talk about that idea of communicating through thought. How does that happen? Explain what you’re doing with Openwater.
Openwater is using LCDs to ... It seems like a twofold approach. Make a wearable MRI system and work on telepathy, but it’s the same technology. If I throw you in an MRI machine right now, you as well, I can tell you what words you’re about to say. I can tell you what images are in your head. I can tell you what music you’re thinking of. I can tell if you’re listening to me or not and really get the implications of what I’m saying, because this notion of privacy that we have changes when we can ...
KS: See people’s thoughts.
LG: Right now you’re saying you can do that?
That’s possible with MRI now.
LG: When I went and got an MRI on my knee last year, whoever was reading that MRI could theoretically, if they had been reading my brainwaves, put together patterns to see what I was thinking?
It’s early days, but here’s an example of an experiment five years ago that’s been replicated and pushed forward by many different research groups in academia. In Berkeley, three students were put into MRI machines for hundreds of hours and shown YouTube videos. Scans of their brains were made reacting to those YouTube videos. MRI, fMRI studies oxygenated blood flow. Just looking millimeter by millimeter where oxygen was used and where oxygen wasn’t used. Then a new image sequence was shown, and the computer decoding the MRI scan data alone guessed what it thought the subjects were seeing.
KS: Person was thinking.
Then if you add to that when you see an object versus imagine an object, the same areas light up in fMRI. This has been repeated with words, with music, with emotion, with all kinds of things just with oxygenated blood flow. Everybody thinks you need to understand, as Paul Allen calls it, the five Nobel Prizes to understand how a neuron works, but today by just looking at cubic millimeter resolution of oxygenated blood flow, we can see what you’re thinking.
KS: You’re essentially saying that eventually these screens will be able to read your mind.
I’m putting the screens on the inside of a ski hat to look into your brain.
LG: All right, so explain. You have a hat that you put on.
A ski hat lined ...
LG: A ski hat.
You can put it in a t-shirt, a bandage, a bra to see if you’ve got breast cancer, any kind of thing. In the case of telepathy or even working on neurodegenerative disease, mental disease, different types of conditions, we can look at, first, oxygen flow easily, because it’s using LCDs illuminated by invisible light, infrared light, the type of light you can see in night-vision goggles, but our eyes aren’t sensitive to it. Our bodies are translucent to that light. The light can get into your head.
The breakthrough I had is people thought ... I’m going to tell you. You scatter light. People think scattering is random. Scattering is not random. It’s deterministic and reversible, if you can make a hologram of it. My observation was the pixel size that we’re being able to create through the VR and AR push with the manufacturers in Asia, because everybody wants higher quality VR with more pixels. The manufacturing process improvements are enabling much smaller pixels. With those small pixels, we can make pixels that are approximately the wavelength of light in the infrared. That’s really key, because that’s the breakthrough for making a hologram. If you make a hologram of the scatterer, holography has this property, the scattering of your body, where you can invert the hologram with something called phase conjugation or ...
KS: All right. Don’t go there. Don’t go there.
Basically you invert it so that the body becomes transparent. We’re making it totally transparent, so then you can see inside of our body whether you’ve got cancer, whether you’ve got a clogged artery, whether you’ve got bleeding, your neurological state.
KS: Essentially you could wear clothes that could tell you where your cancer is at any one point, or where your brain tumor is, or whatever?
LG: Without using magnets.
Right, or you can read it and write it. You can change neuron state. We know infrared is keeping neurons alive. We know that IR light activates the neurons without using optogenetics, which is this breakthrough of putting a chemical that binds to a neuron so that it changes color. Then you can put a voltage down it. We can, with IR light, put voltage down a neuron. We can change memories.
The implications are quite profound, which is why ... I had a great job at Facebook, but Peter Gabriel, the rock star, the guy I worked with on Moon TV for example, he called me every week for six months trying to convince me to quit Facebook, because he thought the ethical and legal implications were so profound somebody needed to talk about them. When you have the national academies of every developed country, almost every developed country in the world, saying the top five things you can do as a technologist, reverse engineering the brain is in the top five. Nobody’s talking about what happens when we do it.
LG: What are the ethical implications of that? If we live in a world where we’re all wearing these wearables, these shirts, these ski hats, where our neural activity is apparent to the people around us, available to the other people around us, whether it’s in a medical environment? One of the anecdotes you’ve used a lot is this idea of a film director looking at something. Instead of having to verbally communicate what she or he wants to see, just brainwaves. When all of that information is available to us, what are the ethical implications of that? How do you keep it private?
Let’s start with, we’ve got this ski hat. Can the police make you wear it? Can the military make you wear it? Who owns your thoughts? Once you share them, can you delete them? What are the filtering [options]? Have you ever thought about something you didn’t want to say out loud?
LG: Kara does all the time. Actually, Kara just says it.
These filters, we have to make it so it only works when you want to think into it, and you turn on the parses whether you want to communicate about sex or violence.
KS: You can’t control that, correct? Presumably you can’t. You put on a Facebook hat, say Facebook gives you a hat.
Facebook’s not doing this.
KS: No, I know that, but I’m just saying from some level, someone gives you hat, and can control your thoughts, or they can just know them and broadcast them?
LG: Can you imagine wearing a Facebook hat? You just wake up every day and you go, “Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday.”
That’s why we’re talking about it. We need a Bill of Rights for new technology that’s an international kind of Bill of Rights of what is the right of an individual, because our notion of what’s appropriate for privacy is changing right now ethically every year.
When you think about, can you not have privacy and still have an individual? The name Openwater, Peter Gabriel named the company, comes from those people that choose to let their minds just swirl around with other people’s minds in the computers. Some people will choose to do that. They can choose to come out of that. They can choose to have filters on them, but we need to talk about this, not just in Austin and Silicon Valley, but the implications are profound for humanity.
KS: Give me a negative implication and a positive implication. Give me an example in real world.
Okay. Positive first. Okay, negative is mind control, not having any privacy.
LG: Right, Donald Trump wearing one of these things, that would be a negative.
I think it would help us to see Donald Trump’s thought processes. Also, this whole unconscious bias, all of a sudden we have to look at it. We can fix xenophobia, maybe, if we face our xenophobia. Social change is slow, but this could give a spike on social change if we choose to use it.
KS: If we can see into people’s minds, we presumably understand them better. That’s what you’re saying?
Yes. It is, as we understand it, and there are neurons in the rest of our body as well, but as we understand it, most of it’s from our brain. It’s what makes us human. It’s who we are, and understanding it more is valuable. In terms of a positive implication, everywhere you look in this room, it took years of somebody’s life to perfect that, multiple people’s lives to perfect technology. Everybody thinks AI is coming for our jobs, but in fact, the personal computing revolution was based on the inversion of that, IA, intelligence augmentation.
Doug Engelbart, who was a proponent for this when AI was first coined in the ’50s, invented the mouse, sort of pioneered personal computing. We can instead augment our own intelligence and leverage the robots and the 3-D printers and the AI. If you have a thought of how to make a better object, you can just think it, and then it appears. You melt it down, and make a new one. You can work on the really big problems this way of the environment or space travel or health care.
LG: You’re talking about humans augmenting their intelligence, as opposed to computers becoming smarter and replacing and killing us, correct?
Our brains are way, way more complex than any computer we know how to make. We don’t understand how they work yet. They’re way more creative. The input is pretty good, but the output is constrained by our tongues and jaws moving and us typing. If we could communicate at the speed of thought, we can augment our creativity and that intelligence with the sort of low-level stuff that the AI and robots and 3-D printers and fab labs and all that ...
KS: We could be as smart as a computer?
KS: Smarter than a computer.
We are smarter than a computer.
KS: But it can’t ever get out. Most people are not smarter than a computer, or don’t seem to be.
Far more creative. We think it’s how the firing works, and it’s probably in the mistakes in firing give us these things called ideas, maybe. Not for you, of course.
LG: What are the negative implications? We talked about the positives.
Privacy and not talking about the implications of this. I think if somebody makes you wear this hat ...
KS: You’re in the military, they put a hat on your head, for example.
They want to know everything you’re thinking. They ask you questions, and you can’t filter. The filtering has to be fundamental to the use of the technology, as well as the compliance, the wish that the person wants to share their thoughts, and what areas they want to share. That’s what we’re working on, is a way to do that that’s baked in at the bottom level into the technology.
LG: The filters themselves.
With filters that ... do you want the sex filter on or off? Do you want the violence filter on or off? Do you want to talk about your kids? The other things that you’re thinking about, like what am I going to eat for dinner or ...
KS: Wouldn’t the impetus be to have as much information from someone’s mind as possible so they could know who’s a terrorist, who is going to rob something? Who is going to ... You think about that movie with Tom ... I try not to watch Tom Cruise movies as much as possible, but when they anticipated before someone did something.
Oh, thought crime. Right.
KS: Yeah, a thought crime.
The thing is, what we’re starting at Openwater is as part of — it’s a six-month-old company — is ethical discussions around this to figure out how to navigate it and how to bring this technology responsibly into the world, because the truth is, while our first devices, our health care devices to see if you have a tumor, it’s the same technology that can enable us to communicate with thoughts. We’re trying to bake it in in the very beginning. A lot of people think this is decades out. I think it’s three to eight years out.
That’s why I’m trying to start with others in the field, the discussion of what’s ethically correct to do globally, not just in the U.S. and Europe or the high-tech places.
KS: You could imagine fascist governments not wanting to have full ability to read people’s thoughts at all times.
I read, sure, “1984.”
LG: They already do.
The question is, what do you do? Do you give your Facebook password at the border crossing? How do we responsively talk about this and then deal with it legally?
LG: What stage would you say the technology is at right now at Openwater? What stage of the company would you say you’re at?
We started six months ago. We’re giving ourselves the first year to explore the bounding box of the physics, which is how deep we can go, what resolution. We just got about 10 centimeters of depth with 100 micron resolution in the lab, which is pretty small. If we get to 10 microns, just an order of magnitude better, we’re writing neurons — not groups of neurons, neurons — which is very exciting when you think of the billion people that are living with debilitating brain disease, between neurodegenerative and mental disease, that have little or no opportunity. There’s two billion people globally with mental disease, but one billion people can’t work. It’s by far the biggest health care expenditure.
The state is, we’re sort of exploring that, and then we’re going to decide based on the result of that what our first products are, and start building the first products. We don’t want to just rush into a product, because it’s hardware. There’s hardware and software. There’s a lot of AI and so forth in this, but there’s this thing about hardware that’s different than software. That’s sort of obvious, but it changes how you develop. The thing is that you can’t change it once you ship it. I know it sounds really stupid, but the way you develop it is you just try to figure out can you skip three generations by spending a little bit more time in the lab first? That’s what we’re doing right now.
LG: Sounds like the kind of thing you don’t want to put out in beta.
LG: I could see that.
Well, we will.
KS: Oops. Learning by doing, right?
We’ll work with other research groups and share data with them. We want to cross-check it off.
KS: We’re going to get to audience Q and A in a second, but first I want to talk a little bit about women in tech. There’s been this thing happening in Silicon Valley around a company called Uber, which doesn’t operate here in Austin. Can we talk a little bit about how you’re one of the ... There’s not really many prominent women techies. There’s a lot of women in tech. Can you talk about how you feel when Uber comes up, it seems to come up every couple of years, the same issues, how do you operate as a woman in tech? How do you feel about what’s happening when it occurs over and over and over again?
Frustrated. I feel frustrated when it occurs over and over. The great coverage you did on Ellen Pao, fantastic. I think that lays out the problem, but what I do is I just go back and read about another disadvantaged great scientist, usually a white guy from centuries ago who has still transformed the world and dealt with a lot more crap than is out there now.
I guess the solution, I think, now lies in ... HR hasn’t been reinvented in decades. When multiple surveys are showing a third of senior women have signed non-disparagement agreements, it means we can’t talk about what the problem is, which whatever 10-step, 12-step program say the first step is acknowledging. It seems that we need to understand what led to the signing of non-disparagement agreements — agreements are usually signed by people leaving companies. They get extra money to not talk about what happened. That’s a thing I think that needs to be unlocked so that we can talk about it.
The use of the term “unconscious bias,” as bizarre as it is, made it so HR could talk about gender discrimination or racism or any kind of discrimination in a way that it’s still legal to have unconscious bias so we can talk about it. That’s good. Now how do we ...
LG: You see the term as a positive thing, the fact that the term is being used or no, because it’s ...
I think it’s an odd term. Openwater can let us throw our unconscious bias right out there on the table in the stuff we’re doing.
KS: See, I think it’s completely conscious. I don’t think it’s unconscious. I think it’s just laziness on people’s part that they use that as an excuse.
The key thing for me is that it enables HR at least to talk about the issues, because we know that women aren’t getting to the top of really any field. In tech, they’re not getting to the top because of these, whatever, I guess the current term is microaggressions and unconscious bias, a death by a thousand paper cut scenario and sometimes much worse. How do you navigate that? I think I have different techniques I use. I think they’re different. You both also are very senior in your field.
KS: What techniques do you use? What has to happen in tech? You obviously came up. Again, you went to MIT. There used to be many more women going to MIT than there are today. It’s about half as much. How do you change that, not just women, but people of color, all kinds of different ... or is it just a path that we’re going to talk about diversity and do absolutely nothing about it?
I think the women are there. It’s just computer science majors. I think MIT is still admitting the women, and that started in the ’80s with me. In the ’70s, women weren’t allowed to go to these schools. It just opened up, Harvard for women en masse. When Millie Dresselhaus, we were talking about backstage, showed that it was harder for women to get into MIT than men, and that they should even the playing field so it was the same difficulty. That happened, and we thought it was all great.
How do you get through? I actually go into areas that other people aren’t that interested in or that had space when I was younger, because I didn’t know how to deal with the sharp elbows. I had a lot of space in the holography lab and in the stuff that I did. Then I had to grow the sharp elbows as somebody with more life experience to stand up, call credit. The thing I do is I work all the time. I really do stuff I love to do, and I’m very interested in it. That wins. What do they say? Be so good they can’t ignore you.
KS: Yeah, but you have to ...
LG: You’re not letting anyone dissuade you. You’re so passionate about what you’re doing. You’re saying that you’re not letting anyone dissuade you. You’re looking to other people for inspiration who have fought through similar things.
Yeah. I read a biography of Fourier this year, because I was mad about something. Astonishing. He’s a white guy, but he was an orphan, abandoned, destitute. An orphanage/military academy picked him up, and he got on the wrong side of the law during the storming of the Bastille, was nearly guillotined, and then he sort of fell in line and became a soldier in Napoleon’s army. He really loved math and science. He’s a prolific mathematician and scientist. He first discovered the greenhouse effect, for example, in the early 1800s. You look at his life, he went through so much in the army, and he finally I think when he was 50 got to work on science and math as a full-time job and got out of the soldiering.
You look at that, and you just think, “Okay, he did it.” Isaac Newton or Galileo, or we were talking about Michael Faraday, the thing that everybody is naming all their companies Faraday. Astonishing guy. He learned how to read when he was an indentured servant at a book binder, never was formally educated, and came up with the most profound physical and mathematical discovery of the 1900s and couldn’t do math. He did it visually. He couldn’t do algebra.
KS: I’m not sure, “Let’s just put up with this shit,” is really the best advice.
LG: Yeah, I was just going to say always saying, “It’s not so bad, it’s not so bad,” is not good either.
It’s not, it’s a way to give you solace. I move jobs quite frequently.
KS: Yeah, you do.
I don’t put up with the shit.
KS: Yeah, yeah.
If I realize that I can do better in a different situation, I do. I don’t advocate that. It’s really good to have also hung out around a lot of people in different companies, but for innovation, I also believe startups are a better place to do innovations that require device physics than web services juggernauts, because the people running the web services juggernauts do not understand physics or devices.
Startups, it’s an incredibly great time to do a startup. The number of startups have halved in the last 18 months, and there’s more money than ever, double the money. There’s tons of money to do startups, and it’s a place where you can make your own rules. That’s one way to do it. I wouldn’t call Uber a startup. It’s a pretty mature company. Social change is slow. It’s really slow. It’s frustratingly slow.
LG: I was just going to say, a couple years ago you did an interview for Recode about … we did a series on women in tech, one of our fabulous reporters/interns Rachel did this, and she interviewed you. At the time, you said that you thought the tech industry could be incredibly hostile to women. That was two years ago. It was 2015. I’m wondering if even in this short time you’ve seen any progress, any change? More companies are doing diversity reports now, but there’s some question as to how helpful that really is.
In terms of hostile, I grew up on a farm. I meant it as sort of soil. Some plants grow tall, and others don’t. We don’t see women and minorities growing tall. It’s systemic to the environment and the soil, if you will, in that analogy. We can fix that if we choose to. I think that the discussion goes on. Who’s doing this well, and it’s still the fact that white male dropouts from Harvard or Stanford are making these multi-billion dollar companies.
Until we change that, who is that going to be? Everybody thought it was going to be Theranos. That’s the backdrop, is where are the examples of the startup founders? They’re not really the hard tech. I’m sorry, but when you drop out of freshman year, you’re probably not going to do device physics, but nonetheless, it’s amazing what Zuck did and what Bill Gates did and so forth, and Larry and Sergey.
KS: I’d like to put a hat on everybody so I can actually see their thoughts and make my job a lot easier. We’re going to get to questions from the audience. I don’t know how we’re doing that. We have a thing for Mary Lou.
LG: We have some microphones. Chad here has a microphone, if anyone would like to ask Mary Lou a question.
John: Hi, Mary Lou. My name is John. I’m with Discovery. You said that everybody who is doing VR is struggling with four things right now, four obstacles. You said the first one is the size of the thing that’s on your face. What are the other three?
KS: I’m going to repeat that question. The question is, Mary Lou talked about the issues around the introduction of VR. One was the size of the device on the face, which is large. What are the other three constraints?
One is the content. What’s going to be the content that passes the toothbrush test, meaning you need to use it every day? The interaction, as we get rid of our smartphone and the interface with the keyboard and the mouse, how are we going to interact? I did a lot of gesture stuff in the ’80s at the media lab with hyper instruments. They weren’t satisfying to play instruments with woo woo woo. What is the interaction going to be?
Then the other is the sensing of the environment. There’s huge progress being made in these four areas that are seen as key for the advancement of VR and AR and mixed reality. To me, it’s all the same thing, but yes, there are these small differences between them. There’s a big push on this. A lot of it is kept stealth by the companies, by the big companies and the small companies.
You can see it in the patents that are being issued, my guess is the press demos, but there’s an enormous amount of progress that’s been made in the last couple years with this huge amount of investment that’s gone into this area.
KS: Okay. Great.
LG: Good question. Thank you.
Speaker 5: Hey guys. Hi, Mary Lou. You’re the leading expert on screens. Can you talk about screen time for kids? How much is too much?
KS: Screen time. The question is about screen time for kids. How much is too much?
I’m not an expert on kids. I did found something making laptops for kids. I think it depends what the content is. For example, in the $100 laptop, we loaded it up with lots of puzzles and things that you could do where you learned how to program, but you didn’t really know that you were learning how to program and things like that. That content seems good. I don’t have kids. Do you have an opinion?
KS: I do have kids. If they’re reading the New York Times, I’m good with it. If they’re doing interesting things, yeah, I’m fine. I’m just fine with them using it. It’s just like watching the television, as far as I’m concerned. Eventually it gets so obsessive, and I have a real thing about ... it’s addictive. I don’t think we’ve explored the addiction part enough. We talk about it in a large sense, but there’s a great podcast we did with Tristan Harris about the addictive qualities of what these companies are doing.
Tech company heads are very libertarian. That’s their favorite little thing to push out, that, “Everybody does what they want, Kara.” I am fine with that, if they didn’t have 1,000 engineers trying to get me to click on a red fucking button. That’s what they had. It’s not libertarian. They’re like Las Vegas casinos, and they’re trying to get me to do things. I’m pretty certain that they spend a lot of money trying to keep your attention. Since they’re doing that, I’d rather have my kids use ... If they read or do puzzles or do anything, but if they’re spending all their hours playing an idiotic game, I limit it.
LG: Yeah, it seems to me like one of the bigger questions is going to be, and this is something we’re not going to know until maybe there are some long-term studies done, but how much multitasking, as you mentioned, just looking at a screen maybe is not that different from having watched television when we were growing up as kids, but the idea of having multiple screens around us, and then having the tasks you’re doing on a single screen switching so easily, which is very different from sort of a linear television experience. I think that’s going to be really interesting to see how generations that are growing up now, how their brains are impacted by that kind of multitasking.
KS: Absolutely. Mary Lou, maybe you could address when you’re in an immersive environment, a VR environment, how that changes. I imagine you don’t want to leave it when you’re in these VR environments.
That depends how good the content is and the experience. A lot of the VR experiences are relatively short, because we’re navigating how to make the experience really good.
KS: Eventually they will be better than reality, correct?
That’s the hope of the people working on it. You do have almost every brain cell in consumer electronics working on this right now. I don’t think so, but I’ve been working on VR and AR and that kind of stuff for 30 years, and they come to a different conclusion. I think you want something that’s just non-invasive. A lot of it depends on those four areas in the process. There’s ways to realize that vision. It will take some time.
KS: Do you imagine it ever getting to a holodeck kind of thing?
Yeah. I think there’s a better way to do that without wearing anything.
KS: Without wearing, you just enter a holodeck environment, and you can be in the ’20s, or you can be in Medieval France, or you could be wherever?
LG: This set is not real right now. We’re just in a ...
Yeah, that’s something that we’ve been working on for a long time, and that continues. You can do that with the holodeck where the screens are on. Sometimes you got to see in “Star Trek: the Next Generation” the room blank. It was just made of these screens. You could do that that way, or you could do it in the form of a wearable. I think it’s going to be better if it’s actually a room like that, but honestly it’s in your mind anywhere is where I go to. We can just implant the thoughts, and take you there.
KS: Yeah, we could implant it. Implant it. That’s what it would be.
As we deal with the ethics.
KS: Yeah, as we deal with the ethics.
KS: Question right here?
And the viruses.
LG: Hello. Tell us your name.
Pauline: Oh, I’m Pauline Ploquin. I own a digital agency called Struck. Of course, I have a question about women in tech. You used the analogy of the farm and the soil for women in tech, and how we don’t see women growing tall. You said we can easily fix the soil and the ecosystem. I’m curious, okay, what would you recommend? How would you fix the soil and the ecosystem for women in tech?
Fix HR, get rid of performance reviews. The secret to hiring diversity is just hire them. Make sure credit is more fairly apportioned than it is now, because we still want to think it’s like the tall guy in the room with good teeth that did the project, for some reason. Stop rewarding bullying, but we put bullies into office. We put them as heads of companies. We seem to like bullies being in charge. We have to flip that psychologically to fix this — or become a bully, I guess.
KS: That works for me.
LG: That’s a good answer. I think we have more questions.
KS: No, but in terms of that, one of the phrases, we’ll get this question, that Uber used, Arianna Huffington used, was “brilliant jerks,” that you have to stop tolerating brilliant jerks.
LG: Seems like an oxymoron to me, because if they’re jerks, they’re not super brilliant, but that’s just my opinion.
KS: I know a lot of brilliant jerks. Is that going to ever happen in tech?
It happens if you want. You vote with your feet. Brilliant jerks, I don’t think the whole, what is it called, expert on everything, the know-it-all, there’s no such thing as a know-it-all. I don’t work with know-it-alls, because it’s, I guess, the brilliant jerk.
KS: Or the higher performers.
I think while the motivation is promotion and the way the whole company works with a promotion system and being in charge and what you reward is what you get, and instead can you look at rewarding the output of the work, which sometimes takes multiple years to see? That’s what startups actually do pretty well. The beginning structure of startups really do reward that.
Now there’s other things, because it can be in the startup before you get HR, serial entrepreneurs starting a second, third, fourth company can probably do that pretty well. Then it gets big, and then you have to figure out what you want to reward at a management level. Right now, if everybody’s focus is not on transforming people with this transformative product or getting promoted, you set the rules to reward what you want, which is the very thing that we’re trying to move the needle on.
KS: Right here?
Rachel: My name is Rachel. I’m from Portland, and I’m a VR 360 video editor. My question for all of you is what is your favorite VR, AR or MR experience that you’ve tried so far?
Oh, that’s a good one.
LG: Mary Lou? Would you like to go first?
KS: Mary Lou, what’s your favorite VR, MR, AR experience?
My favorite. I actually went back to the late ’90s and Henry Fuchs’ lab at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill when he had this big system. It was much more expensive, but it rivals anything you’d see today. He was walking me around the lab and tried to push me into this pit of wires and snakes and stuff. It scared me.
I think the interesting thing is while I had been doing VR up to that time with lower-resolution headsets, that pushed me over the uncanny valley, so I thought it was real for the first time. The problem for me was that was 18, 19 years ago, and it hasn’t moved forward. I still remember that when you asked that question. That’s my concern.
LG: What was yours, Kara?
KS: I don’t use a lot of VR, but I actually just recently saw one. I don’t like the scary ones, and I don’t like the ones where you touch the whale. I don’t want to touch a whale. I just saw one that Jon Favreau, who worked on “Jungle Book,” I just did a podcast with him, and he’s got one called “Gnomes and Goblin.”
I don’t know. There are a lot of gnomes. I didn’t really like visiting the gnomes very much, but I could see it being that kind of thing where you explore environments and travel. I would like to visit ancient Rome. I would like to visit ... you got a sense that it didn’t have to be shocking or porny or violent or scary. A lot of the scary ones work really well in VR, I guess, but I would like to visit ... I got a sense that I could visit an environment. I just didn’t want to hang out with gnomes, that’s all.
LG: Yeah. I think unfortunately I don’t remember the name of this short that I saw at the San Francisco Film Festival last spring, but it was a little animated short that had kind of a reveal where you looked up, and you realized the environment was actually this monster-like structure, and it was very cool. I think for entertainment purposes, I’m really intrigued by the idea of using that type of immersive media to have surprise endings or choose your own adventure. Imagine if we were all watching “The Matrix,” and half of us took the blue pill and half of us took the red pill. Then we had these different VR experiences based on that. I love the idea of that.
Also, I won’t get too deep into this because I could nerd out on this forever, I’m sure, but at Stanford’s virtual reality lab, maybe you’ve been there, they’re doing a lot of studies around behavioral change and how VR is impacting that. They might, for example, have someone do a Superman application where you’re flying in VR. Then they gauge how you feel after that, if you feel empowered, or if you feel different based on having that experience. Or if you’re a cow in VR, does it end up resulting in you eating less meat, because you’ve empathized with being a cow? I think the behavioral applications could also be really interesting in the future, beyond just entertainment.
KS: Absolutely. Okay. One more question, and then we’ll get to the end. Go ahead.
Nina: Hi, my name’s Nina. I’m from here in Austin. I was actually going to ask about what are some ways you imagine this technology could be applied to help people put themselves in other people’s shoes and increase empathy? You talked about that a little bit.
You asked about VR for increasing empathy? Specific applications, or whether it’s possible?
Nina: Oh, just if you think it’s possible, ways that you’ve imagined it could happen, stuff like that.
KS: Let me re-ask that, I think, correctly. Mary Lou, do you imagine these things that go on your head and things can actually change people to be better people or even worse people? There was a Jean Claude Van Damme movie, “Universal Soldier” where they trained people to be more violent, or they used mind control to do that. Do you imagine some of these VR and other mind technologies can change people to be better people?
Yeah, most of the last century they gave soldiers drugs to go fight in war. I was reading something that France didn’t do that well, because they gave them red wine and they wanted to go to sleep.
KS: I will not fight. Will not fight today. We’ll drink.
Empathy and training people to do different things, that’s what we call education. Can we make education more effective? Can we be responsible in what we choose to teach people?
What came to mind when she asked that question was a VR system that was used for LA cops. They’d be driving around. They thought they were all in cruisers, but some of the cops were in unmarked vehicles. Then one of the cops that didn’t know he was in an unmarked vehicle got pulled over by a real cruiser. Then he realized he was in an unmarked vehicle. Then he looked in the rear-view mirror and realized he was African American. It really transformed ... He started to get scared of the treatment. There’s experiences that you can create that can maybe put people in other people’s shoes to realize maybe they can treat people differently, think differently about how they treat people.
KS: We can make all those bros that act badly at these companies be women for a day. Enjoy that for a second, although it’s lovely being a woman in many areas. All right. We’re going to finish up with Too Embarrassed to Answer. We’re going to test you, Mary Lou, on your knowledge of technology.
LG: This is a little game we play from time to time where we turn it back to Mary Lou, and we do a little pop quiz.
KS: What better place to bring it in front of a live audience, Mary Lou? We’re going to subject you to a round of Too Embarrassed to Answer. We’re going to quiz you on three questions. If you get at least two of them right, you get a prize. What is that prize, Lauren Goode?
LG: The prizes are drinks from the Nat Geo Bar, a genius hat and also Kara is going to share her Hall of Fame award with you. I’m surprised you don’t have one already. You probably have many awards.
KS: Exactly. They give a Hall of Fame award to people who are close to dying, just so you know.
KS: Thank you. I’m very excited to be dying soon. Anyway, earlier this week we had a day without women strike. This is a quiz without men. Specifically, they are all questions about women in tech and science. Ready to play? Lauren, will you ask the first question?
LG: All right. The Oscar nominated film, “Hidden Pictures,” tells the story of three black female engineers working at NASA.
KS: Figures, “Hidden Figures.”
LG: Excuse me. What did I say?
LG: Oh, sorry. Oh God, I just had a Jenna Bush moment. Just totally messed that up. “Hidden Pictures,” “Hidden Figures,” excuse me.
KS: As in math, Lauren. Figures.
LG: Excuse me. I know, figures.
I’m going to guess Catherine Johnson. Is that the answer?
LG: No, but she’s right on this. She’s going to win this. Excuse me, “Hidden Figures,” I do know the movie. One of these real women is named Catherine Johnson, but which of these is not the name of a character in the film? Is it A: Dorothy Vaughn, B: Margaret Hamilton, or C: Mary Jackson?
Margaret Hamilton isn’t in the movie.
LG: Correct, but she is a real computer scientist.
Although she was a NASA engineer.
LG: She’s going to ace this.
KS: Not in the movie. All right, question two, Lauren?
LG: You do this one.
KS: Oh, I’ll do it.
KS: The person often recognized as history’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, was given a delightful nickname by computing pioneer Charles Babbage. What was the nickname? A: the Enchantress of Numbers, B: the Counting Countess, or C: the Agent of Algorithms, all appalling in their own way. Which one?
I think it was the Enchantress.
KS: That is correct. Wow. Nice job, Mary Lou. All right, let’s go for three for three. Lauren, will you please finish?
LG: One of Kara’s fellow South by Southwest Hall of Famers is known not only for this person’s accomplishments in the tech industry, but also for having a name spelled entirely in lowercase letters. Mary Lou, who has won this Hall of Fame award for paving the future of new media? Is it A: e. e. cummings, lowercase, B: k.d. lang, lowercase, or C: danah boyd, also lowercase.
k.d. lang? Oh no.
LG: Danah boyd.
LG: I believe she won in 2012.
KS: Yes, she did.
South by Southwest also had music.
LG: 2012 or 2013, the Hall of Fame Award.
KS: Yeah, they do. That’s true, they do.
The Hall of Fame doesn’t include the music people? Okay.
KS: No, no. Two out of three, though.
LG: Anyway, Mary Lou, thank you so much for enduring this rather loud bar situation. We really appreciate it.
Thanks. It was awesome being here. Thank you.
KS: It’ll sound a lot better when it’s broadcast, because this actually does pick up sound.
LG: Mary Lou, tell everyone when you’re going to be speaking this week at South by Southwest.
Oh, I’m giving a featured talk Tuesday at 9:30 in the convention center, on telepathy and medical imaging.
KS: What is it called? “Do you know what I’m thinking?”
No, I think you’re ... I can guess?
KS: Please don’t. All right. This has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Mary Lou, thank you so much for joining us.
LG: Yes, thank you.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.