Silicon Valley comes to Cambridge

18 November 2011


Over the course of a week, Silicon Valley comes to the UK (SV2UK) brought leading industrialists and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley to the UK for a tour of lectures, debates and showcase events.

CSaP played a key role in the Cambridge leg of the visit, organising a lecture by Joi Ito, from MIT, and a showcase of Cambridge startup companies.

The Internet and the Evolution of Man

A lecture by Joi ito

On 18 November, Joi Ito, the Director of Creative Commons and the Media Lab at MIT, gave a CSaP lunchtime lecture with the most wonderfully ambitious title: The Internet and the Evolution of Man.

Quipping that he considers the world has existed in two states, Before Internet (BI) and After Internet (AI), Mr Ito discussed the evolution of the internet itself before exploring its impacts.

During the period when online standards were evolving, lawyers wrote many large documents which concluded that the internet, which enabled people to post information freely without bilateral agreements, must be illegal.

But such concerns did not hold back its staggering growth, nor the profound impact that it has had on society. In particularly, Mr Ito discussed how the internet has driven down the cost of innovation. BI, setting up a technology company would take tens of millions of dollars. AI, it is possible to set up technology companies virtually for free.

Mr Ito considered the risk profiles of large companies, which traditionally mitigate against risk and are consequently quite conservative, and small companies, which, AI, can afford to take more substantial risks. There is no need to pick winners because the cost of failure is so low.

When considering whether to fund a start up company, Mr Ito said that he was not interested in business plans but products. If a start up does not yet have a product, he suggests that they build it and come back.

David Weinberger famously described the internet as “small pieces loosely joined”. Mr Ito pointed out that the internet is the triumph of distributed innovation over centralised innovation, and concluded that one of the lessons of the internet is that over-planning stifles innovation. For example, in 2005 You Tube was an online dating agency that encouraged people to post videos of themselves. Over-planning You Tube’s development would have strangled serendipity. As Mr Ito put it: “The world is so complex, creating the map costs more than just doing it.”

Mr Ito completed his talk with an example of his approach to innovation in an AI world. Immediately following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, he contacted a few colleagues who contacted a few of their colleagues and within a very short time a large network of wide ranging expertise had been established. They quickly came together to discuss how to improve information on the ground in Japan about radiation levels.

Self-construction Geiger counter kits were designed and teams of volunteers went out and took measurements. Results were posted online and gradually a map of radiation emerged.

By contrast, government officials in radiation suits would enter an area and take readings and then leave without telling anyone the results of their measurements. And the government also refused help from Russian scientists, who had experience of this sort of radiation release.

The radiation map produced by the open-source, volunteer programme indicated that the spread of radiation was patchy – which is something that the Russian scientists would have been able to tell the government. Inside the concentric exclusion zones were places that had low levels of radiation contamination and outside the zone there were places that had high levels of contamination.

Showcase event

One of the Cambridge highlights of Silicon Valley comes to the UK was the company showcase, during which many of the top Cambridge startups aptly demonstrated why Cambridge has become Europe’s top place to do innovation.

From Raspberry Pi Foundation and its efforts to produce a computer that can be sold for only £15, to acoustic touch sensitive technology, the companies put on a compelling show. You can find more information and links to videos here.

(Banner via steve r watson)