Techfest NW speaker previews: Blockchain, smart cities, sports tech, AI

Ric Shreves Says Cryptocurrency Could be the Key to Providing Aid to Refugees. Hear Why at TechfestNW.

Ric Shreves

When one thinks of helping refugees, cryptocurrency is not the first thing that comes to mind.

But Ric Shreves, a senior technology advisor at Portland-based Mercy Corps, thinks it could be a key to the future of providing emergency aid in more than 40 countries where the global aid agency works. He will be keynoting at TechfestNW in April.

The roots of the idea stem from his 21 years in Asia, where Shreves was a tech journalist for Computerworld, Bangkok Post and South China Morning Post.

In 2012, Shreves was living in Indonesia, where the Indonesian Rupiah was volatile, and doing his banking in Singapore. “I was just getting murdered on wire transfer and currency conversion fees,” he recalls.

Enter bitcoin.

“I would go to Singapore and I would buy bitcoin, and then I would hold that, and then when I was in Indonesia, and needed Rupiah, I would sell some bitcoin. Now I’m using kind of the same technique to help refugees as they flee their countries.”

Sound far-fetched? If you were in Venezuela, it might not.

“Hyperinflation in Venezuela is running about a million percent right now,” Shreves notes. “If you look at that kind of economic environment, bitcoin appears to be stable compared to the Venezuelan bolivar.”

The idea of using digital currencies to help refugees is in its “very early days,” Shreves says—though, “there have been trials, and the blockchain back end as a ledger for cash transfers is already being used.”

The international aid and disaster relief game is changing, he says.

“That old aid distribution model, throwing sacks of flour off the back of the truck—that doesn’t really happen much any more,” Shreves explains. Aid agencies are moving away from giving people stuff. “If we give them cash, they’ve got dignity and they’ve got flexibility.”

Of course, whether for aid workers or refugees, carrying around cash or valuables like gold or jewelry might not be the best idea in places subject to violent militias, political chaos or natural disasters. Shreves notes that smartphones are ever-more ubiquitous, and the use of blockchain technology, which is what allows cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin to operate, can increase the transparency and audit-ability donors seek.

Shreves, who written multiple books on open-source technology and papers on blockchain technology, also consults, blogs, and is co-founder of Coin Academy, which offers online classes on cryptocurrency. He holds degrees in music and law but nowadays is an “evangelist for distributed architecture and digital currencies.”

He landed in Portland three years ago, and at Mercy Corps, Shreves is also working on constructing a solar microgrid system in Gaza based on the Brooklyn Microgrid project and helping pioneer the use of virtual reality as therapy for Syrian youth refugees in Iraq. “There is a body of literature on using VR for PTSD treatment,” Shreves notes. “But all of the studies deal with adults. … It’s our hope we’re breaking some new ground here.” The project entails overcoming barriers like how to get VR rigs past Iraqi customs, or convert VR menus and content into Arabic (which is read from right to left) and Kurdish.

“I get to do some really interesting stuff,” Shreves says. “It’s a fact.”

One of the World’s Greatest “Smart City” Projects Came From TechfestNW Speaker Zohar Sharon

Zohar Sharon

When Zohar Sharon came up with the idea for DigiTel, Tel Aviv, Israel’s groundbreaking digital resident card program, city officials weren’t excited.

“There were a lot of managers and important people in the municipality, and they said, ‘It won’t work,'” recalls Sharon, Chief Knowledge Officer for the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality. “‘Nobody will register, or give you their mobile phone or habits or permission to use their info.’ [But] I knew that everybody would give me (their data) because of the benefits.”

Since its 2013 launch, the DigiTel platform has registered 200,000 Tel Avivians (out of 350,000 eligible) and been hailed as one of the world’s great “smart city” projects. It earned the “World’s Smartest City” award at Barcelona’s 2014 Smart City Expo. Here’s a cheesy-cute promo video. Sharon will be sharing his insights, along with others, as part of the Smart Cities track at TechfestNW this April.

Citizens of Tel Aviv now receive real-time information about public works projects or street closures; a digital forum to apply for permits and licenses; and targeted information they receive as part of subpopulations. There’s “Digi-Dog,” for dog owners, and “Digi-Taf” (taf means young children in Hebrew) for parents of children under three—subclubs that dangle customized, highly-targeted perks, like a text message that tells a parent about a baby yoga class nearby, or a birth certificate sent to a dog owner with the name of the dog and birthdate.

After a successful 2017 partnership with the city of Thane, India, “DigiThane,” and a visit by Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi to Israel, the partnership with DigiTel expanded to the entire state of Maharashtra—some 120 million people. Tallin, Estonia has also “expressed great interest,” Sharon says.

A former social worker, Sharon’s inspired tech evangelism teeters towards hyperbole at times, but his inspiration is infectious. During a Whatsapp call to Tel Aviv—cost, zero—his laugh gurgles through the line. No, he’s not the blind Israeli golfer with the same name. Yes, he’s aware of the coincidence.

He emphasizes something one rarely hears much about in tech: emotional intelligence. What makes DigiTel successful, Sharon says, isn’t its sophisticated architecture, the $5 million spent on development or several hundred “knowledge champions” in city government who donate their time.

It’s trust. Created by the project’s high emotional intelligence, or “E.Q.”

“Tech guys, their E.Q. is not so high sometimes,” Sharon says. “Not because they are bad people, but because that’s the way the world is running.”

How does DigiTel do it? It connects with residents on human levels, sends frequent surveys for feedback, and carefully guards their info.

“The most important thing in DigiTel is the way we make emotional connections with people,” Sharon says. “To lead people, you have to have E.Q.”

Proof is in the pudding: the 200,000 registrants, or the e-newsletter’s open rate of 70 percent.

“It’s amazing, because citizens are getting exactly the right information for them,” Sharon says. “They know that we won’t send them spam.”

Sharon insists concerns about government misuse of data are minimal. “The Big Brother is not the government,” he says. “The Big Brother is Google.”

DigiTel, Sharon says, safeguards citizens’ privacy. “We are not following citizens,” he says. “We are believing that we shouldn’t do it.”

The platform also benefits from the trust citizens have in local government.

“In a local government,” Sharon notes, “you can see the white in the eyes of the people.”

At TechfestNW, Skip Newberry, head of the Technology Association of Oregon, and Jennifer Dill, director of the Transportation Research and Education Center, will talk onstage with Sharon about using tech to connect residents to their city.

Ralph Greene Is Helping Revolutionize the Sports Tech Industry. Learn About His Work Using Hematology to Predict and Reduce Injuries at TechfestNW.

Ralph Greene

It sounds like a cliche, but it’s not. Not from Ralph Greene, the man who signed Tiger, Lebron and Kobe to Nike.

Understanding the relationship pattern, Greene has said, is the secret to the sports business.

During a stellar career highlighted by 21 years at Nike, Greene sparked the “international wave” including the signing of Yao Ming, Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki to Nike contracts. Greene will be sharing his insights into sports and technology at next month’s TechfestNW.

Greene was an early adopter at Nike. In 2006, he cemented a partnership with Hudl, a Nebraska company that built a platform for athletes and coaches to upload and analyze videos of gameplay. The marriage led to a video analysis and social networking app called Hudl Combine which allowed players to generate scores and submit them to get verified feedback from Nike.

What made it successful, Greene says, was that the app made available “that very same tech for the kids’ social space. For a kid to be able to make his own highlight reel.”

An app that made coaches happy but not young athletes—or vice versa—would not have had the same impact. “This thing was able to kind of do both,” Greene says, “and it took off.”

Greene, a former football player who attended Stanford, and who just bought an Apple watch with an ECG, makes quite an impression. Now in his 50s, he still bench presses 225. He consults, volunteers, mentors and coaches, helped start Oregon Sports Angels and redesign the “Power T” logo of Tigard High School.

In everything he does, he centralizes aspiration, the “high-end athlete in all of us,” and overcoming adversity: “When someone sets a goal, goes through hardship and achieves it, I like that.”

Through his Columbia Consulting Group, Greene invests and consults with sports tech companies.

One client is Orreco, an Irish company which uses hematology to “develop a biomarker profile,” to optimize performance and maximize player readiness. It’s an idea that could help predict and reduce injuries for clients like the Dallas Mavericks, though it also raises some ethical issues. “Blood is a really sensitive subject matter,” Greene says. “Who should have that data? Is the team better off, or is the player? Those are discussions that have to be worked out.”

Another of his clients, Seattle-based Vicis, makes a high-tech “soft” helmet with a polymer that regains shape, part of an effort to address head trauma and Chronic Traumatic Encepelopathy. It’s currently worn by 1,000 NFL players, he says. “It is contributing to the improvement,” Greene says. “Does it solve the problem? No.”

Greene, who is African American, says he gets what’s driving today’s “techlash.” He recalls going to a Bay Area tech conference full of white guys where the lack of diversity was “as obvious as the nose on your face.”

“You got to try to work to beat that down,” he says. “Absolutely, there is a call out not only in the tech bro culture, but also bro culture.”

Yet, in a nod to tech’s disruptive nature, Greene is sympathetic to the idea that, in order to innovate, tech leaders have to stay focused on what works, not what he calls “bad actors … wanting to do dirt.”

“You’ve got to aspire, you’ve got to be able to think of the best first, as opposed to the worst first, or else you’d never really create anything.”

Scott Roth Wants to “Make Possible the Impossible Products of the Future.” Hear How at TechfestNW.

Scott Roth

Scott Roth is the youthful leader of Jama Software, one Oregon’s fastest growing tech startups.  The 41-year-old CEO made a splash last year when he raised more than $200 million from out-of-state venture capitalists—and almost immediately captured the imagination of every Oregon startup with global ambitions.

Next month, Roth will take the main stage at TechfestNW to talk about “The five things I’ve learned about work,” and share his insights into growing one of Oregon’s largest tech firms.

What does Jama software do? At its simplest, Jama makes product development platforms, tools that allow sophisticated companies—clients include Elon Musk’s Space X, and autonomous vehicle firms—to share data and experiences with one another.

Jama’s vision, Roth says, is to help companies “make possible, the impossible products of the future.” Roth says that when it comes to building medical devices, autonomous vehicles, satellite systems and breakthrough robotics, the various engineers, software developers and other contributors “all perform different functions with different methodologies and different toolsets ….” That can make it tough for a company to know what exactly is happening across all the teams, and “[t]hat’s exactly where Jama can help.”

As it affects product development, Jama may also disrupt a once-hallowed institution: the face-to-face meeting.

“Meetings aren’t necessarily bad, but we think that they can be more efficient,” Roth wrote in an email.

One of Jama’s customers, Medisync, believes Jama saved 80 percent of employees’ time that “previously would have been wasted on meetings, sorting through versioned documents and emails, and consolidating feedback in review,” Roth notes.

Roth is an unusually chill CEO. His demeanor is relaxed and friendly, yet he is often the first one in the office each day and, after dinner with his family, spends several hours a night sending emails.

While Scott runs Jama, his wife Allie Roth is president and founder of With Love Oregon, which supports local foster parents with free stuff like clothing, shoes, bedding, books and baby toys. The pair have two biological children and are also foster parents themselves, so questions of work and work-life balance are hardly academic. Roth says he’s found frequent “check ins” with his wife, daily exercise and intentional parenting to help avoid burnout.

Located at at PSU’s Viking Pavilion, TechfestNW will be a homecoming of sort for Roth, who has an M.B.A. from Portland State University. Working with the urban university’s cooperative education pilot program, Jama has forged an “intern pipeline” which helps “build a pipeline of potential full-time job candidates” among other benefits, Roth explains.

Part of that partnership is related to the company’s diversity and inclusivity goals, Roth says.

“Diversity and inclusion is a top priority for me, personally, as a leader, and for Jama culturally,” Roth wrote in an email. (He declined to share numbers.)

In recent years the company added European operations, including an Amsterdam office but Roth’s hope is to continue to grow Jama as a standalone Portland tech company.

“It’s a great place to do business—and we need more Portland-grown tech firms,” he says. “I think the best years are still to come for the Silicon Forest and we hope to do our part to be a cornerstone in the region’s growth.”

Artificial Intelligence Comes With a lot of Tricky Ethical Questions. Gadi Singer Examines the Complexities at TechfestNW.

Nothing in tech seems to hold more potential—for better or worse—than Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Some day, we may look back on recent breakthroughs as on a par with the early years of the Atomic Age.

Few see the big picture of AI evolution like Gadi Singer, a vice president at Intel’s Artificial Intelligence Products Group. Singer just celebrated his 36th year at Intel and will speak at TechfestNW about “The Age of AI: How Neural Networks will Transform Science, Engineering and Health Care.”

He says he hopes “to bring a perspective, an insight, that will help people understand the complexities of the AI world.”

These days, those complexities come with a lot of tricky ethical questions. There are the deaths caused by self-driving vehicles, for example, or Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talking about people being “automated out of work … [and] left to die.”

Even the image recognition abilities that AI helps with are not where we need them to be: a recent Georgia Tech study found pedestrians with darker skin tones are at risk of not being picked up by pedestrian recognition software.

“This is a time to have a dialog out there” about AI, Singer says. “I think [ethical] debates are necessary.”

So is a policy framework, and the question of who is steering the United States’ AI ship. A February executive order from the White House called for “the development of an action plan to protect the United States advantage in AI ….”

A March Intel media release co-written by Singer’s boss Naveen Rao calls for a  “national strategy” on AI, including government-funded research and development, job development and “protect[ing] people’s welfare given that AI has the potential to automate certain work activities.”

Ultimately, Singer says, AI’s benefits outweigh the risks.

“There’s no inherent pitfalls in AI,” Singer argues, “other than the ones we haven’t paid attention to. … I see this technology as having great potential to help people do the work. So I don’t look at it as displacing [jobs], I look at it as partnering.”

Intel projects the market for AI chips to climb to near $10 billion in revenue by 2022. In its ongoing AI competition with Nvidia, Intel has acquired other companies, including its 2016 reported $408 million purchase of Nervana, a San Diego startup.

All this activity reflects a description Singer and others use: ours is a “Zettabyte Age.” It’s a reference to 10 to the 21st power bytes, an almost-incomprehensible leap from where computing was when Singer joined Intel in 1983 in Israel.

Despite being near the fore of AI, Singer spends most of his days at the office “with people, not with a computer screen,” he says.

Similiarly, whereas Rao, Singer’s boss and general manager of Intel’s AI Products Group, finds the race cars he drives an apt metaphor for AI, Singer takes human intelligence as his guide. “So when I look at where would computers go next, I look at human intelligence as the blueprint for computer intelligence.”

But, he continues, computer learning is moving past “just being fed examples that we selected for it.”

So Singer’s talk at TFNW 2019 is likely to include questions like this one:

“How do we rethink the interactions between computers and humans, when computers can do reinforcement learning, when a computer system can create its own experimentation, learn from it, reinforce some of the learnings it had, and create a new experiment to learn new things?”