Summit welcomes STEM students

Our next guest is an international trade expert who literally helped sell apples through software overseas. But he’s got a day job: he’s putting together a conference on the future of technology here in the D.C. region, and we wanted to talk with him about this upcoming event. Please welcome Shaji Nair.

This summit, I’ve been a big believer for a while, Shaji, that we don’t do enough to publicize the crossroads that this region has between advanced technology and policy-making and literally, the 21st century is being shaped right here. I think that’s what your technology summit’s about. Tell me about the summit, when it’s happening, what it’s about.

NAIR: The summit is scheduled for February 21st to 22nd at the World Trade Center, Ronald Reagan building and International Trade Center. It didn’t start out to be that big. I’m your average Joe, me and my wife and my eleven-year-old son, who’s on the spectrum, autism spectrum. It started out as two parents who are known in the field of technology, who has family in the medical field, trying to find what solution, what innovation you can bring in to solve the problem for your child, who is very smart, but nonverbal, who could say few words. And you look around, you have voice-activated devices. Ray Kurzweil, talking about the singularity in 2045, so you say, hey, maybe this can be solved, the challenges within the autism spectrum, with technology.

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That’s how this initial concept around the future of technology, looking at it through patterns started out, but then once you start exploring in our background in international trade and technology, we started realizing that technology is moving so exponentially fast, probably the policy makers, or the overall general public, is not really set up to meet those challenges. So we thought, why not start at the most powerful capital in the world, or the most powerful city in the world, D.C., bring the top leadership around innovation and ask how the future technology would shape our lives, and bring innovators, and bring investors, and then build an ecosystem around that, so that we can bring these innovators to a global market, but along that way, bring the tech community and autism community together and take it as our moonshot mission to solve these challenges.

ABERMAN: So which technology areas are you specifically focused on for this conference?

NAIR: Anything that sounds futuristic, but when I say “anything that sounds futuristic”, every day we hear about artificial intelligence, blockchain, internet of things, 5G, all those day-to-day new words which we hear, robotics. But what we want to look at is, what is possible. Some of these new technologies, what makes it possible, how that’s going to impact our society, what kind of life we can expect? Can we use, for example, can we use robotics for care, or in manufacturing, agriculture, or maybe those are positive changes. But what are the other negative changes? Are they going to affect low skill jobs? So we want to tackle from what the future will look like from a technology, but also how all that’s going to shape our future, and how the policies need to be prepared, and how the businesses need to be prepared for those opportunities and challenges.

ABERMAN: As you look at these issues, how many of your speakers are source from the D.C. region?

NAIR: In total, I could say roughly eighty percent of them are from D.C.

ABERMAN: So, eighty percent of the people that are the main experts on the future of technology, for all these sexy industries, were sourced from people who are getting things done in D.C.?

NAIR: Yes, very true.

ABERMAN: I would have thought, if you’d have stopped there, you’ve done the region an enormous service. Were you surprised to see how much talent’s here around these issues?

NAIR: No, I was not. I always felt D.C. had tremendous talent and tremendous potential. What D.C. lacked was probably the ecosystem to support it. So for example, you’ve heard many incubators did not really succeed in D.C.. A couple had to close down, but considering the amount of potential, the amount of companies who are in the space of technology and the intelligence around here, I would have assumed many innovation would come out from here. So we thought, why not bring those new tech leaders who could articulate our future, and build an ecosystem that supports innovation in our D.C. region.

ABERMAN: Well, it’s certainly without question that there’s roughly thirty billion dollars a year, that’s billion with a B, thirty billion dollars a year spent just in federal research and development in this region, in businesses, and the different labs. And we, as region, do a horrible job of commercializing those technologies.

NAIR: That’s what I heard, I’m not the expert. That’s the reason we brought in someone from the National Minority Tech Council to start speaking about it. We reached out to Small Business Administration director Eric Ness, who works the innovation fund, and the CIO for Small Business Administration, so that they can bring in their top leadership and to say how are we, as a federal economy, supporting our agencies, supporting innovation, and what we can do. And they are so excited, they said, we want to meet all these small innovators who are here, not only at the summit, but also post-summit, we want to sit with them, talk to them, and how we can them.

ABERMAN: Well, it’s a big deal for the region, because I can tell you that the Department of Defense and other agencies have spent a fair bit of time over the last couple of years setting up beachheads in Silicon Valley to find innovators. And I, and others, have been waving our arms frantically pointing out to them that there are a lot of innovators here. So, it’s great to see. I am struck that you started this out not to become a convener for emerging tech, you started this out to solve a problem specific to you and your family. Isn’t that really the entrepreneurial journey? Don’t we tend to start things based upon what’s important to us?

NAIR: Yes. You start looking at it, and it’s when it’s personal, when it’s really personal, you’re trying to solve it, you have a lot of passion in it, and part of this journey, you start to find a lot of people–young people, in our region, we met so many young people who are starting out as entrepreneurs, with so much passion in what they believe. Whether they are building a new AI system, analytics platform, or robotics, we have so much energy in this place. And then we said, why don’t we expand that? That’s how the Future of Technology Summit came about.

ABERMAN: I think that’s really awesome. Shaji Nair, thanks for taking the time to join us and tell us about it.

NAIR: Thank you, thank you, Jonathan. I appreciate that.