If the next great war is a cyber war, how do we defend ourselves against it?

Are we ready to share our place at the top of the food chain with machines?

Can technology amplify the best of tech and the best of humanity?

These challenges, and more, were laid before 300 academics, entrepreneurs, students and others interested in our technological future, who jammed the Humanities Theatre at the University of Waterloo for the first day of Hacking the Future, the Waterloo Innovation Summit 2017. Sponsored by the university with signature support from Communitech, the fifth iteration of the forward-thinking conference brought veteran tech presenters from North America and Europe, and ended with a pitch competition that saw $40,000 given to the next generation of startup entrepreneurs.  

Those young startups are entering a world where connected devices are ubiquitous, according to the thought-provoking conference keynote speaker, Jared Cohen.

The 35-year-old Cohen, author of The New Digital Age: Re-shaping the Future of People, Nations and Business and a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, is the president of Jigsaw, formerly Google Ideas.

He suggested that a world where there are 7.2 billion cellphones, but only 4.5 billion toothbrushes, has moved the conversation past the “access revolution.”

In what he called the “New World Disorder,” data is the digital equivalent of oil, shaping geopolitics, influencing societies and driving economies.

Part of this will be AI (artificial intelligence) which he sees as the consuming issue of the next five years. But he argued that humans are not ceding their position in society to trained machines: “We’re asking computers to have a dynamic relationship with us.”

The danger of the data economy is misuse, he says. “All future wars will begin with cyber wars,” with digital misinformation being used to hack countries. He warned of patriotic trolling, digital paramilitaries and weaponized fake news. The solution, he said, was a healthy digital society. He argued that citizens need to spend as much energy ensuring their digital hygiene as they do on their physical health. He urged employers to extend digital security protocols to families, just as health plans are extended to families, because even children are targets for hackers.

For Mike Lazaridis, the co-founder of the company that made the BlackBerry a household name and the must-have smartphone for a generation, it’s the coming quantum revolution that will disrupt every aspect of the modern technological society. Lazaridis walked the audience through the first quantum revolution, where the ability to make small circuits powered wearable tech. The goal of the second quantum revolution, he said, is the “holy grail” of the quantum computer, but the pursuit of that computer will discover the “low-hanging fruit” of tech innovation along the way. Those innovations include quantum sensing and measurement, secure communications and data, new quantum materials, quantum storage and communication and quantum simulation, which will allow researchers to design catalyst proteins and new drugs.

Key to Canada’s role in the quantum future, says Lazaridis, are such resources as the Perimeter Institute, the Institute for Quantum Computing, the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre and his company, Quantum Valley Investments, that are magnets for talent and investment.

But he urged his audience to let governments, at all levels, know how important these magnets are to Canada’s disruptive future.

Electronic music pioneer Thomas Dolby offered some somber second thought. He said he was “not always optimistic about the future” and then went on to detail how his musical career benefited from the consistent doubling of computing power. Dolby recounted a synthesizer success that allowed him to share stage time with Stevie Wonder and David Bowie, and led to his own Silicon Valley-developed music app loaded on millions of mobile phones. But he wondered if the emphasis on sales and marketing took some of the fun out of the music business. An unexpected highlight was fun, indeed: Dolby recounted the creation of his 1982 hit, She Blinded Me With Science, and then performed the single, live on stage, backdropped by video from the original, updated with clips of Hillary Clinton, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jon Stewart.

The positives of the hacked future were also questioned by Portland-based cyborg anthropologist and afternoon keynote speaker Amber Case, who wondered if an era of interruptive technology is a good thing: “Technology is like a gas that expands to fill every social space.” A proponent of “calm technology,” she warned that with an expected 50 billion connected devices worldwide by 2020, humanity is in danger of a dystopian future where the scarcest resource is personal time.

She argued that technology should amplify the best of tech and the best of humanity.  “Machines shouldn’t act like humans. Humans shouldn’t act like machines.” And she urged developers to work with technology that doesn’t take all of our attention: “The right amount of tech is the minimum amount to solve the problem.”

In an afternoon session, Microsoft VP Developer Experience and Evangelism Mary-Ellen Anderson and Mohamed Musbah, Head of Product at AI-developer Maluuba (a one-time Waterloo Region based company acquired this year by Microsoft), assured the audience that it will be a long time before AI will replace human intelligence.

“We haven’t built machines that can transfer their learning from one area to another as humans can do,” said Musbah.

“Anything we do in AI has to be done for the benefit of mankind,” said Anderson. The bigger problem is ensuring that all have equal access to the technology that is being developed.

James Dyson Foundation managing director Jenna Blanton and Dyson Ltd. engineer Joylon Bugg joined Alroy Almeida, co-founder of Kitchener-based Voltera, the first Canadian winner of the $45,000 International James Dyson Award, in sharing their ideas about design and product development. Almeida told the crowd that Voltera delayed applying for the award until after the 3D circuit board prototyper — the V-One — was ready to ship, because the company wanted to submit a finished product to Dyson, known for its design ethic. “We wanted a product that would sit on an engineer’s desk and be beautiful.” Since it was already in the marketplace, “The money was helpful but the real value was the validation the award gave us.”

Cindy Fagen, COO, SAP Labs Canada, and Philip Poulidis, Senior Vice-President, BlackBerry, told futurist Nikolas Badminton that creativity and determination were key to getting jobs with either company. Fagen told the crowd, with attention to the students attending, that SAP looks for recruits who have “the magic associated with a startup” and the desire to learn. Poulidis said BlackBerry is looking for “grinders” — the thinkers who will do what it takes to solve a problem — and those who are open to learning: “those who know everything won’t learn anything.” Both spoke to the need for companies to consider diversity and creativity in hiring, with Poulidis noting, “Tech companies tend not to look for Arts grads, but they should.”

And there was the advice from Poulidis for graduates and students: “Identify the people who are making a difference in the world, and learn as much as possible from them.”

The first day ended with real-world experience for four University of Waterloo startups, who pitched their products live before the conference attendees.

Judges for the Velocity Startup Pitch Competition were: Leah Carr, director of business development at the digital money sharing platform, CoinSquare; Eva Lau, co-founder of startup investor Two Small Fish Ventures; and David Stein, managing partner of the VC firm Leaders Fund. Summit participants also voted for the $1,000 People’s Choice Award.

The first prize of $20,000, provided by Mississauga-based engineering and management company HATCH, went to Elucid Labs, which has prototyped a tool for diagnosing skin cancer that helps reduce misdiagnosis, saving lives and health care dollars. Elucid also won the People’s Choice Award.

The second prize of $10,000, awarded by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), went to Innovative Protein Tech, whose product, FrostArmour, uses a biodegradable, non-toxic spray insulation to protect crops from frost. The startup is targeting Ontario’s ginseng farmers first.

Runnerup prizes, also provided by BDC, of $5,000 went to NanoCnet, which produces a flexible and cost-effective alternative to touch screens, and Hitch, which is deploying a low-cost smart wifi hotspot hardware system in Nigeria.

Waterloo Region businessman and technology pioneer Mike Lazaridis, speaking Thursday at the Waterloo Innovation Summit.

Waterloo Region businessman and technology pioneer Mike Lazaridis, speaking Thursday at the Waterloo Innovation Summit. (Photo: University of Waterloo)