Crickets, Cheese, and Computers: Ampersand 2014

Ampersand (Deborah Baremberg)

Alain Tascan, CEO of Sava Transmedia and Co-Founder of Ubisoft, presents at McGill’s Ampersand  Conference on March 22, 2014, recounting the history of disruptions in the gaming industry. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Interdisciplinary is hailed as the next big thing in academia and problem-solving. Bringing together two different disciplines and the perspectives of the people who work in them, and creating new academics who are comfortable with multiple subjects, will be paramount in tackling the complex problems inherent in modern innovation. When it comes to interdisciplinary studies at McGill, perhaps no one better understands the benefits and challenges of this approach than the students of the Bachelor of Arts and Science (B.A. & Sc.) and their association, the Bachelor of Arts and Science Integrative Council (BASiC). BASiC’s unique perspective and position – as interdisciplinary students with the power to organize and a budget – is exemplified in their annual Ampersand conference. This year, Ampersand combined two concepts that are usually thought to be incompatible – science and fiction – and explored how they shape our world and our lives.

On Friday, Jeff Dungen (CEO at ReelyActive) opened the conference with a dynamic presentation about the importance of integrating rational, quantifiable science and more effervescent creativity. Using the popular dichotomy the left and right brain’s respective symbolic roles, he spoke of his vision for the future as one of connectedness and an “Internet of Things.” He convincingly pushes for using technology to make things about “the human experience”; for example, allowing a room to tune into the number of people contained within it in order to allow it to adjust its temperature.

Hadi Adel, musician, treats the attendees of the first day of McGill's Ampersand Conference to a 78 minute set of background tunes on March 22, 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Hadi Adel, musician, treats the attendees of the first day of McGill’s Ampersand Conference to a 78 minute set of background tunes on March 22, 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Hadi Adel (musician and performer) followed up Dungen’s talk, keeping in line with the theme of unifying technology with creativity via the example of his own music. To paraphrase his main idea, technology and synthesizers take you far, but at the end of the day, you need to understand what you’re doing and know the theory of the music you wish to create. He exemplified this interplay in 78 minutes of prepared background score, which provided the atmosphere for the cocktail which followed his talk.

The next morning, Ampersand continued (despite a small delay due to the inclement weather), featuring five more engaging speakers. Christina Agapakis (synthetic biologist, artist, and writer), opened the day with a discussion centered around the necessity of diversity and cooperation – of looking at problems from different perspectives – in research and innovation within and without the scientific community. She set the stage by explaining the core of synthetic biology as a discipline which seeks to introduce the rigor and simplicity of engineering into the complexity of biology; using DNA as one would use screws and bolts in order to turn biology into the centerpiece of the next industrial revolution.

But Agapakis pointed out that a flawed central dogma is contained within our current model synthetic biology – DNA is viewed as an all-important, top-down commander of the development of a cell. This is contrary to the results of, for example, Natalie Jeremijenko, who planted 1000 trees cloned from the same genetic material, planted them in different areas, and found that the environment drastically changed their growth patterns. Agapakis chose to relate the perspective of DNA as a “machomolecule” that controls the outcomes of an organism to the alpha-male attitude of some prominent scientists in genetics, such as Craig Venter. Agapakis noted that Venter once said, when asked what his concerns were about the future, “well, I don’t worry about anything, because as an alpha-male, I believe I can and do work to solve problems and change the world.” Further, when discussing the possibility of cloning the Neanderthal, George Church said that cloning Neanderthals would be beneficial, as (genetic) diversity was needed. Unfortunately, Agapakis noted that women only appeared in this project when scientists were discussing the methods: all that was needed was a “particularly adventurous human female” to serve as a way for DNA to be replicated. She partially attributes these sorts of “tone-deaf” statements to the continued under-representation of women in science, arguing that a balance between genders is most conducive to innovative questions and solutions. We need to be aware “whose problem we [are] solving… who is going to benefit from this revolution” noted Agapakis. Limiting diversity, Agapakis explained, limits our imagination and our problem-solving capacity.  To illustrate this need for diversity, she cited data from the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Prize-winning teams at iGEM have historically been more diverse than their competitors – 45% female versus 37% female, respectively. While it is difficult to determine causal links, it would seem that more diverse teams do better work. Her own artwork embodies a similar quest to showcase a different way of looking at things, for example making cheese out of bacteria cultivated from human subjects. By decontextualizing something as simple as a microbe, Agapakis hopes to give us “cheese for thinking,” and a contextualizing context for synthetic biology.

(Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Christina Agapakis, synthetic biologist, artist, and writer, emphasizes the importance of  tackling problems from diverse viewpoints in her talk at McGill’s Ampersand Conference on March 22, 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

This was followed by a presentation by Alison Sinclair, an author whose genre of choice is – appropriately enough – science fiction. She explained how science fiction is more than fiction; it has a relationship to the future, the present, science, and culture in that it is an attempt, however whimsical, to predict and influence the future.  Sinclair noted that this influence can be quite literal. “It’s not an accident that some science fiction writers… are not making their living” as futurists, she noted. The current state of things affects the kinds of predictions made in science fiction books, of course, but science fiction also affects the present; Sinclair invited us to consider the discourse drawn from Orwell’s 1984 when, for example, describing the NSA. “Big Brother” metaphors are shared knowledge only because of the tremendous impact of 1984 on our attitudes towards technology. Much like Agapakis, Sinclair emphasized the importance of diversity of thought in the process of innovation: the fundamental idea in science fiction is that things don’t have to be this way.

Alain Tascan, an entrepreneur in the gaming industry, current CEO of Sava Transmedia and one of the co-founders of Ubisoft, delivered the next talk and shifted the focus from how science shapes our imagination to how our imagination can shape our reality. He walked us through the history of disruptions in the gaming industry, structured by his own personal history. Attendees were taken from the early 1990s, when the first CDROMS were coming into use, to 2014, where mobile games are king and casual gamers are the major target market. Tascan also brought the city of Montreal into this history, pointing out that the conference was taking place only miles from they very place some of the earlier commercial 3D graphics were developed. The connections Tascan made with our city and the references he made to games we see every day – Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, and Candy Crush, to name a few – were appreciated by the audience, as was his description of the new business model for mobile games. “Now,” he said, “I’m not monetizing your entertainment. I’m monetizing your frustration.” All these disruptions and games in the industry has made him “scarexcited,” which he said was “scary, but exciting at the same time,” particularly for young people who are just beginning their career. “You are the people that should be the most excited,” he said to the crowd. “The older guys like me should be on the scary side, and you guys should be on the excited side.” Like Sinclair, Tascan’s talk emphasized an eye towards the future, and what we can do to mould the world in which we live.

Ovidiu Mija certainly has taken Tascan’s advice, and has used the disruption in the sharing economy to launch a company. Mija chose to discuss his path to his career as COO of Outpost Travel. Outpost Travel is, essentially, a search engine and “central hub” for sharing economy sites, which include AirBnB, Roomorama, and Flipkey. Currently, only the accommodations section of the site is live. Theoretically, rideshares and guided experiences will also be a part of the site; however, users who would like to use Outpost for these functions are told to check out the Outpost app available for iPhone and iPad, as these sections of the website are still in beta. Mija’s path to Outpost was a rocky one, including a very contentious stint at Dawson and a relatively lucrative career as a freelance web designer, which he described in detail. Those of you who have been paying attention to local news for a few years might recall the case of one student who was expelled from Dawson College after exposing a security flaw; this student was Mija’s friend and partner. While Mija was not expelled, he did not look back fondly on his time at Dawson. He was disappointed that the coursework he was doing wasn’t as immediately applicable as he had expected.

Mija’s presentation was followed by a brainstorming session, to try and expand the total market for sharing economy sites. The winning idea (which, full disclosure, Kate Sheridan’s team presented) involved emphasizing the trustworthiness of users on sharing economy sites by visually representing connections between users to possible hosts through integration of existing social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Jakub Dzamba, a Ph.D. student in architecture at McGill, gave the final talk of Ampersand 2014. Dzamba may be familiar to some due to his involvement as a consultant to a team from McGill that won the 2013 Hult Prize competitionThe Abstract posted the responses given by the Hult Prize team and the Desautels Public Relations Office; Dzamba has also posted a number of illuminating documents related to the incidents on the website for his new company, Third Millennium Farming. His presentation was also focused around cricket farming and how new architectural designs can incorporate new, disruptive sustainable technologies. To illustrate (literally) how this could happen, he gave a tour of Toronto in 2050. Of course, crickets and other bugs were highly visible in this new city as a food source, which he says could be ground up, baked into incredibly high-protein flour, and used to make non-cricket-looking food products. While the food may not initially look appetizing, Dzamba noted that crickets tasted like “roasted almonds” and the cricket-based flour tastes like “bacon and roasted almonds.”

Crickets may not be the only source of food in the future; indeed Dzamba mentions they are a less than ideal microlivestock. Once a critical mass of crickets has been farmed, “the chirping is deafening,” he noted. Dzamba currently farms crickets in his home, and has managed to avoid conflict with his neighbours about his odd houseguests. He noted that the crickets can actually be great “white noise generators” – something that his neighbours appreciate, for now. The only sound made during his presentation was not from the box of live crickets Dzamba brought with him, but someone’s cricket-chirping ringtone going off during the presentation – much to everyone’s amusement. More innovative technologies were mentioned, including algae photo bioreactors found on buildings and within home window panes, and solar panels that follow the sun throughout the day.

Dzamba’s presentation was a wonderful way to close the conference, with an eye to the future and an optimistic perspective on how we might be able to take something that sounds like science fiction and bring it to reality. We hope to see more from Ampersand in the future, and look forward to seeing which frontiers they will push next in their quest for interdisciplinary innovation.

With files from Deborah Baremberg and Kate Sheridan.

Disclosures: KS received free admission as a member of the press, and a $10 gift certificate to Universel for her participation on the winning sharing economy challenge team. 

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