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Brains, bytes and biology – Day One of SXSW Interactive

Brains, bytes and biology – Day One of SXSW Interactive

March 10, 2012 0 Comments

The first day of SXSW Interactive is always a bit overwhelming with 250,000 enthusiastic festival goers descending on the Austin Convention Center fueled by Starbucks and hope. Today was no exception and the bedlam was compounded by winter finally arriving in Austin for the first time this year – nevermind that it was March 9th – with rainstorms, wind, hail and temperatures in the low 40s. The line to pick up a pre-registered SXSW badge took well over an hour, giving everyone a chance to dry off, chat with their neighbor, and wonder why the organizers of the nation’s premier digital conference couldn’t find a less painful way to hand people their conference badges. The low-tech U.S. Postal Service, maybe?

As always, SXSW was worth the minor hassles for a chance to hear some truly remarkable thinkers. On this first afternoon, I heard neuroscientist David Eagleman deliver a funny, inspiring talk on how we perceive reality, synesthesia, and the complex processes of decision-making. Eagleman leads the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he also directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, his New York Times bestseller, explores the neuroscience “under the hood” of the conscious mind — that is, all the aspects of neural function to which we have no awareness or access. “When we talk about ‘you’ what are we talking about is your brain and your brain is made up of lots of competing subpopulations fighting it out to see what you do next,” he said. “We now have neuroimaging that allows us to peer non-invasively inside the human brain while people are making decisions to see all the competing networks involved in making a purchase. This gives us a more nuanced understanding of why we act the way we do and ways of steering our own behavior.”

A group of panelists on Designing Living Things shared the latest research and a host of cutting edge projects in the emerging field of synthetic biology (think genetic engineering on steroids). Artist, designer and writer Daisy Ginsberg described synthetic biology as a new approach to engineering biology that applies engineering principles to the complexity of living systems. She gave a quick overview of a project run by the University of Edinburgh and Stanford University that brings together biologists, designers, artists and social scientists to explore collaboration on the engineering of organisms. “We’re in uncharted territory as the line blurs between who we are and what we make,” she said.

And the nation’s former “Chief Technology Officer,” appointed by President Obama on his first day in office, sat down for a conversation about opportunities in health IT investing with Lisa Suennen, co-founder and Managing Member of Psilos Group, a healthcare-focused venture capital firm. Chopra predicted the next billion dollar industry would be made up of the pioneering ACOs and reviewed a variety of opportunities and obstacles to the growth of health IT, including privacy. He noted the discrepancy between the caution of healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare professionals rigorously abiding by HIPPA, while patients themselves share the most intimate details of their health online.

But, he added, there does not need to be a conflict between data liquidity and privacy. “It’s not an either/or; one can strengthen privacy while increasing liquidity,” Chopra told the group. The problem is the “architecture” around health information. “Today’s health information architecture is largely built around documents, that’s an electronic medical record. What has been vexing for healthcare is not only what you can share but also how do you parse documents,” he said. “It’s the wrong architecture.”

Instead, information architecture should be built around individual pieces of data that can be treated independently and managed separately. “If you adopt an architecture that allows granular control over privacy, you also could provide an on/off switch for patients that would allow patients to help control their own data. That’s a consumer-mediated exchange model and it gets us out of the terrible bind that pits data liquidity against privacy.”

Chopra also announced, just minutes after the White House blog carried the news, that President Obama had today appointed Todd Park as the new U.S. Chief Technology Officer. Park has served as CTO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services where, among other things, he led the creation of HealthCare.gov, the first website to provide consumers with a comprehensive inventory of public and private health insurance plans available by zip code. It should be an extremely interesting next few years.

And this was just day one of SXSW. Stay tuned.

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