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Sometimes it’s good to think about the future. And that’s what a group of thinkers did at The International Future Computing Association, which held a conference recently at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
The event was about the coming era of any place, any time, and any device user experiences delivered both on devices and via the cloud. To make this happen, we need a full ecosystem of partners across computing, immersive technology, content and applications, and infrastructure, according to TIFCA, which is chaired by partners such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, and M2 Insights. TIFCA’s executive director is Neil Schneider, who is also the founder of Meant to be Seen.
I moderated a panel at the event with a group of industry veterans. We asked them to toss out their day job concerns and be futurists for an afternoon. Our panelists included Jen MacLean, head of worldwide business development for small-and-mid-sized game studios at Game Tech at Amazon Web Services; Bebo White, department associate emeritus at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University; Bill Rehbock, head of content partnerships for Blade Group/Shadow; Jeffrey Shih, lead product manager for AI at Unity Technologies; and Gary Radburn, director of virtually everything Dell.
We opened it up by asking them what computing will deliver to them in their dreams, and how we will get to that future in terms of the client, cloud, application, and infrastructure technology that will be needed. We wandered all over the place in our conversation, but I enjoyed the journey, and I hope you do too.
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Here’s an edited transcript of our panel. And if you prefer, I have embedded a video of the conversation as well below.
Jen MacLean: I’m the head of worldwide business development for AWS game tech for small and mid-sized studios. I’ve been in game development and technology in some way, shape, or form for more than 25 years. I don’t know that anyone has ever accused me of providing “dreamy” wisdom before, but I’ll do my best.
Gary Radburn: I’m from Dell. I’m director of virtualization, virtual reality. I’ve been in the industry for a very long time. I’m looking forward to speaking on that today.
Jeff Shih: I’m lead product manager for AI at Unity. Most of my background is AI and machine learning research. At Unity, obviously, we focus a lot on AI in gaming.
Bebo White: I’m emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford, which is the national lab behind physics and basic energy scientist. I’m a computational physicist.
Bill Rehbock: I head developer relationships for a company called Blade Group that produces the Shadow PC streaming service. I go all the way back to–the first trade show I ever worked at was the summer CES in 1978 demoing Star Raiders on the Atari 800. I worked for Atari. I was at Nvidia for 15 years.
GamesBeat: What we’ll start with is, what dreamy thing do you want computing to accomplish for you? A little later we’ll get to what you need to get there, or how you might actually shoot that dream down. But let’s start with Bill. What’s the thing that you really want computing to do for you?
Rehbock: I would say that the biggest win that we could see in the industry in the next, hopefully, five to 10 years, maybe 15, is that the internet of entertainment finally gets to the point where it’s truly ubiquitous. We had the conversation earlier with a lot of people in the room and up on stage over the course of the day saying that they’re not gamers. Which is still weird in this day and age, that there’s a stigma associated with being a gamer. It would be like going to the VSDA show, the big linear content show, and hearing people say, “Well, I don’t watch movies.”
Interactive entertainment could be democratized to the point that it becomes very accessible to everybody, so that it isn’t just people who can afford $2,000 PCs who are talking about raytracing and stuff like that. What we talk about today as being the cutting edge can become more commonplace. That would serve us all better, both from an education standpoint, as well as for our entertainment.
White: I’m going to respond a bit to what you said about gaming. When I first heard about coming to this, that was my response. What do I know about games? But one thing I certainly learned today is the way in which the gaming ecosystem, as it were, really does encompass a lot more issues, a lot more fundamental issues, than simply entertainment. But in terms of my dreams? I’m going to agree with your consensus that I look forward to that true ubiquitousness.
One of my bigger dreams is basically thinking about computing as a utility, just like the lights or the water or anything of that nature. A utility that basically becomes a human right and is available to everyone.
GamesBeat: I think Amazon has created that, except they charge for it.
MacLean: That’s not true! We have a free tier.
Shih: For me, it’s the intersection of AI systems and human interaction in the space of education and entertainment. I think there’s a lot of untapped potential in our human abilities that can be unlocked by having a lot of AI systems unlocking our abilities for us. I’m excited about a future our own potential is revealed by better compute, better design, better algorithmic systems. When I’m much older, hopefully I’ll be a much improved, much better version of myself.
GamesBeat: You want to hack yourself.
Shih: Yes, exactly!
Radburn: For me it’s really about, first of all, the media and entertainment industry, where they actually take the technology into new directions and really push the envelope. Where I’m standing, it’s really impacting health care. We deal a lot in the industry with people who are now using VR and AR in training surgeons, the treatment of PTSD, autism, giving people awareness of dementia or physical diseases inside of them. All of this is brought about by work that’s being done in service of getting people out of the house and entertaining them, whether it be in film, digital techniques there, or the creation of VR pieces. Taking all of that and putting it into a package that makes something good for humankind.
Gamification is a big thing. One of the examples is doing your exercises. People go for physiotherapy and they have to do this repetitive movement 15 or 20 times in the evening before you go to bed. Oh, I’ll skip that. But if you can put a headset on and play a game, do something where you actually do that, but you don’t know you’re doing it, then that can only be a good thing. I’m looking forward to that more and more.
MacLean: I’d love to see us use computing to build emotional connections with other people. I’d love to see us use computing to address some of the fundamental inequalities that we’re struggling with globally. Fundamentally, I think we should be using computing to make a better place. We shouldn’t hold ourselves to any lesser yardstick.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that nobody really said, “I want to have all the technology come as fast as it can.” Make it happen without regard to the impact it has. Is that fair to say?
White: I think a couple of people have made the comment that just because we can do it, it doesn’t mean that we should do it, in terms of the capabilities we have. Which one of those should be the driving factor for future computing? Is it simply the growth of the technology, or our ability to use it in a productive way?
MacLean: It’s also interesting to think about how computing actually has a cost, a physical, tangible cost in terms of energy consumption. Everyone in this room, I’m sure, is very aware of climate change. Again, when we think about resources, is using computing in a certain way the best way to use a resource? We’ve had the luxury of not having to think about that, and there are companies, including Amazon, that are making a commitment to renewable energy for computing. But we also have to move past the idea that computing is free, because it’s not.
GamesBeat: We can switch it up a bit and ask you about some of the how, how you would get to the things you want. Maybe in the context of the client or the cloud. Bill, you’re at a cloud gaming company. I assume you’d say cloud is going to be very important to where you want entertainment to go.
Rehbock: When I was at Nvidia, I was there when they originally made GeForce Grid, multi-core GeForce and Nvidia’s streaming service. I had a lot of internal arguments there, because I was running developer relations at Nvidia and trying to figure out how cloud computing and cloud gaming for Nvidia could come together more quickly.
The challenge I presented to both Jensen Huang and the GeForce Grid team was, well, this whole notion of containerized gaming and cloud gaming and all that was very interesting, but the problem was that it was really all about–we’re going to offer this selection of games, very console-esque, but no matter how good the developer relations group at Nvidia is, even if we select what we think is the most brilliant collection of 100 games, if you turn around and there’s a user out there that says, “But I want to play Space Engineers, and that’s not one of those 100 games,” that guy still has to turn around and buy a PC to be able to play Space Engineers. That means you’ve failed, because of game number 101.
The thing that attracted me to Shadow is the notion of truly democratized access to high-performance gaming hardware. At the time we were deploying GTX 1080s, and we just started deploying RTX 2080s, so you can do raytracing. But here in the cloud is a great performance PC that will be upgraded on a regular basis for $15 to $30 a month. Giving users access to that hardware, because it’s in the cloud, is much easier. It’s easier to control energy costs and cooling and things like that.
But for Shadow, the important thing is it’s not democratized if you take away choice from the user. Because it’s a full Windows 10 PC and they can install any game they want from Steam or the Epic store or GOG–they can develop their own Unity games on Shadow and it all just works, just like a local PC. That’s the vision for what needs to happen in the future.
The bottom line is, there’s no one in the world who buys a GTX 1060 or 1070 GPU because they want to. They’re settling for it because of the price. The idea of getting access to mass users and education and schools and things like that, because the PCs themselves are in the cloud, is a great futurist way of approaching the technology.
GamesBeat: I’m going to guess that the panel likes this idea of using computing for various kinds of technology. Mr. Unity there, democratization of game development is your motto, right?
Shih: It actually was the motto. It still floats around at Unity, though.
GamesBeat: Democratization isn’t really a function of the most computing power you can have. What does democratization mean? How is it important as far as what you want to see happen?
Radburn: Democratization is great. It’s giving access to all. The more people who can use it, the more people who can experience it, that’s great. There was a big thing when we started to virtualize servers way back when. The response from some people was that you can’t virtualize servers because server sales are blowing up. People will only buy one. But the world’s selling more servers now than ever, because more people realize the benefits of it. They realize it’s actually game-changing.
In much the same way now, I think the days of democratization are going to lead to more kinds of IP that people wouldn’t have otherwise invested in. They’re going to see that. They’re going to play that. They’re going to go more and more professional, go into esports, things like that, where latency becomes more important. No matter what you do with a remote situation, you still have the speed of light coming into it. You can compress or whatever else, but if you’re not co-located in the same place as your data and your compute, you’ll have increased latency time or ping time or whatever you want to call that. Consequently people are going to want to own their own hardware.
Somebody was saying earlier that not everybody is a gamer. I think that’s going to be the case less and less, because you’re going to embrace the casual gamer. You’re going to get people on a subscription model who wouldn’t buy hardware otherwise, and that will be great for the industry as a whole.
Shih: Obviously we see things like cloud streaming for games — Stadia, Xbox, PlayStation, and everyone else starting services. But in any kind of app development is very tricky, and games especially. Games have FPS requirements, physics, rendering, all these components. Even if you have 5G, it’s a very hard experience to pull off.
However, I think the trend is that we’re going to start to see devices that are basically clones, and then you’re starting to see a lot more improvement from a cloud infrastructure perspective. Things like 5G and the underlying platforms will get better. We’ll see that more on the app development side. We’re already starting to see that in gaming. You’ll start to see that with all kinds of mobile development.
MacLean: Every person on the planet, I believe, should love playing games. But they’re not going to love playing every game. There is no way that my 70-year-old aunt, who spends hours of every day playing mobile games, is going to enjoy a session with Dark Souls III. It’s not going to happen.
One of the things we have to be conscious of when we think about democratization of any type of technology service, are we creating a service that is accessible and approachable to consumers? Are we giving them a good experience? Are we giving them joy, entertainment, an emotional connection, and emotional resonance? A lot of the experiences we create, whether they’re games or other types of technology, are not accessible to a mass market.
One of our challenges, when we think about democratization, which I’m sure is used in every investor pitch ever and is a great buzzword — are we really, truly solving customer problems? Are we making a great customer experience? Are we making somebody’s life better? I think that as an industry, we have a ways to go there.
GamesBeat: Bebo was one of the first webmasters in the United States. You brought up, in our pre-call here, that you were interested in the decentralized web. I wonder why that is. Do you see computing technologies like decentralization as being the thing that will get you there? Why is that important to you?
White: I’d first like to make a comment as far as the client versus cloud. I’m definitely in favor of cloud in that sense. People brought up the idea about leveraging the capability of the clients that you have. I’m a firm believer in the concept of bringing your own device, and then allowing people to not have a diminished access to resources, but then being able to access those resources in a way that’s most familiar to them.
That’s part of democratization in that case. If a smartphone is what you have, for one reason or another, or if that’s what you prefer, for one reason or another, you shouldn’t be made to feel like a second-class citizen.
GamesBeat: So technology should evolve to a point where it doesn’t matter what you’re connecting with.
White: Just so long as you have access to the services that you want, in that case. In terms of your question about the decentralized web, basically the idea there is allowing people, users, to regain access to their own personal data. Which, unfortunately, due to the rapid evolution of the web, they’ve lost in some ways. Allowing them to not only have control over their data, but letting them do things like dictate the use and the monetization of their data, those kinds of things. There’s a lot of characteristics of decentralized systems that more closely support that.
There’s also, in this case — the web was originally a centralized system. That’s why we get 404s when something is not found. Wouldn’t it be nice, in a decentralized system, never to get a 404 again? Because the data is there. You’re not relying on the presence or the absence of a resource.
Shih: Blockchain has become a good example of a decentralized system.
White: Exactly. We’re going to talk about that tomorrow. You’re exactly right. But I think that’s a different issue. Blockchain is an example of a technology that could lead to a decentralized web. But I think you could certainly have all the characteristics of decentralized web without the adoption of something like blockchain.
Rehbock: It’s interesting that from a futurist standpoint, when you look at the panel here — AWS is the notion of accessibility of a server to anybody that needs one at any time, and ease of bringing it up. Five or 10 years ago, you had to be in the know to know who the rack space guys were and get a server up. Now, if you have an Amazon Prime account, you get AWS access. The bottom line is, AWS is access.
Dell, going back to the original Dell ads on the back cover of PC Magazine, was about accessibility of PCs to people. I used to order PCs for my company in Chicago from Michael Dell in his dorm room. The bottom line was, the notion of Dell fundamentally was accessibility to a builder of PCs so you didn’t have to be in the know yourself. And Unity is about accessibility of being creative around games. God knows, the internet period, just the accessibility of data.
The summary is that — we’re using democratization as the buzzword, but accessibility is what the future is all about.
MacLean: One of the things I get excited about in our own services is Sagemaker, which is the easiest-to-use machine learning service that we offer through AWS. What that means fundamentally is that at a 10-person game development shop, you can use machine learning to make your game better without having a PhD in data science or AI on your team. That’s the kind of accessibility that’s going to come with the next generation. It’s not just access to physical resources, or even the cloud. It becomes access to the services that we’re building on top of the cloud, like machine learning and AI.
The backbone of Alexa is available to any AWS customer. That’s amazing when you think about being able to create great customer experiences, because you have access to an amount of technology that was unimaginable 10 years ago.
White: I think there’s also some social responsibility in there, in the sense that — if somebody has the crazy notion that they’re going to do Bitcoin mining on AWS, they’re in for a big surprise, because it’s not going to be a good return on their investment. I think Amazon makes that perfectly clear as far as the limitations of their infrastructures.
MacLean: We make our user agreements clear and we help our customers to understand them.
GamesBeat: There’s this interesting theme of centralization and decentralization in computing technology, but there’s also the same sort of tug of war that happens in politics and industry. If you centralize an industry too much, you wind up with anti-trust cases. If you decentralize your politics, you get democracy. It feels like all of these things are intertwined in some way. The funny thing is that centralizing computing in a company like Amazon can actually decentralize an industry by giving indie game developers a chance to access technology.
White: My comment about that, in terms of decentralization — I think we’re not talking, for one thing, in terms of breaking up, as it were, the large — it has characteristics of a monopoly.
GamesBeat: I think we’ve agreed to say “tech giants.”
White: Basically, if nothing else, it’s going to improve your relationship to understand your contract with them, in the sense of saying, for social media, they’re not going to be able to use my personal data willy-nilly, but I am possibly willing to sell it to you. Something of that nature. Really having a greater understanding of the relationship. It’s not about totally shutting them out. That’s not one of the goals of the decentralized web.
Radburn: As far as centralization and decentralization, we’ve always been on a constant kick of iteration, iteration, iteration. We were centralized in mainframes, and then we were decentralized to the edge. The time frames are getting shorter and shorter.
But where we are now is, it gets hard to tell whether we’re centralized or decentralized. When we actually look at the cloud, the cloud says, hey, everything’s going out there. Now we’re moving to 5G, and your data has to be co-located with a 5G antenna, because otherwise you have that latency in accessing your data remotely. Now I have to have copies of all my data from that central source out at the edge so that I can access it immediately and get the response times I need. Is that centralizing my data, or decentralized? I haven’t quite gotten my head around that one yet.
Rehbock: The bigger issue is really ownership of the data, rather than centralized versus decentralized. One of the big things that we do at Shadow is that every user has 100 percent control. Shadow has no access to your copy of Windows or to any of the games you have. It’s your little virtual machine. When you’re logged in, that gets mounted to a GPU and a CPU, but when it’s shut down it’s encrypted. Nobody, not even customer support, has access to it.
It’s a very weird thing, because for Shadow users, when they need customer support, you have to use Windows Remote Desktop to get there to help them. But that’s important. Even though the computing is centralized, the ownership of the Windows instance and the data is sacred. That’s what it comes down to. At AWS, you have your AWS instance, and it’s your machine. Jeff Bezos doesn’t have access to any of it.
MacLean: And we have encryption tools to make sure that our customers always retain control over their data.
Rehbock: Exactly. I think that’s where the mindset is, which puts it in a pretty good place.
MacLean: And I think it has to be. If you’re a cloud infrastructure provider, understanding that the customer’s data is always the customer’s data is absolutely important to your business. It becomes a more interesting case — “interesting” as in we need to talk about it a lot more as a society — when we look at what Bebo mentioned earlier about how people are using our personal data. Not every company is ethical about how they’re using your personal data. They’re certainly not transparent about how they’re using your personal data. Even with the advent of things like GDPR — it still means that your personal data is being used in ways that you’re not aware of and that you may object to, or that may not come with what you see as fair and reasonable compensation.
Question: It’s a futurist panel, and you’ve been painting a rosy picture of the future so far. When you give this kind of power to the masses, with that comes great responsibility, and there are a lot of irresponsible people in the world. What do you foresee as the most negative things that can come out of this kind of power, and what do you think we should do to try to overcome that?
MacLean: One of the big things I worry about is how we’re empowering very bad behavior in multiplayer games. You can be a terrible gamer in a multiplayer game online and face no consequences. As a woman in games, I’ve seen what that means outside of games. No one should ever experience death threats or rape threats because they make video games, and yet we see that happening to game developers. That’s not acceptable.
As an industry, we need to take a much harder stance on what we think is acceptable, because fundamentally, what you allow in your community, what you allow in your game, sends an implicit message about what’s allowed in your contact with other human beings.
Radburn: From my perspective it’s a case of checks and balances. You mentioned earlier about introducing technology as fast as we possibly can. I think due diligence needs to be done along the way, because we don’t know what we don’t know. The onus is on us to find out what we don’t know, to ensure that there’s no longer-term effect.
A case in point would be with VR. We don’t market to anybody under the age of 13. When account managers come to me saying, “Hey, we have this great educational thing for K-12,” as long as K is involved, we say no. We’re hitting that 13-year-old and up. We all need, as an industry, to be responsible for that. There’s the potential for psychological harm. We already know that VR can affect the mind, because we use it as a sedative, to treat PTSD, to work with autism, whatever. It could also have negative effects as well.
We as an industry need to police that. We need to make sure that everybody upholds that same standard, and make sure that we don’t give ourselves problems in the future because of our reckless abandon to make a buck.
Shih: I think a lot of problems could be prevented with better positioning and better policy. We talk about the possibility of negative uses of AI or machine learning, and if you look around, there’s really no policy or standards. It’s the role of government to have these debates and create better policy, because asking a lot of companies to just self-police is a little optimistic.
White: In terms of bad behavior, to give another example, there are cases where we’re not talking about technology. I’m not sure that people want to have computer scientists develop a code of ethics for them, something of that nature. Now, I have trust in the community to self-regulate. In terms of governing behavior, the way you suggest, unfortunately I see that as being one more step toward censorship.
I think people can make their choices, and I can give an example of that quickly. A number of you are probably familiar with the Internet Archive, the goal of which is to archive all the content on the web. But they have consciously chosen not to archive pornography, not to archive hate sites or anything of that nature. They have taken it on their own initiative to do that. I think, once again, it’s got to be a decision that cannot actually have, through its consequences, the potential to support arguments for censorship or anything of that nature. I believe in government regulations, but it’s a slippery slope, and it doesn’t have a technical solution.
One other thing that I think is quite possible, and a strength of the decentralized web, is provenance. Being able to establish the validity of something, being able to establish the goal of something — if this is coming from a particular site, you understand the probability of it being true. The expansion of those sorts of ideas is something we can do a lot more with.
Rehbock: If I were Disney, and I made a theme park, and I built a ride that encouraged people to sling racial epithets at each other, or misogynistic comments, all across the ride, society would not allow that. Yet we have that, unfortunately, in the digital playgrounds that many developers have set up. That’s a bit scary. Would you consider it censorship? I don’t know. But we’re on a slippery slope there as well.
MacLean: We not only allow it in those digital playgrounds, but we allow it in their surrounding community spaces. We allow it on major social media platforms. I don’t know if anyone else in this room has experienced harassment on Twitter. Did you report it? What happened? It went into the ether. Even when there are policies in place, if the platform doesn’t have the will to enforce it — which is often a business decision — those policies aren’t relevant.
GamesBeat: I subscribe to this notion that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Who would have thought that the internet would have led to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica? I like these notes of caution, like Kurt Vonnegut’s line about how we are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be. Technology has a way of being very unpredictable as far as its consequences.
White: I have no doubt that Facebook had great intentions to start off. Somehow they got lost along the way.
Rehbock: Oh, I don’t think they had that great of intentions. Mark Zuckerberg wanted to find a date for the weekend.
White: In any case, the chickens have come home to roost. Bringing people together is not bad. Facebook is not bad. If you’re 75 or 80 years old, that might be an important part of your social interaction. The concept is not bad. But it’s in how it’s allowed itself to be used.
GamesBeat: Facebook’s concept of using real names seemed like a great idea to hide all the problems of anonymity, but then that allows us to have our privacy invaded.
Radburn: Every major technology along the line has been used in some form or another that wasn’t what was originally intended.
Question: You hit the nail on the head in more ways that you realize, I think, when you talked about accessibility. Each panelist represents an element of accessibility. The cloud, the client, the tools, the platform. What do you think about what needs to happen for this next computing era to happen?
White: Certainly one thing that happened in the early days of the web, it was basically the wild west, without leadership and without standards, and certainly that has led to a lot of its problems. Also, combine that with the fact that it was pretty naive. People had great aspirations how it could be used. Nobody had ever dreamt about things like cyberbullying on the web, or even security issues on the web.
It’s a case in point. Even though it seems like a good idea, and there’s the whole issue around the fear of missing out, we have to tread quite carefully in terms of development. Otherwise, the web is a great example of how something can get totally out of hand.
MacLean: There are people who would have thought about cyberbullying on the web. Any woman who’s ever been whistled at as she walks down the street probably could have told you what would happen in chat rooms. Any person who’s had a racial epithet yelled at them could have told you what would happen in a chat room. One of the fundamental flaws in our industry and our community is that we’re not diverse. We don’t have people who’ve had that diversity of experiences at the table and making a point, particularly in the development of new technologies like AI. We know what’s going to happen, because we’ve lived it. That’s something we all need to do better, because otherwise we’ll repeat the same mistakes.
GamesBeat: There’s a good point to be made there about how you can’t see what’s around you when you’re inside a bubble. We have this all the time in Silicon Valley. We have all these great bubbles. We have the esports bubble right now, and it seems like it’s going to be the next great thing and we’ll all make billions of dollars from it. But when that bubble pops, you realize in hindsight what was really happening.
White: I will say that I think the web has a bright future. It’s going through a mid-life crisis now. But I think a lot of people are committed to it. I’m hopeful that it’s going to continue to be a defining force.
I have a 14-year-old kid, and she’s what’s referred to as a digital native. They haven’t known a world without this. Certainly in the case of whatever future that we have, we have to be cognizant of the fact that we can’t necessarily just talk about the next generation. We’re talking about the generation that’s already in it, and how we can change their experience.
Radburn: I think we’re realizing the ramifications of being free and easy with our data. We’re thinking about how to get that genie back into the bottle around things like decentralization and all the rest, so that you can control who has it, who uses it, who monetizes it.
MacLean: I talked about using technology to build emotional connections. I think we do need to do that. I have more than a thousand friends on Facebook, probably too many, but many of them are people who live on the other side of the planet, or who I haven’t seen physically in 20 years, and I feel like we’re still friends. I know about my friend Leslie’s dog Moose and how he’s this great old retired police dog. I know about my friend Emily being named to the New Zealand Game Developers Association.
It gets back to, are we using technology to build those emotional connections and make the world a better place? And often, maybe not often enough, but often, the answer is yes. I’m grateful to live in a world where that’s possible.
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