23 November 2007

The IDEA Conference

It's been a week since I was lucky enough to attend the 2007 IDEA Conference put on by AdAge in the Nokia Theatre (Ahra was there too, and so were Noah and Arthur, briefly).

It was refreshing and I was impressed. Lately (well, for the past year and a half or so) I have been a little disillusioned regarding industry conferences, because it always seems to be the same thing: panels of Creative Directors talking in circles about what creativity means. This was different though... the speakers came from a really neat array of backgrounds, and there was actually very little advertising speak. There was a media & music mogul, a neurologist, the founder of the Geek Squad, head of marketing from BlendTec (most of you are probably familiar with Will It Blend; a guy actually volunteered his BlackBerry during the conference to be blended into metallic dust), a computer science professor, the (drunk?) founders of VICE, etc. It was really interesting to hear everybody's stories and experiences, and I left the thing excited and wanting to work on a project or make something.

My three favorite parts of the IDEA Conference: Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad; Paul Bennett and Jane Fulton Suri of IDEO; and Luis Von Ahn, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon Uniersity.

Robert Stephens

This guy spoke in true revenge-of-the-nerds fashion. He said something about the world being made up of three types of people: those who once worked for Geek Squad, those who currently work for Geek Squad and those who will one day work for Geek Squad. He talked about how he stole all of his ideas from the hotel industry because he's in the business of hospitality and not technology. He also said something hilarious,

"Advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable."

I don't completely agree but I can sometimes, in some cases, understand where he's coming from.


The concept of Thoughtless Acts was my favorite takeaway theme of the conference. Paul Bennett and Jane Fulton Suri talked about observing human behavior, taking ordinary "thoughtless" habits that people have and creating a movement around them. The most fascinating case study they presented was CoolBiz. This was a movement endorsed a couple of years ago in Japan by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment to help reduce electric consumption. The agency working on this (I can't find the name - someone help?) decided to start a fashion trend of not wearing ties. They organized fashion shows with important Japanese businessmen walking down runways in dress pants and shirts, the top buttons undone and no ties.

This was born out of the insight that wearing a tie raises the body temperature by two degrees. By everyone in Japan suddenly removing their ties and casualizing the workforce, people stopped fiddling with the thermostats. One million households worth of carbon emissions were saved (in one year I think?).

Isn't this brilliant? This thoughtless act of removing one's tie at the end of the day was turned into a movement. Another example they briefly touched on was Bank of America's Keep The Change campaign. The thoughtless act of taking your loose change from the day and throwing it into a jar was turned into a savings account program - any purchase made with one's BoA card was rounded up to the nearest dollar, and the difference was put into a savings account. People were saving without even thinking about it.

Luis Von Ahn

He was my favorite speaker of the whole day. A computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, he started his talk with a question: "How many people here have seen this and filled one out?"

Everybody raised their hand. "How many people here think these things are annoying?" Everybody raised their hand. "Well, I invented that." Von Ahn invented Captchas to make the Internet a safer (and less SPAM-filled) place for us all. As robots get better at reading these things, he's constantly working on making it harder for them to.

Here is the cool part though: eventually he realized that since each Captcha takes on average 10 seconds to complete, an inordinate amount of hours are wasted every day, globally, filling these things out (something like 500,000 hours). He felt a bit guilty about wasting so much of the world's time, so he decided to do something useful with Captchas. He came up with a project called reCAPTCHA.

Let's for a second switch our focus onto a different business: digitizing books for the web. Luis Von Ahn knew that the computers that scan and digitize books sometimes make mistakes, especially with older books and manuscripts. Ink bleeds, letters mush together, and as a result this can happen:

So Von Ahn created a program that takes all of these words and turns them into Captchas on web forms. Do you see what he did? People all over the world are helping to digitize books without even realizing it. Ten million words a day are digitized! At around this point my head exploded.

Von Ahn went on to talk about another project he's involved in; he created an online game that gets people to accurately label images on the Internet without realizing it. By more people playing this game, more images are being labeled so that more relevant results will pop up in Google Images, for example, over time. This is another mind blowing thing, but I was still amazed at the digitizing books project to fully absorb it. I wanted to go back to college to just take classes from this guy, he was so neat. That's all guys – making good use of human processing power and helping computers solve problems they can't yet solve on their own. I think this relates to the "human behavior turned into cultural movements" stuff that IDEO talked about.

I kind of knew from the beginning of this – when Russell Simmons walked out wearing a bright lavender and yellow plaid sweater vest amidst a sea of black shirts and coats – that it would be a good day. And it was. A big thank you to MT and Jonah :) Anybody know where I can find photos from this thing?

[CoolBiz Flickr images from Joe Jones, Manish Prabhune(マニッシュ) and Joi]

x-posted to House of Naked.
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