THE AGE OF INNOVATION

VANITY FAIR SUMMITS ATTRACKS STAR-STUDDED LINEUP, browse Highlights 2015 V.F. Summit

On October 5-7, in San Francisco, Vanity Fair assembled the titans of technology, politics, business, and media for the 2015 New Establishment Summit. Two full days of inventive programming and inspiring conversations around the ideas and innovations shaping the future.

Jony Ive sat in a panel titled "Changing Worlds, Inventing Worlds" and spoke about his lasting memory of Steve Jobs and his new role as Chief Design Officer. I was talking to a friend of Steve’s and a friend of mine earlier in the week, on the day that marked the fourth anniversary of his death. What struck me, four years ago, is that I was faced with this wall of grief. A lot of messy—a whole series of multiple feelings. In thinking of him then, there was this incredible complexity of all his attributes. What has been very surprising, is that over the four years that have passed, so much of that noise, and so many of his attributes, they’ve ended up essentially receding. And what’s left is . . . just him.

"Quite honestly, what’s remained, I never would have predicted four years ago. What’s remained is almost unremarkable, but what’s remained is his very simple focus on trying to make something beautiful and great. And it really was simple. There wasn’t a grand plan of winning, or a very complicated agenda. That simplicity seemed almost childlike in its purity. And it’s true.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so happy as I saw him—this very simple kind of joy—when he would realize, “This is actually working out. This could be great.” It was just the simplicity of that.

That stands in such contrast, obviously, to how he’s being frequently and popularly portrayed at the moment. The lack of agenda.

He certainly had a sense of a civic responsibility to make something good, as a way of somehow making a contribution to humanity, and to culture."

Mark Zuckerberg said during the session "Now You See It—The Future of Virtual Reality": Capturing and sharing these videos with some version of immersive technology that incorporates parts of augmented or virtual reality means people can be apart of moments without having to be there, whenever it suits them, as many times as they want. “Baby photos . . . don’t have to be live streamed to your parents, but you can send it to them, and they can experience the first steps when it’s convenient,”

Zuckerberg did veer away from baby talk to discuss artificial intelligence. Facebook’s goal is to build a computer system that is better than people at all the perceptual things they do, from vision to hearing to language understanding and memory, which he said he said will be a reality in the next five to 10 years.

“That doesn’t mean computers will be smarter than people, but they’ll do the basic human sensory functions better than people,” he said.

He also addressed the controversy surrounding Facebook’s Internet.org initiative, which aims to bring people in developing countries without Internet access online. The plan sparked a global net neutrality debate, since Facebook free service only offers access to certain sites.

“Basically, everything impactful you want to do has some controversy,” he said. “It helps to take a step back. Internet connectivity is one of the fundamental problems of our generation.” Zuckerberg said Internet gives those living in the developing world access to education and health care information they may not ordinarily have, and more popularly, connectivity.

Particularly, according to Zuckerberg, through his web-site: “Facebook is the number one reason why a lot of people get access to the internet.”

Annie Leibovitz, an American portrait photographer, said: Citing a 2008 photo shoot with Queen Elizabeth, Leibovitz—the first American commissioned to shoot the monarch—said, “When I prepped for the Queen, I realized she was probably the most photographed person in the world. She had been around that long.”

“A shoot like that is like a military operation,“ Leibovitz said. “We only have half an hour. She was supposed to come in with the crown off . . . Not only did she take it off, she put it back on, twice. She’s a woman with a great sense of duty.”


Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson and Tesla Motors CEO and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speak onstage during 'The State of Innovation' at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 8, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
 
 
 
 
 

Julian Guthrie is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: jguthrie@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @JulianGuthrie

It was 1994 when Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter had a “long and boozy” lunch with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam. The two good friends landed on an idea that would help rescue the foundering magazine by shifting its gaze to the West Coast — and the Bay Area. Over lunch and a bottle of wine at 21 in New York, Halberstam and Carter — who had come to Vanity Fair from Spy magazine two years earlier — talked about a cultural shift in America, away from an industrial economy to one based on entertainment and technology. Not long after that lunch, Vanity Fair published its New Establishment issue, with an essay on the tectonic shift in American enterprise by Halberstam and photos of the nation’s newly minted shamans of the new order by Annie Leibovitz. The October 1994 issue was thick with advertising, sold well, and garnered a ton of attention. This week, Carter celebrated the 20th anniversary of that first New Establishment issue by holding a two-day party in San Francisco, attracting an astoundingly eclectic mix of luminaries from the worlds of technology, politics, television, film, and design, from Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Apple design guru Jonathan Ive, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Walt Disney head Robert Iger, and writer-director Judd Apatow.

“For me, the idea of this cultural shift was immediate,” Carter said, taking a break Thursday from the panel discussions held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. “I got it that there was this generational shift of establishment influence from the East Coast — New York, Philadelphia, Washington, (D.C.), and Pittsburgh — to Los Angeles, San Francisco and sort of Redmond, (Wash.).” The influence shifted “westward, youth-ward, and flip-flop-ward — in short, toward the technology sector,” Carter noted. “Increasingly, in the last eight years, it’s gone further and further to Northern California and it’s gone younger and younger. You have so many people out here who are CEOs of billion-dollar companies in their 20s.”

Panel discussions

Many of those CEOs were a part of the panel discussions. There was a talk about the state of digital education between Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. A conversation between Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, and Tom Freston, former head of MTV Networks, focused on disrupting the music business.

A discussion titled “Slingshots and Moonshots: Ideas for the Future” included Astro Teller of Google X (touching on plans for self-flying drones and planes and contact lenses with sensing capabilities); Max Levchin, co-founder of PayPal; and Gwynne Shotwell, COO of SpaceX. Shotwell explained that one of SpaceX founder Musk’s goals is to “develop a transport system to get to Mars, where Musk hopes to retire — in a decade and a half.” (Levchin also said the name of his San Francisco innovation lab, HVF — an acronym for Hard, Valuable, Fun — was chosen because the letters could be made to “most resemble the Van Halen logo.”)

In a discussion between Musk and Steve Jobs’ biographer, Walter Isaacson, Musk cautioned that people don’t understand the speed at which artificial intelligence is progressing. He expressed concern that a “superintelligent machine” might decide to destroy human life. Musk said, “I don’t think anyone realizes how quickly artificial intelligence is advancing. Particularly if (the machine is) involved in recursive self-improvement … and its utility function is something that’s detrimental to humanity, then it will have a very bad effect.”

The conference was done in partnership with the nonpartisan educational and policy Aspen Institute, where Isaacson is president and CEO. Isaacson and Carter go back 30 years, to when the two worked at Time magazine.

There were 320 guests at the site during the two-day event. Abundant snacks and meals were provided, and talks continued even through lunch. Wednesday’s lunch session included a discussion on “Satire in Silicon Valley” by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and Mike Judge, creator of HBO’s new comedy series “Silicon Valley.”

Sitting at a table near the stage were Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer, and filmmaker George Lucas and wife Mellody Hobson, who have been married for a year, have a baby girl, and spent much of lunch holding hands, giggling, sharing glances, and looking very much like newlyweds. Hobson, chairman of DreamWorks Animation, narrated a discussion on “Delivering Content in a New Media Universe” with Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube; David Zaslav, president of Discovery Communications; and Richard Plepler, chairman and CEO of HBO.

Thursday’s lunch involved Isaacson interviewing Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who said that his microblogging company is “at its best when it gives you an immediate connection to what’s happening now.” He also talked about the lows, and revealed that employees received death threats from ISIS after the terrorist group’s Twitter accounts were suspended.

Social topics

In addition to talks focused on new technologies, discussions revolved around new approaches to philanthropy and women in politics. State Attorney General Kamala Harris took the stage with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a discussion narrated by Yahoo News anchor Katie Couric.

One of the most popular sessions — judging from the level of applause — was “How to Earn Thousands Making Comedy,” featuring Judd Apatow and a handful of television personalities and comedians. Apatow opened the session by commenting on the cocktail party of the night before at the Ferry Building: “It was fascinating being around billionaires who can’t get laid.”

The conversation devolved from there, with advice on how to take good pictures of body parts to Whitney Cummings’ assertion that, “A guy taking his own selfie is not sexy.” (Cummings is co-writer and co-director of “2 Broke Girls.”) Comedian Nick Kroll riffed about how Musk doesn’t like the show “Silicon Valley,” and then said he wanted to promote a new fragrance — “Elon Musk’s Musk.”

“I think the event has actually been better than I thought it would be,” Carter said, sitting in a dressing room behind the stage, with only a few discussions remaining. “We did it all in five months, so it’s been a startup for us. We do have production experience from doing our Oscar parties. So on the social engineering part, we’re pretty good. On the physical building, we’re pretty good.” Carter added, “Yesterday I wanted to break away and take a nap, as I knew it would be a late night. But I couldn’t get away because every panel was so interesting.”

Leading up to his talk were discussions around the golden age of drama, with Matthew Weiner, creator of “Mad Men,” Jenji Kohan, creator of “Orange Is the New Black,” and Robert and Michelle King, co-creators of “The Good Wife.” Another discussion, on design in the digital age, was held between Tony Fadell, founder and CEO of Nest, and renowned architect Rem Koolhaas.

At the final session, Carter sat down with Ive, who was soft-spoken and looked relaxed, and the two talked Apple watches, devices, work habits and Steve Jobs. One of the most interesting questions came when Carter asked Ive for lessons learned from his late boss. “It sounds really simplistic,” Ive said, “but it still shocks me, as few practice this and it’s a struggle to practice. It’s this issue of focus. Steve was the most remarkably focused person I’ve ever met in my life. Steve would say, 'How many things have you said no to?’ What focus means is saying no to something you, with every bone in your body, think is a phenomenal idea and you say no to it because you are thinking about something else.”

Ive went on, “I remember having a conversation with him and I was asking why (he could be) a little harsh (with employees). We’d been working with our heart and soul, and I asked why couldn’t we be a little moderate in the things we said. He said, 'Why?’ I said, 'Because I care about the team.’ He said, and this is brutally, brilliantly insightful, 'Jonny, you’re just really vain and you want people to like you. I’m surprised because I thought you really held the work up as the most important thing, not how you believe you are perceived by other people.’ I was terribly cross because I knew he was right.”

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Elon Musk Is Innovating a Whole New Kind of Transport

Plans for the Hyperloop train are getting kinda serious. A full-sized prototype of the system is set to be built in California within weeks according to reports. But while testing may be moving forward on American soil, the United States may not be the first country to enjoy all the benefits it has to offer. Back in 2013, Elon Musk unveiled open plans for the Hyperloop. A train that would transport passengers along 400 miles of electromagnetic tubes at 760 miles per hour, connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. Travel time would be a mere 30 minutes, and the ticket price? Only $20.

"It is the closest thing to teletransportation," Hyperloop's Chief Operating Officer Bibop Gabriele Gresta told Dezeen in an interview. It makes China's plans to build a high-speed rail from Las Vegas to Los Angeles seem like old news. The Hyperloop is one of the more exciting developments America has seen since 1957 when engineers created the Boeing 707 — a plane that allowed its passengers to travel at 80 percent of the speed of sound. The proposed test track will stretch across five miles in the Quay Valley and take 32 months to build. After it's completed, it will transport 10 million people over the course of its trial period at 160 miles per hour. Capsules will be empty while testing the Hyperloop's top speed of 760 miles per hour.

It's able to achieve these speeds by ditching the wheels that create too much friction in traditional train systems. As outlined in the Alpha report, “Wheels don’t work very well at that sort of speed, but a cushion of air does. Air bearings, which use the same basic principle as an air hockey table, have been demonstrated to work at speeds of Mach 1.1 with very low friction.” What's more, the Hyperloop will be a self-sustaining system powered by renewable energy, including solar, wind, and kinetic. Gresta explained, “It will consume less electricity than we produce. We can resell electricity. In this model, it will allow us to recoup the entire investment in six to eight years depending on where you build it."
W I R E D 2 August 2017, A Pod Races Through the Hyperloop for the First Time Ever:

The future sounds a bit like a witch crying over a dead cat. That spooky wail is the sound hyperloop makes—at least, the version of the high-speed transportation system designed by Hyperloop One, which just took a big stride toward the day it flings you between cities in near-vacuum tubes.

The Los Angeles company leading the race to fulfill Elon Musk’s dream of tubular transit tested its pod for the first time last weekend. That pod is 28 feet long and made of aluminum and carbon fiber. It looks a bit like a bus with a beak. A fast bus with a beak. Once loaded into a 1,600-foot-long concrete tube in the Nevada desert, the pod hit 192 mph in about 5 seconds, using an electric propulsion system producing more than 3,000 horsepower. As the pod accelerated through the tube 11 feet in diameter, the 16 wheels retracted as magnetic levitation took over. Mag-lev—used by high-speed trains in Japan and elsewhere—reduces drag and the energy required to achieve near-supersonic speeds. It helps, too, that Hyperloop One’s engineers also pumped nearly all the air out of the tube, reducing air pressure to what you'd experience at an altitude of 200,000 feet.

"This is the dawn of the age of commercialization for the hyperloop,” says Shervin Pishevar, Hyperloop One's executive chairman and cofounder. It's a big step, to be sure, but just one of many in the long journey ahead. The weekend test provided a nice proof of concept, but the challenge is not in making hyperloop work but in making it practical. For hyperloop to truly take off, it must operate cheaply enough to lure customers away from air travel or high-speed rail. And then there's the problem of loading people or, more likely, cargo without ruining that near-vacuum state, designing and building stations, getting an endless list of public agencies and players to agree to build the thing, and so on. All that comes later, and chief engineer Josh Geigel says Hyperloop One is indeed working on cracking those myriad challenges. No one knows just how hyperloop will pan out, but at least we know what it sounds like. Creepy.