February 5, 2006 6:45 PM PST

Mixing genius, art and goofy gadgets

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Human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter talked about organizing the organic information of DNA, telling the audience that he believed his team is now just a few months away from creating the first artificial micro-organism, with synthetic chromosomes pieced together in a lab. Once that step is taken, the biotechnology field will be blown open even wider than it is today, he said.

"This is software that creates its own hardware," Ventner said. "That's what life is. That's how we all work."

Democratic chaos
Many of the speakers also highlighted the way that the Internet and other new technologies are leveling the traditional barriers between creators and consumers, providers and those provided-for.

"The Sims" creator Will Wright and Microsoft Xbox team leader J Allard each predicted that players will take on a growing role in helping to create the content of the game worlds around them. Technorati Vice President Peter Hirshberg outlined the blogging world's newly gained power to help undermine major media and political figures and top brands such as Sony.

Inventor Dean Kamen told his story of creating small, efficient devices that could create enough electric power to provide light for a small village by burning cow dung, and extract more than 1,000 liters of clean water a day from any water source at all. By setting up local entrepreneurs to manage these devices in small villages with contaminated water sources, huge amounts of disease and misery could be avoided, he said.

However, the United Nations organizations he has approached have turned him down, preferring their large-scale, top-down approaches, he said, still clearly bitter.

"There is something worse than people who have no idea," Kamen said. "It's people who have a bad idea."

But for all the gee-whiz discussions of the power of new technologies, many of the speakers had mixed visions of its overall effects.

Warren, the megachurch pastor and author of the best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life," told the story of his unexpected rise to the top of the all-time best-seller list, and asked the gadget-toting audience to remember the value of service to others over the call of materialism.

New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta drew a connection between the public's growing lack of trust in the media and the news business' growing tendency to focus on ephemeral stories such as a runaway bride. Reporters need to slow down and tell stories that are truthful and genuinely important, rather than simply seek to entertain, he said.

Applied Minds' other co-founder, Brian Ferren, dismissed ideas that society had reached anything like a point of stability in its interaction with information. His warning about design principles applied equally to the broader reach of technology's influence on society.

"People in technology are so obsessed with getting the right answer, they forget to ask the right question," Ferren said.

No summary of the three days could adequately encapsulate an event in which Yo Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock periodically took out their instruments to play, where TV biologist Jeff Corwin introduced the crowd to a boa constrictor so large that it took five people to carry it, where architects Frank Gehry and Moshe Safdie mused on the nature of beauty.

Even these deeper moments were leavened by a "Gadget-off," in which audience members were quickly shown USB drives shaped like sushi, the latest slim phones from Japan and a homemade "hacker robot" that wheeled around the event sniffing out Wi-Fi signals, and then showing attendees their unprotected computer password on a big screen.

"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening may have expressed attendees' sentiments best during the closing moments, dropping to his knees in front of Wurman.

"I know you've said you'll never do another one of these," Groening said. "But if you change your mind, I don't think any of us will hold it against you."

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