The Frontiers Conference: what did it accomplish?

By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A lot of big brains came to Pittsburgh this week for the White House-hosted Frontiers Conference, creating what the United States’ chief technology officer Megan Smith called “a big American barn-raising” of ideas.

But will anything tangible come out of all of those certainly interesting and educational panels, speeches and roundtables?

Participants say yes, though you might not be able to notice anything right away.

“It is kind of too early to see that because it just happened,” said Debra Lam, the city of Pittsburgh’s chief innovation and performance officer, who led a roundtable during Thursday’s Local track, one of five sessions at the conference. “I do think the communication will continue and we can hopefully follow through with action on the visions for the future we heard.”

It is not even clear whether there will be another conference like it in the future, despite U.S. Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx’s labeling it “the inaugural White House Frontiers Conference” during a panel on Thursday.

“Regardless of what form it takes, there is a real need to continue to have these multi-sectional conversations,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation in the White House’s Office for Science and Technology Policy.

But a big part of President Barack Obama’s hope was to provide some energy — if not some funding, which he also announced during the conference — to keep that work going, Mr. Kalil said.

“Part of what the president does in conferences like this is he also calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach,” he said. “We hope this helped maintain the level of energy and excitement in these innovations.”

Cristin Dorgelo, chief of staff for the Office of Science and Technology, said one definite outcome of the conference will be a follow-up report in the coming months on the artificial intelligence report that was released this past week, and reactions to it during the conference.

“The follow-up will look deep into those questions and reflect on all the different views were heard on it,” she said.

Mr. Kalil said one of the repeated themes during the five sessions at the conference — Personal, Local, National, Global and Interplanetary — was concerns about the perils of the technological advances we are experiencing, such as loss of jobs to technology, as well as why some segments of our nation don’t have access to all the innovations we already have.

Part of the impact of the conference will be to “make sure those diverse set of views [about the perils and shortcomings] are at the table” in future conversations, said Ms. Dorgelo.

There are some direct benefits to Pittsburgh from the conference, though those benefits may not seem as obvious now.

“We don’t often showcase ourselves in that kind of light” like the conference did, Ms. Lam said, “and this was our chance to do that.”

“I don’t think it’s fair yet to say ‘This conference resulted in these five key investments,’ or ‘This meeting will take place,’ ’’ she said. “But we’ve done the hard work to position us for a whole new level of attention” in the technology world.

At least one tangible benefit appears to be coming Pittsburgh’s way.

A nonprofit organization in New York City, All Star Code, which trains young men of color to learn how to write computer code, is now looking to expand to Pittsburgh, said its founder and executive director, Christina Lewis Halpern.

“It was a little bit of kismet with the White House Frontiers Conference coming to Pittsburgh,” said Ms. Lewis Halpern, who was one of the invited guests of the conference. “We already had a short, internal list of cities we wanted to expand to and Pittsburgh was on it.

“But coming there and seeing the connections between the philanthropic and education communities and seeing how they connected with national organizations and STEM organizations, that impressed me.”

It helped that the Local track she chose to sit through Thursday morning allowed her to see and meet Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Ms. Lam, who both told her they were interested in helping her find partners and funding.

Ms. Lewis Halpern said if all goes well and she gets everything in place over the winter, All Star Code could set up a coding camp for summer 2017.

If that is not tangible enough, Alexis Chidi, the University of Pittsburgh medical student who introduced Mr. Obama at Thursday’s plenary session, said she emerged more hopeful and energized.

“I went to the Local track, and it was not directly health related, but I met a lot of people doing really, really cool stuff who I might work with in the future,” she said, “maybe in a new future we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Sean D. Hamill: or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill

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