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The (Near) Future Is Now

INTX is dead. Long live The Near Future—at least for a day next week.

When Michael Powell revealed last fall that NCTA-The Internet & Television Association was canceling its long-running “Internet & Television Expo,” the latest iteration having been planned for April 2017 in Washington, he hinted that that might leave room for something else.

That “something else” is The Near Future, an April 27, Internet-centric, most-of-a-day conference of speakers and demonstrations of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and even—if NCTA and USC pull it off—a combination of the two in the person of a virtual holocaust survivor answering questions about that horrific event in real time.

The Internet is already the transformative technology of the new millennium, but NCTA is looking at what new tech will be transforming it, which depends on the unsexy but vital networks Powell’s members provide.

Powell, himself a former top policymaker as FCC chairman, is famous for waxing rhapsodic about new technology, but the conference is more than just a rhapsody in blue-sky musings, he suggests. Instead, it is meant to be a way to look just far enough ahead so that policymakers, rather than looking backward, can lean forward into that future as they come up with those policies, as well as a chance to remind those regulators and legislators and administration officials who is putting the I in the next generation of IoT—in this case, the Internet of Transformation.

In an interview with Washington bureau chief John Eggerton, Powell talked about his vision of the conference—for one thing, there are no plans to make it an annual event— along with the need for a disruptive and experimental approach to the Near Future. An edited transcript follows.

You said canceling INTX gave you a clean slate. What is your goal for “The Near Future” and what do you hope to write on that slate?

I think it is important to say at the outset that this isn’t INTX, part two. This isn’t in any way intended to be that show or a pale substitute for the show. It is a distinctly different idea that occurred to us based on work we were doing even previous to the show.

And we haven’t talked about this much before, but we have had a lot of discussions about industry positioning and messaging and wanting it to be a lot more focused on the exciting things that are happening in the near future, a lot more focus on our role in the Internet and high-tech ecosystem.

We changed our entire brand in part around that attempted shift in focus. That was all occurring even before the decision [to cancel the show]. So, I think this was a kernel of an idea stemming from that work. The show merely gave us the dates, time and space to do it, and to do it in Washington [where INTX was to have been held].

I think part of what we’ve always felt is that there is an aspect to our role in the great and glorious Internet that’s not always appreciated.

Which is?

Much like the Intel slogan that so many great things were powered by Intel inside, we think there are so many phenomenal things that happened that are fundamentally powered by the infrastructure that we provide. Networks are not always the sexiest part of the story, but they are an indispensable part of the present and the future.

And rather than sitting around talking all day about gigabits and how fast capacity is, etc., we thought that since we are the platform for so many exciting things, why don’t we do a conference that is a platform for presenting those.

So, we will have a series of speakers and presentations that show some of the exciting things that are happening out there that rarely get seen in Washington.

People go out to Silicon Valley and see the latest this and that, or some conferences in Austin or somewhere else will show some of these things. But it is not too common that you will see a traditional industry in D.C. show off some of this stuff and making the connection that what we do helps them do what they do.

Is this a way to remind Washington that this industry is the ‘I’ in IoT?

Yes. I like the way you put that. But I think the different thing you will see here is that IoT is cool, but the devices are relatively mundane, meaning your thermostat and Amazon Echo will be part of the story, too, and will be taxing on the network. But that’s sort of here now already. The Near Future is meant to see a little bit past that. Not just the simple appliances but the paradigm shifting devices, virtual reality, holographic uses, floating screens, smart cities, autonomous vehicle situations that might require an artificial intelligence machine learning functions.

And what do you want the attendees to come away with?

I hope that people leave the conference with the perception that we are very much a part of the high-tech industry, we are a necessary ingredient to all of our near future and future national ambitions around this stuff and that we are very strong partners to some of the greatest innovators and inventors doing work in the country today.

When we first read the email invitation, we thought it said an “innovation-only event,” which would have worked. But it said invitation only. Why limit it?

We wanted to be smaller and more intimate given the nature of what we wanted to show.

Which is?

A lot of the demonstrations and a lot of the people we are bringing in are the kinds of things that show best in a smaller, more intimate venue in which people are able to see, touch, feel some of what’s happening. Even in Disneyland they limit how many people can get on the ride so it’s a really good ride.

And we wanted it to be special, something that a limited number of folks got to come see in order to create some buzz and energy.

Is this targeted primarily to policymakers?

A pretty healthy chunk of it is for policymakers and important staff that are charged with developing policies for the near future. I think another theme is that regulation and public policy so often is looking backwards to address something happening in the present, relatively ignorant of its impact on the future.

I’ve always thought that a more constructive dialog around policymaking is not to be a futurist, looking so far into the future that it is meaningless to policy, but looking far enough down the road so that policy can be a bit more anticipatory than it is today.

Part of the message to the probably more than half the audience that will be in the policy world will be showing you what is coming to help you anticipate what will be the public policy issues of tomorrow. The idea is to all be thinking about them and working on them as we head toward them, as opposed to being reactive to things that come up using rearward understanding.

So, there will be a good contingent of those folks from all parts of the government: the Hill, the commission, branches of the administration.

And the others?

Our board will be present, as will a limited number of people from the cable industry itself. There will be trade press and media types in the room to cover it all. And a lot of the companies we have gotten to know who are participating [those include Google VR, IBM Watson, Zoom] will also bring cohorts of people from their own universe to get to know our cable folks as well as to interactively participate in what is going on. So, that will be a fresh part of the audience as well.

Is this a one-off or do you want it to become an annual event?

I don’t think we have any preordained plans about what happens next, but, no, I don’t think its intention is to be annually. Part of this is experimenting and we’ll see how it goes and what the values were and crunch all that and think about what we do next.

What do you think could be the most transformative technology for the industry in this near future?

There are different lenses you could look through to answer that question. I think one would be: If we are building high-capacity, low latency, edge computer networks, what kinds of things are coming online that demand the most from that?

I think an enormous suite of things related to virtual reality certainly fit that bill. Not just the entertainment social-value uses like gaming in the home, but the industrial uses, design, virtual surgical centers, virtual training. There is a whole lot of that that we will show.

Tech of the Future

Here’s some of what NCTA will be showing off on April 27 at The Near Future conference in Washington, D.C., which CEO Michael Powell suggests is not a pale copy of INTX, but a vibrant picture of networks’ central role in the Internet of entertainment, ideas and things

12:30 p.m    PLAY: The Future of Games, Sports and Storytelling
1:30 p.m.     WORK: The Future of Remote Collaboration and The Workforce of Tomorrow
3:00 p.m.     LEARN: The Future of Human Learning and Artificial Intelligence
4:00 p.m.     LIVE: The Future of Connected Care, Smart Cities and Autonomous Vehicles

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.