MeriTalk tech conference brings public and private sectors together

Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil hopes to
Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil hopes to "broaden the perspective" of IT directors. (Michael Lutch/kurzweil Technologies)
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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

Government geeks and private-sector geeks will get a chance to rub elbows at a brand-new technology conference taking place Thursday.

But beware of the buzzwords, because there will be plenty flying as panel discussions address how Uncle Sam should move onto the computing "cloud" while turning "green." Please don't bring up "Web 2.0," because it's "Web 10.0" that will be one of the topics at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. (And if you bring or use your smartphone while there, congratulations for being an "Edge Warrior.")

Called MeriTalk, the event is the first of what organizers hope will become an annual gathering that brings public- and private-sector tech thinkers together and sparks fresh conversations between the two. About 1,300 people have registered to attend the free conference, which will feature speakers and panel moderators hailing from outfits as far afield as Google and the U.S. Postal Service.

All of the day's events fall under the lofty goal of trying to help the U.S. government figure out how to trim some dollars out of the $71 billion that it spends on information technology every year, said organizer Stephen O'Keeffe.

To make some sense of technology's rapid advances, MeriTalk reached for a Big Thinker, the inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Known for his entrepreneurial application of technology on everything from musical instruments to Wall Street, Kurzweil said Friday that he has a wide-ranging talk in store for the crowd.

"Part of my mission here will be to broaden the perspective of these IT directors," he said. "It's not just routers and cloud computing. We really are transforming all the things we care about with information technology."

Although everyone knows that the world has seen rapid technological progress in the past few years, people sometimes fail to realize that there's much more coming in the years ahead, the inventor said.

As areas of study such as health intersect with technology, they also take place in the same sort of "Moore's Law," which means the kind of growth that has seen computer chips double their capacity every other year. The progress of science will not be "linear," to use one of his common assertions. It will be exponential.

"It's important that people in government understand this perspective," Kurzweil said. "People have seen a lot of change, but when they think about the future their imagination leaves them. They think their smartphone is going to be smaller, maybe have a few more apps."

O'Keeffe, who has been putting MeriTalk's schedule together for more than a year, said the event's name is derived from the word "meritocracy" -- the notion being that show attendees will be inspired by the soundness of an idea, not the job title of the person uttering it. In keeping with the forward-looking theme of the day's topics, organizers sought to make the conference more interactive by allowing attendees to, for example, post questions to panel members ahead of time, by means of the Web.

"Traditionally, conferences have been somewhat of a passive platform," O'Keeffe said. "I think the opportunity is to turn those into more active platforms where you're not just sitting there taking notes and listening -- that's our objective."

This is a city that sees dozens of events aimed at government tech customers, of course. To differentiate itself a bit, MeriTalk is offering one quirky event that is likely a first. At the end of the day, former model Kathy Ireland will host what show organizers have dubbed the "Federal IT Fashion Show," in which vendors will display the latest gadgets and technologies that they are offering for the government tech customer this year.

"There's nothing wrong with something that's entertaining," O'Keeffe said.

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