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The Power of Voice Apps, a Quest for Truth, and Tech’s Dark Side

Good morning from San Francisco, where last night Fortune hosted its annual Brainstorm Tech conference walk-up dinner, a preview of our July event.

I interviewed Yoky Matsuoka, the brilliant roboticist who is chief technology officer of Alphabet’s Nest Labs. She painted a picture of how scientists from multiple complementary disciplines are working together to understand how machines and humans can work together.

We also used the dinner to have a group conversation with 80 or so tech industry luminaries about what the hottest topics in tech are and what we should be discussing in Aspen this summer. (The room was packed with impressive people. Three examples: Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams of Medium, and Alfred Lin of Sequoia Capital.)

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Here are three themes that resonated for me:

  1. Tech’s downside. There’s a conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley that all technology is good technology. No one much wants to hear the downside: that tech throws people out of work and otherwise can have a negative impact on our lives. One participant suggested a “societal impact statement” before technology is implemented, much the way environmental impacts need to be assessed before building projects commence.
  2. Voice. Twice this week people have made the case to me that as powerful voice-recognition and processing engines like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Home improve, we won’t need our computers or smartphones as much. That’s a paradigm shift I hadn’t fully considered until now.
  3. False news. I was heartened to hear that non-journalists are hopping mad about the pernicious impact of contra-factual “content” on civil society. They’re pointing fingers, too, at Google and Facebook for not devoting enough of their billions in profits to fixing the problems. That leaves me hopeful we’ll fix this.

Have a great weekend.