Hyperloop tube trains, killer AI, and virtual skydiving: Yes, it's the Pioneers Festival

Vienna's annual gathering to explore future technology and sell bright idea

Dr Hermann Hauser addresses Pioneers Festival 2015

Pioneers Festival 2015 is under way in Vienna – the event where hundreds of breathless startups go in search of funding or to publicize their bright ideas.

Pioneers is about future technology, but Dr Hermann Hauser, cofounder of Acorn Computers, kicked off the event with a journey into the past. The 1949 EDSAC 1 computer was the most significant leap in computing ever, he said, with a 1,500-times jump in performance over its rivals all the way to 650 instructions per second; today we count in tens to hundreds of thousands of MIPS (millions of instructions per second) but it was a huge breakthrough at the time.

Hauser also spoke fondly about Acorn's 1981 BBC Micro. “A whole generation of software developers in the UK learned how to program,” he said, “and it made Britain the most advanced school computing nation in the world.” A sadly short-lived phenomenon.

From Acorn came ARM, and Hauser gleefully claimed ARM is beating Intel in the processor wars. “Since 2010 we’ve completely outsold Intel. We sold more microprocessors last year than Intel has in its entire history,” he said.

One of his themes was how dominant companies fail to retain their position when a new wave of technology comes along. “Neither Intel nor Microsoft have any significant position in the next wave, which is smartphones plus the cloud,” he said, cheerfully ignoring the Intel processors driving Amazon’s Web Services, and Microsoft’s Azure and Office 365 cloud services.

It is not just a matter of technology, he said. ARM’s business model, which is to license the blueprints of its processor cores rather than actually manufacturing the processors, means that Intel has 350 licensees to compete with – 350 chip designers churning out their own gear.

What’s next? It’s the Internet of Things and machine learning, that will be transformative, he said. And on that latter technology, here his tone darkened.

“These machines will give you what wish for, and we’re not very good at wishing for the right thing. Unless we find a way of handling artificial intelligence we’ll be in real trouble.”

How long have we got? “It is likely that we'll have intelligences that are more intelligent than humans in 2050.” Hauser reckons we need to imbue AI with human values, or we are toast. “Please engage, we’ve got to figure out how to deal with artificial intelligence before it is too late,” he said.

Hyperloop or Hypeloop?

Dirk Ahlborn, CEO Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Dirk Ahlborn, CEO Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Next up was Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Technologies – or should that be Hypeloop? Hyperloop is the project initiated by Elon Musk, to develop a capsule that transports you at 1,200KMPH in a low-pressure tube – the speed of an aeroplane but at ground level.

In true startup fashion, Arlborn makes bold claims for the system. It is not only going to be quick once you get on board, but they are going to fix the journey to and from the station as well. “We think about the first and last mile a lot. A self-driving car brings you to your local station which brings you to the main station. Now you are from anywhere in LA to San Francisco within 50 minutes.”

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