Inspiring achievements by both man and machine were the highlight of the second day of the MiSK Global Forum here on Wednesday.
The audience heard how an Egyptian became the first among his compatriots to climb mountains on all six continents; how a retired American animator helped found and develop one of the world’s most famous animation studios, and how a German entrepreneur developed an online learning platform for engineers developing driverless cars.
A packed audience of young Saudi men and women filled the events hall at the Four Seasons Hotel. They looked positively thrilled to watch the speakers describe their achievements, clapping enthusiastically, thanking the speakers for their presence and asking relevant questions after each talk.
Omar Samra, founder and CEO of the adventure travel company Wild Guanabana, recounted how he left his life as a banker in London and Hong Kong in 2009 to follow his dream of climbing mountains in all six continents.
He became the first Egyptian to scale Mount Everest, the tallest mountain of the world, in 2007 during a break from his job. This sparked his thirst for more challenges, and he managed to ski the South Pole in 2014, and the North Pole in April 2015.
“I nearly gave up half-way up Everest, with so little oxygen at 7,500 meters altitude, all you think is how many steps you can take with each breath,” recalled Samra. “I remembered the advice a mentor gave me to just put one foot in front of the other, and we finally reached the top of Everest.”
The explorer now has his sights set on outer space. “I had a dream to go to space, so I joined a competition to go to space and I won as the only Arab participant,” he said. “Hopefully I can be one of the first persons to have completed the grand slam of climbing and going to space.”
Alvy Ray Smith, a co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, linked the exponential development of computer technology to the development of animation technology. “The world’s first computer in 1948 at the University of Manchester called ‘Baby’ had pixels and could animate,” he explained.
Smith cited Moore’s Law, the observation that the density of integrated circuits doubles roughly every two years. Smith created his first computer graphic in 1965, and noted that today’s computer graphics are 10 billion times better than his first one.
“We started Pixar in a four-car garage in 1975 on Long Island. We decided to make the first computer animated film, and then George Lucas invited us to California to work on the Star Wars series,” Smith recalled. “We got our big break on a Star Trek movie as they wanted computer generated graphics.”
Smith recounted how Pixar went through 45 funding drives before they found their angel in the form of Steve Jobs who agreed to invest in the company. The studio went on to produce “Toy Story” (1995), “A Bug’s Life” (1998), “The Incredibles” (2004) and “Finding Nemo” (2003). Disney bought Pixar in 2006 at a valuation of $7.4 billion.
Rounding out the morning’s first session was Sebastian Thrun, the founder and CEO of Udacity, an online learning platform, who talked about how technological innovation is disrupting our lives in positive ways.
“Today’s artificial intelligence revolution is akin to the agricultural revolution,” he said. Thrun believes that driverless cars will reduce traffic accidents and that in the next few years their presence will grow dramatically.
“In the US, cars are utilized only 3 percent of the time, meaning that they are just parked for 97 percent of the time. Imagine intelligent, self-driving cars, they would keep going around instead of just being parked. And of course this would diminish the number of cars on our streets,” he explained.
The Udacity platform allows students to take four- to 12-month courses to learn how to become self-driving car engineers and machine learning engineers.
“I am very happy that my company has signed an agreement with the MiSK Foundation to bring our education programs here. I am super-excited that we are opening several labs here in Riyadh where we will be able to train 2,000 to 3,000 students,” said Thrun.
“I love (Saudi Arabia’s) 2030 plan, anything that engages your youth in development is great. You cannot depend on oil forever,” he said.