Mary Lou Jepsen, Moonshots, and the Human Impact of Innovation

Xconomy San Diego — 

As expressions go, “moonshot” has recently been gaining a lot of popularity in the media vernacular.

Many folks assume that it arose with NASA’s Apollo 11 mission to the moon. But it’s a matter of debate. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, for example, credits commentator Vin Scully for inventing the term to describe the soaring home runs that Wally Moon hit out of the old Los Angeles Coliseum.

These days, though, the word moonshot is used to refer to all sorts of lofty-if-not-impossible goals—from curing cancer to colonizing Mars.

In any case, Mary Lou Jepsen has led enough lofty-if-not-impossible efforts to qualify for a moonshot hall of fame. So I am thrilled to report that Jepsen has joined the lineup of heavy hitters at the Xconomy Forum on the Human Impact of Innovation, set for April 19 at the Alexandria at Torrey Pines.

Jepsen is joining a roster of other moonshot-veterans that includes former NASA administrator Dan Goldin, who is now at the vanguard of a revolution in machine intelligence as the founder of San Diego-based KnuEdge. Other all-stars include Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technologies, and Henrik Christensen, director of UC San Diego’s Institute for Contextual Robotics.

In planning this forum on the human impact of innovation, we asked, “What are the innovations that will have the biggest overall impact on our health, comfort, security, and how we live our lives?’’ We focused on major innovations in both life sciences and information technology that appear most likely to affect large numbers of people or big markets—and found that “machine learning” is emerging as a recurring theme for many speakers, including Jepsen.

She founded Openwater in 2016, after serving as an executive engineer at Facebook and Oculus, overseeing their advanced work in consumer electronics and virtual reality. Before that, she led two moonshot projects as head of the display division at Google X (the moonshot factory), where she reported to co-founder Sergey Brin.

As a renowned expert in optics and display technology, Jepsen co-founded One Laptop per Child with MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte. There, she invented the laptop architecture and a new display screen for a low-cost, low-power computer for use by children in developing countries. Of her many ambitious projects, my personal favorite: She co-led an effort to re-create a historic, 15th century block of buildings in Cologne, Germany, using large-scale holographic display technology to create ghostly structures above the jagged walls of basement ruins.

At Openwater, Jepsen has set out to realize a decade-long dream to create an inexpensive, wearable device capable of providing high-resolution images of the human body that could be used for early detection of cancer and other diseases. As Jepsen told Xconomy last year, her work at Openwater would take advantage of advances in physics, optoelectronics, consumer electronics, big data, and artificial intelligence.

The biggest moonshot goal for Jepsen at Openwater, though, is to create images that would be equivalent to a functional MRI—the multi-million dollar machines used to measure brain activity—by detecting changes in blood flow. She is building on work pioneered by UC Berkeley’s Jack Gallant, which showed in 2011 how patterns of brain activity, gathered by a functional MRI scan while the subject was viewing an assortment of videos, would enable thoughts to be translated into digital images.

In terms of human impact, the musician and former Genesis front man Peter Gabriel (of all people!) wrote last year about Jepsen’s work: “This will surely affect human life as deeply as any technology our imagination has yet devised or any evolutionary advance.”

What else happens in a world of visible thought?

To find out, come to the Xconomy Forum on the Human Impact of Innovation. You can find online registration here.

(Flickr Creative Commons image of Mary Lou Jepsen by  Ed Schipul)