The Changing Face Of NVIDIA’s GTC: From Graphics And Tools To Thinking Computers

The GTC or GPU Technology Conference put on by NVIDIA is one of the more interesting events during the year but as I prepared for this year’s event it struck me that the evolution of this conference reflects a very real change in what is going on in the technology market.  A very real shift from the way we used computers last century and how computer use this century is evolving to be very different.   The attendance levels, the speakers, the conference focus all reflect that the emerging world of technology is a very different beast.

Let’s explore that a little bit. 

Growth Spurt 

First in terms of size back in 2009 this conference was originally kind of tiny they had only 144 sessions, 1,623 folks that registered, 1,414 that showed up, they did have a decent number of countries (40) represented, but only 17 sponsors and 55 exhibitors.  Last year they had a whopping 533 sessions, 4,417 folks that registered, 3,937 that actually showed up (they went from around 200 folks that didn’t show up to 500 folks that didn’t show up, sounds like a premise for an X-Files episode), they jumped to 50 countries represented, 44 sponsors and 143 exhibitors.  In six years they grew a little better than 3x.  

Now the reason for this is likely both increased diversity in the technologies and businesses covered and a big shift in focus. 

Speaker Changes

They started with keynote speakers like Hanspeter Pfister an expert on computer generated visualization out of Harvard and Richard Karris talking about computer generated graphics out of Lucasfilm.   Hanspeter spoke about the need for more computing power in research ranging from radio astronomy and neuroscience to quantum chemistry and physics.  Karris spoke to the advances in visual effects and the tight coupling of film effects and graphics performance. 

Over the next several years they stuck largely with academics and graphics as the core of the conference.  In 2013 they had Ralph Gilles SVP of Product Design for Chrysler and even though his talk was on designing cars digitally it anticipated a sudden shift in both topics and approaches. 

In 2015 NVIDIA’s GTC shifted hard and the key folks on stage including Elon Musk talking more on the future of computing with an emphasis on the automotive market and advances in car intelligence  Jeff Dean, Senior Fellow at Google spoke about the increasing importance of intelligence in much of what Google does ranging from image recognition and translation to modeling.  Andrew Ng, Chief Scientist at Baidu built on what Dean had spoken about and how these same advances were critical to Baidu as well.      

This year they are having Gill Pratt CEO of the Toyota Research Institute where there is a substantial amount of research being done on artificial intelligence in cars and robotics.  But the highlight is likely Rob High, IBM Fellow, VP and Chief Technology Officer for Watson.   He’ll showcase the advances on cognitive computing and the move to create computers you can simply talk to.  

As we look across the years we see a massive shift from education and entertainment focused activities to those more focused on creating intelligent systems.  

Wrapping Up:  The Profound Shift

If you look at the beginning, which was more about creating tools and images, and compare it to the end, which was more about making machines that think you see a huge level of advancement.  This is almost similar to the beginning of the industrial age when folks were just beginning to figure out automation and then comparing that to the Tesla manufacturing line where these advancements had been taken to their near ultimate end over centuries but this isn’t happening in centuries or decades but years and months.   To advance from building tools to building machines that will be able to think for themselves in a few short years is amazing to me and this is just the beginning of the changes we will see in the coming years.   Robots that fly are already here, cars that drive themselves are not only in trials but Tesla actually has them on the road.  DJI just launched a drone that can see and navigate around obstacles for the consumer market. 

GTC reminded me just how fast this market is moving and the only thing I’m absolutely sure of is that I’m not sure I’m ready for this level of change.   Are you?