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Astronomy Expands Its Scope From the Heavens to Humans

In the coming decade, astronomers will surely solve some cosmic mysteries. Maybe by 2029, scientists will know what “dark matter” actually is, so they can give it a better name. Maybe they’ll find out how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, so they can stop fighting about it. Maybe they’ll find a planet that’s…



Astronomy Expands Its Scope From the Heavens to Humans

In the coming decade, astronomers will surely solve some cosmic mysteries. Maybe by 2029, scientists will know what “dark matter” actually is, so they can give it a better name. Maybe they’ll find out how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, so they can stop fighting about it. Maybe they’ll find a planet that’s actually like Earth, and not just kinda Earth-sized.

To decide where to focus their efforts for the next 10 years, astronomers are currently doing a formal review called a “decadal survey.” It’s not the kind of survey that would involve sending multiple-choice Scantrons to scientists; by “survey,” they really mean “overview of the discipline.” Astronomers across the US—from lowly graduate students to exalted observatory directors—provide input, usually in the form of papers, about what they think is scientifically important to study and craft recommendations about how the field should pursue it. Their papers will go to 13 subcommittees (called “panels,” because astronomers can’t use normal words in normal ways), each dedicated to a particular topic. Once the panels have chewed these ideas over, they’ll pass them along to a committee, which will prepare a public report.

This report basically dictates astronomy’s near-term trajectory: Agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation proactively use the committee’s recommendations to decide which projects to fund. “Should we build a Hubble?” for instance, was once little more than a glimmer on committee members’ computer screens. “The decadal survey has given the breath of life to some of the grandest things we’ve ever done in astronomy,” says astronomer Grant Tremblay of Harvard and Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics. But for the first time ever, this year’s survey will ask astronomers to contemplate something other than the cosmos: humans.

While 12 of the panels deal with research-centric topics like cosmology, galaxies, particle physics, and “electromagnetic observations from space,” the 13th panel is about people. Called the “Panel on the State of the Profession and Societal Impacts,” it asks astronomers to consider issues of “demographics, diversity and inclusion, workplace climate, workforce development, education, public outreach, and relevant areas of astronomy and public policy,” according to the webpage of the National Academy of Sciences, which oversees this process. (The survey is mandated by Congress, and is sponsored by NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.) In other words, the panel gives astronomers the power to tackle social issues like gender bias, lack of diversity, and the effects of their work on indigenous communities—all problems that many practitioners argue the field should dedicate more resources to solving.

Take, for example, one of the dozens of papers sent to the human panel, which came from a team co-led by Kaitlin Rasmussen, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Notre Dame. It’s titled “The Nonbinary Fraction: Looking Towards the Future of Gender Equity in Astronomy.” In frank terms, it lays out some of the disparities faced by nonbinary astronomers and concrete ways the field can do better by them. Nonbinary, says Rasmussen, is “an umbrella term for all genders not represented by the categories of ‘male’ or ‘female.’” As an example of inequity, Rasmussen says that when signing up for conferences, or submitting job applications, they always had to tick off a gender but saw no option for their own. They felt frustrated, excluded, and like they didn’t belong.

But things began to change for Rasmussen about a year ago, when they joined Twitter. “I started to see that there were other nonbinary scientists,” Rasmussen says. Here, they could speak openly about the ways in which academia excludes them. One day last May, a Twitter friend, Erin Maier, posted about gender research in astronomy—which examines things like the disparities between men’s and women’s careers, the social dynamics of who asks questions at conferences, and efforts to diversify conference speaker lists. Some of those research papers noted that, while the authors acknowledged the existence of nonbinary gender identities, they chose to treat gender as a M/F split in their research. Several such papers included a line to this effect: “While we recognize that gender is not binary, we do not include nonbinary people in our analysis due to lack of statistical significance.”

Maier’s post tapped a vein among some nonbinary scientists, who felt the sting of being overlooked. After all, if you’re a nonbinary person, it’s hard to read that line and not feel like you are not significant, yourself. “Part of me is like, ‘This is normal,” says Rasmussen, who is disappointed but not surprised by research language like this—they grew up on this planet, after all. “A newer part of me says, ‘This is not right. This is harmful. This is excluding me. This is excluding my friends.’”

Maier didn’t expect the tweet to attract so much notice. “I made the tweet, I fell asleep, and I woke up and had more notifications on Twitter than I had ever seen in my life,” says Maier. “It was a spotlight that I wasn’t really expecting.” The post garnered a couple dozen retweets, and more than 150 likes. Beck Strauss, an independent researcher who studies planetary geophysics, reached out to Maier about writing up a rebuttal.

“HELLO friends, it has been a wild couple of hours & I am marveling at the power of twitter,” Maier posted in response. “In any case, if anyone is interested in being added to a group DM to legitimately discuss the possibility of turning this into a white paper, please respond to this tweet or DM me!”

Soon, Maier was messaging with interested parties, including Rasmussen, and discussing a potential paper for the decadal survey panel. Maier’s post, Rasmussen says, “brought us out of the woodwork.”

The three and their other coauthors worked on writing up concrete ways the field could improve for nonbinary people. Among the changes they suggested in their paper: Asking people to volunteer their gender identity for demographic research (rather than, say, asking an ickily-named automated program called SexMachine to infer it), paying social scientists to help do research in astronomy, and anonymizing telescope proposals to minimize gender bias by putting all the applicants’ ideas on the same footing.

The authors are mostly graduate students (for many, this is their first published paper), but their early-career ideas and insights will reach astronomy’s highest echelons—thanks to the human panel. “There’s just so many more people out there caring about these issues than I thought,” says Maier.

The human panel will consider issues beyond gender, too. One of the papers is about how to create “realistic job training” for astronomy students, most of whom won’t become professors in the overcrowded field. Another group sent along ideas for combating unconscious bias in areas like recruitment, hiring, choosing guest speakers, and evaluating scientific proposals, based on methods the Space Telescope Science Institute has employed and tested. Other researchers presented a path and rationale for dropping the GRE, which they argued doesn’t accurately predict a student’s success in graduate school but does show “statistically significant score differentials across gender, race, and citizenship, with notably lower scores for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Nave Americans, and women of all races as compared to White and Asian American men.” The authors of one paper suggest that the field invest in hiring astronomy faculty at minority-serving institutions, while another recommends making astronomy careers more accessible to people with disabilities.

Several of the papers deal with the conflict over Maunakea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians where astronomers want to build a big instrument called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). For years, Native Hawaiian opponents, who see the scope as a colonialist intrusion, have clashed with scientists who want to move forward with construction anyway. In 2015, Hawaii’s state supreme court revoked TMT’s construction permit, and then restored it in 2018. Last year, protesters camped at the base of the site for months, blocking building access.

The papers about TMT aren’t just about constructing a telescope: They’re about confronting the fact that people who study the cosmos can’t just railroad Earthlings’ concerns. The authors also point out that if astronomers truly want a more inclusive and diverse discipline, they should change their interactions with the communities where they erect huge instruments. “We’re providing a starting point for astronomers to walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” the authors of one such decadal paper, called “Reframing Astronomical Research through an Anticolonial Lens,” wrote in an email to WIRED. Their paper recommends actions the astronomy community can take, like giving Native Hawaiians a seat on the decadal panel, pausing telescope construction until there’s more consensus, and writing a set of best practices guidelines for how to do no harm while doing your science.

Which is, really, the idea undergirding the addition of the human panel. It’s a good addition, those at the top believe. “I think we’re all very happy,” says Caltech astronomer Fiona Harrison, who sits at the head of the decadal survey committee.

Over the coming months, each of the 13 panels will pore over the scientists’ papers, and send their analysis to Harrison’s committee, which will use their input to write the final report, due out in early 2021. But we might not ever find out what the committee says about scientists’ many and varied suggestions. In contrast to the scientists’ very public input, these deliberations are closed-door: How they decide on their recommendations and priorities never becomes public. And that’s something not everyone in the astronomy community is happy about.

“The only information we have about the process at the end of the day is the final report,” says astronomer David Hogg of New York University. In his own human panel paper, called “A Better Consensus,” Hogg wrote that last decade, he was invited to be on one of the deliberating panels. Then officials handed him a non-disclosure agreement, which extended in perpetuity, until the end of the universe, or at least civilization and telescopes. That kind of opacity, he believes, doesn’t serve a community that offers up its most heartfelt ideas, yet has no window into how they’re received. “I felt like I couldn’t serve,” he says. And he didn’t.

Whatever the officials say about the nonbinary paper, writing it—and knowing it has a place in the decadal survey—has been significant for its authors: “Just to say to the people around us, ‘Hey! We are in your field. We are also doing science,’” says Strauss.

They’ve also been cheered by the supporters who have signed onto it. The paper has a two-page-long list of co-signers, and Strauss says it’s been heartening to witness younger students looking over that long list. “‘Oh, oh, that’s so-and-so!’” Strauss recalls hearing them say. “‘They’re a huge deal!’”

For Maier, finding community from a tweet fired off in frustration was the most important part of the paper-writing process. “Now I have this group of people that I can talk to whenever,” they say. “Prior to writing this paper, there were like two whole nonbinary astronomy people who I talked to and knew about.” Members of the planetary science community, which does its own version of a decadal survey, have asked the authors to write a version for them. And more Twitter groups, Strauss says, have materialized, sharing job postings and internship ideas.

Rasmussen feels hopeful, too, that the work will resonate beyond Twitter DMs. “Once our recommendations are part of the decadal survey. It will really sink in that this is the future,” they say. “This is the next 10 years of the future.”

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Goodyear’s reCharge Concept Tire Regenerates Burned Off Rubber

If Goodyear scientists have their way, replacing complete tires every year or so simply because a few millimeters of rubber wears off will become a thing of the past. The company this week unveiled a far-out concept for a tire that will automatically generate its own tread, continuously replacing the rubber that sloughs off from…



Goodyear’s reCharge Concept Tire Regenerates Burned Off Rubber

If Goodyear scientists have their way, replacing complete tires every year or so simply because a few millimeters of rubber wears off will become a thing of the past. The company this week unveiled a far-out concept for a tire that will automatically generate its own tread, continuously replacing the rubber that sloughs off from daily use.

Called reCharge, the concept looks at how to curb the waste that plagues Goodyear’s industry: About 250 million tires were scrapped in the US in 2017. “The tire is one of the few components that doesn’t stay on for the life of the vehicle,” says CTO Chris Helsel. “It’s replaced quite often. So the first problem to solve was to make the tire more of a permanent structure, as part of the vehicle itself.”

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To make that happen, Goodyear’s engineers designed something that works a bit like a stick of lip balm. At the center of the wheel sits a cylindrical, pressurized cartridge filled with liquified, biodegradable tire compound. As the miles stack up and the tread wears down, the pressure differential between the interior of the cartridge and the tire surface draws out the compound. It oozes out of channels radiating from the center to the tread surface automatically, passing through a grid-like frame that molds it into the proper shape. (The system is envisioned as incorporating both tire and wheel, with a non-pneumatic support structure instead of a tire attached to a metal rim.) When exposed to outside air—where the rubber meets the road—the compound hardens, and your tires never go bald.

The reCharge tire is very much a concept, but some of the ideas it promotes could make it onto your car in the next few years.

Courtesy of Goodyear

So instead of tossing old tires every few years, you’ll keep the bulk of the structure as long as you’ve got the car. The central cartridge would need replacing a few times over the wheel’s projected lifespan of between 100,00 and 300,00 miles, Goodyear estimates. That means less waste, Helsel says, since worn down tires get tossed even if the structural components beneath the tread and in the sidewall remain perfectly intact.

The reCharge concept comes with some other neat ideas built in. Helsel says sensors embedded within the reCharge structure can analyze wear patterns and driving style, and tune the type of compound the user might install next in order for it to better match. Aggressive brakers and performance nuts would get one kind of chemistry, hyper-miling road-trippers another. Goodyear could account for climate and road quality as well.

The tire is also well suited to electric vehicles. Because they’re usually heavier than their gas-powered counterparts and apply greater torque during acceleration, they can wear out tires 20 to 50 percent faster, Helsel says. “So you’re going to need a tire that lasts longer. This idea will allow for extended tire life and much easier swaps, and replacing just the cartridge will require one tenth of the number of parts that would need replacing compared to conventional tires.”

The concept, though, isn’t near production. Goodyear hasn’t made the all-important compound, and getting it to work as described would be complex, especially the bit about hardening with oxidation. Helsel says the company envisions something including fibrous material to enhance strength, inspired by the renowned toughness of natural spider silk. But different elements of the reCharge concept could trickle out sooner than a complete product—potentially within a decade. So the proposed tire compound, the structural framework, or the embedded sensors and artificial-intelligence-based analysis of use patterns might appear earlier in conventional tires. So your tires may get smarter—but they’ll still eventually lose the tread.

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New TCL Foldable Phone Concepts Are Weird but Exciting

TCL Communication, one of the fastest-growing TV brands in the US, now wants its own slice of the phone market—and it’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.The company took the wraps off two foldable device concepts, different from the one it showed at CES 2020. The first has a trifold display; think…



New TCL Foldable Phone Concepts Are Weird but Exciting

TCL Communication, one of the fastest-growing TV brands in the US, now wants its own slice of the phone market—and it’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.

The company took the wraps off two foldable device concepts, different from the one it showed at CES 2020. The first has a trifold display; think the triple-folded paper brochure you get at state parks, except replace the paper with a phone. It’s one of the first concepts we’ve seen with two separate hinge mechanisms working simultaneously, converting a 6.65-inch phone into a 10-inch tablet.

Photograph: TCL

I got a chance to play around with a prototype. It feels very rough around the edges—namely, it’s stiff and tough to unfold—but the device veritably went from a traditional-looking phone into an iPad-like tablet. You can also fold one-third of the screen away for the times you don’t need the maximum available amount of screen space. I can easily see myself unfolding this in a coffee shop and pulling out a slim Bluetooth keyboard to type up some words instead of lugging around a laptop.

Unfortunately with so much folding going on it, it’s a very thick phone—around the chunkiness of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, if not more. It’s not terribly fun to use one-handed.

That’s why the second concept is a little more interesting. It’s not exactly a foldable phone, rather a phone with a “rollable” screen, as TCL puts it. It looks just like an ordinary smartphone with a 6.75-inch screen, but spectacularly, you can tug on the right edge of the handset to roll out more display and increase the screen real estate to 7.8 inches—about as much as the iPad Mini, and with no folding required. This design keeps the phone really thin at 0.35 inches. The dummy unit I used required me to manually extend the screen, but TCL said it has a motorized version that automatically does it.

Since TCL manufactures its own displays, the company has gone wild playing around with various form factors. It has more than three dozen other concepts floating around in its factories. However, it’s likely the two concepts being unveiled today (as well as the wallet-like foldable device that debuted at CES) will never make it to market.

“We are not shy to show some of these ideas to engage in a discussion, to get your feedback, to learn,” says Stefan Streit, general manager of global marketing at TCL. “We believe this is much more important than just putting a product out, keep the volumes low, charge a very high price, and make the consumer a beta user and pay for it. That’s not TCL’s style.”

This testing phase lets the company identify which types of foldable phones resonate with people the most. Once it nails down a particular design and form—and there’s apparently a leading candidate—TCL intends to create a portfolio of foldables that give several options to buyers.

Being patient also gives the company time to figure out how to make foldable phones more affordable overall. Most of the products we’ve seen from the likes of Samsung, Lenovo, Motorola, and Huawei start at $1,380 and go all the way up to $2,700. That’s far more expensive than some of TCL’s most popular TVs.

“We’re not here to make novelty products,” says Jason Gerdon, head of global strategic communications. “We’re here to make innovation accessible.”

Whatever design TCL ends up settling on, the foldable phone is expected to arrive by the end of the year or early 2021. Before then, TCL is expected to launch its first US phones: the TCL 10 Pro, 10L, and the TCL 10 5G, which it teased at CES. (Gerdon said TCL doesn’t see the Covid-19 outbreak causing a substantial impact on its supply chain in the immediate term, but there is a chance products could be delayed “the longer the crisis continues.”)

Regardless, all this shows just how much TCL is now investing in its own brand name after a few attempts at leveraging others. It licenses the BlackBerry name and made a couple of keyboard-laden phones, but after making no real gains in smartphone market share, TCL is ending its BlackBerry contract this summer. Streit said making BlackBerry phones was still a very valuable learning experience.

TCL also licenses the Alcatel brand and owns Palm, both of which are here to stay. Alcatel will continue to offer ultra-low-cost phones—the TCL phone brand will sit just above it—and Palm will explore other ways to minimize screen time like, say, slapping a flexible screen on your wrist as a bracelet, Streit suggested.

Whether foldable phones prove to be a big part of our future is still up in the air. There’s no singular folding device stealing the hearts of mainstream consumers. But it’s undeniable that a folding screen makes any phone just a little more interesting.

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Amid Coronavirus Fears, Startups Rethink the Virtual Conference

The first conference to go was Mobile World Congress. The annual gathering of electronics makers and phone geeks announced the cancellation just weeks before it was set to begin, in late February, for the sake of safety. Global concern over the new coronavirus was rising, and plus, exhibitors were dropping left and right.Next came Adobe…



Amid Coronavirus Fears, Startups Rethink the Virtual Conference

The first conference to go was Mobile World Congress. The annual gathering of electronics makers and phone geeks announced the cancellation just weeks before it was set to begin, in late February, for the sake of safety. Global concern over the new coronavirus was rising, and plus, exhibitors were dropping left and right.

Next came Adobe Summit. Then Facebook F8. Within weeks, Google had canceled its annual developer conference, Google I/O, and Google Cloud Next, its cloud-focused conference. Microsoft called off its MVP Summit. IBM pulled the plug on Think. TED decided to hold off on its gathering, debating only whether to delay it or put it online. The organizers of SXSW wrung their hands, even after its biggest tech exhibitors—Twitter and Facebook among them—pulled out. On Friday, the city of Austin finally canceled the event.

As concern over Covid-19 sets in, people around the world are rethinking large gatherings. Social soirees have been canceled, universities are moving classes online, and more companies are instituting mandatory telecommuting policies—Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Salesforce have each asked their employees to work from home in recent weeks. If the coronavirus is going to reshape the way we work, as some have hypothesized, it will also need to change how we do conferences, a trillion-dollar industry in which millions of people participate each year. A new group of startups is trying to sell the business world on the value of virtual alternatives, but the appeal of networking IRL has so far had a stubborn way of sticking around.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

Conferences have long been the gold standard for exchanging ideas and strengthening professional relationships, both in business and academia. Sure, they can be a bit stuffy, but gathering people in the same room has measurable benefits. One study, from MIT, found that scientific collaborations that came out of conference meetings were “more novel, cross-disciplinary and more frequently cited than projects between two researchers in the same institution.”

It’s the execution of those events that’s often lackluster: People gather in hotel ballrooms, sit in stiff chairs, and watch a series of unsurprising talks and panel discussions. Many conferences end up being self-congratulatory echo chambers rather than forums for new knowledge. Technology hasn’t created much disruption either. Instead, tech conferences have become high-production spectacles as the industry emulates Steve Jobs and his commercial-style developer conferences. Those events aren’t cheap, either: Adobe Summit, before turning itself into a digital-only event, charged $1,695 per ticket—and that was the early bird price. That’s to say nothing of the cost of travel and the inevitably overpriced conference hotel rooms.

The alternate ideas have been fairly uninspired: webinars, panel livestreams. Xiaoyin Qu, the cofounder of a new virtual conference startup called Run the World, says the problem with most virtual conferences is the inability to meet other people. She attended dozens of conferences last year for market research and found that the best moments often weren’t the keynote speeches, but the breakout sessions or coffee breaks when conference attendees could bump into one another. When people met someone at a conference whose work was relevant to them, it made the $1,000 ticket worth it. When they didn’t, conferences sometimes felt like “a waste of time.”

Run the World came out of stealth this month and has backing from Andreessen Horowitz. Connie Chan, the general partner who led the investment, described Run the World as “a hybrid of Zoom video, Eventbrite ticketing, Twitch interactivity, and LinkedIn networking.” The platform allows conference organizers to livestream talks, discussions, and panels in return for a 25 percent cut of ticket sales. It also lets conference attendees fill out a profile describing their interests and uses an algorithm to match them with others; a virtual “cocktail party” feature lets attendees meet each other through video calls. (The “cocktails” are, obviously, BYO.)

Hopin, another startup that came out of stealth a few weeks ago, takes a similar approach to virtual conferencing. The platform combines livestreamed presentations with virtual networking, including a ChatRoulette-style feature for meeting other attendees. Most of the networking at conferences happens during unscheduled time, when people are milling about or hanging around the hotel bar. “That’s why people go to events; it’s not for livestreaming,” Hopin’s founder, Johnny Boufarhat, told Crunchbase News. “You go physically to network with people, to interact with people. And that’s what we solve.”

Moving conferences online can solve other problems, too: It reduces travel costs, environmental pollution, and accessibility concerns. Cutting out the in-person costs can also significantly reduce the price of admission and lets conference organizers invest more of their budget into speakers. For many conferences, Qu says, “around 20 percent is spent on the venue, 20 percent on food and beverages, and almost 20 percent is on equipment.” Most budgets she looked at had left conference organizers with less than 5 percent of their budget for program design and speaker fees.

The idea isn’t to make conferences free or accessible to everyone: some friction, Qu says, ensures that the relevant people show up and actually participate. But because conference organizers don’t have to worry about filling a big venue, in theory they can spend more on paying speakers’ fees and can create more-focused events. Qu has already seen people using Run the World to organize super-niche conferences, like an event for coaching engineers on how to date. It had 40 attendees. “If you no longer need to sign a venue lease 10 months before the conference and hire 30 people to work on that for a half a year, then it makes more sense to do these,” says Qu. “You don’t need to wait until 100,000 people show up to make it happen.”

Still, virtual conference platforms haven’t found much traction. David Pearlman, who researches travel and tourism at the University of New Orleans, wrote a paper a decade ago about the promise of virtual reality for the conference industry. Back then, he thought virtual conferences had a good shot at becoming the industry standard. But they haven’t really picked up momentum. “If anything, they’ve died back,” he says.

That’s partly because most people don’t own virtual reality headsets. But Pearlman says it’s also because meeting people as an avatar remains awkward, and digital platforms have struggled to re-create serendipitous encounters. Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life, has been trying to solve this with a virtual reality event space called Sansar, launched in 2017. Participants can log on to chat with each other from around the world or attend live concerts in VR. These aren’t simply livestreams—they’re events designed to foster person-to-person interaction. (The company’s pitch for its concerts: “Meet friends, cop merch, snap selfies. Show off your best moves and emotes: the floss, the shoot, the shiggy, whatever.”) Recently, Sansar introduced a virtual conference stage too, but it hasn’t taken off.

As more conferences get canceled or moved online, organizers could have a chance to explore these emerging platforms as an alternative to the boring old webinar. Qu says Run the World will waive fees for conference organizers who have had to cancel due to the coronavirus. But that’s unlikely to create a sea change, says Amy Calvert, CEO of the Events Industry Council, a trade group.

The coronavirus outbreak isn’t the first time major conferences have been forced to move online. “There are wildfires; there’s what happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina,” says Calvert. None of those events have spurred an industrywide shift toward digital conferences, she says, because attendees simply don’t get the same value. “The virtual elements are never going to replace the face-to-face meetings, because people want to connect and build those relationships and foster those networks.”

Most major conferences seem to agree. This year, Google has rebranded Google Cloud Next as Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect. It’s the company’s largest annual conference, with over 30,000 attendees, so Google decided to bring it online rather than cancel it outright. “Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company wrote after announcing the decision. What does that innovation look like? It plans to webcast the keynotes and add some digital “ask an expert” sessions with Google teams. Perhaps the most innovative thing it’s done is agree to refund the cost of tickets and offer the conference content for free.

Other conferences have made it perfectly clear that they don’t plan to stay digital-only. Collision, a 30,000-person tech conference held in Toronto, announced last week that it wouldn’t be holding its gathering this year and will instead move its programming online. Next year, though, it’s already planning another in-person event.

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