I’m planking, my muscles are on fire, and I’m face to face with the guy leading the development of the futuristic, cashier-less Amazon Go stores. He tells me his name is Dilip and his father is a four-star general. I note that, in case I’m tested later by the former Navy Seal currently yelling at us to keep our cores activated.
Along with 10 tech executives from Amazon, Sonos, Skydio and other startups, I’m baking in the Palm Springs sun, less than an hour into Navy Seal training. It was a far cry from the air-conditioned auditorium we had been sitting in hours earlier, listening to how a researcher reprogrammed the human brain to see objects by interpreting signals from the tongue.
That’s what you get for accepting an invite to an event run by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. It’s going to be intense, both physically and mentally.
This was Bezos’ third year gathering some of the most notable figures in tech and space at a swanky Palm Springs resort, for a private, three-day collection of presentations and conversations on machine learning, automation, robotics, and space exploration—the initials of those fields spell MARS, giving the conference its name. Until now, it was mostly held behind closed doors—the biggest image to escape was Bezos stomping onto stage last year in a 13-foot-tall robotic suit.
MARS is one of two exclusive conferences Bezos runs each year—the other is Campfire, an equally exclusive retreat originally geared towards authors. Since Amazon’s entry into premium video content, that conference has pivoted more towards actors. Either way, the goal is pollination: at MARS, leaders of Bezos’ myriad businesses get to rub shoulders with AI buffs and NASA scientists outside the pretenses of academia and industry gatherings. It’s a good way for Amazon to get new ideas, and if someone is working on a problem Amazon is interested in solving—well, talent in these fields is scarce.
Bezos was more conference goer than host. The world’s richest man attended every presentation, always sitting in the first row, listening intently. He played with every robot at the event, asked questions and tested each one himself. His only time on stage was a short, four-minute speech on the conference’s last night, to give his reasoning for having the event at all.
“If you could hold a conference about the beginning of a golden age, why wouldn’t you?” Bezos asked a field packed full of rocket scientists, AI researchers, and roboticists. “I really do believe that we are on the leading edge of an incredible renaissance.”
Bezos has called these shots before, and, with his diverse portfolio of projects, he’s placing bets on areas with even greater potential—ones at the scale of the universe. Space, after all, is the ultimate expression of thinking big.