Virtual Reality's New Look panel at the 2016 Thrival Innovation+Festival. Image courtesy of Ascender.

When the East Liberty-based incubator Ascender started thinking about how to approach their latest Thrival Innovation + Music Festival, they saw an opportunity to hone in on one important subject: artificial intelligence.

“Thrival Innovation in the past has always been almost this intentional shotgun approach, covering as many different topics as we possibly could, and bringing together that intersection of people,” says Ascender Program Director Kenny Chen. He adds that they chose artificial intelligence (AI) because it has become a “primary area of interest, risk, opportunity, concern, or curiosity for a lot of people.”

Titled Intelligence: Humans X Tech, the Innovation portion of Thrival, which will take place from September 27-28, offers programming at cultural spaces throughout Pittsburgh’s East End, including the Ace Hotel and Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, as well as Ascender’s home base in Bakery Square. The two-day event will examine the fast-growing relationship between humans and technology.

The theme was inspired by Pittsburgh’s “fast-growing reputation as a global leader” in AI, machine learning and robotics, a standing bolstered by the presence of autonomous vehicle technology, companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon, and research at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Thrival Director Dan Law believes narrowing Innovation’s focus provides balance to a festival where the music portion has received far more attention.

“The scale and scope of Thrival have come a long way, but we’ve noticed that Thrival Music became extremely high-profile extremely fast,” he says. “For the entire festival holistically to be successful, the two elements need to hold equal weight.”

Thrival crowds gather for an event at Alloy 26. Image courtesy of Ascender.

He and Chen also see it as an opportunity to showcase Pittsburgh as a hub for AI, not just in terms of driving the technology, but in determining its impact. The approach ties in with Ascender’s collaboration with the XPRIZE organization, which has explored the moral applications of AI. The relationship recently took Chen to the AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva, where he met with AI experts from around the world.

“We’d really like to make Pittsburgh not just an AI robotics development hub, but also a center where AI ethics and the responsible development of these technologies are also happening,” says Chen. “We saw [Thrival] as an opportunity to bring together as many of the local, national and international players to speak on it so that the public can be more factually aware of what’s actually going on in this space and make decisions about how best to both protect themselves from the risk, but also perhaps take part in some of the really exciting opportunities.”

The speaking roster boasts WIRED founding editor and NewCo CEO John Battelle, Twitter brand strategist Joel Lunenfeld and Grammy Award-nominated DJ and producer Steve James. The growing list also includes representatives from Fortune 500 companies, global research universities and fast-rising startups from Silicon Valley and beyond.

Thrival Innovation concludes in Oakland with an event at the Carnegie Museum of Art, marking the first time Ascender has collaborated with the cultural institution.

“We thought the museum of art would be a really fascinating place to take that deep dive into how technology is poised to affect our lives and civilization as a whole,” says Chen.

The evening will feature more than a dozen technology and art exhibits and coincides with a new installation by world-renowned digital simulation artist Ian Cheng, whose work will be on display at the museum from September 21-January 28. NEXtpittsburgh is a media sponsor of the event which will feature talks by experts on the complexities of AI.

“It is an important juxtaposition when you’re exploring AI right next to great sculptures of antiquity and dinosaur bones,” says Law. “It creates this really interesting contrast that I think will speak to people.”

Passes for Thrival Innovation are on sale now. Options include $15 passes for evening programs, $45 single-day full-access passes, and $75 two-day all-access passes. A limited amount of VIP passes are also available for $150.

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.