A dozen years ago, when Mike Dubno was looking for a home on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a realtor showed him a six-story brownstone on a serene cross street not far from Central Park. The building was nice enough, but what really seduced Dubno was something the engineering inspector mentioned. He noted that a previous owner had divided the building into multifamily dwellings, and in so doing had installed 400-amp electrical service. "You know," the engineer said, "you could run a machine shop in here."
One of Dubno's priorities after moving in was to excavate a half-million pounds of bedrock in order to convert his dim, 19th-century grotto of a basement into a 900-square-foot workshop roughly the size and shape of a railroad apartment. Dubno then installed a Smithy lathe and milling machine he would control by a computer he built from scratch. He has a Jet drill press capable of 5,000 rpm, which he concedes is "a ludicrous drill press for an individual to have." He has an Epilog laser cutter and a MakerBot 3D printer. He has a TIG welder and a MIG welder and a Hypertherm torch with a 55,000-degree-Fahrenheit beam of ionized plasma. An industrial-grade air-filtration system with a 1-micron filter sucks stuff—the superfine particulate dust that results from matter that's been cut by a plasma torch, say—out of the air. When he fires up the Oneida vacuum that powers the system ("This is overkill … by a lot"), it emits a rising, multipitched whoosh not unlike the sound effect used for death rays in B movies.
On the room's several benches are motherboards in varying stages of deconstruction, a Short Circuit–esque robot Dubno built three decades ago when he was about 20, powerful magnets that if not stored properly will suck large metal things across the room, a length of copper pipe to be used in a magic trick (Dubno sometimes helps his friend, the magician Michael Chaut, build devices for shows), and an Antikythera mechanism—an ancient Greek device sometimes called humanity's first computer. Dubno fashioned one of the only accurate working models in existence out of Lucite using his laser cutter.
Dubno, now 52, is a college dropout and autodidact software programmer who rose to become the chief technology officer of Goldman Sachs. Depending on whom you ask, he is slightly more or less intense about various forms of gadgetry than is his brother, Dan, 55, a former CBS News producer. In 1998 Dan came across a speech given by Al Gore in which the then vice president mused about a satellite-based photo- and data-collection system that could render every inch of the earth into a vast digital online map. Dan, who had used technology to enhance the news since arriving at CBS in 1989, was intrigued. "What I wanted was the ability to zoom in from outer space to any area in the world," Dan recalls. "Say an earthquake happened, or whatever terrible thing it was—I wanted all this metadata and real data so we could illustrate what was going on before our cameras could even get to a place."
He discovered an obscure startup called Keyhole, which was developing software that could create a Web-based map of Earth composed of high-resolution satellite images. He also found satellite-imagery companies actually taking such photographs. He merged the two technologies and used the result on the CBS Evening News in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, showing Saddam Hussein's strongholds and targets of bombing raids well before the network's competitors had such capabilities. As the first person to bring data-visualization technologies like 3D graphics, touchscreens, and high-resolution satellite imagery to television, he transformed the news. He later introduced Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page to Keyhole's technology. Not long after that the company bought it and turned it into Google Earth.
The Dubnos have fashioned and hacked and fabricated and tinkered with many remarkable things, and have imagined many more. But the most amazing thing they've ever built is something you cannot touch at all.
The whole thing started more than a decade ago, when Mike introduced his brother to Greg Harper, a technology consultant then doing work for Goldman Sachs. Both men were serious gadget heads, and competitive about it. When they first met in Mike's office at Goldman, each strove to outdo the other by pulling yet newer or still more exotic gizmos from his pocket or briefcase, like the knife, gun, cannon, missile, nuke sequence in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. You might think Dan would have had the advantage, being a network-news producer with a big-time journalist's access to technology companies and government labs. He was known at CBS as such a keen technologist that he wound up on camera as Digital Dan, reviewing the newest gadgets on two of the network's programs, including The Early Show—a role he leveraged opulently for access to the inventors and designers responsible for the technology he discussed.
But Harper, it turns out, was a worthy adversary— "a gadget man's gadget man," according to Dan, a kind of amateur historian of consumer electronics and himself an inventor. Harper holds 21 patents and played a role in developing streaming video and the software that became Windows Media Player. His New York City duplex apartment is stuffed with TRS-80s and Altair 8800s and Revox reel-to-reel tape recorders and Gordon Gekko–era Motorola DynaTACs and first-generation Walkmen and PalmPilots—all the once-hot technological artifacts that Harper can't bring himself to toss. In a barn outside the city Harper stores enough archaic technology to fill three 26-foot moving trucks. "Greg is a psycho," Dan says.
The two had so much fun sparring they started getting together regularly over dinner. Mike served as mediator. Soon other technophiles heard about the gadget one-upsmanship sessions and asked to join in. They called the gathering a Gadgetoff, and at some point it occurred to them that it would be more interesting if they could invite the actual human beings who had invented the things they were showing off. What kinds of ideas might emerge, as if from a breeder reactor, during such confabulations?
The Dubno brothers began to scale up Gadgetoff in December 2004 in the living room of Mike's town house. Among the 27 attendees was Helen Greiner from iRobot with her early bomb-disposal military robot, which wreaked mild havoc on the Dubno furniture. A Silicon Valley mogul arrived with three rather conspicuous companions—young, slim, fashionable women, short of skirt, high of heel, and as out of place in that milieu as an actuary at Cannes. They chatted aloofly until someone commandeered the robot's remote control and drove the machine—a menacing armored device that appeared capable of opening fire—toward the ladies at a rapid pace. They shrieked as it cornered them. "It wasn't really designed for the insides of beautiful, near–Central Park houses," Greiner says today.
The following year the event ballooned to 90 people, who mingled over shrimp cocktail and platters of finger food mostly purchased at Costco. Two world-class hackers chatted amiably with Mark Seiden, a cybersecurity consultant for multinational corporations—essentially a hacker hunter. On the cellphone of MIT professor Sandy Pentland was an app to which people submitted themselves like a polygraph test—"a real-time speech feature analysis application," according to a description by its creators at the MIT Media Lab—which was designed, Dan Dubno recalls, "to determine if someone is boring." Guests sporadically went out into the cold to race one another toward Central Park on prototype Segways that inventor Dean Kamen had brought. An object the size of a small automobile that shouldn't have fit through the door loomed in the dining room. It was a two-man submarine built to photograph surfers in Hawaii. Among those also displaying innovations were gastromolecular chef Homaro Cantu with his experiments in edible printing and MacArthur genius Erik Demaine with his computational origami. There was no common theme among all these items save for one: Like most things presented at Gadgetoff, they all offered a glimpse of the future.
Word of the event—part show-and-tell, part screwball colloquium—spread quickly through the overlapping Venn diagram worlds of technology, science, and DIY maker culture. The Dubnos had relied on the same kind of large-scale nerd humor that motivates Caltech pranks, but for the future they imagined something more ambitious: a daylong jamboree of human ingenuity that would include the world's most stimulating inventors, designers, programmers, hackers, craftsmen, machine builders, and masterminds.
Attendance would be by invitation only—not that that was limiting in any way. The Dubno brothers aren't exactly name-droppers. Or, rather, they do name-drop, but only because it would be difficult for them to recount their exploits without mentioning their many coconspirators—this or that renowned scientist or inventor or Silicon Valley bold-faced name who winds up having an important role in the story. Mike's Antikythera project, for example, originated with Danny Hillis, a computer scientist, inventor, and former Disney Imagineer who is now designing and building something called the 10,000-Year Clock under the auspices of a brainy but vaguely defined think-tankish organization called The Long Now Foundation. The brothers have come to sit at the hub of a network of connections that spans so many people in so many fields and subfields of science and technology and engineering that you could create a game called Six Degrees of Dubno. "I think there are two degrees of Dubno," says Kamen. "One is Mike and the other is Dan."
Partly this is the result of Gadgetoff's popularity. With each successive event the brothers found it easier to amass a list of invitees that attracted still more innovative minds. "That was one of the best parts about Gadgetoff—the quality of the people who were there," says Astro Teller, the artificial-intelligence scientist and head of Google's secretive advanced-research arm, Google X (and grandson of theoretical physicist Edward Teller, who is referred to as the father of the hydrogen bomb). "They aggregated around themselves some of the most creative people I have met in my life," says Yossi Vardi, the Israeli venture capitalist best known for backing the startup that popularized instant messaging. As Dan puts it, "We have a history of collecting innovators."
They wound up hosting former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold; Red Whittaker, the Carnegie Mellon roboticist; Gary Lauder, a venture capitalist and scion of the Estée Lauder fortune; Martin Eberhard, cofounder of Tesla Motors; and MakerBot cofounder Bre Pettis, who brought his first-generation 3D printers. Jeff Bezos came to observe and politely dodge questions about Amazon's next move. If there was a motivation behind Gadgetoff, it was an inquisitiveness so pure it was almost nihilistic. There was no point beyond curiosity. No talk of progress or of fi the planet. They simply desired to find out what the best minds were up to. "If you want to know what the future looks like," Dan says, "befriend the people inventing it."
The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of invention seemed natural enough. The Dubnos grew up first in Brooklyn, then the Bronx (both attended the famed, elite school Bronx Science), with a father who worked for nearly 50 years as a patent attorney. Herbert Dubno also knew electrical wiring and carpentry and car engines. For fun, he plumbed. With one arm. He lost the other in an accident on a New Jersey farm as a young man. He went back to school in his 50s just because he was curious. "Somehow he got New York Medical College to let him in," Dan says. (He completed the course work but did not receive a medical degree.) "He taught us you could learn anything about anything, and you shouldn't be intimidated by any field," Dan says. "His ethos was not only can you do it yourself, you must."
In the late 1970s, when he was 15, Mike became so engrossed in computer programming that he found a summer job at a small Wall Street investment house writing code for custom software that could track clients' trades. His parents, aware of their son's blossoming interests, had bought him a NorthStar Horizon microcomputer, the kind with toggle switches on the front. "My dad equated it to a piano," he says. "If your kid is gifted musically—which I was not—you'd get him a piano. This was my piano."
When it came time for college, Mike lasted less than an academic year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, even though the university paid him to tutor other students in computer programming. He says, "I didn't understand that school was supposed to be for my benefit." He entered the workforce, taking temporary code-writing gigs at Merrill Lynch and then Chase Manhattan Bank. He also worked at one of New York's first retail computer stores, called Digibyte, a major Atari distributor. Once, several Atari people came to give a demonstration and wound up asking Mike to help them design a new game. Later someone from Atari called and said there had been a mix-up; the company already had 20 people in-house working on it. "I said, well, there's a problem, which is that I'm done. And the guy says, that's tough luck. And I said, either you pay me or I sell it, but it's not tough luck." Mike found a manufacturer and sold the disks himself to retail outlets. He called his game Megalegs. Atari called its Centipede. They hit the market around the same time, and reviews in some gaming journals called Megalegs superior. Atari sued Michael Dubno, age 20, and although he won a small settlement, the encounter ended his nascent video-game enterprise.
Several years later he was hired as an independent contractor by one of Goldman Sachs's new partners: the economist and mathematician Fischer Black, he of the Black–Scholes equation, the algorithm used to price options that is now a cornerstone of modern finance. ("It's basically a heat-diffusion equation," Mike explains.) Black became Mike's mentor. In 1986 the young programmer wrote the code for one of Wall Street's first automated-trading programs. A year later, after the Black Monday crash, some blamed computerized systems like Goldman Sachs's. In 1991 Mike wrote the risk-management program, still in use today, to which various experts have attributed the firm's escapes from the various financial crises of the past 20 years. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that he programmed the immune system of the vampire squid. By the time the company went public in the 1990s, he'd made partner. In 2005, with Gadgetoff blossoming, he retired.
After the 2005 Gadgetoff the founders decided that their gathering had outgrown Mike Dubno's brownstone. The following year they moved it to Governors Island, in New York Harbor, the first time the decommissioned Coast Guard base was used for such an ambitious event. It was there that Gadgetoff achieved its mature state. The island's sprawling indoor and outdoor spaces meant plenty of room for larger machines and more outrageous exhibitions, many with dubious or zero utility, including the latest work by Didi Vardi, brother of Yossi and perhaps the world's greatest designer of Rube Goldberg machines, who created a kinetic sculpture using lasers, golf balls, wire coils, and mirrors.
There were also exhibits of probable far-reaching utility. At the 2007 Gadgetoff, held on the grounds of the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, attendees got a look at the first self-driving cars designed by Red Whittaker and his protégé Sebastian Thrun, who led the autonomous-vehicle initiative at Google X. Rodney Brooks, the MIT professor emeritus who served as a subject of, and who gave the title to, Errol Morris's documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, was a return attendee. At Gadgetoff there were fast things and cheap things and out-of-control things. Future installments would include a catapult–slingshot seige engine, known as a trebuchet, which launched all manner of items hundreds of yards across a field, and a jet-powered motorcycle built by Chris Hackett, the dreadlocked lord of an artist–maker combine called the Madagascar Institute. "It's surprisingly easy to make a jet engine," Hackett says. "An inefficient one, that is." At another installment, Hackett brought a jet-powered swing ride whose engine was so loud (and thus inefficient) that nearby residents complained to the police. This was the event's spirit: the somewhat haphazard juxtaposition of the beneficial and the absurd.
"It sounds extreme, but Dan and Mike's view is people don't blow things up enough anymore," Teller says. "There's something about that NASA-inspired juvenile hacking that used to go on. With Gadgetoff, they got you reexcited about being silly with technology. It drives a lot of learning. It drives creativity."
Gadgetoff reached its zenith in 2009. Five hundred people flocked to a former home for retired sailors called Snug Harbor, on Staten Island. It was by far the largest Gadgetoff. Costs ran well into the six figures. The event was never for profit, and the Gadgetoff brain trust often waived entrance fees, which were only meant to cover costs. "If you want to ask real inventors to come, and they're hauling a Doppler machine to New York City all the way from Florida, you can't charge them an entrance fee," says Greg Harper.
Ever since its launch in Mike's living room, Gadgetoff had included an array of presentations. If you couldn't bring your gadget, or if you had no gadget but an area of inquiry or body of work, you could give a talk. You had 3 minutes. "Except for the guys from DARPA," Dan says. "We gave them 7." That's DARPA, as in Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as in the R&D lab of the Pentagon.
For all its hijinks and invention-for-the-sake-of-invention zeitgeist, Gadgetoff always included certain military-industrial-complex types and others whose appearance hinged on the invite-only nature of the event. (Media coverage was mostly banned.) Pablos Holman, a well-known hacker who once demonstrated at Gadgetoff a Yagi antenna he'd rigged so he could decrypt a Wi-Fi network and take control of someone's computer from 2 miles away, says, "I've met billionaires at Gadgetoff. Reclusive ones. The truth is, Gadgetoff is good for the world. It seems like this big party, but we've helped each other. It's like a community of people that wouldn't have known each other otherwise."
Dan Dubno has mentioned, in somewhat vague terms, his dealings with In-Q-Tel, which is essentially a venture-capital shop financed by the CIA. An outsider may, given recent developments involving, for example, Edward Snowden, have questions about this. But Dan skirts this line of inquiry, noting that identifying a U.S. intelligence agent is a crime.
"There were people who worked for various intelligence agencies who presented" is all he'll say.
Various intelligence agencies? The CIA too?
"There were guys who worked for various intelligence agencies—consultants for various intelligence agencies, among other things—who presented, at various points."
Presented secret government tech-nologies?
"No. But … I've attended things where people who have represented other governments have showed me stuff that is unbelievable."
Then, after four large-scale Gadgetoffs, the show abruptly ended. Mike came out of retirement in 2010 to take a job as head of global markets and research technology at Bank of America, and the workload meant he wouldn't have much time for Gadgetoff. Neither Dan nor Greg Harper wanted to do it without him. The brothers are close in this way. They tend to complete each other's sentences or, when not doing that, point out how the other is wrong on some technical point. But during Mike's hiatus, Dan, who retired from CBS in 2008, has kept the Gadgetoff spirit warm, he says, by producing similar events for Google.
Still, half a decade has now passed. Moore's law states that the processing power for computers will double about every two years, advancing various capabilities along with it. And with so many new lines of technology having bloomed in the interim, an intense hankering has taken hold of Gadgetoff's founders. Recently Mike's workload has diminished. The time for another Gadgetoff may be near. "Everyone is begging us to do it," Dan says.
Asked if he would travel from Tel Aviv for another Gadgetoff, Yossi Vardi says, "If needed, I will be the second person from this region to walk on water."
The Dubnos and Harper become visibly excited when discussing a Gadgetoff relaunch. (Harper actually hops up and down in his seat.) They say 2015 is likely. They're scouting locations in and around New York City's waterways. "I'd be really interested to see, if they restarted it, what they were trying to do that was new," Astro Teller says. "The world has updated in some interesting ways in the last few years."
The founders want to include ever-more-relevant fields of inquiry: microrobotics, drones, big-data predictive models, cyberwarfare, alternative energy, climate-change antidotes. They'll rely on their network to point them toward the truly innovative and the purely bizarre. "What's great," Dan says, "is that the people who came to previous Gadgetoffs curate the event as much as we do."
If anything is to be changed, it will simply be a matter of more. "Crazier, faster, more stuff, more inventors," Dan says, sounding very much like an inventor himself, preparing the world for his latest, biggest, and most spectacular creation.