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THE BROAD VIEW

Inside Mars, Jeff Bezos' brainiac pow-wow

Amazon's exclusive three-day conference for some of the world's most successful geeks is like 'The School of Athens'.

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Guests sitting around a bonfire with Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, during the conference (above).

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SpotMini (above), the four-legged robot strutting its stuff.

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For the hand-picked Mars attendees, everything is free including room service and food (above).

Palm Springs, California

"Iget invited to everything, and everywhere I go, everyone wishes they had my job. But that's not true here," said Pablos Holman, a self-described futurist and inventor who has worked on lasers that kill mosquitoes and machines that suppress hurricanes. "There's geniuses everywhere," he said, motioning to the pair talking next to him, theoretical physicist Lisa Randall and computer scientist Stephen Wolfram. "I don't even register on this scale."

We're at Mars, an exclusive three-day conference at a mid-century-modern hotel here in the California desert run by Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, for some of the world's most successful geeks. For its first two years, Mars was largely secret; the most prominent image that leaked was a photo of Mr Bezos piloting a 13-foot robot last year. This year, Amazon lifted the veil and invited a handful of reporters into his brainiac pow-wow.

Amazon is eager to buoy its reputation in artificial intelligence, a focus of the conference, amid tight competition with Google. And Mr Bezos, who according to Bloomberg is the world's richest person with a roughly US$130 billion fortune, is growing more comfortable in the spotlight, particularly as a modern-day Renaissance man. His side projects now include The Washington Post, the space firm Blue Origin and a 10,000-year clock in a West Texas mountain that ticks once a year.

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For Mars, Amazon and Mr Bezos handpick the roughly 200 attendees, most from the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics and space. There are astronauts, philosophers, rocket scientists, Nobel prize winners and gravitational-wave astrophysicists. Attendance and everything else - room service, the crab legs at breakfast, seaweed wraps at the spa - were free. (The New York Times paid my way.)

Mr Bezos was visible throughout, sitting front and centre at presentations and posing for photos with attendees in front of a Blue Origin space capsule. His booming laugh was easy to pick out in the crowd.

While there were dozens of multimillionaires among the attendees, many savoured the luxury. "This is quite opulent compared to what I'm used to," said Ann Karagozian, a rocket scientist from the University of California, Los Angeles. At dinner, seats were preassigned. After dark, free booze flowed from makeshift bars and attendees lit up high-end cigars.

Mr Bezos held court around the fire pit on Sunday night, tumbler of whiskey in hand. He wore the down Patagonia jacket given to each guest - a style that has become a sort of tech-industry uniform - with jeans and cowboy boots. One attendee described the get-up as Silicon Valley meets West Texas, where Blue Origin has its main launch site.

Novel breakthroughs

Mornings were reserved for show and tell. About a dozen attendees presented on novel businesses or scientific breakthroughs, from new techniques for studying supermassive black holes to computer chips implanted in brains that can resolve symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Rich Mahoney, head of a "powered-clothing" startup called Seismic, showed off leotards with built-in sensors and electric motors to mimic muscles - designed to help elderly or disabled wearers stand from chairs. "Intelligent, wearable strength," he said. "This is a new clothing paradigm."

There was one clear rock star: a yellow four-legged robot named SpotMini that strutted back and forth on stage as a sea of smartphone cameras focused in. It was the newest invention from Boston Dynamics, the Defense Department-funded firm Google recently sold to SoftBank. After the presentation, Mr Bezos and SpotMini led the crowd to lunch.

Throughout, Amazon executives referred to repeat guests as alumni or "returning campers". Attendees seemed universally smitten with the conference; some suggested they were a part of history. Ken Goldberg, a roboticist from the University of California, Berkeley, compared Mars to Athens 2,000 years ago, showing Raphael's fresco "The School of Athens" during a presentation. "People would be hanging out, discussing ideas, having arguments, and a big topic at the time was space," he said.

Impressive guest list

At lunch, Mr Bezos played beer pong, minus the beer, against a robotic arm. (He lost.) Across the lawn, attendees played a different robotic arm in table tennis, and SpotMini - piloted by a human - mugged for cameras and snatched phones with the arm that extended from its neck. Some attendees said they were so impressed by the guest list that they were unsure they belonged. Serial entrepreneur Dean Kamen, best known for inventing the Segway, said: "You feel like you're walking around here as an intellectual midget."

On Tuesday at about 5.45 am, more than a dozen attendees gathered on one lawn and craned their necks towards the sky, looking for the Humanity Star, a satellite covered in mirrors that one of them, Peter Beck, had launched into orbit. The pre-dawn group included Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, and Adam Savage, co-host of the former Discovery show "MythBusters". About 90 seconds after the satellite was supposed to be glittering across the sky, nothing had appeared. Then, for a moment, there was a flash in the sky. "That was it!" someone shouted. Then another flash.

"It reflects the sunlight from the sun and it strobes the earth like a giant disco ball," said Mr Beck, a New Zealander with curly hair who founded the space firm Rocket Lab. "The point is to really get people to look up and have an overview effect, and realise they're standing on a rock in the middle of the universe." NYTIMES