36 of tech's most powerful disruptors

Our annual Brainstorm Tech conference brought together the world's most interesting leaders in technology, business, and media.

'Let them eat iPhones'
Things got a little heated at Fortune's annual Brainstorm Tech conference, held in Aspen, Colo., in mid-July. Between sessions on social media and mobile platforms, PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel, an avowed libertarian (right), clashed with Google chairman Eric Schmidt (left), an unabashed optimist, over whether technology has been effective at solving thorny problems such as high energy prices and stagnant wages.

"Moore's law is good if you're a computer," quipped Thiel, referring to the famous observation that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. "But the question is, How good is it for human beings, and how does this translate into economic progress for humans?"

Schmidt countered that technology has lifted some 2 billion people out of poverty. People in the developed world can expect to have "extraordinarily long lives that are very productive," he said. For those in developing countries, "the world gets better too."

Like him, many of the 400 or so conference attendees argued that technology is an important catalyst for improving our collective lot. At one panel executives posited that software innovation will replace low-cost manufacturing as the stimulus for China's next wave of economic growth. At a session on philanthropy, speakers offered examples of how digital tracking tools could help reduce the distribution of counterfeit drugs. Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman and J.C. Penney chief Ron Johnson talked about ways they are using technology to drastically remake their companies.

The consensus? The combative Thiel may have scored more zingers during the onstage debate, but Schmidt's optimistic mien won the day. --Stephanie N. Mehta

Flip through our slideshow for a sampling of the attendees and speakers at this year's Brainstorm Tech.

Photographs by Robyn Twomey @FortuneMagazine - Last updated July 31 2012: 1:03 PM ET
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