"I get 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, the theoretical physicist Lisa Randall and the computer scientist Stephen Wolfram. "I don't even register on this scale."
We're at Mars, an exclusive three-day conference at a midcentury-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 Mr. Bezos's 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 $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.
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 center 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.