DAY 1 - April 9th
Welcome to another year of Phil Hettema’s TED blog post! I’m going to try my best and keep up with the speakers and share a few cool things and maybe even an “Aha! moment” or two during the week.
I arrived yesterday (Monday) and checked in to the hotel, where I’m happy to say I have a lovely view of Vancouver harbor, which makes me happy since this will be my home base for the next six days. Got my registration badge (which is in essence your life preserver here at the TED conference. You can’t get anywhere without it.)
It’s going to be an interesting year for me here at TED. Having just been through an amazing THEA weekend where I felt like I knew everyone and was acknowledged on many levels, there’s quite a contrast here at TED. I’m in the middle of a gathering of the brightest and best on many levels, where I don’t know a lot of people and not many people know me. I’m happy to be here, and will be very content to spend a few days practicing intense listening and thinking.
I finished my first evening in Vancouver having a lovely dinner at L’Abattoire, a terrific restaurant in the Gastown section of Vancouver, a very hip and cool neighborhood I haven’t explored before. Early to bed in preparation for a big day tomorrow!
Up early to check out the TED campus and see what interesting exhibits and surprises have been installed around the event campus. Discovered a cool company who prints selfies on Cookies (and marshmallows!)
And got another chance to experience the VOID virtual reality experience. I’ve now had a chance to experience this several times, and one of the most interesting things about it is the way fellow participants react if they've never experienced a VR world before. I think the VOID’s experience is getting better and better, but when you really contemplate the logistics of wearing the (significantly cumbersome) backpack and headmounted display, it’s going to have to get a lot lighter and a lot more intuitive before the experience is really going to work mainstream. Interesting that the latency issues I experienced at the Downtown Disney installation were significantly worse than those here in a temporary set up of the same (Star Wars) experience.
The main event of the morning and afternoon were sessions of 5-minute talks by TED fellows, sort of a preamble session to the main TED sessions which will start this evening. (The speakers were a curated group selected out of the 453 TED fellows who are from 93 countries.) The 5-minute time frame makes it hard to get into any depth, and most of the speakers barely had time to describe their area of interest/research/activism, but some of them managed to be pretty exciting.
At lunch I attended a briefing about TED ED, an amazing adjunct aspect of TED conferences, which has produced thousands of brief, animated video segments which are designed to educate in a dynamic and compelling way. Experts who submit a proposal to TED ED for a specific educational topic are paired with world class animators who develop script storyboard animation and fully produced video. Their latest initiative involves the formation of TED ED Clubs where students can develop and present their own ideas, and share them across the TED ED network. An amazing undertaking in its own right.
The formal TED conference officially kicked off on Tuesday evening with this session of speakers:
“DOOM, GLOOM, OUTRAGE, UPROAR”
This session focused on many of the challenging issues we’ve been experiencing…
TRACEE ELLIS ROSS – Tracee, well known as an award-winning actress in the series “Blackish” gave a very strong speech speaking as a founding member of the #metoo movement. She was extremely candid and plainspoken about the need for change and equal treatment regardless of gender. Using two anecdotes, she described an extreme case of sexual assault on one extreme, and a relatively small act of micro aggression that had been experienced by a female friend. Her ultimate point was not that those two incidents were equally wrong, but that the mere presence of the continuum between incidental and extreme oppression that women experience on a daily basis is evidence of a system which is fundamentally inequitable.
DIANE WOLK-ROGERS teaches history at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. She spoke about her personal experience on the day of the armed attack on that school in February, and went on to present her understanding of the 2nd amendment. She was candid, emotional, powerful and made a compelling case for activism to achieve gun control legislation.
JARON LANIER Jaron is acknowledged as the father of Virtual Reality or at least one of the pioneers… (Many years ago, I was one of a handful of people, along with Steven Spielberg, at Universal the day he came in with an early demo of virtual reality.) Since then, he has written several books looking at the proliferation of the internet, not always in a positive light. Speaking here, he gave a serious warning about the need to correct major flaws in the digital age, resulting from the conflict between an internet which is completely open to all, and our capitalist admiration for the tech giants and the empires they have built. In essence, he said those two concepts will always be in opposition to each other, with predictably undesirable results (aka Facebooks recent problems). The concept of “curated” advertising based on personal data has now morphed into something closer to behavior modification than marketing (a very disturbing thought, echoed by the consequences of the recent election.) If we can’t correct the situation, he predicts (and this is a direct quote) “the end of civilization”. A very disturbing talk.
SOUL REBELS This great 7-piece band from New Orleans raised the roof on the room with some great funky jazz.
ZACHARY WOOD This young man attracted significant criticism and outcry as a student leader at Williams College by inviting speakers who have expressed or embraced beliefs that were in opposition to his own beliefs, and those expressed by the college. His quite passionate position was that it is not necessary to agree in the positions of those we disagree with, but it’s essential to hear them and understand adversaries for dialogue to be possible, or even to combat ideologies we don't agree with.
KRISTY DUNCAN This articulate woman is the Minister of Science for Canada. She initially ran for office based on her outrage about concealing/quashing of scientific data as part of political discourse. Accepting the position of Science minister on request from Justin Trudeau, she is a fierce advocate for full disclosure of scientific facts and data to inform our lives and governing process.
STEVEN PINKER Is an experimental psychologist and best-selling author (the Better Angels of our Nature) who presented his belief that in spite of doom and gloom scenarios that we’re all hearing these days, over a longer perspective, things are actually getting much better now than they have been in the past. He cited statistics about world poverty levels, overall lifespan, infant mortality and a dozen other filters. He stated his belief that we can and will continue to solve problems we encounter as a society and species. (personally, I’m dubious about a clear-eyed belief that “technology can solve our problems” … if the past year doesn’t cause us to question that hypothesis, I don’t know what will.)
Big party to celebrate the first day of the conference. I sat down at dinner with a couple of other people, one of whom has edited well known books with the Dalai Lama and the other runs an NGO which frees villages in India from slavery. Just your typical TED underachievers.
The party ended with a big bang, (literally fireworks) and I headed back to get a good night’s shuteye to be ready for a bug day on Wednesday.
Three sessions on Wednesday, so I had better get to it right away! Speakers shown in RED are highly recommended for viewing when their TED talks go online. I’ll try to let you know when that happens.
MORNING SESSION (Speaker Session #2)
“AFTER THE END OF HISTORY”
All the talks this session (and likely throughout the conference) are in the context, very much on everyone’s minds here, of the proliferation of personal and meta data concentrated in the hands of businesses, governments friendly or not, with all of the attendant security and targeting issues that brings. Couple that with an inevitable increase in A.I. and machine learning systems. It’s a reality, not a futurist fantasy that has arrived, and it made these talks quite resonant 9and in some cases chilling) for me.
Yuval Noah Harari - Presented in real time “hologram” type projection from Israel (which was of substantially good quality) Yuval Harari is a historian and best-selling author (Sapiens, Homo Deus) He gave a spectacular talk which wrapped several major issues of the day into one larger perspective. Not sure I can summarize it in a brief sentence, but as soon as this talk goes online, I highly recommend viewing. Eloquent and sharply perceptive.
Cesar Hidalgo - is a data scientist from MIT media lab who talked about democracy in the digital and A.I. age. He theorized about a direct democracy system (where every individual votes on every issue, removing representation from the picture). In his imagined system the actual voting would be done by digital/ A.I. personal agents who would not only know us better than we know ourselves, but they also would develop better opinions (based on machine learning about our preferences and belief systems). He believes it would be possible to make these decentralized and immune to manipulation. Personally, I found the whole concept frightening, especially as a Californian who has lived through the results of our state initiative process. Definitely an idea that would spawn significant debate.
Poppy Crum - is the chief scientist at Dolby Labs. She is doing amazing research which can analyze human response and facial reaction at a much finer level than we’re able to detect in each other as humans. As an example, while tracking CO2 levels in the room in real time, she showed the audience a video with a surprise “gotcha” scary moment which was tracked by the instantaneous drop in CO2 within the room. She goes further to analyze facial tics and many other phenomena. She made a convincing case that science will have the capability to track , analyze and ultimately predict behavior on a mass scale. I found it fascinating and completely terrifying. The privacy issues alone are mind boggling.
Kate Raworth - is a global economist who spoke eloquently about the need to reconsider our obsession with long term (and in her view unsustainable) long term economic growth. Our notion of continual year on year 2-4% growth is a fantasy (my words) and in the long run also consigns large sectors to have or have not roles. She presented a “donut” concept of economic structure, where progress outside the donut is harmful (climate change, resource depletion) and social groups inside the donut hole (elderly, poor communities etc.) need to be supported . The goal is to live in the middle ground of the donut for long tern survival. Highly recommended watching when available.
Max Tegmark - is a scientist who deals with AI and Machine learning. He laid out a series of “optional futures” which lay ahead of us, including some fairly dark scenarios if we let data/AI grow un regulated and without thinking through the unintended consequences of what we’re doing. He also painted much more positive scenarios in which our new-found capabilities bring much positive good, and stated his belief that we could anticipate potential negative outcomes and proactively design systems to prevent them. This requires we get it right the first time….. I think of myself as a positive person, but personally found that a very questionable position.. and it scares me.
AFTERNOON SESSION (Speaker Session #3)
Dina Katabi - researches wireless systems, creating sensor networks so sensitive they can detect a person’s location, heart rate and breathing pattern through the walls of a room, just by tracking the water mass of a human. It’s similar to radar, but much more complicated, and requires sophisticated software which utilizes machine learning to recognize and track the human separately from all other signal input That’s a fancy way of saying, though, that this has tremendous implications for health care… imagine physical monitoring of the elderly or infirm that requires no contact and can follow you through the house. The long-term data would be a treasure for long term research, not to mention eventually being able to predict a health incident (heart attack, etc.) before it happens.
Supasorn Suwajanakorn - “Real Fake News”. Supasorn (who now works for Google) has developed amazing facial modeling algorithms from University of Washington.… He showed how he can synthesize an individual’s facial features with uncanny accuracy by scanning photographs and existing videos. The result is he can create uncannily lifelike and believable video of individuals saying things they never really said (and he demonstrated that with impressive fabricated video of Barack Obama.) The potential to “put words” in other mouths is somewhat ominous. Supasorn is also working on security algorithms that will detect this kind of false video in real time, which may be required software for all of us…
Giada Gerboni - works in research and development of “soft robots” which, because they don't have stiff parts which are subject to breakage or limited adaptability, can adapt to changing environment and move through asymmetric spaces more easily. (Think of how an octopus can move through a small orifice. Fascinating examples of inflatable and fluid robotic structures.
Adam Grant - gave a brief but compelling talk on the balance between ego and humility. He presented anecdotal evidence that a team with great talent, but all very large egos would inevitably be less successful than equally talented teams that combine members with ego and humility. (He used NBA teams as an example.) It seems that having team members who will help other players make for better coordinated teams than an all-star team where every player is trying to be a star. He presented further data (based on analysis of dozens of businesses and executives) that the most successful individuals or leaders are not narcissists or those with humility but those individuals who could combine those two seemingly disparate traits.
Simone Giertz - gave a hysterical presentation on “shitty robots”. As an overachieving student petrified by “performance anxiety” (freaking out by getting a B instead of an A) she decided the way to overcome this (and fulfill her curiosity about machines and how things work) was to create machines which were guaranteed to fail. That way, she was guaranteed to succeed. She’s become a YouTube star demo-ing her absurd and silly robots. LOL funny but also profoundly interesting on our fear of failure.
Rajiv Laroia - Has developed a pocket camera which can take incredibly high-resolution photos… in essence he has taken 16 typical mobile phone cameras and combined their capabilities creating images that are derived equally from data and photo/light sensing. Due to the multiple POVS of the 16 cameras they create a 3d image map which allows for further dimension and depth of filed adjustment even after photo is taken.
Melanie Shapiro - presented an ID system (“Token”)which combines biometrics and other privacy data. IT’s activated when you put it on in the morning with a fingerprint scan and stays active as a token only as long as the wearer has it on their hand. If they take it off, its disabled, and no one else can activate it. Frustrating in that (uncharacteristically for TED) it was as much a product pitch as a demo of new tech.
Gwynne Shotwell - President and COO of Space X was interviewed by Chris Anderson. She talked about future Space X plans ( a new product bigger than the Falcon Heavy Rocket, called the BFR) which will not only be the next step to Mars, but will also provide cross planetary travel (Seattle – Beijing) in about ½ an hour. She predicted it will be in commercial use within ten years (and she said that was based on her calendar, not “Elon Musk Time”)
EVENING SESSION (Speaker Session #4)
“THE AUDACIOUS PROJECT”
For the past 10 years or so, the TED foundation has selected an artist or visionary and awarded them the “Ted Prize”, a $1,000,000 grant to help make the wish of the awardee become a reality. The program has been so successful, and the resources of the TED community have become so focused on philanthropy, that this year they announced they are morphing the TED prize into a greater objective, which they call THE AUDACIOUS PROJECT.
The session began with a presentation by last year’s winner, which has been further expanded by TED as a test case for this new initiative.
Raj Panjabi - Heads the “Last Mile Foundation” which facilitates health care in rural villages in Africa. They do this by providing training to local practitioners supported with technology (via smart phone communication and diagnostic apps). From a small impact, Last Mile Foundation has now provided health care services to over 1.25 million people in Liberia alone, and with the 25 million+ funding that this new initiative will make possible will expand that over 4-fold.
The next part of the session introduced 6 projects which have been identified and vetted as already successful projects that could benefit exponentially by major philanthropic acceleration. They’re all incredibly impressive… here’s a quick rundown.
Robin Steinberg - is a public defender in NYC and a passionate advocate for reimagining our criminal justice system. She made a convincing case that the bail system is broken. Someone who remains in jail because they can’t afford bail is exponentially more likely to plead guilty even when innocent, to receive a longer sentence, and to eventually commit a crime which leads to rearrests etc. while of those who can pay bail, or have it loaned to them, 98% return to appear in court, more than 50% never go to court and are significantly less likely to be sentenced even if convicted. She has an ambitious plan to provide short term funding even while advocating for a permanent change in the system.
Heidi Sosik - is an undersea explorer who proposes to map the “twilight zone” of the ocean, the darker, deeper area which we know very little about. She believes there are more unknown species in that zone than known species in all the known waters of the ocean, and has discovered migration patterns that show that even surface species visit and inhabit deeper zones at much higher levels than previously thought.
Caroline Harper - is part of an NGO called SightSavers, dedicated to eradicating Trachoma, a disease which causes blindness (and whose symptoms also include profound pain and suffering). They’ve already helped eradicate it in all first world and most second world countries, and believe they can make significant progress throughout the third world. They know how to do it, they just need the resources.
Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison - These dynamic women founded an organization called GirlTrek, which uses the simple idea of organizing African American women to get out and walk in their communities. This in turn leads to reductions in obesity and improved health and wellbeing, as well as connecting to other community and cultural efforts and self-started activism in communities across the country.
The TED audience was asked to pick their favorite among these projects, with two goals: 1. To allocate a $1 million grant from TED between these projects, and to encourage personal commitment and engagement with one or more of these programs. I chose the first presentation.. the bail project, although they all seem incredibly worthy.
Camille Brown Dance Troup - The choreographer of the recent “Jesus Christ Superstart created a special performance with a troupe of 10 musicians and dancers which they performed on the TED stage. Fantastic.
Andrew Youn - In closing the session, Andrew, a previous TED prize winner whose NGO has also been a test case for The Audacious project, spoke with incredible eloquence about the power of major philanthropy to exponentially create results and a much greater societal return on investment. (Obviously he knows the audience that he was talking to.) It was an impressive argument, and I only wish I had half the clarity and focus of purpose that Andrew demonstrated. His One Acre Fund NGO provides targeted and very specific agricultural direct support to allow economically distressed populations in Africa to create a stable economic existence which in turn raises the entire community and country. He delivered a compelling argument for the value of each dollar the organization uses and the efficiency of the organization in using the money it receives.
THURSDAY MORNING SESSION (Speaker Session #5)
Space to Dream
Nora Atkinson - recently curated an exhibit at the Smithsonian about the “Art of Burning Man”. She not only made a fantastic presentation of art installations large and small from Burning Man, she asked compelling questions about the real definition, meaning and value of art. Is it art if its temporary, if it costs a lot of money, creates emotion, asks questions, has purpose or entertains? A really good talk, and it made me want to go to Burning Man. Badly.
Vishaan Chakrabarti - Urban Architect, was formerly head of city planning for New York City. He asked why we love small cities of character around the world because of their unique individual characteristics, but our major urban cities all look and feel about the same? He talked about breaking down imposed conditions of transit, codes, etc. to create a freer vocabulary which could allow for more unique design and construction of high density residential spaces. His words made sense and I agreed with much of what he said, but the examples he showed to support his thesis were not very compelling.
Ian Firth - Bridge Designer and structural engineer talked about the necessity and aesthetics of bridges. How both functionally and socially they are important in our society, and how new design and structural systems are allowing more and more compelling design structures to be built, even as the safety requirements for structures must be fulfilled. Great designers are always pushing the envelope of what’s possible.
David Cage – Game Maker was making his case for non-linear, choice-based storytelling, using a video game he wrote as his argument. He allowed the audience to yell out choices as the branching story developed, taking one particular path through the story setting, while many others would have been possible. Ultimately, all of the paths led to one final either/or scene, and while there may have been some amount of interest in finding different layers to the story, ultimately it was still the same story. I was and remain completely unconvinced that “interactive storytelling” is in any way equal to (much less than superior to) a well-conceived narrative. Forgetting additional cost/benefit aspects, I think the audience wants to experience a story, not be responsible for it. I look forward to the day when someone can show me a story that convinces me I’m wrong. I’m not optimistic, but would love it to happen.
Karen Meech - Astronomer presented the case of an unidentified object which was spotted as it moved through our solar system, and how, responding in a short time frame, she and her team were able to track it and understand its shape, characteristics and even composition. A real nerd mystery adventure, with major implications for understanding what else is out there.
Stephen Webb - Physicist talked about the probability of other life in the universe and the different theories for assessing the probability that it’s out there. Given the scale and age of the universe, of which the earth and humankind are only a very minimal recent development, many believe it’s well within the range of reasonability that another life system existed long before us and should have developed the ability to reach out. Many pros and cons here, and the speaker revealed himself to be a pessimist about other life… but he really expanded my thinking about the possibilities. You’ll have to watch for the video on this talk if you want to learn more…. It complicated!
Will MacAskill – Moral Philosopher talked about how to maximize the power of altruism and how to make personal decisions about supporting worthy causes, when there is so much competition of need. Simplifying a complex discussion, in terms of major philanthropy, he evaluates initiatives on these factors….
On a global scale, he prioritized the following key areas:
THURSDAY AFTERNOON Session (Speaker Session #6)
What on Earth Do We Do?
Asswath Ramen- Applied physicist, working out of Stanford and University of Pennsylvania. Refrigeration and Air conditioning consume 17% of worldwide energy and contribute 8% to greenhouse gases. This is predicted to multiply 6X in next decades due to population expansion. He’s developed technology which actually passively cool environments and water systems.. virtually the opposite of solar panels. Application of this tech could result in 12% increase in efficiency in systems worldwide. Amazing technology.
Jennifer Wilcox - Chemical engineer is working to design synthetic systems which can perform the same function of forests, converting CO2 into oxygen. Her system requires 1/500 of the space on an area basis.
Angel Hsu - is a climate analyst, who presented an in-depth summary of pollution in China ,both positive and negative. In many ways, China is outpacing the rest of the world in proactive pollution reduction, at very large scale. China’s size still makes even significant change too little. Verifiable change doesn't always match predicted results, but there are far more positive efforts going on than we often acknowledge.
Rodin Jyasoff - is into flying and supervises R and D projects, many of which involve personalized flight systems. Imagine single passenger, auto piloted transport systems which would replace your drivetime commute. Take an uber to the launch pad, a quick 20-minute flight to your neighborhood, then a quick uber ride home. He predicts this will be available within the decade for about $40 a trip.
Penny Chisholm - Microbial Oceanographer and her team discovered a previously unknown species of microbial sea creature, a very small organism called protochlorococcus. It’s now believed to be one of the most abundant species on the planet, and the sum of its population can convert more CO2 to oxygen than all the plants, flora and rainforests on the rest of the planet. One reason it’s so abundant is that it can adapt its DNA, region by region to optimize its adaption of that zone.
Enric Sala - is a marine biologist who has also worked extensively with Nat Geo who is campaigning for global recognition of ocean preserves within international waters to preserve fish populations and give ocean zones the ability to renew themselves, which it has been proven successful in previous reserved areas. Only 2% of ocean waters are now protected.. he anticipates we need to get to 30% to make a difference.
Charles C. Mann - Science Journalist/Author who tracks rapid rates of progress. When growth is unconstrained, and exceed what he terms “natural selection” (even in the manmade tech world) the result is an “outbreak” (as in an algae bloom or explosion of jelly fish populations) , or as he describes it… we expand to the edges of the petri dish. The result at that point almost always ends badly. So, he looks for similar patterns in the tech world. Is our adaptation of AI and data manipulation moving us faster than we are really prepared to handle? In his writing, he divides us into 2 camps… the wizards, who believe that tech can invent its way out of any unintended consequences, and the prophets, who are more pessimistic about the planet and feel like we must take steps to move cautiously now. (I’m in that camp!)
He ended his talk with the thought that we humans believe we are quite special, although, as he pointed out, we are a mere blip on a much longer evolutionary timeline. When viewed on that scale, we may not be special at all.
THURSDAY EVENING Session (Speaker Session #7)
Wow, Just Wow
Kai-Fu Lee - is a Chinese entrepreneur and investor who played a key role in the startup of Google and other platforms in China. He talked about the potential growth of the internet and big data in China, as well as the change (and disruption) which AI will bring to large populations of people. Using his own life experience, he advocated for the need for a better life work balance, and pointed out that there will be much more leisure time possible in the future thanks to AI. While jobs which feature innovation and creativity will tend to require humans, many traditional manufacturing and service jobs may be replaced by automation. While he proposed that many of these jobs would shift into jobs like elder care and other human needs-based jobs, he failed to mention that economic stratification may get even worse, and that there will undoubtedly be an economic restructuring required if we’re not going to live in a black and white world of Haves and Have not.
Pierre Barreau - has developed an A.I /machine learning algorithm that studied and learned over 30,000 score of music, and is now capable of writing and arranging (fairly sophisticated) orchestral music. Impressive and compelling.. the question is, do we want to create machines that can write music that imitates everyone else? I guess time will tell, but can a machine write truly transcendent music?
Renzo Piano, Architect - The venerable architect showed many of his impressive projects, and spoke with passion that “architecture is art”. No doubt he has designed great buildings and is passionate about what he does.. I just wish he had given us a bit more to chew on during his talk.
Luhan Yang - is a medical biologist who is pioneering the growth of organs for transplants in other species. In particular she is developing a system for growth of kidneys within species of pigs. 2 things are required to do this… 1.) Reduce the tendency of the human body to reject the transplant organ (which still requires R & D) and 2.) eliminate the ability of the donor pig to carry a potentially pandemic causing porcine virus , which she is accomplishing using “crisper” the gene splicing technique.. in essence changing the pig’s DNA to eliminate the ability to transfer the virus. Amazing, somewhat frightening Franken medicine.
Simona Francese - is a forensic scientist who is advancing methods of evidence analysis, including identification of suspects through highly specialized fingerprint analysis. Using mass spectrometry and other techniques, she has created ways to pick one print out of several and to complete and/or match prints with relatively little pattern data.
Luke Sital-Singh - is a British singer songwriter who played piano and sang some of his original songs. He (somewhat proudly) is known for his songs of loss and grief, which he feels is not only his authentic self, but also leaves him grounded for love and even joy.
Alex Honnold – Rock Climber, the first person to ever solo climb (without ropes or equipment) up the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. He gave a great talk about his two major climbs.. the first up the face of Half-dome. He described how he wasn’t really prepared for that climb, had to make some “on the mountain” choices, which left him feeling less than confident mid climb, and as a result felt very unsatisfied at the conclusion of that climb. For the El Capitan, he took several years, did many preparatory rope climbs to study every inch of the mountain, until he had memorized every hand hold and foot position and could visualize the entire climb. As a result, he said he felt like the entire climb, even though much tougher than half dome, went completely smoothly without panic, and was “the best day of his life.” This is one brave guy.
By the way, the video, graphics and tech production in this conference have been nothing short of fantastic. Beautiful design and flawless execution. It hasn’t always been that way here at TED. I’ve really been impressed.
FRIDAY MORNING (Speaker Session #8)
JAMES BRIDLE – Is an artist and social critic whose work presents questions to the audience about the uses of technology. His talk ultimately was about the proliferation of specific YouTube channels that garner millions of views, often for reasons no one can quite explain. Often the audience for these is small children (He gave as examples “opening eggs with toys inside” and “Five finger family”… just search either on you tube if you don’t believe me.) The mechanics and psychology of these videos not only become literally addictive, they also inevitable present content much further out than ever intended. Many parents in the audience were scared to death by this talk, as were the rest of us.
YASMIN GREEN - is a specialist in digital security who works for a sibling company to Google. She described security issues in the internet like the house in a classic horror movie… “It looks warm and comfortable at the beginning of the movie, but by the end you realize it’ full of evil forces and terror.” She spoke about both online harassment as well as recruiting efforts for extremist groups. Yasmin and her team have spent a lot of time interviewing individuals who have been seduced by terrorist groups like ISIS to understand how recruitment works. Among other solutions, creating algorithms which could employ “empathy at scale”. I won’t go into detail about the rest of her talk, but she is clearly an extremely intelligent and thoughtful individual. However, I couldn’t help feeling a significant amount of hubris in her belief that smart people can develop technology to put the very genii that they created back in the bottle.
EMILY LEVINE - is a media producer and humorist. She also has stage IV lung cancer. Her talk about living and dying was candid, brave, funny, poetic, chilling, beautiful and inspiring. In addition to being a very very funny woman, she spoke with incredible authenticity about her life and preparations to die. She also linked that to the natural cycle of life and death which we will all experience but seldom want to confront. An unforgettable moment for everyone in the theater.
KEVIN FRANS - is an 18-year-old high school student who taught himself about AI by searching the internet. Analyzing existing models of AI, he hypothesized alternate models of learning algorithms and is now in college making them a reality. Scary Smart kid.
ELIZABETH STREB - is a choreographer who leads a dance troupe known for its demanding physicality. Her movement technique teaches that we don't need to experience falling as painful, just as “other feeling”. The results, in her troupe and in workshops and classes around the world are exciting, powerful and intimidating to watch.
DYLAN MARRON - is known for creating media pieces which challenge attitudes, including pieces of feature films which edit out all dialogue other than words spoken by people of color, or a web series “Sitting in toilets talking with Transgender people.” Responding to significant amount of trolling and hateful comments, he started a podcast called “Conversation with People Who Hate Me”… he calls up people who have made racist or homophobic comments and epithets and invites them to talk in a non-confrontational conversation. The result is often one of discovery and overcoming mistrust. A powerful lesson in radical dialogue. He’s quick to say he doesn’t necessarily get to forgiveness or even acceptance, but definitely a greater level of empathy and understanding.
FRANCIS FREI - is a Harvard Business School professor who spent the last year at UBER as SVP of Leadership and Strategy, with the goal of creating a first-class business team out of a somewhat challenged corporate culture. A powerful speaker who communicates with great personal authenticity, her fundamental structure for great leadership and company culture is a pyramid….1.) Authenticity, 2.) Rigorous Logic (both in fact and the ability to communicate it), and 3. Empathy. If any one of those three things “wobble” or seem shaky, the entire leadership structure can fall apart.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON (Speaker Session #9)
Mary Lou Jepson - has spent a great deal of her career perfecting consumer electronic projects, and is now working on using light for high resolution, low radiation medical scanning. Using reverse holography (don't ask me to explain that) she is able to channel light which normally diffuses as it moves through tissue. She predicts the results will be low cost, wearable consumer level gear that will significantly change medical evaluation and diagnostic capability.
Floyd Romesberg - is a microbiologist and chemical geneticist, whose team has created the first semi synthetic life forms. All DNA in our world is comprised of combinations of four genetic letters… G,A,T and C. In his work using DNA reconfiguration, he has been able to create DNA using SIX letter, the four we know of and two more, which he labels X and Y. The result are new, reproducing organisms whose DNA is comprised of combinations of 6 elements instead of 4. I’m sure this has tremendous import and scientific potential, if only to better understand how our genome works, but it feels like scary Frankenscience to me.
Daniel Gibson - and his team developed the accepted method of joining small sections of DNA into a continuous strand. (Called a Gibson Assembly).. Now they have devised a method to create DNA strands without biological reproduction or without copying existing DNA, by sending the mathematical data, or combination of the DNA strand to a printer(yes you read that right) , which then prints and assembles the entire strand. E.G. if a vaccine for a virus is needed, but there is not enough time to actually grow the virus (which is the traditional method) now the virus can be created by printing new strands of DNA and replacing the DNA of microbes which the new strand is then introduced into. A lot here I don't understand, but quite amazing, and as scary as it is exciting.
Emily Nagoski - is a sex researcher and therapist who challenges outmoded concepts and realities of sexual behavior. Her biggest message is that our “wants and likes” are the authentic part of us, even when our bodies may say seem to say something different. E.G. A sexual partner may appear to be aroused or even reach orgasm, even when acting against her/his will, but that doesn't mean they like or want it.
LADAMA - is a women’s cross-cultural music ensemble who use performance to build bridges of understanding. Energetic and engaging performance with the audience participating.
Hugh Herr - is an MIT professor and research in biomechatronics who pioneers concepts in artificial limbs (and who happens to be a double amputee himself). He demonstrated startling new technology which connects nerves and muscle response to brain circuits for prosthetic limbs that move and respond intuitively. Truly a first glimpse into the world of cyborgs and bionics. Amazing.
FRIDAY EVENING (Speaker Session #10)
CHRISTOPHE NIEMANN - Fantastic designer/graphic artist whose work can be seen on dozens of magazine covers (New Yorker, Wired, etc.) as well as toys, games, books etc. He gave a great talk about our ability as humans to read and understand symbols. As an artist, he works to distill an idea down to the absolute simplest communication or image which will still convey the desired thought. He depends on the participation of the audience and their willingness/desire to understand as a key part of his art.
KASHMIR HILL AND SURYA MATTU - are digital journalists. As an experiment, they installed every “smart home” device they could find in Kashmir’s apt. and then monitored the data transmissions that those devices had with corporate “listeners”. The results were disturbing, even to them and others who thought they were aware of the amount of data the devices tracked. Even when away from her home, the data was aware and communicated both the activity and inactivity of her living space. Data mining = watching. A disturbing, cautionary tale.
REBECA HWANG - who is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur in “real life”, focused on the concept of home and the significance of personal identity in her talk. Born in Korea, raised in Argentina and educated in the U.S., she found herself feeling out of place in each of those places, and ultimately discovered that her “difference” was what in fact made her special.
JASON ROSENTHAL - is the husband of Amy Krause Rosenthal, who famously wrote an OpEd piece which was published in the NY Times. Aware that she was terminally ill with ovarian cancer, Amy wrote a piece which was basically a matchmaking introduction for her husband Jacob, intended to attract a future partner for him and giving Jacob permission to move forward with his life. He spoke movingly about his relationship with Amy, the difficult process of sharing the last days of her life and the process of grief. He was authentic, and his words resonated with anyone who has been through similar circumstances. Another powerful evocation of death as part of the larger circle of life.
LILI HAYDN - is a classical and jazz performer, composer and has written over 20 film scores. She played a hauntingly beautiful composition on the violin.
TAMEKIA MIZLADI SMITH - is a consultant , activist, counselor and storyteller. The substance of her talk was the importance of collecting data accurately, in particular where data can affect availability of services, medical resources and financial support. She’s also a powerful storyteller, which she uses in training and educating others. Powerful, razor sharp in her clarity and LOL funny, she was easily the most accomplished presenter of the conference (IMHO)
CHETNA SINHA - is an activist and advocate for women’s rights in India and underdeveloped countries. With a minimum of experience and resources, she founded the Women’s Bank of India, which supports and lifts up women in economically challenged villages and towns in India, and encourages individual entrepreneurship. Today she is responsible for over 1.5 Billion in women’s investments and has also led development of community water conservation systems that impact over 50,000 people today. Quiet but solid as iron in her presentation, she was really inspiring.
ELISE LEGROW - is a Canadian vocalist who sings jazz and standards with her own special spin. She sang three songs from her “Chess” album which mines the r and B and jazz standards from Chess records and reinterprets them in her own unique way. Watch out for her, you’ll be hearing more.
OSKAR EUSTIS - is head of the Public Theater in NYC. Oscar spoke with passion about the fundamental democratic essence of theater. The basic tenet of theater is a dialogue of differing opinions, which the audience can “try on” for themselves to examine what they themselves believe. Originating in Greece, this changed oratory and performance forever. He sketched out the history of the public theater and how it has had to adjust to keep reaching its audience.
Heading down to the closing party. Pretty cool, isn’t it!
The Final speaker session of the conference.
A TRIBE CALLED RED - This troupe of musician/performers (who also use the name “haluci-nation) combine first nation traditions, songs and rhythms with rap soul and other musical genres. Their performance was DJ’d live with considerable manipulation of sound in real time. A dancer appeared at the end of their set to perform a variant on a tribal dance. I think I'm too unfamiliar with many of the aspects of the musical forms they utilized to really appreciate what they do.
JOHN DOERR - is a business strategist who has mentored many of the titans of Silicon Valley, and was a participating member in the founding of Netscape, Google and many others. He spoke about the importance of setting goals and evaluating progress toward those goals. In the long-term success depends not just on making trackable progress against goals, but even more importantly, to set the correct goals in the first place. Many leaders and institutions have failed (or failed to thrive) by setting goals which take them to the wrong objectives.
He calls those goals OKR’S (Objectives and Key results).
The reason to set OKRs is the WHY and they should come from our ambition, passion and purpose.
Objectives, (the O of OKRs) are the WHAT. They should be significant and concrete, action oriented and inspiring across all parts of the team or company.
Key Results (the KR of OKR’S ) are the HOW. They are the Goals need to have a specific timeframe for success, be aggressive yet achievable, and Measurable, making sure your metrics for measurement are tracking what really is significant in evaluating that goal. “Measure what really matters”
GARY LIU - is the CEO of the South China Post newspaper based in Hong Kong his talk put some scale around the power of the internet to affect change in China, the most populous country in the world. Even in a controlled society, the very scale of the internet has a life of its own which is difficult for the central government to really dictate where and how it will grow and have effect. His remarks began with the example of the huge transportation surge which happens every Lunar New Year celebration, as the entire country returns home reunited with family.. the largest migration in the history of the planet, which happens every year. The need for organized public transport for the billions of people who travel over 100 miles each year is vast, and is increasingly served by machine learning/AI algorithms that design train schedules and traffic… a scale unmatched on the planet.
His other example involved education. There are billions of people who live more than 5 miles from any school, at any level. Newly available internet service is bringing online learning to over 55 million individuals who previously would have had little or no opportunity to pursue education of any sort.
REED HASTINGS - is the CEO of NETFLIX, interviewed by Chris Anderson. He traced the journey of the company from “mailer of DVD’s” to its current position where it commissions over $8 Billion dollar’s worth of content and programming this year, making it the second largest content producer in the world (behind Disney). Hastings attributed part of that to having specific, clearly stated and transparent objectives and goals which are shared and understood at all levels throughout the company. He also said that creating a culture of openness and discourse is essential… “To disagree silently is disloyal”.
In speaking about understanding preferences of viewers and how they analyze user preferences, he spoke about aspirational vs. revealed values…and how the preferences of a viewer may change based on the way the data is collected. E.g. if asked what kind of programming they like, a viewer may name something they view as “elevated content”, like Schindler’s List. They call this aspirational preference. However, when the actual viewing pattern of the same viewer is understood, they see they spend most of their time binge watching Adam Sandler movies and “Nailed It”. Hastings said that Netflix feels the responsibility to provide both kinds of programming.
Hastings is also an active philanthropist, focusing on education. He’s a big believer in Not for Profit charter schools as the solution for many of the challenges of our U.S. education system.
WALTER HOOD - is a noted architect and urban planner. He spoke from his perspective as an African American designer who creates public spaces, notably the network of public gardens in New York, among many others. In citing “e pluribus unum” he interpreted “from many, one” not as a quest for a blending of all society into a homogenous entity but rather that it is the vast diversity and uniqueness of all of us that COMBINE to create a vibrant whole.
“ Great things happen when we exist in each other’s worlds.”
As an African American, he described the quality of “Two-ness” which many (often minority) groups experience… having to simultaneously exhibit attributes that connect and communicate in the larger (and often more dominant) culture, while also maintaining a unique identity and attributes, which influence all parts of your life, but may only be able to be on display in more culturally welcoming or familiar environments.
“The traditional belongs to all of us..”
“Ambiguity is OK. Not everything can or should be resolved.”
MARK POLLOCK AND SIMONE GEORGE – When Mark Pollock met Simone George, a human rights advocate and attorney, he was an adventure athlete who had climbed major mountains, run marathons, and been blind for half of his adult life. Several years into their relationship, in a freak accident, he fell and was paralyzed from his waist down. Together they work for new medical breakthroughs and technological development for those who are paralyzed. Working with labs at UCLA to develop a spinal cord stimulus system which can return control and sensation to paralyzed limbs, he has defied odds and is one of the first humans to reclaim nerve communication with his paralyzed limbs. Quite a remarkable pair.
INGRID FETELL LEE – Is a designer who works to instill the emotion of JOY into everything she designs. She has spent 10 years in her practice researching and trying to understand what it is about certain things which we see or hear that intrinsically bring a response of joy.
Her examples of joyful things include: cherry blossoms, bubbles, treehouses, googley eyes , fireworks and rainbows. Some of the attributes that seem to be common to joyful things are: roundness, bright color, symmetrical shapes, abundance, and a feeling of elevation. Without citing specifics, she maintains that there is scientific research to support the notion that design can elicit an emotion of joy.
Check out the website of a non-profit organization called Publicolor, whose design team works with (drab) public schools to make them more joyful spaces. Ingrid feels that the quality and success of education goes up significantly when the environment becomes more joyful.
This was the last “official” TED Talk/speaker at this years TED conference, which has been a bit intense, and where there was has been a dark sense of impending complexity and the possibility of negative unintended consequences which may affect us all. This TED talk was a little ray of hope and I’m happy her’s was one of the last impressions I have to take home with me.
BARATUNDE THURSTON - It's a TED tradition to have a smart comedian or wry social critic “sum up” the weeks main themes and memorable speaker moments. This year the honors went to Baratunde Thurston, who was as smart and incisive as he was LOL funny. It’s pretty much impossible to try to synopsize or analyze comedy.. just take my word, he left everybody laughing. And thinking. A great last moment of a very thought provoking week.