I’m here at the TED conference in Vancouver, BC. I’ve been coming to TED for many years, and every year I get so excited about the ideas and amazing things I see…. I always have the best intentions of capturing some of them in writing, but in the past I’ve gotten swept up in all the activity. The result is that by the end of the conference, there are so many new ideas from later in the week crowding out great stuff from the beginning that I can’t retain it all.
THIS YEAR, I’m resolving to try to do better… so here is a quick summary of day one. I’ll try not to ramble (too much). Don’t feel obligated to track with all of this, but you may find some interesting tidbits along the way.
First of all, the city is beautiful. Rain was predicted for the week but today has been glorious. The Conference is held in the Vancouver Convention Centre which is right on the harbor, with beautiful mountains across the water.
The convention center has been set up for the conference with lots of extraordinary displays, simulcast lounges where you can watch the speakers from outside the main theater, as well as an amazing bookstore and fabulous snacks everywhere. More on the theater, the exhibits in days to follow, but here are a couple of images…
The “VOID” virtual reality experience is here… demoing their ghostbusters VR experience which is also open in NYC. I had a chance to experience it… It’s a large step forward in creating a complete visceral experience… their tech is better than last year’s model, and they are leading the way in imaging immersive environments that the participant really engages with and that create a DYNAMIC immersive experience. You can see the three other people in the experience with you as avatars. You can interact easily with them, but the real time render and display of them is still very clunky… (but that’s bound to change.) All in all, very impressive.
There are kiosks all around the floor with all kinds of goodies, healthy and not, but my favorites are the “chocolate partners” who are local artisans sampling their best… This company, Beta5, had unbelievable bacon maple chocolate bars, and were also handing out this awesome “Douglas Fir Cream Puff” ... (the fern is pistachio, etc, etc.). Scrumptious.
At lunch today, they provided picnic baskets so that random groups of people could sit together and introduce themselves. My group included:
- The publisher of a Fashion Industry Blog/Trade Journal from London
- The head of a nonprofit who analyzes data about documentation of Police enforcement (as in Body Cams, etc.) and tries to maintain equity in establishment of law enforcement policy
- A video archivist from Vancouver who documents individual, family and corporate executive stories and then creates a digital record as a legacy.
- The head of employee “satisfaction” for Merck pharmaceuticals Europe. (A tiny corporation of tens of thousands of employees.)
Just your everyday lunch conversation.
But on to the main reason for the conference… the speakers.
The theme for this year’s conference is “The Future You”.
There will be 10 sessions in total, each with 6-8 speakers. The speakers are from every imaginable discipline and programs generally are a mix of innovation, intellectual or philosophical query, or cultural exploration or performance.
Tonight was the first session, and included 8 performers/ speakers under the title “One Step Forward”.
Here’s a very brief summary of the session.
It started with a performance… a balletic pas de deux between a dancer and a robot (a large scale Kuka Arm), accompanied by solo cello. Beautiful, slightly disturbing. The Taiwanese choreographer/Dancer was YI HUANG
Next speaker was ANAB JAIN, a “futurist” whose studio extrapolates current trends into future situations, and then creates detailed scenarios to illustrate the consequences (intended and otherwise) which those scenarios might bring. She presented examples of an urban culture with ubiquitous drones, a health care system where DNA information can be accessed by insurance companies, and where global warming has raised oceans, disrupted supply chains and caused new innovation in self-sustaining gardening. All of these made more powerful be imagining them as real life experiences.
3nd Speaker: GARRY KASPAROV, the great chess champion who competed against (and was ultimately defeated by) IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer. He spoke at length about the difference between machine intelligence and human intuition. Interestingly, he is very much in favor of, and actually a champion of increased use of computer intelligence. If you've been reading the papers, Kasparov has also been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. He spoke very briefly about that at the end of his speech…. Which was a perfect sequel to…
4th Speaker: LAURA GALANTE, a cyberspace analyst who specializes in monitoring on line terrorism or infiltration. Her main point was that the real story of the Russian interference with the November election was not the technical infiltration and leaking of classified information. It’s really about the conscious way that Russia used that capability strategically to place disruptive information in online and media sources where it would eventually cause those reading it to begin to lose track of the real and the non-real… I’m probably not doing the concept she presented justice here, but it was chilling stuff.
The 5th group provided some welcome relief. The Music/Video performance group OK Go performed some of their songs to their amazing and well known videos, and then talked at length about their development process… The main headline…. Don’t take one idea and chase it... try to get as many ideas on the walls as you can, play with them, prototype them, and let the great ones emerge. (sound familiar?) If you don’t know their work, go to You Tube and watch some of OK Go’s stuff. Amazing. And they were smart and funny too.
Next Speaker, TIM FERRIS, a best-selling author. Rather than talking about success, he talked about persevering through challenge, failure and loss of hope. An excellent speaker, he was forthright about his bouts with bipolar disorder, and his main emphasis was on the concept of STOICISM, which he traced back to the Greeks…. he focused on the notion that our worst fears are almost always much worse than reality, and that by getting them out in the open and dealing with them, our fears become much more manageable. He quoted a mentor of his…. “Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decision, easy life.”
TITUS KAPHAR, speaker number 7, Is a contemporary artist who deals with the way our history is recorded and understood in the visual arts, and whose own work sets to “amend” the accepted historic narrative. A dynamic presence, he did an onstage demo where he “re-focused” a classic Franz Hals painting to change our understanding and image of economic status, race and position. Challenging and powerful.
Finally, RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS, former chief Rabbi of London, spoke eloquently about our current cultural preoccupation with the “self”, from the narcissistic (my word) presence of social media pages to the omnipresent “selfie” craze. He also spoke about the technological phenomenon which results in large groups being “alone together”, (certainly something we all talk about in our discussions of public spaces, VR applications, etc.). His point was that the current political climate around the world is the result of all of us forgetting our own collective stories, and in the process, becoming frightened of the stories of others.
A moving and powerful conclusion of the evening and kick off of what should be an exciting week.
I hope I’ll be able to keep up!!!
Hello from Vancouver and Day Two of the TED Conference! A little greyer today than yesterday, but still beautiful. The pixelated Orca in the photo above is a permanent sculpture next to the convention center. The pavilion next to it was designed and erected for TED … each of those little squares is actually a stool which can be pulled out of the wall so informal gatherings can occur next to the water.
Before I hit the speaker high points (and there were a lot of them today), I wanted to share a bit about the TED theater. It’s a custom designed “speaker’s arena” which is assembled inside the Convention Center just for the TED conference. Designed by David Rockwell and Assoc. It’s a pretty amazing piece of design. Although it holds about 2000 audience members, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. Here are some images…
It’s beautifully constructed out of modular units of raw pine. The seating is broken up into many different pods with seats in different styles, couches and banquettes. I think it succeeds in its objective, which was to create an “intimate” space for maximum focus on individual speakers.
And on the topic of Speakers, we had somewhere around 23 of them today…. So I’m going to summarize fairly succinctly.
SESSION #2 Tuesday Morning
“OUR ROBOTIC OVERLORDS”
As the title implies, the topic was Artificial intelligence and the big question… will robots become smarter than humans, and does that pose a threat?
MARC RAIBERT, from Boston Robotics, kicked things off with an AMAZING robotic demo... a four legged machine which could navigate over and around platforms, steps and obstacles. Very impressive, but equally impressive (or disturbing) that the audience IMMEDIATELY anthropomorphized the robot, since it looked somewhat like a dog... you could hear the “ahh”s of delight when it entered. Not much question that robot mobility and agility is going to move FAST and were going to see highly capable autonomous robots in the next decade.
NORIKO ARAI – A.I. researcher from Japan... She taught a computer to apply for Tokyo’s toughest University, including the essay questions... Passed 2/3 of all students, which was impressive. She emphasized how intelligent machines answer questions… They can search and compare, but still cannot understand, (YET).
STUART RUSSELL – This man wrote the book on A.I., literally. (The leading textbook on A.I. used at Universities throughout the world). He predicted that soon Artificially intelligent machines WILL understand and be able to read and comprehend. When that happens, shortly thereafter, machines will have read everything ever written by humans and will then be able to analyze and process both data and subjective thought, on a scale we’ve never imagined.
JOSH REDMOND, a grad student from Univ. of Washington, created an algorithm called Yolo (You only look once). This has advanced visual recognition systems in a major way shortening compute time to identify and place objects significantly. The algorithm can analyze, classifies and places multiple objects within a space in micro seconds.
TOM GRUBER is the creator of Siri. He said that we should be tasking Intelligent machines to be a tool which assists humans in expanding their capabilities, rather than thinking about using technology to advance the capabilities of the machine themselves (although ultimately the two go hand in hand.
TODD REICHART – Announced development of a new personal, single passenger lighter than air vehicle, easy to learn to drive, all electric, superlight. Production model by end of year.
RADHIKA NAGPAL studies A.I. but focuses more on swarm, flocking and group dynamics, using birds, schools of fish and bees as her models. She creates tech analogues which can mimic that networked behavior (based on the sensing capabilities of the individual elements and without interconnected programming). She made an interesting extension of the behaviors she studied into ways “group” behaviors and action could be used by humans to ignite social change.
SESSION #3 (Tuesday late morning)
“THE HUMAN RESPONSE”
This session was the response to the previous one... How do humans fit into a world increasingly dominated by technology and thinking machines? Will there be new jobs to replace the old ones which become obsolete?
RUTGER BREGMAN is a Dutch social historian. He presented a fascinating study of poverty upending much widely accepted thinking. In essence, his position is that poverty is not the result of poor decisions or character flaws. He described a phenomenon known as Scarcity mentality, and how research has shown that anyone facing daily scarcity of basic needs has diminished capabilities, including actual IQ level decline. Argued powerfully for a guaranteed base income, which would reduce or eliminate scarcity mentality, and that it would cost much less to do that than deal with the results of poverty and other social programs. A compelling talk which could have become the single subject of the entire conference.
MARTIN FORD is a futurist and the author of a bestselling book about the rise of robotic technology. He examined technology shifts of the past (agriculture to machine age, etc.) and how new jobs have always been created to replace old ones. He made a case for the possibility that the coming technological age, particularly when we pass the singularity point of robotic “understanding” may result in a profoundly different shift than previous eras.
JACK CONTE is a musician who developed a platform called Patreon, a web sharing site designed to equitably allow artists to share in value / income from their creations.
SARA DEWITT. A children’s media developer argued that screens and other media are actually not harmful to children and that they can be valuable learning mechanisms.
RAY DALIO, who runs Bridgewater, possibly the most successful hedge fund ever. He described his brutally transparent office culture, where everyone is constantly evaluated, scored and rated by their peers, superiors and subordinates. “A believability –weighted idea meritocracy”. Fascinating, but not an atmosphere I would want to work in.
ANTHONY ROMERO the Exec. Director of the ACLU, made a fascinating presentation, evoking models of good and bad governance as described in a classic allegorical frescoe by Lorenzetti. Probably not surprising that he found many parallels to our current presidency in the allegory of bad governance.
MORGAN DIXON and VANESSA GARRISON, talked about high incidence of premature death due to obesity and health related issues among black women and how they looked back to their foremothers for useful traditions and energy for creating change. Inspired by Harriet Tubman, they began the walk-based movement, Girl Trek. Their talk was half presentation, half church revival, and was the more inspiring because of it.
In the afternoon I attended a special workshop with neurologist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Some of you may have seen her well known TED talk where she vividly described her own recovery from a serious stroke. She made an in depth presentation of the “two personalities of the brain” describing the different functions and attributes of the left and right spheres of the brain, and how understanding them and working between them can be useful in daily life. Fascinating.
SESSION #4 (Tuesday afternoon)
“HEALTH, LIFE, LOVE"
First up was a live interview of Tennis great SERENA WILLIAMS by GAYLE KING of CBS News (and editor of O magazine). Serena was strong, forthright and funny. She talked about her recently announced pregnancy, her incredible ability to focus on her objectives, and a bit about what it’s like to be one of the greatest athletes in history. I loved her.
ATUL GAWANDE who wrote a book I highly recommend called Being Mortal, talked about how even professionals (like Doctors, lawyers.) can benefit from having a coach who observes their work on an ongoing basis and helps them to always continue to improve… That’s a very foreign concept in western professional circles, but he explained from his own experiences how powerful the effect of coaching and improvement can be.
ANNA ROSLING RONNLUND carries on the work of her father, Hans Rosling. Their specialty was/is creating images or physical examples of highly complex information in ways that make it easy to explain and comprehend.
The big event of this session was a surprise onscreen appearance by POPE FRANCIS. He gave a very moving talk (in Italian) which aimed squarely at the TED audience and the serious responsibility of the powerful individuals gathered there to put the welfare of people before profit. He spoke eloquently and gently but didn't really pull any punches... He clearly understood his audience. I was impressed and moved. I understand they have already posted his talk on TED.com, so you can watch it now.
Performance artist JOHN BOOGZ premiered a “choreopoem” (my term for it) which featured a live poem recital, three dancers and live violin with recorded music. Beautiful, elegant and at times very physical, it was interesting but didn't hit home for me.
Last year’s TED prize winner SARAH PARCAK, who’s sort of a modern day, high tech Indiana Jones, gave a report on her TED wish from last year, and the establishment of a website, GlobalXplorer.org which allows everyday users to analyze satellite photos and identify footprints of possibly undiscovered archeological sites. In the three months since the site went up, they’ve identified over 20,000 sites. Amazing.
Finally, the TED PRIZE Winner for 2017, RAJ PANJABI, announced his wish. Raj is a doctor who has worked in unreachable communities throughout Liberia, where he spent his childhood, including playing a key role in the battle against the Ebola Virus outbreak. His TED prize wish (which comes with $1 million in starter funds from TED) was to establish an institute which would train and hire a network of medical helpers (residents of remote villages) who could treat the most common/serious medical events in their communities, and further use remote diagnostics to work with centrally located doctors and nurses to handle more complicated cases. He gave a profoundly moving and eloquent presentation, evoking stories his father told him as a child (no situation is ever permanent, no matter how bad (or good) it may be. He’s quite an inspirational man.
That’s it for today... more speakers start tomorrow at 8:30!
Day Three of the TED conference… the great weather is still hanging in there... it’s actually been really pleasant. I started off today test “driving” a new bicycle system, which has a robotic assist built into the rear wheel. It pedals with half the usual effort and can go for 35 miles. The red disc is the robotic part.
Lots of speakers to cover today, so here we go…
Speaker Session 5, Wednesday Morning
“Mind, Meaning “
MICHAEL LYNCH, Philosopher, spoke about our understanding of truth in this era of “Fake News”. The digital revolution has compounded our tendency to escape to our corner of comfort by limiting what we read to news curated for our tastes and personal politics. This leads to a willingness to regard any news we don’t agree with as “fake”. He talked about the need to refocus on the importance of objective truth, both by being open to learning (or even being wrong!) and by entering into dialogue with those with whom we disagree. The danger is this… it’s impossible for truth to speak to power if there is no standard or belief that truth exists.
DAN ARIELY and MARIANO SIGMAN, a behavioral economist and a neuroscientist conducted an experiment in the audience. They posed two ethical dilemmas to the audience, and asked them to mark forms which indicated whether a proposed solution was right or wrong on a 1-10 scale and also how strongly we felt about that rating on a 1-10 scale. After marking them, they grouped the audience in threes to see if they a.) agreed on their ratings or b.) would adjust their ratings to reach consensus. The purpose of the experiment was not to judge the answers, but to see how often the group of three could come to a closer consensus. Their research demonstrates that any time a group combines their answers and tries to adjust to find consensus, the final answer is invariably more accurate than the “pre-consensus” ratings. In short, we get smarter when we talk to each other.
ANIKA PAULSON, TED Ed Student (approx. 16 years old) gave an absolutely lovely talk about how music is fundamental to her life, both literally (sustaining her in times happy and sad) and also as a metaphor for life in general (Rhythm, harmony and melody). She also quoted a famous physicist who used music to explain the string theory of the Universe. She was poised, gentle, and wise.
LISA GENOVA, Alzheimer’s researcher who wrote the book “Still Alice” was concise and insightful in explaining the fundamental mechanics of Alzheimers disease as we now understand it, the potential treatments on the horizon, and most interestingly how keeping the brain active and continuing to learn new things (which must involve all the senses, not retreading old learning like crossword puzzles) can actually overcome symptoms, even in cases where all the physical attributes of the disease are present and active. A powerful speaker.
ROBIN HANSON, an economics professor from George Mason University, gave a very OUT THERE talk imagining the consequences of a world where intelligent machines which are cloned after biological models of the human brain (he called them “Ems”) had taken over most jobs. His talk outlined what human roles would be and what our future would look like. It was a weird look at “life in the Matrix” of sorts… I’m not sure if it was too scary to think about or just too odd, but I don't think most of the audience embraced his vision.
ANIL SETH, neuroscientist from Sussex, England gave a profound talk on our understanding of consciousness and the nature of consciousness itself. His POV is that computers, even those who will eventually learn to think subjectively, will never replace humans because they will not be “conscious” entities. They may even understand pain and emotion, but will not be able to experience them.
Speaker Session 6
KRISTIN POINAR creates and studies computer models of glacial ice sheets to monitor and predict effects of global warming. Using satellite radar techniques, discovered that there are big liquid water (as opposed to ice) fissures through the ice sheet that accelerate the transfer of ice/water that’s flowing into the ocean.
KATE MARVEL studies cloud models, which are the hardest climate model to study, predict and track, due to the ethereal nature of clouds. 20% of the suns energy is reflected off clouds, and gives some hope that understanding clouds may make them a useful tool in reducing planet warmth, although clouds can also actually capture and contain the radiant heat of the earth itself, which is not a good thing. Even though the various models have a broad range of potential results, even the unpredictability of the models can be studied and point to possible new revelations about cloud behavior. (She was also very funny).
DANNY HILLIS, one of the icons of Silicon Valley and inventor of parallel computing, presented a notion for a geo-engineering solution to global warming that involves injecting chalk (which is a basically nontoxic and inert mineral) into the atmosphere to add shielding from the sun. When Chris Anderson, the TED moderator asked several of the climate scientists their opinion in a follow up to this presentation, the scientists were anywhere from concerned to terrified of this concept.
TIM KRUGER, Oxford Geo Engineering professor presented a proposal for massive air scrubbers which use lime as part of the scrubbing process, which theoretically would not just reduce but reverse co2 concentrations, plus the used lime might be put into the ocean to help to reduce ocean acidification. He compared the magnitude of this kind of project to the building of the great cathedrals of Europe, which might be started by our generation, but only completed by later generations…. But we may need to start now if we’re going to implement in time.
Former Vice President AL GORE made a brief appearance and talked about his optimism that a major breakthrough in sustainability technology is on the horizon, and also talked briefly about the sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth” which is coming out soon. He’s a regular attendee who is much loved by the TED community.
DAAN ROOSEGAARDE is a Dutch artist who creates environmental installations, including a luminous sidewalk that glows at night in patterns inspired by Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting. He also installed air scrubbing towers near a couple of parks in Beijing, and takes the carbon residue out of the filters and compresses the carbon into “smog diamonds”. Clever but a bit gimmicky. Not all that impressive to me.
PETER CALTHORPE is an urban planner/designer that talked about urban sprawl, which he regarded as one of the great villains of contemporary urban life. He cited statistic that show that quality of life, sustainability, cost of living and other economic factors all become more favorable in mixed use, “semi-dense” urban spaces.
DAVID TITLEY – Is a retired Rear Admiral in the US Navy, and a meteorologist, who was responsible for all military response/readiness to climate change. Talked about how the military sees climate change as a “risk to stability” and has stepped up efforts to combat and deal with climate change.
TED HALSTEAD – Presented a republican plan for climate change... proposed by the “Climate Leadership conference”, which involves a carbon tax, which would be directly refunded to the taxpayer, and repeal of climate regulations (which he feels would be unnecessary once carbon tax is in place). It is interesting to hear a conservative perspective which stipulates the need for action on climate issues.
I had lunch with Craig Russell from Walt Disney Imagineering. We talked about some of his lessons learned from Shanghai Disneyland, as well as his latest project (the Star Wars expansions in Anaheim and Florida). He’s a great guy.
After lunch I attended a 2-hour workshop on the use of play to unleash creativity, led by Gina Bartnett, who coaches the TED speakers on their presentations. Turned out to be a bit more of an improve/acting exercise class, but everyone really got into her exercises, and we all had a lot of fun. She did give us some great tools to open thinking to alternative approached to ideation and problem solving by assuming an imagined persona.
Speaker session # 7, Last Session of the day on Wednesday
JACOB COLLIER is a 22-year-old British musical prodigy. His multi instrumental/digital performances have already topped the charts, and he just released an album completely produced in the bedroom of his parents’ home. If you haven’t heard of him… search him out. Amazing.
DAVID MILIBAND is the former British Foreign secretary who now heads the International Rescue Committee. He spoke eloquently about the plight of refugees and the responsibility of western nations to participate in solving the current refugee crisis, the worst the world has seen since World War II.
LUMA MUFLEH founded and runs a school for refugees in the United States. Born in Jordan, she is Muslim and Gay. She has been an outspoken advocate for the rights of refugees and spoke powerfully about the marginalization of refugees, who are merely trying to escape oppression or hunger. Her compelling speech garnered the longest sustained standing ovation for any speaker so far this week.
ANNA HERINGER is an architect who designs and constructs structures using native materials, primarily mud and bamboo. She shared her experience of building a school in Bangladesh, where she returned after having spent time in volunteer service there as a young adult. The school building, she designed is actually quite striking and beautiful.
GRACE KIM is also an architect who designs and lives in communal housing spaces, where several families occupy private apartments but also share common spaces, including a large dining room where all members eat together three nights a week. She talked about the concept of “comunitas” as a model for future urban living, citing statistics that show that physical and mental health goes down when people live in isolation and the reverse happens when they live in community.
KAROLINA KORPPOO created a very cool “sim city” type of computer game called CITY SKYLINE which anyone can use to design a city. She believes it can be a useful tool for design of actual cities and to visualize future urban concepts. There are many cities “built” with the game that can be found on YouTube.
CATHY O NEILL is a mathematician who presented a talk about algorithms, (like those which determine your credit score, rank teacher performance, or predict recidivism rates for parolees), and how they often tend to be biased or discriminatory, although often the code and criteria for designing the algorithm are never disclosed. She runs a nonprofit that is designing shareware designed to vet/scrub algorithms and identify biases. Eye opening and disturbing.
DEVITA DAVISON is a food activist, who promotes urban agriculture in the City of Detroit. There is a severe shortage of fresh food available in the Detroit inner city, which contributes to much higher than average obesity and dietary health issues. By promoting locally grown food, not only does fresh produce become available, but there are positive ripples of community and involvement that extend throughout the city. When Devita talked, it was like listening to an evangelist, with twice as much passion.…. I have zero doubt in my mind that she will succeed in whatever she sets out to do.
This evening, I participated in a “Jeffersonian Dinner” coordinated by the TED conference. A Jeffersonian dinner consists of a group of people (14 in our case) who discuss a specified topic over a meal. Our topic was “Is the Storyteller king in the post-truth era?” It was moderated by Charles Melcher, who produces the “Future of Storytelling” conference in New York each year. Our group consisted of journalists, activists, publishers, an entrepreneur, and (to my delight) a Broadway theatrical producer. It was a fascinating (and mostly political) conversation, but which ranged all over the map and covered linear vs, nonlinear storytelling, ethics of storytelling and new technologies. Ultimately we all agreed that Storytelling could be considered a tool (or weapon) which can be used for good or evil, and facts, or truth (which is not the same as facts) can be irrelevant to a listener who is predisposed to hear what they want to hear. It was a really great and spirited conversation (and a good dinner).
If you’re still reading this, I’m impressed. It’s been a long day and I’m going to turn in. More tomorrow!
Greetings from Vancouver!
Another full day here at TED. It’s even more beautiful here than earlier in the week. The beautiful weather has been a very pleasant and unexpected surprise.
Whew… really finding I have to pace myself! There’s a LOT of content to absorb here and it’s already getting hard to remember the speakers from two days ago.
Before I begin the run down of today’s activities, just a short note about the food here at TED. They really go all out to keep everyone well fed. In addition to the number of sampling booths around the center, there are multiple artisan coffee and tea baristas, as well as refrigerators with juices, teas and other beverages for the taking. In the morning and during every break, there are hot snack buffets throughout the building. Different each time and with a full range of options from omnivore to vegan. At lunch, there are full buffets with multiple options, plus a full cadre of Vancouver’s best food trucks lined up ranging from Indian to Mac and Cheese and French Crepes. All that, plus the opening party on Monday and the closing party this evening have both been full on feasts, with great wines to boot. No one goes hungry here at TED! (So much for the diet I keep intending to start…)
I got up early to experience the “Tree” VR experience, a single person VR experience which is intended to make you feel like a growing tree. You start out underground as a kapok tree seed, then after you break through the soil, you sprout limbs (which you can manipulate with IR controllers in each hand.) As the tree grows high into the canopy of the rain forest, your POV gets higher and higher, and you can see and interact with the fauna (mostly birds) in the biosphere. At the end, after reaching the top of the canopy, the forest catches fire and the tree begins to burn. Some of this was beautiful, but the output was glitchy. They augmented the visuals with “5d” effects, which were interesting in that many were hand held by an assistant next to you (such as wind in your face or heat from the fire... and most notably, a hand held smoking piece of kindling that they waved around your face… a very impactful smoke effect, but not exactly practical in our world!)
The official morning events began with a 2-hour workshop... (we preregistered from multiple options offered)... mine was “Remembering Tomorrow – How to imagine your future” conducted by Margaret Heffernan, author and high end consultant on company culture and process analysis. In speaking about imagining the future, she took a dim view of “futurists” and predictions, making the case that very few predictions ever really come true. She was much more interested in imagining different possible futures and thinking through each of them as scenarios... taking time to flesh them out in detail. She does this, not to imply that those scenarios WILL be the future, but to inform what we’re doing now to prepare for the future and consider the full range of possibilities. In corporate life, she has found that often adapting/implementing some of the planning for those scenarios make sense regardless of potential outcomes. She gave breakout teams in the workshop scenarios time to develop and then present back to the larger group.
“Be Prepared” instead of “Strategic Planning”.
“Life is toggling between the Past, Present and Future, and we are constantly triangulating between them”.
“Uncertainty is just a negative word for Possibilities”.
And now, on to the speakers of the day. There’s a lot to capture here, so please forgive if I shorthand a few of these….
SPEAKER SESSION # 8
“BUGS and BODIES” This session focused on developments and breakthroughs in biomedical and physical research.
ROBERT SAPOLSKY, genomics researcher, talked about the influence of both recent (hundreds of years) and ancient DNA (thousands of years) on our individual behavior.
DAVID BRENNER is a physicist who works in biologic research. The problem of new strains of “super bacteria” which are highly drug resistant has been projected to be the cause of up to 50 million deaths per year by the year 2030. He has identified specific forms of the ultraviolet light spectrum that can kill any virus or bacteria, including highly dangerous super strains of infection that are conventional drug treatment resistant. He’s calculated a specific frequency of that light that is not harmful to normal human tissue. Trials now underway to confirm ability to use safely, but predicted to be a game changer.
ANNE MADDEN researches microscopic organisms, mites and fungi. Her description of the “flora and fauna” that exists on our face and skin made everybody pretty queasy.
LEVON BISS is an amazing photographer from Great Britain who transitioned from a career as a successful photojournalist to specializing in ultra-high resolution images of insects and beetles. He shoots thousands of highly magnified images of each beetle, changing focus and depth of field by micro millimeters in each. He then composites them, and the results are stunningly beautiful large scale photographic image. Google these… they’re amazing.
MEHDI ORDIKAHNI-SEYEDIAR is an Iranian researcher on neuro pharmacology. He studies “overt” and “covert” focus. The way we perceive things directly in our view and in our peripheral vision.
RICHARD BROWNING is a former Royal Marine and elite athlete who is working with his company, “Gravity” to develop an “Iron Man” type flying suit. They have developed a first article prototype which can achieve low level short duration flight. He demoed the suit here at TED. A long way to go, but it’s clearly going to be a reality in the near future.
ELIZABETH BLACKBURN. Okay, this was an amazing talk. Dr. Browning is a Nobel Laureate who works with “telomeres”, simply described as a cap on the ends of DNA strands that protect the genomic spiral. When the telomeres age and get shorter, the DNA spiral begins to break down. Through a remarkable instance of unexpected insight, she and her team initiated research which connects this process with human aging, which has subsequently been confirmed through dozens of studies. She then further discovered, by studying mothers who have children with disabilities, that high levels of stress and pressure, in and of themselves, can cause physical deterioration of telomeres. She was really eloquent, not just in discussing her research, but in talking about the possibilities of creative innovation to result in major scientific and societal change.
SPEAKER SESSION #9
HELEN PEARSON is chief editor for the magazine Nature. She talked about parenting, and an amazing long term research study of mothers and their children in Great Britain that spans over 50 years, multiple generations and 70,000 participants. This is the largest single study in world history. Mining the research is yielding powerful understanding of the effects of parenting and environment on children. Major findings are that a.) parents are a key component for successful child development… positive involvement by parents is approx. 50% factor. The other 50% predictor, however, is environment, which is significant. Regardless of levels of parental involvement, children born into poverty are almost certain to be less successful than other children. (By the age of three, almost all children born into poverty will be one developmental year behind others.)
Author SUSAN PINKER talked about aging, and finding that in most of the world, women outlive men by 6-8 years. In the “blue zone” of Sardinia, however there is not only parity in gender aging, but a higher level of average life span… more centenarians than anywhere in the world (10 times more on a percentage basis than in North America.) This part of Sardinia is a dense community where all residents are almost forced to interact with each other. The bottom line is that the key factors that lead to longer life are a.) Having close relationships and b.) Social Integration. Research has shown that Face to face contact (as opposed to social media connections) is critical and actually has a physical effect, releasing neuro transmitters.
ADAM ALTER talked about the ubiquitous use of screens, cell phones, etc. Online usage now fills almost 90% of personal time. Old school media had “stop cues” (such as the end of a half hour tv show or the end of a book chapter, which would cause people to use diversion more selectively.) As those cues are no longer available, and other factors cause us to stay “connected” the very nature of “personal time” is radically changing. Suggests creating some intentional pauses from screens, such as at dinner time, or for an hour or two a day.
JEFFREY SCHNAPP demonstrated a new urban vehicle. Interestingly, it doesn’t transport the person… it’s an autonomous “Cargo vehicle” which will follow a pedestrian in an urban environment. In short it will carry your groceries, etc. for you.
CHUCK NICE is a comic and co-host of StarTalk with Neal deGrasse Tyson on NatGeo. He gave a somewhat lighthearted talk about technology and the way it’s taken over our lives.
GUY WINCH is an author and psychologist who talked about heart break. He proposed that everyone will have their heart broken at some point in their lives (in fact, if you don’t have your heart broken, you’re not really living a fully realized life.) Physiologically this is chemically the same as addiction withdrawal. Because of our blind spots, most people have a very hard time doing the very thing they need to do… accept the reality of the heart break, don’t try to rationalize it (invariably we will try to idolize the person or thing that broke our heart and make excuses or find dramatic for why it happened.) The most important thing is to accept it and feel/experience it, which may take a while. This is the fastest route to healing and forward motion.
EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH gave a great talk about the difference between being happy and living with meaning. Many people work so hard to chase happiness that they end up unhappy. Living with meaning is different, though, and is what sustains through good and bad times.
She described four pillars of a life with meaning:
-Belonging… Loving and being loved. Being seen for what we are, not what we believe or what we do.
-Purpose... It’s not what you want, it’s what you give. How can you use your strengths to serve others.
-Transcendence... what lifts/connects you to a higher self… your faith? Music? Art?
-Storytelling... What is the narrative you use to describe your life? You can reframe your life, and a positive narrative serves us better than a negative version of the same life.
During the break between the afternoon sessions, I visited the SHARED STUDIO PORTAL… an installation which uses cargo containers to create environments which connect in real time to other places around the world. When I stepped inside, I connected to a group from Mexico City who were enjoying a day in Chapultepec Park. Something we’ve all talked about doing many times… it was interesting to experience it first hand…. We were face to face at full scale – almost like being right next to each other.
SPEAKER SESSION #10
“TALES OF TOMORROW”
CYNTHIA ERIVO… was the Tony winning star of “The Color Purple” on Broadway (I saw her there and it was one of the top 5 performances I’ve ever experienced.) She talked about using her gift and the universal language of music to bring the world together, then blew the house away singing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”.
MONOUSH ZOMORODI hosts a podcast and gave a fantastic and riveting talk about our fear of boredom. Research shows we need periods of “boredom” or non-associative brain function, for our minds to be creatively productive. This is increasingly hard in an era of round the clock online connection. She sponsored a series of challenges through her podcast encouraging people to make time and undertake simple activities rather than spending time online. Research shows that multi-tasking actually disrupts brain function every time you change a screen or refresh a website, which fatigues brain. If this causes sleep loss, can form a feedback loop which deteriorates alertness and focus.
She noted that Tech companies make it their goal to keep us online as much as possible, because every click drives revenue. “The term ‘user’ is only used by technologists and drug dealers…”
SHAH RUKH KHAN is one of the best known film stars in the world, who has starred in hundreds of Bollywood films. (While not known that well in U.S. he is bigger than George Clooney and Brad Pitt combined in the huge Bollywood movie market.) He spoke with lots of charisma, and compared his personal journey with society’s progress toward the future. He will be hosting a new TED tv show in India, which is expected to draw an audience of more than 30 million people per episode. Here in Vancouver, which has a large Indian community, there was a crowd of several hundred people around the convention center hoping to catch a glimpse of him!
LAOLU SENBAJO is a human rights lawyer from Nigeria who came to NYC to become an artist, and now creates powerful imagery and body art based on cultural themes from his tribal ancestors (even though his parents were born again Christians who did not recognize that heritage.) He’s well known for creating body imagery for Beyoncé and presented some incredible imagery and live painted models.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE was an articulate, passionate and quirky presenter who gave a strong talk about aging as the last acceptable prejudice. She gave many examples about many myths about aging, and described how older people are disregarded and put in situations where preconceived notions become self-fulfilling prophecies. “AGEISM IS PREJUDICE AGAINST OUR OWN FUTURE”
DAVID WHYTE is a philosopher and poet. His presentation is hard to capture in words, but he was spellbinding in talking about his niece and her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. He used her journey as a theme describing looking to the future, and performed two original and resonant poems that story inspired. A moving meditation on looking forward and each finding our own path to whatever future is before us.
There was a big closing night party this evening, and then there will be one more speaker session tomorrow to wrap up the conference. Stay tuned!
The TED conference has wrapped up for another year, and I’m on the plane heading home to Los Angeles.
It’s been an amazing week, and as you can tell if you’ve been reading along, there’s a heck of a lot to think about. I hope you’ve found something here that has peaked your interest…
More about today’s session, which may have been the best session of all, below… but I’m also including a list of my favorite talks at the end of this post. Many of them have already been posted online at Ted.com, and hopefully the rest will be online soon as well. I think it will be worth your while to watch any or all of them as they come online.
Today’s session was really profound. Many of the topics which have surfaced during the week (A.I. vs. Humans, our common addiction to cell phones and screens, how we transcend technology to find meaning, inequitable systems throughout the world) all seemed to come together with some very impactful speakers…
SPEAKER SESSION # 11
“THE FUTURE US”
TRISTAN HARRIS is a former design ethicist at Google, and currently leads a movement called Time Well Spent. He painted a disturbing portrait describing the way online entities are competing for our attention and using incredibly powerful (but not very visible) techniques to compete for “clicks”. I loved his description of that competition, “a race to the bottom of the brain stem”, which means the techniques used to keep us online are accessing more and more primal and reflexive parts of our brains. All of these user sites are designed to keep us online and constantly grabbing our attention. In short, addicted. There are lots of economic reasons for this disturbing trend to continue, and for the appeal to our “lizard brains” to get even stronger. He made a strong case that this is THE number one issue we should be concerned about, because it has the capacity to affect almost any other issue you can name, including poverty, economic disparity, politics, etc. A major change of mindset and pushback from the greater population is going to be required to reverse the trend. Watch this talk. I think you’ll find it as startling as I did.
JIM YONG KIM is the President of the World Bank. He gave an incredibly thoughtful and moving talk about his background, and how that informs his sense of mission at the World Bank today. Born into hardship in 1960s Korea, he went on to graduate with dual degrees in medicine and anthropology. Looking for ways to give back, he led several medical missions in third world countries, countering commonly held notions about fighting the most challenging cases, like drug resistant TB and HIV. Since coming to the World Bank, he has worked to adjust the focus of their mission, concentrating on the goal of empowering people with the resources to lift themselves up with the tools of change they want, not the change we think they should have. He’s led the World Bank in innovating new systems of financing and risk mitigation that have made investment of major untapped financial asset resources available for the first time. A completely inspiring talk.
FOUND SOUND NATION was gathering group improvisation of music in this dome throughout the conference and presented a video explaining their process and sampling the music created this week. I didn’t get a chance to try this, and for some reason, this didn't seem to catch fire at the conference the way I think the organizers thought it would.
ANNE LAMOTT is an author, who talked with wise (and maybe even slightly weary) conviction about “things she knows to be true”. I think this talk resonated with everyone in the room. Here’s an abbreviated run down of her list...
-All truth is a paradox.
-Almost everything will work if you unplug it, wait two minutes and plug it in again.
-There is nothing outside of you that can do the work you need to do. You have to fix yourself. (“Help is the sunny side of control”)
-Everyone, no matter how confident they seem, is broken and scared inside.
-Chocolate with over 75% cacao is not a food and was never meant to be consumed.
-On writing... everyone’s first drafts are terrible. A good writer is the one who keeps their butt in the chair. Everything that has happened to you is your story to tell.
-Success is something to recover from. (Success will not heal you.)
-Family is hard. Living on earth is forgiveness school.
-On food… just try to do a little better.
-Grace is spiritual WD40. It will always meet you where you are.
-God is just another word for goodness. A good name for God is “not me”.
-Death. We will never get over the losses in our lives. But no one ever leaves our hearts.
Hard to pick one, but this may have been my favorite talk of the week. I’m looking forward to reading some of her books.
ELON MUSK, founder of Tesla and Space X, did a sit down interview with Chris Anderson, TED owner and host of the conference. They covered several subjects, including:
-The underground road/tunnel system for Los Angeles which Musk is proposing and prototyping (you have to check this one out…)
-He predicted that completely autonomous driving is 2 years away. Eventually most autonomous cars will be a ride share commodity... you’ll pick the cohort you want to share with (Family, Business, highly rated drivers, etc.) He said 100% for sure.
-The newest developments coming downstream at Tesla.
-Progress of the Giga Factory Tesla is building to manufacture lithium batteries at massive scale.
-Upcoming availability of new Solar roof technology. He predicted every home will have a solar roof within 40-50 years, and most much sooner than that.
-Space X and the successful ongoing tests of their instantly reusable rocket (which btw has 4 times the thrust of the Apollo project Saturn V rocket!)
At the end of the interview Chris asked E.M. about priorities… why should we try to go to Mars when we have such serious problems at home? Musk replied that it’s not really a binary choice… we can do both. Even more importantly, he spoke passionately (or as passionately as he ever gets with his extremely measured demeanor…) about the need we have as humans to aspire and to imagine going somewhere further. Musk may be the closest thing to a Walt Disney or to being the next Steve Jobs. You have to admire his vision and deeply considered thinking.
NOAH FELDMAN is a professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University. His incisive talk was a response to those who feel that: 1.) Our politics today are more divisive than they’ve ever been before, 2.) That the red/blue state U.S. is more geographically and regionally segregated than ever, and 3.) That there is nothing we can do about it. He set out to show that none of those three statements are true, that, in fact, the constitution as conceived by our founders is a sophisticated operating system designed to resolve just these kinds of conflict. He traced conflict in US politics back to our founders and the bitter rivalry between Madison and Hamilton, and then also explained how three aspects of the constitution protect us from going too far awry….
-Freedom of Speech
-The Right of Assembly
-Separation of Powers
We need to work to exercise this operating system... we need to speak out, we need to organize and we need to work to bring about political change, but as we do the constitution continues to work and continues to assure our right to do those things. His closing words were, (in spite of what we might be feeling), “everything’s going to be all right.”
JULIA SWEENEY, SNL alum, gave a humorous “wrap up“ of the week, which was pretty funny.
And THAT, my friends, is the end of the TED Conference of 2017. Thanks for sticking with me to the very end!
Here’s a list of the talks that I highly recommend, with my 12 favorites in bold (in order of their presentation, not in my order of preference):
OK Go, Musicians and Video performers
Titus Kaphar, Artist
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Religious Leader
Marc Raibert, Roboticist
Rutger Bregman, Historian
Martin Ford, Futurist
Anthony Romero, Exec Director, ACLU
Serena Williams (with Gayle King), Athlete
Atul Gawande, Surgeon and Author
Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome
Sarah Parcak, Satellite Archaeologist (check out her 2016 talk, too)
Raj Panjabi, Physician
Michael Lynch, Philosopher
Anika Paulson, Student and Musician
Lisa Genova, Neuroscientist
Anil Seth, Cognitive Scientist
Kristin Poinar, Glaciologist
Kate Marvel, Climate Scientist
David Titley, Meteorologist
Jacob Collier, Musician
David Miliband, Refugee Advocate and former British Foreign Secy.
Luma Mufleh, Refugee activist
Cathy O’Neill, Mathmatician, Data Scientist
David Brenner, Radiation Scientist
Levon Biss , Photographer
Elizabeth Blackburn, Molecular Biologist
Helen Pearson, Science Journalist
Susan Pinker, Psychologist and Author
Emily Esfahani Smith, Author
Manoush Zaltzman, Tech Publisher
Laolu Senbajo, Artist, Musician, Attorney
Ashton Applewhite, Author and Activist
David Whyte, Philosopher
Tristan Harris, Design Thinker
Jim Yong Kim,. President of World Bank
Anne Lamott, Author
Elon Musk, Entrepreneur
Noah Feldman, Constitutional Scholar