TED 2006: The future we will create

TED 2006: The future we will create

Monterey, California

Down on Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s “Prime time for the Gray Whale,” according to the boat trip operators. Just offshore, colonies of sea lions are barking out their territorial claims. If such sensitive indicators of the planet’s health are hail and hearty, what could possibly be wrong?

Loads, actually. The first afternoon of TED’s meeting on “The future we will create” was mostly doom and gloom. If we extrapolate the present we have created into the future then the future won’t be habitable. A surging population has much to do with this – 6.5 billion now, rising to 8 billion by 2020 - with its attendant demands for food, water, and energy. As does climate – especially climate. Al Gore (who, in his own words, “used to be the next President of the United States”) gave a barnstorming performance on our need to cut carbon emissions within the next 10 years. After two years on the road, his slide show has been honed to perfection and kept constantly updated. The latest depressing statistic:   2005 was the hottest year on record, continuing a now familiar pattern.

An Inconvenient Truth,   a film based on the slideshow, is released in May, and there’s an accompanying book. There are two related websites, climatecrisis.net and climatecrisis.org – which represents a collaboration between 30 different US environmental groups. A PR blitz is planned for the US where “Facts and logic do not mediate between wealth and power as they once did.”  



Teach your children well
 

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at MIT and author of the seminal Being digital, introduced a second of the major themes of the meeting: children.

He’s the driving force behind the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which aims to get a laptop into the hands of every child on earth. Children are our most precious natural resource, argues Negroponte, and education (not necessarily teaching) is their most pressing need.  

This topic was greatly expanded later in the week by Ken Robinson, knighted in 2003 for his commitment to creativity and education and currently senior advisor to the

J Paul Getty Trust. He argued that creativity is as important as literacy and should be granted the same status in education. Currently, under the malign influence of their educators, children grow out of their creativity. 

Wherever he’s gone in the world, mathematics and literacy top the academic hierarchy, humanities are in the middle, and the arts are on the bottom. As children grow, he said, “We educate them from the waist up, and then just the head, with a focus on one side of it.” The ideal product of this process is the university professor, a species that “lives in its head, slightly to one side.” He attributes the rise of public education systems in the nineteenth century to the needs of industrialisation. Factory workers didn’t need the arts for these new jobs, so they were devalued.  Children’s brains were “strip mined” in the process.

It’s time for a radical rethink of our views about intelligence and education, which will  be hard, argued Robinson - we’re preparing children for a future we can’t possibly predict. 

Those children are our best hope for the future surfaced in many talks.

Peter Skillman, director of new products at Palm, reported how well different groups managed to construct a marshmallow support from spaghetti sticks. Kindergarten children did best; business school students did worst. Children don’t waste time on “status transactions,” and they’re comfortable with making mistakes and bending the rules.  Neil Gershenfeld, of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT’s Media Lab, had a similar experience of children’s creativity when he rolled out his fabrication labs to developing countries. What excites him most: Harnessing the collective creativity of the 5 billion or so brains in developing countries by democratising access to modern means for invention.

Clifford Stoll has put his money where his mouth is. The author of Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway and High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don’t Belong in Schools and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian, has apparently abandoned his career as an astronomer for teaching science to eighth graders (and showed the meeting how to calculate the speed of sound using an oscilloscope). 

Burt Rutan was worried that we have no more big scientific projects to inspire the young. The designer of SpaceShipOne (which won the $10m X prize for a manned spacecraft launched successfully into space twice within a fortnight), reflected on the  importance of the inspirational example of others to his own intellectual development. “Houston, we have a problem,” he intoned. “We’re going back to the moon 50 years later, and we’re going to do it in a way specifically planned so we don’t learn anything new.” He worries that we’re  failing to inspire the next generation to think about flight and exploration. 

Emerging as a powerful thread throughout the meeting was the need to address our mutual ignorance of each other, with children the obvious place to start. If Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist, could be granted a single wish it was that children should be exposed to the facts about different world religions. He believes that religions are natural phenomena like any other, and their factual basis should be taught in the same way as other subjects are taught. (I’m pleased to say that this happened at my children’s state school in England.)

Photographer Phil Borges has been using photography to increase young people’s awareness of how others live. (As evidence of Americans’ ignorance of the outside world, he quoted National Geographic statistics that 70% of  its 18-26 year olds couldn’t find Iran or Afghanistan on a map and  50% couldn’t find the Pacific Ocean.)

His website, http://www.bridgesweb.org, allows teenagers to upload their stories and movies, and have them commented on by their peers around the world. As an example, he showed a film made by a young Guatemalan about a mudslide that killed 600 fellow villagers.



Medicine men

Any meeting about the future is inevitably going to speculate about medicine, but the most arresting presentations were those rooted firmly in the here and now.

One of this year’s three TED prizewinners, Dr Larry Brilliant, sketched out his proposal for “a powerful early warning system to protect our world from some of its worst nightmares.” A veteran of the WHO campaigns to eradicate smallpox and polio (not to mention one time tour doctor for the Grateful Dead and newly appointed head of the Google’s philanthropic arm) his mantra is “early detection, early response.” INSTEDD (the International System for Total Early Disease Detection) would be transparent, with basic information freely available to everyone, preferably in their own language and independent of any single company or UN agency. The plan is to build it out from the Canadian  government’s Global Public Health Information Network (GPHIN), which detected the SARS outbreak ahead of the competition.  Infectious disease surveillance –most notably bird flu –would be its first priority, although famine, flood and other environmental catastrophes could follow. GPHIN scours 20 000 newspapers (via the news aggregator, Factiva) and investigates potential outbreaks further once sufficient  “buzz” has been registered.

Hans Rosling, professor of international health at the Karolinska, has been targeting the warehouses full of national statistics that are costly to buy and difficult to grasp. We wants to make the world’s public statistics free, searchable and animated on the web and has made a start with the UN’s Human Development Report 2005 on his website: http://www.gapminder.org (named for London Underground’s “Mind the Gap.”)

Molecular biologist Joe Derisi demonstrated his virus diagnostic chip, a slide embedded with 12 096 snippets of DNA matching viral RNA. Each virus produces a unique pattern, which makes the chip’s output readable like a barcode.

Further “out there” was Alan Russell, director of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Newts can regrow lost limbs; so will fetuses if they lose a limb in the first trimester. So why can’t diabetics regrow a pancreas? He described  the use of pig intestine to encourage the regeneration of cells and tissues in humans. Human stem cells, harvestable from liposuction fluid, could replace lost or damaged cells, for example in heart muscle.

Way “out there” was Aubrey de Grey, biomedical gerontologist from Cambridge, England. He thinks that human lifespan is theoretically extendable to 1000 years if we could only undo the havoc wreaked by our metabolism on molecular and cellular processes. Speaking of other gerontologists, de Grey claimed: “They ignore you, then laugh at you, then oppose you, and then claim they agreed all along.” He’s happy to have already reached third base and is seeking funds to advance his ideas.



Low tech

For a conference series that has historically been very heavy on new technology (the Macintosh computer and the Sony compact disc were unveiled at the first TED conference in 1984) this one seemed very low tech, hardly moving beyond the possibilities of websites and mobile phones.

A website is at the centre of architect Cameron Sinclair’s big idea - a community that actively embraces open source design to generate innovative and sustainable living standards for all. Anyone in developing countries will be able to download tried and tested designs from the website for free use (with Creative Commons licences protecting the intellectual property of the designers).  In the meantime, this year’s TED prizewinner carries round a laptop with 3000 designs on it.

Blogs featured both as conference topics and as a way of recording the conference. See the live bloggers’ accounts of each session at: http://tedblog.typepad.com/ (to which I’m indebted for some of my verbatim quotations). Ethan Zuckerman produced the surprising statistic that 12 of the world’s 100 most popular blogs are now written in Chinese. “It’s about to get a whole lot more polyglot on the net, a lot more complicated and a lot more interesting. And it would be a very good time to brush up your Mandarin,” said Zuckerman.

The organisation, Witness, set up by musician Peter Gabriel, shows where the combination of mobile phones and websites might be going.

Quoting directly from Ethan Zuckerman’s blog of the session:

“Peter Gabriel opens his talk speaking about an incident in his childhood where he was sexually abused by other schoolboys. When he met a Chilean woman years later who talked about being tortured, this was the only experience he had to connect it to - his own experience of pain, shame and humiliation.

When Bono asked Peter Gabriel to get involved with Amnesty International’s Human Rights tours, he did, and had the experience to meet thousands of human rights activists who’d been detained, threatened and tortured. He believes that the most terrible thing that happens to people is when you are tortured, suffer, and then have your story denied, buried and forgotten.

When a camera’s around, it’s harder to bury these stories, as Rodney King so effectively reminded us. The power of the camera led Gabriel to help start Witness, an NGO which gives cameras to activists around the world to help them tell their stories. Witness began in 1992 and has distributed cameras to 60 countries.

But things have moved on – last year, mobile phones with cameras outsold cameras. Given their increasing availability, providing cameras becomes less important, and Witness may transmute into a vast website where people can upload the damning photographs and videos they’ve captured with their mobile phones.   Riffing on the example of Witness was Jamais Cascio of http://worldchanging.com. He sketched out a similar portal for the documentation of environmental problems to which anyone could upload their photographs or other relevant data. (That first name? “Hippie parents,” said Jamais at the beginning of his talk, to clear the air.)



Next year – a return to business as usual?

During the meeting, organiser Chris Anderson was musing about where TED might be going. He seems to be tiring of “really neat, really cool things,” and turning to neat, cool things that serve some higher cause. It chimes with what the Economist recently described as “the trend among the elite in many countries who increasingly want to make not just money but a ‘difference.’” There were inklings of this in the 2004 conference I attended, but this year the signs were unmistakeable. I doubt that the level of social activism can be attributed solely to the choice of theme. Is Chris wittingly or unwittingly following in the footsteps of his father, a missionary eye surgeon? This year’s audience certainly seemed happy to hear what the speakers were saying, with numerous standing ovations.

For the first time in the series’ history, the 2007 TED conference sold out even before the 2006 conference started. Next year’s conference, themed “Icons. Geniuses. Mavericks” will “put on stage 50 remarkable people and let them share whatever it is they are passionate about.” I wonder whether it will be that simple.

Tony Delamothe

deputy editor, BMJ

For full conference details, see: http://www.ted.com