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Heroes and Villains at TED

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 9, 2010

The theme of this year’s TED conference is “What The World Needs Now”, and it’s one that many of the speakers at this afternoon’s “TED University” session took to heart. These bite-size (4 minute) presentations act as a precursor to the main event, which kicks off tomorrow morning. In particular, these three presenters stood out for me:

Daniel Kraft is on the faculty at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine at Stanford. His presentation on The Future of Medicine showed how the law of accelerating returns can apply to healthcare. For example:

Faster: soon, Kraft said, the digital stethoscope will diagnose murmurs better than he can.

Smaller: Robotic surgery means scarless surgery; Microbots will be able to clean out arteries.

Cheaper: We’re approaching the $100 genome. In a few years, Kraft joked, the TED gift bag will include details of each attendee’s own DNA sequence.

Better: Personalized medicine. As an oncologist, Kraft said, he knows only too well that most cancer treatment is poison. New forms of personalized oncology will mean targeted systems that give the right drug to the right person.

In summary, he outlined four main principles of health care of the future: “empower the patient; enable the physician; enhance wellness; cure the well before they get sick.” Nicely done.

Jon Drori of Kew Gardens in the U.K. made an incredible case for every home investing in a standing electron microscope. The images of individual grains of pollen that he showed were simply stunning. But it wasn’t simply the gorgeous detail that struck me. Rather, it was Drori outlining that each grain of pollen has a signature fingerprint. This means that it’s possible to identify where particles of pollen come from… and that means it’s useful in forensic science. According to Drori, pollen identification has already been used to track where counterfeit drugs are made or where banknotes are being forged. And it can be used to track murder suspects. According to Drori, some of those accused of war crimes in Bosnia were brought to trial on the basis of pollen evidence. I shall never look at a flower the same way again.

Finally, Phil Zimbardo, he of the Stanford Prison Experiment and a long-time analyst of human psychology, launched an initiative he dubbed Heroes Are Us. Making the case that villains and heroes are outliers, and that “the general population does nothing and does so without any imagination at all”, he called for a movement looking to create a world filled with heroes. Sounds hokey, but actually it was pretty compelling. And the “four D’s” he outlined could also be applied within any business context to help build a stronger organization:

Democratize the concept: anyone can be a hero.

Demystify: most heroes are ordinary. ordinary people extraordinary acts.

Diffuse: Move away from solo heroes to ensembles. Create hero networks.

Declare: Make a public commitment to journey toward heroism.

Zimbardo is working on building some kind of “hero curriculum” for schools, and also on building something he called the “Heropedia”, a cross between E.O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life and Wikipedia. That seems to me to need a bit more thinking to be useful or to catch on, but it’s certainly an interesting line of research, with some powerful principles. Also, he ended with a quote from Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Reader Comments

J.A. Ginsburg

February 10, 2010 10:12 AM

As breathtaking and inspiring as Daniel Kraft's work is, I find myself wondering about the interface between breakthrough medical tech and the insurance industry-hobbled reality of medical services delivery (at least in the U.S.). A $100 genome - great! But will it be mined for the signs of potential pre-existing, insurance-excluding conditions? Personalized oncology? Having held the hands of near and dear as they've gone through chemo - great idea! But how much will it cost and will everyone who needs it have access?

I don't want to put any kind of damper on the visionary thinking that sparks these truly great ideas, but I would like to see a deeper discussion about some of these practical, ethical issues.

Every day doctors prescribe tests and medicines, doing their best to help their patients. Typically they haven't a clue what anything costs or what their patients can afford.

The only thing worse than finding out that you've got a terrible and possibly terminal illness would be to learn that there's a remedy for it, but, sorry, you can't have it. And how horrible to be a doctor who knows how to help, but can't.

In a way, it reminds me of an old Tom Lehrer song about a German rocket scientist whose pre-War work was utilized by the Nazis to build the V2 rocket. After the war, he took a job with NASA:

"Once the rockets go up
Who cares where they come down?
That's not my department
Says Werner von Braun"

(performance video:

Helen Walters

February 10, 2010 10:34 AM

Janet, I couldn't agree more that ideas need to actually happen in order to be truly great. The purpose of concepts is to surprise, inspire and motivate, but there's probably nothing *less* motivating than an attainable great idea that gets mired in bureaucracy and never actually comes off. Kraft used the forum of TED, quite wisely in my view given the conference's scale and scope, to outline a future he wants to see. And you're right, he didn't get into the practicalities of how any of that might be achieved. But to be fair, he only had four minutes! He's clearly more than aware of the challenges that lie ahead, but perhaps in describing that vision, it might motivate others to think along those lines too. And the principles he outlined (quite 'design thinking'y, in my apparently DT-obsessed eye) *can* be adopted now, and perhaps even that mindshift would help to bring about fundamental change we can all get behind.

J A Ginsburg

February 10, 2010 3:02 PM

I don't fault Kraft at all - far from it. It's just that in the euphoria of sharing what's possible, context issues are often left for the fuzzy future to sort out. I'd like to see those nagging, pesky policy issues / vested interests smoked out earlier in the game so that the reality can more likely match potential. The visionaries need to know the policy wonks and vice-versa...

Carolyn Grothaus

February 16, 2010 11:26 AM

Thank you for your practical grounded comments, J.A. Ginsburg.

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