TED 2008

TED 2008's dead, baby. TED's dead

Posted by: Helen Walters on March 03, 2008

TED rounded off with a party at the aquarium and then, the following morning, presentations from economist Paul Collier, former Vice President Al Gore and Africa activist, Bob Geldof. All seemed a bit freaked to be coming at the tailend of such a whirlwind conference. But they needn't have worried. They were pretty great, too. And then everyone left Monterey slightly reeling to head back to reality. Or, as one conference goer said to me, "I've got a TED-ache."

We'll be running a recap/story within the Innovation section tonight for those who haven't (sacrilege!) been hanging off my every word while I've been feverishly blogging. Here's a version for those of you (lovely, clever people) who have been keeping up with the blog:

The real world seemed far from the conference hall in Monterey. No mentions of looming recession or impending economic meltdown, while politics, too, were off the agenda. Not for everyone – Harvard professor (and advisor to Barack Obama), Samantha Power both wore a button touting her man, and made direct reference to the candidate in her speech -- to notably muted reception. But curator Chris Anderson himself introduced the topic in a brief question and answer session in which he asked Gore directly about the climate policies of the would-be Presidential nominees. Gore showed his diplomatic stripes.

“We should feel great about the fact that both the Republican nominee and both finalists in the Democratic race have very different and forward-leaning positions on the climate crisis that are very different from the current administration,” he said. Then he took the gloves off, calling investments in oil companies "subprime carbon assets". “Have you noticed that the debates have been sponsored by Clean Coal? What? “Now Even Lower Emissions”?” Acknowledging his own business stakes in clean energy providers, he called for no more coal generated plants to be built in the United States, and urged active citizens to change lightbulbs – and laws.

Continue reading "TED 2008's dead, baby. TED's dead"

TED: Day three was off the chain

Posted by: Helen Walters on March 01, 2008

I think I just fell prey to TED, so excuse me if this post sounds a little less than objective. I was talking to a few TED veterans earlier today, who assured me that profound depression is quite common in first-timers, who generally fail to pace themselves right. And I'll confess that earlier today I was feeling less than entirely chirpy.

Perhaps it's something to do with there being so many trailblazers in the same room at the same time. Steve Case, Bing Gordon, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Beth Comstock, er, Paul Simon, Cameron Diaz, Meg Ryan... all the big names in business are here. It's easy to feel a little daunted. (Ok, so one secret highlight: Vinod Khosla sat next to me and merrily stuck his beige-socked feet up on the seat in front of him. I know this is NOT NEWS, and it was mid-session so entirely not the time to talk about socks or anything else, but it was definitely a moment.)

Or maybe it's to do with the curation of the event as a whole. It's clearly very thoughtfully organized so that humor or music are carefully interspersed among the serious science but yesterday in particular saw some crushing blows of reality (yesterday, Irwin Redlener , for instance, was handing out advice on how to survive a nuclear attack -- and he clearly wasn't fooling around.) Anyway, for whatever reason it took me a while to get it together today...

And then. It must be the combination of the previously mentioned John Knoll, Brian Cox and Tod Machover, along with the origami/math wizard Robert Lang, whose theories of two ancient arts are already being implemented in practical ways in industries such as space travel and healthcare in the most phenomenal ways. But then National Geographic photo director David Griffin gave a spin through some of that publication's extraordinary work, and Nigerian activist and author Chris Abani made everyone cry (ok, ok, from now on I refuse to make a point of it) with his tales of being a political prisoner on death row. But I honestly began to feel like something profound was going on. And then the last official hurrah of the day was Ben Zander, conductor of the Boston Philarmonic, who's a huge ham of a presenter, but who got every single person on their feet -- in Monterey and Aspen -- singing along to Beethoven's Ode to Joy. In German.

It was a really extraordinary moment, but Zander himself, for all his kookiness, put it best: "The conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound, but awakens possibility in other people... Who am I being if my players' eyes are not shining? What kind of parent am I if my children's eyes are not shining? Success is not fame, wealth or power. It's shining eyes." Then he asked: "Who are we being as we go back into the world?" I know, I know. I drank the Kool Aid. But it's potent stuff.

[[Later -- two pics of Zander in action:]]

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Thomas Krens leaves the Guggenheim... but was at TED

Posted by: Helen Walters on March 01, 2008

I confess I've been in something of a TED bubble so I missed the news that Thomas Krens stepped down from the directorship of the Guggenheim. Certainly, he made no mention of it in his speech yesterday, which is a bit weird, really. I haven't got the official story but hear that he'll still be working on the new Frank Gehry Guggenheim, part of the proposed Saadiyat Island cultural center in Abu Dhabi (for a look at many of the buildings, take a look at the wonderful slideshow my colleague, Reena Jana, put together on this and other interesting architectural propositions within Abu Dhabi). That makes sense, given that Saadiyat was the focus of Krens' talk, though now I look back at it, perhaps his spin through important art in a museum context -- which featured many of his own controversial shows -- was also his way of running his own credits.

TED: Brian Cox of CERN

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 29, 2008

Mini big bangs are coming! Mini big bangs are coming!

This morning, a really charming talk from the British scientist, Brian Cox, who in a really poetic and self-effacing way transmitted his delight, awe and wonder of the physical natural world to a rapt TED audience. We ran a piece about the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at CERN this time last year, and in a piece of serendipitous timing, the final piece of the particle detector, ATLAS, was slotted into place TODAY. (Turns out our article was a little premature; the LHC itself is due to be turned on this summer.)

Cox was so excited about the LHC and the scientists' proximity to discovering the elusive Higgs particles once and for all, he beamed throughout his entire presentation, even as he made bad jokes about Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton. His enthusiasm for what they'll find when it's finally turned on was utterly infectious. Truthfully, it's hard to get a sense of what ATLAS is without seeing it -- it's just such a mammoth operation occupying such a large area and involving thousands of scientists. But they're all focused on one simple, if ambitious goal: to understand no less than how everything was made. As Cox put it, ATLAS and the LHC are set to provide us with the next chapter in a book whose story was started some 13.7 billion years ago, with the first Big Bang. Whew.

TED: Tod Machover from MIT

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 29, 2008

The most extraordinary presentation. Truly. Tod Machover describes himself as a composer, inventor and educator and he just blew the socks off the entire TED crowd. He works at MIT Media Lab on his thesis: that music can make the world a better place. And while he's worked with musicians such as cellist Yo Yo Ma, Prince and Peter Gabriel, he's not in any way elitist. His team were behind the development of the Guitar Hero interface (hear Matt Vella's podcast with the company's co-founder here ). Machover is also applying music in a healthcare/medical context. Music can be one of the last things that Alzheimer's patients respond to, and Machover and his team have been working with residents at the Tewksbury Hospital, just outside of Boston. Dan Ellsey has cerebral palsy and lives at the hospital, and he left Massachussetts for only the second time ever to come to Monterey and demonstrate his use of specially created software that interprets his gestures and intentions to create music. Ellsey already uses gestures in order to activate his speaking computer, and this was the next step. He gave a performance of his own composition, My Eagle Song, accompanied by abstract visuals created by another MIT student. And it blew everyone away.

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TED: John Knoll of Industrial Light and Magic

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 29, 2008

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Morning session just ended. "How do we create?" featured John Knoll, visual effects chief at Industrial Light and Magic (and the creator of PhotoShop, which was originally launched at TED back in 1990). He's worked on numerous films, and showed snapshots of some of his work on the popular Pirates of the Caribbean series. We all know that computer graphics are a) amazing b) not as effortless as they look -- just witness the confusion you feel when you see an effect that isn't perfect -- it's really jarring on the eye. But seeing just some of the layers and processes that go into even a snippet of a shot was amazing and humbling. Knoll was also very specific that he's just one member of a large team. I liked this quote: "800 really creative people in the same place has an amplification effect"

Richard Saul Wurman back at TED

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 29, 2008

Cathartic moment on stage as TED's originator, the larger-than-life Richard (Ricky) Saul Wurman took to the stage to make peace with current curator, Chris Anderson, who bought the conference off him. Their relationship in the ensuing years has by all accounts been acrimonious, so tension amongst TED veterans (and there are many) was high. Undercut when Wurman promptly burst into tears after a standing ovation.

Wurman's truly a character (I hung out with him a little while later, and he was greeted and hugged by a whole host of the great and the good -- he really inspires strong emotions, this one). Anyway, his words are better than mine, so here are some of the things he said on stage:

On tears: "I cry a lot. But it’s ok, it doesn’t embarrass me. It might embarrass you, but it doesn't embarrass me."

On the genesis of TED: "It was my party. I didn't give a shit about the audience, I wanted to have a wonderful event. I wanted to learn. I had people I wanted to hear from... I wasn’t trying to extend it to society at all. I thought the event was the event."

On Anderson. "When Chris started calling himself the curator I didn’t know what the f*&k that meant. I thought that was pretentious. But in the past few days I’ve understood. I’m not the creator of TED, I’m a curator too... It’s not my dinner party, it has transformed.

On post-Wurman TED: "This is to be interested in everything and see some things you are more interested in than others: To see those connections and those patterns. I never had a fashion person; that wasn’t interesting to me. Isaac [[Mizrahi, who spoke right before Wurman went on stage]] was terrific. He really didn’t talk about fashion and I really enjoyed his talk... In a charming way, it expanded our thoughts about what you can be interested in.

On the original TED philosophy: "I wanted a conference I wanted to be at. All of the talks should be good and the bad ones not that long."

Then he went on to chat briefly about his new venture: 192021, which looks at the 19 cities in the world with 20 million people in the 21st century. We'll be writing a lot more about that in the ensuing months, but suffice it to say it's a fascinating and necessary project.

TED Prize winners

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 29, 2008

The three TED Prize winners are given $100,000 -- and a wish. The idea is that the extensive TED community throng together in order to make that wish come true. Some wishes are easier to grant than others, but in recent years companies such as Sun Microsystems, AMD, Nokia HOT Studio (and a whole host of others) have contributed significant resources to try and help. Here are the details of this year's winners and their requests:

Dave Eggers [[novelist and founder of the youth literacy program 826 Valencia in San Francisco, which spawned dozens of sister programs across the nation and -- soon -- in Dublin, Ireland]]
"I wish that you - you personally and every creative individual and organization you know - will find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area and that you'll then tell the story of how you got involved, so that within a year we have 1,000 examples of transformative change."

The two other winners after the jump

Continue reading "TED Prize winners"

Technology failing at TED

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 29, 2008

Those of you commenting incredulously on a) the price of the ticket and b) the fact that technology seems to have been breaking down won't be pleased to hear that things didn't get much better today. The sound has gone completely a couple of times in the simulcast room I have holed up in (meaning that for a second time I -- and everyone else in that room -- missed a huge part of one of the presentations.) This evening it meant missing much of the update on EO Wilson's Encyclopedia of Life, an online compendium of all known life forms, so I'm glad that there's a breakfast explaining more tomorrow. But many of the presenters seem to be having problems scrolling through their images, too. That could of course be down to the presenters themselves; it's possible to be an inept genius, after all. And certainly everyone seems to be very good-humored about it, but I'm clearly not so zen as all that and am finding it quite frustrating.

Coke is... Water

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 28, 2008

There are hosted lunches each day at TED, and today I went to one hosted/sponsored by Coke, which has been teaming up with various NGOs to work on bringing water to wider public attention.

Coke certainly uses a lot of water in its core business proposition, which suggests why the corporation is interested in maintaining access to an uncontaminated supply. Daniel Vermeer is director of the sustainable value chain at Coke, and he told me he has spent the past five years working on water. After the lunch (at which attendees were tasked to come up with opportunities to raise water's global profile) he summarized these five ideas:

1. Link water to the climate discussion (because people need an intrinsic sense of what water is and what it means to conserve).

2. Emphasize the embeddedness of water in every part of the industrialized system, from clothes to Coke. As Vermeer put it, he realized water's importance when he realized that a car was essentially an industrial swimming pool driving around.

3. Use technology (an unsurprising suggestion from this crowd). But there could be an inexpensive opportunity to allow individuals to monitor the quality of their water.

4. Exploit innovation and connect stakeholders in a design sense. The Global Water Challenge is just one example of this philosophy in practice.

5. Create a movement around water issues and activate people in a powerful way to work together.

These kinds of discussions are the meat and potatoes of TED.

Craig Venter and the fourth generation of designer fuels

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 28, 2008

Just had a brief chat with genetic scientist, Craig Venter, after his presentation at this morning’s TED session, entitled What Is Life? He laid down a challenge: “I don’t want to be known as the Gene King any more!” So we’ll be chatting more post-conference to delve deeper into his latest proposition, the development of synthetic cells -- and their impact on developing the fourth generation of designer fuels.

It’ll be tough to get people thinking beyond Venter in terms of genetics. After all, he’s best known as the man who led the team that sequenced the human genome, back in 1995, and he published a complete diploid genome -- the newest stage in human genome sequencing, in September 2007. He's a true pioneer in genomic research.

But Venter has a point, and now is the time to talk about his work and research in terms practicalities. As he put it, earlier experiments such as corn to ethanol or sugar to higher value fuels such as octane or butanol simply haven’t worked.

“The only way we think biology can have major impact -- without increasing the cost of food or limiting its availability -- is to start with carbon dioxide as a feedstock,” he said in his talk. Natural photosynthesis, in other words, simply doesn’t cut it.

Of course, carbon dioxide can’t be captured out of thin air, and harnessing carbon dioxide involves carbon sequestration. That requires getting business interested, involved and invested. Venter’s just back from the World Economic Forum, where he confessed he didn’t have the best time. “At Davos, I got depressed,” he said. “It was clear that most of executives there buy into the CO2 issue as a pain for them. The consensus was that nothing will change in 40 years because of vested interests. It was discouraging. I worry whether these technologies can get out there in time to make a difference. We’re playing a hell of an experiment with this planet and that worries me.”

Venter believes that his solution will allow answers – on the scale that’s necessary to cope with the demands of an exponentially growing population. It's radical and somewhat controversial, and I'm already looking forward to finding out more about the practical applications of his findings.

Sergey Brin's love of the phrase "and whatnot"

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 28, 2008

Last night's BBC World Debate on the state of contemporary media was interesting and surreal in about equal measure. After technical problems forced presenter Matt Frei to halt proceedings before he’d even got through panel introductions, there was an awkward silence, as everyone in the packed auditorium, including speakers Sergey Brin, Queen Noor of Jordan and veteran journalist Carl Bernstein, looked around and wondered what to do next. Then. From nowhere. An insistent Scottish voice pronouncing: "For all that TED's a "Technology" conference, you'd have to say it's technology is really pretty shitty". Huh? We all twisted in our chairs and gawped and gaped. And then, from the back of the auditorium, emerged actor Robin Williams, to fill in with an impromptu, freeform stand-up set that had everyone rolling in the aisles.

Then. Onto more serious matters.

Continue reading "Sergey Brin's love of the phrase "and whatnot""

First tears at TED...

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 28, 2008

In my curtain raiser for the conference, I jokingly wondered which of the speakers might choke up this year. It was a close run thing. Given that I watched events from the simulcast room, not the live auditorium, I couldn't get all the nuances of the presentation. But artist Chris Jordan, who showed off some of his astonishing images representing what he describes as the "problem of unconscious collective behavior", certainly seemed to have a moment on stage.

Jordan's images are really something else, intended to inspire individuals to take responsibility for how they act -- and be aware of how their actions might impact the world when repeated by 300 million other people. For instance, according to Jordan: 4 million plastic cups are used on flights every day... almost none are recycled. 40 million paper cups are used every day... 400,000 people die in the United States per year from smoking... Jordan's images take these statistics and attempt to make them both manageable and meaningful. He clearly wasn't wagging his finger or blaming or preaching, rather trying to combat what he described as "the anesthesia" prevalent in contemporary culture within the United States. "We've lost our outrage and our anger and our grief," he said. And then, as I say, he had something of a moment and the talk ended rather abruptly. As I wind down for the end of the day myself, I find he's stuck in my head. Check out his site if you get the chance.

Driving the BMW Hydrogen 7

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 28, 2008

Today I got a chance to have a spin in the BMW Hydrogen 7. It’s one of only 20 of the hydrogen-powered cars in the world, so I was a little nervous that I might prang it, but luckily all went seamlessly. In fact, apart from a big “H2” in the middle of the dashboard (and a small button on the right of the steering wheel, which you can just about see in this picture)BMW1.jpg you wouldn’t know you were driving anything other than a regular BMW. As my co-pilot and BMW engineer Mario explained, the car runs on a dual-fuel system, which means it can process both regular gasoline and hydrogen (the button on the steering wheel allows a driver to choose; or the engine switches automatically when one tank is empty.) The lengthy engineering process involved adapting the regular 760Li’s 12-cylinder engine to work with both fuel sources – and to make room in the car for the bulky hydrogen tank, which holds 17.5 lbs of liquid hydrogen. As you can see in this other photo, BMW2.jpgthe tank sits in the trunk – and thus halves the luggage space of a regular 7 series (though the back seat still looks pretty roomy).

Safety’s obviously an issue when discussing such a volatile element as hydrogen (yes, I went there, I brought up the Zeppelin). Five sensors are distributed throughout the car to detect escaping hydrogen. If that happens, the windows automatically open in order to let the gas, harmless in and of itself, out into the atmosphere – and the fuel supply is cut. The demonstration/test drive didn't include filling up with hydrogen but apparently it’s a similar, slightly more high tech version of a regular outing at the pump. Filling up takes about eight minutes.

So when might hydrogen cars become a reality rather than a nice toy to wheel out at events such as TED? No firm answers as yet, though BMW points to a joint government/industry project in California which aims to set up the “Hydrogen Highway” by 2010. That’s a network of 150 – 200 hydrogen-equipped fuel stations. For now, given that even the limited production run that will roll out of BMW’s Bavarian plant later in the year will not be sold on the open market, it’s still just a (beautifully designed) toy.

Aubrey de Grey: How to be a Successful Heretic

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 27, 2008

This morning saw TED University, which is essentially a ton of presentations by people who haven't been invited to go on stage. There were a ton of sponsored activities, too (of which more later). I saw and heard some interesting stuff, but I've only got a few minutes before heading into the next session (theme: What Is Our Place in the Universe?) so I'll simply recount the lessons of Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge (UK) academic who runs the Methuselah Foundation. His aim: to cure old age, arguing that 90% of deaths in industrialized society are from a disease that young people don't die from. 100,000 people die from ageing every day, and he wants to cure the disease. Sounds kooky, and there's no denying that de Grey is a real radical, but his more generalized philosophy struck a real chord that we would all do well to apply.

His own personal Ten Commandments after the jump:

Continue reading "Aubrey de Grey: How to be a Successful Heretic"

Tapping Into TED

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 27, 2008

Picture the scene: Google co-founder Sergey Brin sitting with Watergate whistleblower Carl Bernstein, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda and Queen Noor of Jordan.

What sounds like the beginning of a terrible joke or an amateur attempt at surrealism is, in fact, the line-up for an hour-long panel taking place Wednesday night at this year’s TED conference in Monterey, California. All of the above characters are due to be together on stage to contemplate the question “How true is your world view?” in a session chaired by BBC correspondent, Matt Frei.

Such eclecticism is classic TED. Even though the acronym officially stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, organizers have reveled in broadening their horizons in recent years, welcoming big thinkers from every facet of life to take their 18-minute moment in the spotlight (while sessions are themed around topics, speakers are generally solo – the hour-long panel discussion is a first for the conference, which runs through Saturday 1 March).

Continue reading "Tapping Into TED"

The best possible start...

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 26, 2008

Just arrived in Monterey for the TED conference. I was advised to fly into San Francisco and then drive down Highway 1, and I am an obedient soul, so I did just that. It wasn't quite as glamorous as it could have been (I was driving a Chevy Impala, after all) but it provided the best possible reminder of the wonder of the natural world, and was somehow the perfect precursor to the next four days, to be spent listening to some of the world's most avant garde thinkers waxing lyrically about their work. I know everyone in the world has pictures of the sunrise/sunset that entirely fail to capture the beauty of the reality, so here's mine, taken after an unplanned, possibly hazardous detour to the side of the road somewhere north of Santa Cruz. Ok, it's not destined for a museum wall, but not bad for a phone pic, huh?

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Maybe it's because I grew up in a small, landlocked village in the north of England, but *literally* seeing the curve of the world blows my mind. And somehow it seemed appropriate when en route to a conference that celebrates "thinking at 40,000 feet". I'm already inspired and I haven't even spoken to anyone yet.

Ok. Going to write a curtain raiser for the event now. Tomorrow starts this whole conference blog experiment in earnest.

A ticket to TED can be yours....... for $33,536

Posted by: Helen Walters on January 25, 2008

I just found out I'm going to be attending this year's TED conference, which is very exciting news indeed (most looking forward to seeing/hearing geneticist, Craig Venter, historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Brian Cox, physicist at CERN, Al Gore, Bob Geldof and, well, pretty much everyone actually.)

Then an email pops up from TED, saying that Cameron Sinclair of the Open Architecture Network -- see Bruce's news of him here -- can't make it, so has put his ticket up for sale on eBay. The latest bid weighs in at a whopping $33,535 -- and there's over a week to go before the auction closes. Hmm. Should I sell my press pass? KIDDING.

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