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Heroes and Villains at TED


The theme of this year?? TED conference is ??hat 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.”


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