Thursday, February 05, 2009

TED 2009: "The Great Unveiling"

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Here I am once again at TED, the fabulous conference (now 25 years old) that attracts some incredible minds to tackle the big issues facing our species. (The celebrities I've seen so far include Al Gore, Larry Page, Forest Whitaker, Tim Berners-Lee, Oliver Sacks, John Doerr, Ben Affleck and Bill Gates.)

This year I'll try to share some details on the highlights of the conference. I will be more detailed than I was two years ago, but not as comprehensive as I was last year, when I covered just about every speaker (in part because work forces me to miss some of this year's sessions). My objective in blogging it is to give a taste of TED to those who haven't followed the phenomenon, and to give the loyal TED fans somewhat of a road map as to which sessions are worth watching online or on DVD.

Yesterday, as a warm-up for the formal agenda we had our first session of Ted University, in which 20 or so TED attendees have 8 minutes
each to teach something or share a message. Here were the highlights:
  • Ray Kurzweil, with characteristic panache, defended his thesis that innovation proceeds at an exponential rate, not just when it comes to semiconductor density but to all aspects of technology, such as computing, labor productivity, and solar energy. To help sustain these curves, he announced that he and Peter Diamandis (X Prize and Zero-G Flight) have launched the Singularity University he started with backing from NASA and Google. The university is supposed to apply these exponential technology curves to solve problems of the world, but I'm not sure I really understand the scope, since I thought that other universities already do that. (Later, sipping java in the Google Cafe, Peter acknowledged to me that the whole thing is still experimental).
  • Matt Childs' rules of mountain climbing (delivered with an implication that these rules apply to life in general): Don't let go. Keep moving forward. Plan ahead. Stay in the present. Know how to rest. Fear sucks. Strength doesn't always equal success. Know how to let go (plan your fall).
  • Jonathan Drori told the story of his Millenium Seed Bank, which aims to protect the integrity of earth's natural ecosystem by preserving enough seeds to guarantee that we can study plant life and restore extinct species. The bank is located in a remote English facility shielded from nuclear radiation and situated outside flood zones. So far they have collected 3 billion seeds from volunteers around the world, covering 24,000 species, or 10% of Earth's plant life at a cost of $2,800 per species. By 2010 they aim to reach 25% coverage. This was the first of many TED sessions that implicitly pose the question, so what have YOU done lately?
  • Kokoe Johnson taught us how to make cheese. Right in front of us he fixed up some lebneh -- dried Greek yogurt cheese. He apparently acquired the skill while living in "a queer hippie commune."
  • Dave Bolinsky was back at TED, this time to share his educational visualization of the Dengue virus infecting a healthy cell. Definitely worth seeing.
More TED to come...

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