Friday, February 06, 2009

TED 2009 Wednesday: "Reboot"

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To help prioritize your viewing of TED talks, I offer a TED score of each 18-minute presenter, ranging from one to ten TED Balloons. If I fail to score a presenter, either I missed the session, I quickly gave up on it and checked my email, or didn’t score it because it wasn’t a full-fledged 18-minute TED Talk. The factors I consider: interest, importance, clarity, entertainment, and the speaker’s personal connection to the content. For example, based on these factors I would have given 10 balloons last year to Jill Bolte Taylor (whom I met yesterday in Google CafĂ©) and Ben Zander.

The opening session of TED, called “Reboot,” had a strong lineup…

Juan Enriquez was introduced as a man of many diverse accomplishments, ranging from a professorship at Harvard Business School to an experience he had once holding off a crowd of armed rebels (though presumably not at Harvard). He was entertaining – chock full of interesting data, jokes and advice regarding the economic hardships now challenging the world. He warned of “losing the dollar” to the kind of inflation that grips Zimbabwe unless we rein in our dependency on credit to support entitlement programs. He recognized venture-backed companies for generating 17% of our economy’s growth on only .02% of our invested capital. And he pointed to areas of innovation that have the potential to generate disruptive opportunities:
• Biological engineering parts. There are catalogs of these components from which you can engineer biological machines like “cancer fighting beer” fortified with resveratrol.

• Stem cell therapies that have already been used to grow human parts like teeth, windpipes, and portions of the heart; and the potential to generate these stem sells from normal, adult skin cells.

• Robotic implants (e.g. cochlar) that will match and exceed human capability; he shared a great video of Boston Dynamics’ “Big Dog” quadraped robot on legs running around snowy hillsides (though it suspiciously resembled two people under a blanket). In recognition of Darwin’s 200th birthday this month, Enriquez observed that for most of the history of hominids there were multiple species in various stages of evolution, and mused that we may now be on the cusp of Homo Evolutis, a new species of humanity enhanced by synthetic parts that will ultimately eclipse homo sapiens. “What was the point of 13.7 billion years of history – to create what’s in this room here at TED? That’s a mildly arrogant viewpoint.”
Watch the video here.

Score: 8 Balloons.
Enriquez is definitely worth watching (but not a 10 because there was neither a coherent theme to the talk, nor much of a personal connection for the speaker).

Next, Jill Sobule chimed in by video from TED’s Palm Springs venue with her familiar, quirky songs that always put a smile on your face. Worth listening to. Here’s one of her earlier TED songs with a cameo by TED curator Chris Andersen:

The next speaker, PW Singer, presented the robotics revolution in warfare. He shared interesting clips and tidbits on the rapid growth of robotic warfare, like the new drones and OED robots in Iraq that clearly save human lives, and are genuinely missed by their platoons when they fall in battle. Anyone can compete on this new battlefield (even Hezbollah has launched drones against Israel), so while the US is ahead in robotic warfare, Singer warns that our weak primary educational system jeopardizes our future ability to compete against Japan, China and Russia for robotic supremacy.

Singer shared examples of new phenomena that stem from robotic warfare: remote warriors in San Diego and elsewhere who kill during the day go home at night to their families; “war porn” on YouTube fed by on-board cameras; and “oops moments” in which software glitches kill with friendly fire.

Score: 6 Balloons.
If you’re interested in military or robotic developments, watch Singer. But for others, he’s not the most gripping speaker, and he tried to make weighty insights that missed their targets.

Here’s a great commercial TED displayed for sponsor Comcast:

The best music at TED so far was performed by Naturally 7, who surpass even M-pact in their mastery of vocal play. Here’s one of the songs they performed -- if nothing else listen to the one minute starting 40 seconds into the video.

Next Dave Hanson briefly demonstrated his startup’s invention of robots with personality. His Einstein head finds a face, locks in on the eyes, reads the facial expression and mirrors a similar emotion exercising an impressive array of facial movements. Einstein has been on display in the lobby so anyone can talk to him. Interestingly, pretty much everyone I watched decided it was very important to make Einstein laugh and smile, as though he were a little kid. I must have been the only sicko trying to piss him off, as shown on right. (Hello, he’s a machine!)

The session wrapped up with Bill Gates, introduced as "the biggest giver ever." Bill quipped that he hoped he wasn't in the Reboot session because of his affiliation with Windows... But he didn't show much interest in software--he seems quite focused now on philanthropy. He posed two tough problems for humanity that he hopes to address through his foundation:

1. How do you stop the spread of disease (malaria) that is spread by mosquito? Bill mentioned a mish mash of preventive strategies (bed nets and DDT) and therapies (quinine and experimental vaccines), but there's no coherent road map. Of his foundation's $3.8 billion annual budget, he allocates about $100 million to malaria. Still there's more money spent on fighting baldness than malaria because, Bill says, baldness afflicts rich, white men. For drama Bill released mosquitoes into the room, at which point Chris Andersen complained that Bill just can't stop releasing bugs into the world.

2. How do you make teachers great? Here he had more ideas relating to the collection of data that can identify characteristics of success. For one thing, he presented data showing that neither a teacher's experience nor graduate education correllates with student success. Rather, the only important variable is the teacher's past performance. So teachers who somehow develop a successful strategy consistently outperform, graduating students who regularly score 10% higher than average. That's why schools need an entrepeneurial, open culture that invites regular review and scrutiny of teaching methods, identifying best practices and sharing them with everyone. Obviously unionized school resist this (they'd never allow filming of classes, and unions even prevailed upon New York State to disqualify teaching success as a factor in tenure decisions). But one charter school in Texas named KIP has taken this approach with reportedly spectacular results (98% matriculation into 4 year colleges among a very poor student body), and so there is a model.

There was a great moment at the end when Chris Andersen opened his laptop to ask Bill some questions, and the Apple logo shone ever so brightly and prominently. The laptop case faced the audience and so neither of them understood why the audience was laughing.

Score: 8 Balloons

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