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Trish Groves at TED 2009 – 4 February

6 Feb, 09 | by BMJ

Trish Groves

TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a movement as much as conference. It started 25 years ago with a couple of hundred technology experts and enthusiasts. Last year it attracted more than 1000 people and outgrew its home in Monterey, so it’s moved to Long Beach, California. Long term TEDsters say it’s broadened in the past few years and become more about policy, global strategies, and green issues. But it’s still TED.

Go to ted.com and you’ll find that it lives up to its mantra “ideas worth spreading”, providing some extraordinary lectures and presentations for anyone to use and share. Even doctors.

There are inherent paradoxes, of course. Couldn’t all these tech types do this entirely virtually? (No, because the best modern technology still can’t beat the power of meeting face to face, you can’t always tell who’s going to be interesting unless you’re with them, and TED has genuinely created a community that wants and needs to get together sometimes). How to you square Al Gore’s TED presentations on climate change with the fact that so many of us flew here? And don’t we feel uncomfortable here in this beautiful bubble of optimism and futurism, while jobs and economies – old and new – are going down the pan?

Launching this year’s 5 day retreat with the first of many stunning and succinct (18 minute) presentations, Juan Enriquez said what everyone was thinking. Are we all here to fiddle while Rome burns? It’s OK, he said, quoting the head of Royal Bank of Scotland “the key to managing crisis it to focus on the long term while you’re dancing in the flames”, and someone called Louis L’Amour who said “the time when you believe everything is finished is actually the beginning”. Yes, Americans and many of the rest of us have to stop borrowing, cap public spending, and retire later. But as we cut back we also have to grow – through technology. Cue some amazing stories of stem cell research and regenerative medicine, and a suggestion that Homo sapiens is evolving into what Enriques calls Homo evolutis – the first hominid to control the evolution of its own species and others.

This first TED session was called Reboot: Reframe and Reconnect followed. You get the picture. “I hope I’m in the reboot session because I have a new job, not because you sometimes have to reboot your computer”, quipped Bill Gates, philanthropist and ex Microsoft boss. “I’m as engaged in this as I was in software: it’s always fun to work on trying to fix complex problems. And I’m an optimist.”

Why is he optimistic about global health when the world still spends more on treatments for baldness than for malaria? Well, lifespan has doubled in past 100 years, and childhood mortality before the age of 5 has halved since 1960. And at last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos – he got a word in between the “hey, how’s your economy falling apart?” conversations to gather pledges that aid from rich to less developed countries won’t be slashed.

There’s still plenty to do, of course. He reminded us that one million people die each year from malaria and, as he asked “just how do you prevent diseases that are spread by mosquitoes?”, he opened a jar and said “there’s no reason that only poor people should get this”. Were there mosquitoes in there? Who knows, but Gates made the point and raised a nervous laugh.

The ideas that need spreading to tackle malaria include the obvious ones about developing vaccines and keeping one step ahead of drug resistance, but the Gates Foundation is also spreading mathematical (disease modelling), and marketing ideas (bed nets work but usage rates won’t be high enough till that message, in the right form, reaches everyone).

The brief Q&A session afterwards with online TEDsters inadvertently got the biggest laugh of the day. Chris Anderson, TED curator, sat next to Gates on a sofa and opened his laptop. There on the lid was the unmistakable Apple logo. Neither man realised why we were laughing, and both gamely carried on, puzzled expressions on their faces. That video clip must have hit YouTube within minutes.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, spoke in the next session. Compared with the beauty and slickness of so many other presentations on TED’s first day, his was low tech and unassuming. But, for many of us, it was the day’s highlight because his new(ish) idea is so important and simple and its implications are so complex.

In 1989 Berners-Lee sent a memo to his boss outlining the idea of the World Wide Web (he came across the memo again much later, and his boss had written “vague but exciting”). With considerable understatement he said “it took off, and you put your documents on the web ” thank you”.

But now he’s frustrated because we’re only part of the way there. The important bit is still to come, and he calls it simply “linked data”. He cited a talk from an earlier TED by Hans Rosling, international health professor at the Karolinska Institute, which showed the power of raw data. Rosling had spoken compellingly and graphically about the economics of the developing world, but had had to pull together data from a huge number of different sources to make his points. Completely raw data – often collected with public money by governments, and NGOs – may be dull, but when you relate them to other data and ideas and make them accessible to other people, they can become vey interesting indeed.

Berners-Lee illustrated this with a question that’s apparently vexing Alzheimer’s researchers. Search the web with “alzheimers proteins signal transduction pyramidal neurons” and you find nothing useful (no relevant papers have been published yet). Get raw data online from the biotech industry, academia and a whole range of other sources, search again and you find information on 32 proteins that might, he assured us, hold real promise in tackling Alzheimer’s.

This quiet man who rarely gives interviews ended his session by getting all 1300 of us to shout “RAW DATA NOW!”, then charged us with breaking down the silos, stopping “data hugging” while we wait to design a nice website for them [or write papers], and get the data out now. Bang goes the primacy of the published academic paper – and here comes the future of science and policy.

There was so much else during this crammed day. But health continued to crop up in surprising ways among the mind-blowing design (the sleek electric motorbike that does 150mph silently, robots that mirror your facial movements to interact with you more empathetically, MIT’s “fluid interfaces” prototype webcam + projector + phone that you wear round your neck to connect you to the web anywhere any time and project images and information onto any surface in front of you), the entertainment (an acapella/beat boxing band that creates a wall of sound with no instruments, a preview of the French film Oceans, in which the camera – and/or cameraman? – swims fast alongside schools of dolphins and whales) and all the green messages (Al Gore and ice caps, Saul Griffith and power generating kites at 2000 feet).

The most surprising of these health messages was a 3 minute talk by a posh Englishwoman of a certain age, in black leather leggings and heels, telling us how she dates younger men and, increasingly, finds that their sex education has come mainly from online hard core porn. “What do you expect when so much sex education focuses on abstinence?” So she’s launched an alternative sex education site, makelovenotporn.com, to bust myths and prompt debate about what people do and don’t necessarily want to do in bed (though it’s OK if they do want to, she was keen to say).

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