Tony Delamothe: Dreaming at TED

tony_dEach year’s TED conference has a theme, and this year’s, in Vancouver, was Dream. The acronym TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, but the annual program of talks long ago slipped these moorings.

Before the main conference began there were two sessions devoted to presentations by TED Fellows, a hand picked cadre of rising stars. Usually, they’re presenting some sort of gizmo, and while there was no shortage of these this year, the shadow of sexual violence and racism fell across the proceedings. Jessica Ladd presented Callisto, which allows college sexual assault victims to produce a time stamped record of the incident and electronically report it—or report it if someone else accuses the same assailant. Amanda Nguyen has pioneered a Sexual Assault Survivor Bill of Rights in the US, with a central plank the statutory preservation of evidence obtained at examination.

Hawaiian geneticist, P Keolu Fox, wants to increase ethnic diversity in genome studies—according to a study in Nature a staggering 96% of studies have been performed in those of European origin. Yet, there are particular illnesses that particularly affect non-Europeans; how will genome-based discoveries benefit them, if none of the research has included them? Fox talked of “Indigenomics.”

Writer and film maker Mitchell S Jackson despaired of the creation of the categories “white” and “black” in American social life and its pernicious consequences for all. It’s not as if white and black were different species, he said. “Race” was never very far away for the rest of the week, and despair was the default setting.

The first session of TED proper was entitled “Our tomorrow,” predictably including a presentation talking up the potential of personalised medicine. Data scientist Riccardo Sabatini delivered brilliantly on the brief, generating a passable likeness of his face from his genetic code (minus the beard).

But the geewhizzery of TED was being eclipsed by the human, even in this first session. Dan Pallotta, the “charity defender” who so impressed me at TED 2013, was arguing how our dreams can become fixations, destroying our ability to be present in our lives right now. He wants us to be as concerned about the development of our humanity as we are about the development of technology.

He showed a poster from one of his fundraising campaigns, which had the tag line:

Be both.

Shonda Rhimes, legendary US television producer, described how a daughter’s simple question changed the direction of her life.

Of TED 2011, I wrote, “everywhere I looked I saw the human, with technology (merely) the enabler.” Five years on, that seems even more the case. Given this trajectory, it doesn’t surprise me that the theme of next year’s TED is: The Future You—”a week of talks that can offer each off us individually a toolkit for personal learning, growth, empowerment.”

Day 2 was a mixed bag. It was fascinating to hear where the men behind Airbnb and Uber got their inspiration from. Joe Gebbia was concerned about putting up a virtual stranger on his air mattress one night, and (as a designer) tried to design fear out of the interaction. For serial entrepreneur, Travis Kalanick, irritation about being stuck in a traffic jam set him on a path that is threatening taxi drivers everywhere. (It’s almost too perfect that he shares his first name with Scorsese’s taxi driver, Travis Bickle.)

Joseph Ravenell identified the barber’s shop as a safe haven, a friendly place of solidarity and solace for black males—”where we could fearlessly be ourselves and talk.” Working with the New York University’s Men’s Health Initiative, Ravenell has pioneered blood pressure screening in these unlikely settings.

Bolivia-based paediatric cardiologist, Franz Freudenthal, described how he has created relatively non-invasive devices for conditions such as patent ductus arteriosus. Wikipedia says some 50 000 of his devices had been inserted by 2014.

Between these presentations there were the TED standbys—the astronomers/cosmologists and a burgeoning crew of neuroscientists. I never know why I should believe them, but that’s clearly my problem. At some point a medical student from the audience, who said he was studying so hard he was risking burnout, sang his revision notes on Alzheimer’s disease to the tune of Time After Time.

Day three turned out to be one of the great TED days. It began with TED boss, Chris Anderson, interviewing Linus Torvalds, perhaps the most important coder in the history of computing. Impossible to imagine anyone less interested in fame or fortune, or even being loved. Everyone fell in love with him, and his minimalist study, painted the calming green used in mental institutions (he said).

A few speakers later was Mary Norris, the New Yorker‘s “comma queen.” Anybody who’s spent an hour in an editorial office would salute her insights. Authors could learn something too. “The New Yorker has a house style,” she began, “every publication has a house style.” Private fist pumping from this audience member.

And then came the drones. Wait for the video to be posted online. Awesome. And beautiful (even if one crashed into the audience and another onto the stage.)

Dan Gross, leader of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, spoke of “this disgraceful national epidemic”—90 Americans killed by guns every day. He’s optimistic that the toll can be halved by 2025. His pressure group is borrowing the campaigning tactics of the National Rifle Association (jamming Congress’s switchboard, and the like).

Science writer, Jennifer Kahn. took the audience through the unfamiliar (to me) subject of gene drives and CRISPR. Should we rub out mosquitoes—forever? It seems we might soon have the chance.

Returning to TED, 10 years after his seminal “inconvenient truth” gig, was former US Vice-President Al Gore. While responses to climate change are very promising, he said, much still needs to be done. Gore’s finale was the most electrifying oratory I’ve ever heard—like Martin Luther King crossed with Winston Churchill. Here’s a flavour:

“When any great moral challenge is ultimately resolved into being a choice between what is right and what is wrong, the outcome is preordained because of who we are as human beings. The will to act is itself a renewable resource.”

More “race” and compassion—love, even—from assistant district attorney Adam Foss of the Juvenile Division of Suffolk County, Boston. On graduation, this black lawyer thought he’d be defending his brothers—and found himself keeping more young black offenders out of prison by intervening before they got to court. Prison, in the most incarcerated country on earth, he said, is “a terrible return on investment.”

White architect, Michael Murphy, described his design for a memorial for victims of lynching, intended for Montgomery, Alabama. He’d cold called Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, about the commission, and Stevenson was on hand to describe the “narrative of racial difference” which had poisoned the US since the days of slavery. At TED 2012 Stevenson had received the longest standing ovation of any TED speaker ever.

Virtual Reality is having a moment: there were two presentations on the subject and a total immersive environment, The Void, which was booked out before the conference began. Its creators very happily showed me photographs of attendees Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford with their VR helmets on.

Also turning up at various points throughout the conference: machine learning, which renders metadata redundant and is destined to put many people out of a job. Could that include you? It turns out that machines are much better than humans at doing high volume, repetitive tasks, but lousy at negotiating novel situations. (And they’re not getting any better.) Humans on the other hand are very good at these. If your job demands dealing with novelty, you should be OK.

Director of the Fellows programme, Tom Reilly, was justifiably proud that this year the ratio of male to female fellows had reached the magic 50:50. Among hosts and speakers at the conference I saw many more women and people of colour than I remember from my first TED in 2004. The TEDx programme (15 000 events in 170 countries) is credited with being TED’s “main engine of globalisation.”

TED is therefore a great example of being the change you want to see in the world. In the process, one of the most materially privileged audiences on earth gets exposed to unflinching accounts of what it means to be among the poorest on the planet. This year presentations by Hugh Evans (Global Poverty Project) and Andrew Youn (One Acre Fund) received the conference’s highest accolade: the standing ovation. And it seemed typical of TED that at the last minute they’d added a presentation by Alexander Betts, of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, on positive responses to the refugee crisis.

Humankind—the infinite opportunities to be both.