TED 2010: Session 1 Highlights

Session 1 at TED just ended, and it can only be described as an “only at TED” moment for me.

Why?

Simply because it showcased just how eclectic and fascinating this event is. Where else do you start with a talk by professor Daniel Khaneman who originated the study of Behavioral Economics, move on to the London and here a talk live from David Cameron who is leading the Conservative party in the UK, and then on to Jake Shimabukuro an amazing ukelele player…

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Khaneman gave an engaging talk on “happiness”, where he talked about the difference between “being happy with your life versus being happy in your life.” There’s a difference between how we experience life and how we remember our experiences of life.

“If you knew that all of your pictures would be destroyed and that you would get amnesia, would you choose the same vacation?”

David Cameron is expected to be the next Prime Minister of the UK, he was the surprise talk this morning, telecasting in from London. He asked, “How do we make things better without spending more money?”. Pointing out that the global debt level is over 32 trillion (Pounds?).

His answer: use behavioral economics plus the information revolution and let’s see how we can change society.

Cameron’s prescription for this comes in three parts:

  1. He wants to see greater transparency of government data. Stating that we have only scratched the surface of what can be done with open government data.
  2. Choice. What happens if the government doesn’t mandate, but allows people to choose? He uses examples of web-based shopping engines and wonders how that can be applied to things like healthcare.
  3. Accountability. Using an example of the Chicago crime map he wonders what will happen as we give the people power to see what is happening and hold the government and police to account for what happens.

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Esther Duflo, from the Poverty Action Lab at MIT, gave a mesmerizing talk on the aid and development sphere, using examples from Africa and India. She’s asking the hard questions and trying to answer them scientifically, pointing out that much of the arguments (ie, Easterly vs Sachs) being made for/against things like bed nets in Africa are more emotional than substantial.

“It’s not the middle ages any more, it’s the 21st century.”

We can find answers to these questions using randomized control trials. She gave examples like the one where they ran test of 130+ communities using a control, camps and camps with incentives to test if children would be brought in more/less often for immunizations if they were given an incentive of a kilo of lentils.

The answer: they were, 38% more actually. That, and the fact that it was actually cheaper to run the incentivized camps than the normal ones.

Nate Silver: Race, Prediction and the US Election

Math whiz and baseball fan Nate Silver was mainly known for predicting outcomes in fantasy ballgames — until his technique hit a home run calling the outcome of the 2008 election primaries. He’s now a mainstream political pundit with two book deals.

Nate Silver on Prediction and Race at TED 2009

Nate starts off by talking about how big of a win Obama had in 2008’s US elections. He asks, “what’s the matter with Arkansas?” Wondering why it is that certain US states never vote for democrats.

We have negative connotations about Arkansas, typically it’s something like, “rednecks with guns“. We think it’s a problem of race, are we stigmatizing? Well, yes, and he sets out to prove that statistically it is.

One of the classic polling questions for the last couple presidential elections in the US has been:

“In deciding your vote for president today, was the race of the candidates a factor?”

The answers to this poll question have been indicative for which areas of the US tend to vote certain ways.

Is racism predictable? What is the deciding factor? Income, religion, education, etc…
Education is, so is the degree of rural vs urban setting you live in. So, yes, racism is predictable.

The General Social Survey, asks “Does anyone of the opposite race live in your neighborhood?” And, the answers to this are stratified upon density: In the city, yes. In the suburb, mainly yes. In rural areas, not nearly as much.

It turns out that people who live in monoracial areas are twice as less likely to approve multiracial marriages.

The goal is to facilitate interaction with people of other races. Nate is a big fan of cities, because they give a great opportunity for connecting with other cultures of other races. You end up having more tolerant communities. He also says that urban design is hugely important: grids vs the windy streets in many parts of suburbia, where grids are better. At the end of the day, he says cul de sacs lead to conservatives, which is a bad thing to him as well.

Highlights from Day 3 of TED 2009

[Read Ethan’s blog for liveblogging of TED 2009, and check out the “TED2009” tag on Flickr for images.]

I’ve spent most of the day inside the main theatre at TED. It’s been great getting up close to the speakers and performers, watching them go through their paces, putting on amazing performances. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

Jennifer Mather asks whether octopuses have intelligence. If they have personalities, play and can problem solve, then they have the characteristics that pass a rudimentary intelligence test.

Nalini Nadkarni tells us how she’s trying to get a new generation to think about trees, especially the upper level canopy, and how she thinks “Treetop Barbie” can help.

Bonnie Bassler gave us a story of light emitting bacteria that live within a certain type of shallow-water squid off the coast of Hawaii. How this squid uses a shutter to let out certain amounts of light beneath its body so that it mimics the sky above. It is the “stealth bomber of the ocean”.

Nathan Wolfe at TED 2009

Nathan Wolfe blew my mind with his talk on viruses, especially when he started describing his research and travel into central Africa (Cameroon), to study bush meat hunting of primates. It really challenged me to think about local communities in Africa and their needs, and I’m thinking hard on what would it really take to replace this type of activity. Read Ethan’s blog for a full rendition of his talk, but please, join me in thinking about this.

Evan Williams of Twitter was on stage for a few minutes, telling about how he didn’t realize how useful Twitter would be, especially in real-time events. He stated, “It seems that when you give people easy tools to communicate, that good things happen.”

Even Chris uses Twitter

Dickson Despommier, shared some incredible slides describing the need for vertical farming. The advantages include:

  • No agricultural runoff
  • Year-round crop production
  • No crop loss due to severe weather
  • Uses 70% less water than outdoors
  • Restoration of damaged ecosystems

Willie Smits has lived in Borneo for 30 years, and he set out to save orangutans. He tells everyone of how he has 1000 baby orangutans saved, but shushes everyone’s applause, claiming that this is a failure by all of us because they are not growing up in the wild. Over the last years he has been reclaiming burnt out/used land in Borneo, working with the local communities to make it happen. My favorite quote of his, “Ensure that the local people benefit most.

TED Prize Winner: Sylvia Earle

Al Gore just introduced deep ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, a fearless leader who engages the public on the crisis our oceans are facing. She started in 1953, when she first started scuba, “when I first learned about fish not swimming in lemon sauce and butter.

The Wish:

I wish you would use all means at your disposal – films! expeditions! the web! more! – to ignite the public support for a global network of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.

Image by Chadk21

Image by Chadk21

This is an amazing lady, one who has led aquanauts and been on the forefront of oceanography. She has designed and built systems to access the deep seas.

A couple years ago she met with the John Hanke, head of Google Earth, and asked them to do something about mapping the ocean. As of this week, Google Earth is now whole, they have mapped the oceans.

(Sidenote: There has been a strong theme on oceans at TED 2009, and for good reason. It’s stunning, and haunting, to see the amount of damage that trash and human waste is causing. It’s like peeing into a water tower that feeds your home.)

Shai Agassi: eMile’s and Electric Cars

I’m standing in for Ethan Zuckerman, blogging from TED today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Shai Agassi is a green auto pioneer, and he wants to put you behind the wheel of an electric car — but he doesn’t want you to sacrifice convenience (or cash) to do it. Check out his amazing project at Better Place, and make sure to read his blog.

How would you run a whole country without oil?

Shai focuses in on the electric car. You need a car that’s more convenient and more affordable than today’s cars. This isn’t a $40k sedan, nor is it something you drive for one hour and charge for 8 hours. So, how do you do this?

eMiles and electric cars

You separate the car and battery ownership. You create a network before you create the devices, a network for charging your vehicle. The second step is increasing the range extension (which currently is about 120 miles). You have a batter swap system, which actually happens less than what people normally stop for fuel in a normal car.

From molecules to electrons:
Gas tank >> Battery bay
Crude oil >> Battery pack

eMile, the new commodity. In 2010 this is about 8 cents/mile. But, in his model they follow Moore’s law, where by the year 2020 he expects it to be about 2 cents/mile.

“Hybrids are like mermaids. When you want a fish you get a woman, when you need a woman you get a fish.”

Where has this been working? Israel, Denmark, Australia, Hawaii and San Francisco.

Shai foresees 10 million electric vehicles by 2015. A future where all the cars will be driven by windmill power (in Denmark) and by solar power in other areas.

Nina Jablonski on Darwin’s Birthday Suit

I’m standing in for Ethan Zuckerman, blogging from TED today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

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Nina Jablonski is author of Skin: A Natural History, a close look at human skin’s many remarkable traits: its colors, its sweatiness, the fact that we decorate it.

She dives into the life of Darwin. Specifically, she is talking about human skin pigmentation. Darwin rejected the idea that skin color was determined by the sun, the environment. Nina states: “if only he lived today, If only Darwin had NASA.”

What Darwin didn’t appreciate, was that there was a fundamental relationship between ultraviolet radiation from the sun and people’s skin color. She shows a map of the predicted skin color derived from multiple regression analysis.

Map of skin color

Darkly pigmented skin is highly protective under intense UVR areas, melanin is a natural sunscreen. She states that as people moved around the world, from high UV to low UV areas, there were skin color repercussions.

On how the globalization of travel (example: a white African’s like me, living in Sudan as a kid) : “We are living in environments where our skin pigmentation is not properly adapted.” There are both health and social consequences.

Golan Levin: Looking at Looking at Looking

I’m standing in for Ethan Zuckerman, blogging from TED today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Golan Levin is an artist and software engineer who is here to talk to us about experiments in interactive art. He asks, “Where is the “art” category in the iPhone app store?” Golan is interested in discovering how to empower people through interactive art.

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Currently, he’s walking us through how certain sounds have a higher probability of creating certain shapes. Then, how the tool he created takes people’s voices and throws letters and shapes onto a canvas in real time. This has repercussions for voice recognition software.

This is called Ursonography, and below is an example of it:


Ursonography (Excerpts), Jaap Blonk & Golan Levin, 2007 from Golan Levin on Vimeo.

Now he’s really doing some crazy things with eye-tracking software and the way that it can be used to create art that knows it’s being looked at and creates itself. He calls this Eyecode.

Eyecode

Ed Ulbrich: Bringing Benjamin Button to Life

I’m standing in for Ethan Zuckerman today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

At Digital Domain, Ed Ulbrich works at the leading edge of computer-generated visuals. On a recent project, filmmakers, artists, and technologists have been working at a breakthrough point where reality and digitally created worlds collide. His most recent work can be found in the Curious Case of Benjamin Button film, starring Brad Pitt.

Benjamin Button

They first started on this project back in the ’90s and had to throw in the towel because the technology just wasn’t up to creating these visual effects. The “holy grail” of the industry is digitizing the face. The problem was, there is no margin for error when doing this with a face as well known as Brad Pitt.

Ed tells of how nervous he was when the finally realized they could do it, and then got the “go ahead” from the studio. It was a daunting task. They had to take all the details and idiosyncrasies that make up Brad Pitt in order to make it real (for a full hour of the movie).

Step 1: admit you have a problem
Step 2: break the problem down

The current technology (in 2004) wasn’t really up to the task, so they had to walk away from all that was in this movie and video game space. Instead, they had to make their own technology “stew” that would be able to handle what they were trying to do.

FACS – Facial Action Coding System and Contour by Mova allowed them to do so much more. They ended up stipling Brad Pitts face and getting every 3d possibility of what his face was capable of doing.

The problem… Brad was 44 and Ben needed to be 87 years old. Ed just unveiled to us a 100% representation sculpture of Benjamin Button in three different age increments. (Absolutely incredibly… looks so real). Then they transposed that 3d data onto the sculpture. In the end, they created a real life puppet that Pitt could control with his face.

Olafur Eliasson: Visuals, Art and Movies

I am stepping in to help liveblog TED for Ethan Zuckerman today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Today’s session is titled “See”, and that’s just what we’re doing with Olafur Eliasson and his artwork. He is also behind 121 Ethiopia, an African nonprofit.

Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project

Olafur thinks of his studio in Berlin as more of a lab, where they do a lot of experimentation. He is asking us to stare at a screen, which has colors in certain shapes. When the image disappears, we see the complimentary color in the same shape. Though the narrative isn’t that exciting, he claims we are co-producing a movie.

My view from the blogging area

Olafur tries to make art that helps people feel a part of a certain space. As an example, he tells of his large waterfall artwork that gives a sense of size to people in New York City. Where you can finally get a real feel for what the size of the space you’re in is.

Oliver Sacks: Seeing with the Mind

I am stepping in to help liveblog TED for Ethan Zuckerman today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

Oliver Sacks

We start this morning with Oliver Sacks, who since Awakenings first stormed the bestseller lists (and the silver screen), has become an unlikely household name, and single-handedly invented the genre of neurological anthropology.

We see with our eyes, but we also see with our minds. Hallucinations is what he will be talking to us about today.

Oliver tells a story of an old lady who was “seeing things”. Who ended up being a perfectly sane and lucid lady, who had been very startled because she had been, “seeing things”. She had been completely blind, through macular degeneration for 5 years, but now was starting to see people in Eastern dress, cats, dogs, and a man with large teeth on one side of his face. Sometimes, she might hallucinate black and pink squares on the floor that go up to the ceiling. In her words, “It’s like a movie, a very boring movie.”

She was confused, and thought she might be going mad. She wasn’t, she had Charles Bonnet Syndrome: an anarchic visualization stimulation release.

10% of visually impaired people get visual hallucinations.
10% of hearing impaired people get hearing hallucinations.

As the visual parts of the brain aren’t getting as much input, they start to become hyperactive. Oliver tells us amazing stories of people what people see. Of boys flying up to 100 feet, men splitting into 6 parts and cartoons come to life.

Functional Brain Imagery (FMRI), has been possible in the last couple years. He tells us how the different parts of the brain are being activated and which are overactive for certain types of hallucinations, and it’s different parts that see teeth and eyes, from buildings, landscapes or cartoons.

He reminds us that blind people all over the world, many times have cases of hallucinations, yet they probably don’t share those with people for fear of being seen as crazy.