Helene Ted Talk

After a four-year hiatus, I felt so lucky to be back in Vancouver for TED 2022 learning from an amazing group of thinkers and doers who are trying to figure out where the world is going in this “New Era”, as the conference was named.

First, I want to share about the experience itself and the strangeness and excitement of being back at an in-person event. After staying in our homes with limited contact with others, being in a group of 1800 people felt both right and weird plus a bit awkward. My brain had to adapt from seeing others as a potential threat to remembering they can be sources of awe and wonder. Feeling exhausted and excited at the end of a day full of interactions was nothing short of amazing.

Why do I go to TED? It is not about the talks themselves (you can watch them on your computer for free, after all), it is about the hundred or so random conversations that you are very unlikely to have anywhere else. We tend to live in silos with our tribes, our family, friends, co-workers, and communities of people like us that work and live in a somewhat similar environment to ours. I don’t want to suggest that TED is very diverse in all dimensions (particularly on the socio-economic aspect of it) but for me, it is an opportunity to have discussions with people as diverse as a painter, a candidate for city council in Texas, a scientist working on AI, a doctor working on better prenatal care and an advocate for early colonoscopy screening.

My field is innovation and I believe that innovation and change at its core require different perspectives and making new connections. That is exactly what can happen from all those random conversations. The TED conference is also about the curated talks. As you watch eight to ten talks on a topic rather than picking them up randomly on YouTube or the TED channel, you can start seeing trends emerge. This year, topics were as diverse as courage, capitalism, intelligence, audacity, vision, wellbeing, play, regeneration, cities, imagination, and awe.

My brain is still processing all that I heard and learned, and writing this article is my way to make sense of this experience and share it. Here is what felt memorable for me from over one hundred talks.

New approaches gave me a sense of awesomeness

  • Amazing art pieces. I was awed by some of the art events from flying jellyfish-like creatures called Anoebes (Anicka Yi) to dance meet animation in Nina McNeely’s mind-blowing dance piece to pictures of amazing praying mantises in the Amazon forest (Leo Lanna).
  • Seeing further in the sky. The new James Webb telescope recently deployed will allow us to view the big bang more closely and to see more distant  galaxies (John Mather).
  • Using whales and elephants to capture carbon while protecting nature! Ralph Chami, an economist, created a valuation on whales and elephants as a way to capture carbon (both through their skin and their excrement). He valued them respectively at a lifetime value of $3.0M and $2.6M. He suggested that through a system of carbon offset purchase, this may provide additional revenue to countries (Gabon, for example, could make $1 billion a year by increasing their elephant population from 75,000 to 195,000) while ensuring the strength of the species. Check this amazing organization taking the idea forward at https://www.rebalance.earth/
  • Finding way to use less power. Frances S. Chances explained how she is mapping the neurons of very specialized insects (for instance the dragonfly being a great hunter) and replicating their biological neural networks in the hope to learn how to use very low power for future technologies (as opposed to the current large amount of power used by computers).
  • Making space exploration possible. While I have somewhat mixed feelings about space exploration and going to destroy other worlds, I am amazed by the technology that will allow us to further space exploration. Jennifer Heldmann explained that with Space X’s ability to get much heavier payloads, space exploration is becoming feasible. By using the moon as a base and the ability to refuel in space, we will soon be able go and explore deeper into space. And Melodie Yahsar has the coolest job of all as a Space Architect designing habitat for Mars!
  • Finding new ways for disable people to communicate. Thomas Oxley shared his latest research on Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) that uses blood vessels in the brain to position devices to allow people with ALS and other diseases to text directly from their brain and even had a live demo with a couple of his patients. This technique may have possible extensions to other areas related to brain diseases and physical limitations.
  • The power of trailblazers. I am always amazed by people who took the risks to make changes, even at the risk of negatively impacting their lives. In her talk, Allyson Felix shared the story of how she had to train in the dark so nobody would know she was pregnant as she did not want her sponsor (Nike) to change her contract. When she left, she started a movement that is now impacting women athletes everywhere; providing them with better contracts that include maternity leave and protection for female athletes. You can check her just released talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/allyson_felix_an_olympic_champion_s_unwavering_advocacy_for_mothers_in_sports 

New solutions offer hope

  • Solutions that may help manage global warming.
    • New energy solutions from building the first plant to scale and distribute hydrogen electrolyzers and batteries, (Vaitea Cowan’s talk) to supporting nuclear energy and provide better data about that option (advocate Isabelle Boemeke),
    • A new way to sequester carbon using whales and elephants (Ralph Chami),
    • New ways to create 100% reusable material (for instance leather from mushrooms by Dan Widmaier)
    • Redesigning cities to use their compactness to quickly bring more efficiencies. Marvin Rees, the major of Bristol, explained the power of a coalition of mayors across the world to share new solutions and Athens’ Chief Heat Officer, Eleni Myrivili ,shared how Athens is finding new ways to deal with heat.
  • Advances in medicine: mRNA and opportunities for self-healing as described by Jessica Moore of Moderna https://www.ted.com/talks/melissa_j_moore_the_breakthrough_science_of_mrna_medicine.
  • Ways to help with agriculture. From wheat with antibiotics that prevent fertilizers depleting the soil and nitrogen leaking to water sources (Guntur Subbarao), to new ways for small farmers to save to buy food and fertilizers, giving them the ability to double their crop outcome and their revenues (Anushka Ratnayake).
  • Ending pandemics. Bill Gates suggested that that COVID 19 could be the last pandemic through better planning and coordination. If we are able to prepare before and act during the first one hundred days, we can avoid new pandemics. He explained that if we were able to do it in 2020, we could have saved 98% of the lives lost. What it requires are trained response teams, specialists, logistics to make vaccines fast, new generations of tools for diagnostics, vaccines, medicine, and regular drills along with international coordination. It would likely cost billions of dollars a year but will save trillions. So far Bill Gates estimated the COVID-19 cost to approximately $13 trillion dollars. 

The power of “Impact at Scale”

That expression was a great phrase from Chris Anderson, the Head of TED, to summarize many ideas that can be scaled to have a major impact. Here are a few.

  • Training family members to take care of their sick or recovering loved ones. In India, programs from Noora Health helped decrease newborn death by 18% and cardiac complications by 71% where the program was implemented (Shahed Alam).
  • It is time to democratize AI so organizations, besides the big tech companies, can benefit from its ability to find patterns, suggested Andrew Ng. For example, AI will provide data with a predictive value thus enabling restaurants to better plan their menu based on past consumption or textile manufacturers to identify defects in material easily.
  • Leverage learning platforms to help Ukrainian children continue schools wherever they may be in the world and allowing them to rebuild Ukraine wherever the refugees may be, as described in Zoya Lytvyn in her talk https://www.ted.com/talks/zoya_lytvyn_ukraine_s_fight_to_keep_educating_its_children.
  • Universal basic services A concept suggested by Aaron Bastani who recommends that everybody would have access to health, housing, transport, and education for free, a universal welfare system that is shared by all making it simpler to administrate and more buy-in since everybody has similar benefits.
  • A four-day week was suggested by Juliet Schor (with the same pay as a five-day week). This may be beneficial in terms of efficiency, stress, and carbon footprint.
  • Three simple steps to change. Georgette Bennett, who considers herself a “professional change agent” suggested these simple steps when trying to create change: find an entry point, identify gaps, and find something doable. She gave the example of how she was able to get much needed supplies to the Syrian population going through Israel, even though Syria and Israel are in conflict.
  • Applying the concept of talent retention to neighborhoods. This talk challenged the idea that people in low-income neighborhoods want to move away or that gentrification is inevitable. In her talk, Majora Carter promoted the idea that if you can rehabilitate a neighborhood with the help of a community and offer better housing with easier financing by applying the “tools of capitalism” to “low status” communities, they are likely to stay and this may create a restorative approach to capitalism, through a real estate cooperative mechanism.
  • New architecture for climate change. With climate change becoming a reality, architecture needs to evolve to mitigate it. Alyssa-Amore Gibbons suggested a new approach to design houses that can accommodate hurricanes in Barbados, by letting the wind go through the house rather than trying to block it.
    Thomas Heatherwick recommended creating “architectural biodiversity”, as a way to remove “boringness” and unhuman construction that affects physical and mental health. He also shared example of recycling buildings rather than demolishing them as part of biodiversity and to avoid waste.
  • Philanthropy should not be reserved to a few. The concept of a giving circle is growing. Sara Lomelin created Philanthropytogether.org to help people create or join a giving circle locally and based on their interest in giving. Giving together provides a sense of belonging, space for discourse, and the possibility to have an impact on local organizations that may not have enough resources (since 88% of funding goes to 5% of non-profit organizations in the US).
  • Using technology to give people faster and easier access to public programs. Amanda Renteria of org shared a simple, yet powerful idea of simplifying the forms required to access public help programs so people who qualify can actually get the financial resources and help they need. 

There was also bad news and scary realities

  • Game cults are coming! Noah Raford a futurist suggested that the new platforms for video games are becoming so real and immersive that they may become the place for billions of people looking for meaning and to find a sense of belonging. This could be used for healing, but he highlighted the risk that they become where “the battles of tomorrow are fought.”
  • Elon Musk and his view of the world. I had heard Elon Musk speak before and was in awe of his vision for going to Mars, even if I am ambivalent about the concept itself. But this time I felt chilled listening to the interview with Chris Anderson who did a great job revealing Musk’s mindset. First, I want to address my biases: hearing somebody who acknowledges his Asperger’s Syndrome and therefore lacks the emotional ability to connect, made it hard for me to connect with Musk., At times, I felt bad for Musk as Chris Anderson was asking questions that made me wonder whether he would ask the same to somebody else. But knowing that Musk is moving beyond making products (which you always have a choice to buy or not) to buying a media where he could fully control his and everybody else messages and since he is a powerful public figure, this is not an excuse for his vision. While he argued that his intent is freedom of expression, I am concerned about his limited respect for democratic institutions. In his interview, he said that “the SEC was wrong” and that he “had to lie and say what they wanted to save my company.” My personal feelings during this conversation were that this acquisition has little to do with a free speech and more with control and political issues. I felt chilled thinking about the impact of a Musk’s ownership of Twitter with the US election coming soon, giving the chance for more hatred. Rarely have I felt so uncomfortable hearing a talk and worried about Musk’s vision for the world, a world that misses empathy and heart. You can check the talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/elon_musk_elon_musk_talks_twitter_tesla_and_how_his_brain_works_live_at_ted2022.
  • Human rights abuses continue everywhere, from the war in Ukraine to Afghanistan. Safi Rauf, a journalist, just released from a Taliban jail after spending over one hundred days being tortured, shared with us the state of Afghanistan and its challenges: population not having enough food, girls unable to attend school, and American allies still denied visas or taking a long time to process putting their life and their family’s life in danger.
  • “Winter is here” with the war in Ukraine. Grandmaster Garry Kasparov had a chilling talk describing why Putin is an evil figure who is doing what he said he would for years. Kasparov suggested that this war may determine the future of humanity and that we cannot find a solution without taking risks because Ukraine is “at the front of the war against tyranny”. Learn more about this here:https://www.ted.com/talks/garry_kasparov_stand_with_ukraine_in_the_fight_against_evil.
    Platon, a famous photographer who photographed world leaders, had a fascinating talk about what he saw/did not see in Putin’s eyes and his experience photographing him.
  • Climate change is getting worse much faster predicted and is mostly a political issue. In his talk, Al Gore suggested that while we have the technology to mitigate global warming and have engaged 50% of it, it is becoming an issue of political will and economic resistance. “The financial interest of the fuel companies has zombified people with false messages,” he said, and unless we solve the democracy crisis, we cannot solve the climate issue. He sees the war on Ukraine as a fossil fuel war and that we only have two to three years to get to net zero. He emotionally concluded his talk by suggesting that “people need to find the means to break recklessness indifference to the future of humanity”.

For me, TED was a chance to contemplate the best and the worst of humanity. Jeanette Winterson in her talk asked us, “Are we smart enough to survive as a species? Utopia or dystopia is up to us.” Her answer is AI as a way to become a hybrid species. I am not sure about this, but I hope our ingenuity and our humanity will weigh the balance in favor of the human race or if we go extinct, we at least give Earth a chance to survive and thrive.