This was my last conference day. Heading back to La Crosse tomorrow and so I’ll miss the last half day of talks and wrap-ups. My loss.
I am very fortunate in that I have been able to hear and speak with three of my favorite TED stars. Today, the third one, Sarah Kay, hosted a spoken word workshop and you can bet your ___ (fill in the blank) that I was there to participate.
Sarah Kay is a poet and spoken word poet, based in New York and founder of Project V.O.I.C.E., a non-profit that uses spoken word in schools as an educational tool. Her TED talk “If I should have a daughter” went viral back in 2011. This workshop was not an exercise in spoken word, but rather an interactive workshop where Sarah took us through several writing prompts where we generated creative “stuff” by creating lists, writing associated sensory detail, and some spoken games that she uses in her spoken word classes. It was not only great fun but she had designed the session so that we left with transferrable skills to apply to writing and public speaking.
Main Stage TED talks “Pathways” highlights
Rachel Botsman, trust researcher. That’s “trust”, as in belief, and not “trust” as in money managing. Botsman’s talk was on trust and technology, and how traditional trust in our institutions is collapsing. This movement is not a recent one, it’s been slowly growing and gaining speed. Have you ever heard of “Bla Bla Car“? It’s an online rideshare community, a way to find transportation via a personal car with someone you don’t know but who has empty seats, and because of the transparent and online registration that members complete complete, you trust them. You can choose and pick drivers based on several criteria, including how much the driver would like to chat. One “bla bla” means minimal conversation. They have 4 million registered users per month. This kind of shared service is an example of the new trust leap that is driving new ways of finding and using services. As large institutions continue to disappoint and rip off users (think of recent institutional scandals: Volkswagen, Wall Street, the Panama Papers, the Catholic Church, etc…) users are generating a new distributional way of doing business. It’s turning transactions upside down by leaving the unaccountable, opaque and centralized ways to personal, transparent, decentralized, and bottom-up ways. Users can track every step because everything is public. It’s a revolution and the implications will be huge.
Chris Soghoian, privacy researcher and activist. Security and social justice is something that concerns everyone who uses a smart phone. If you are fortunate enough to have an iPhone, your data is encrypted by default. If you want an iPhone but can’t afford one, you’re stuck with the Android version, with encryption. This represents a huge digital security divide between those able to afford protection, and those vulnerable to surveillance. Because surveillance is a tool used by those in power. This is a problem for civil rights, and a problem for democracy. Modern civil rights movements depend on technology. Think of the Arab Spring. The chances that civil rights leaders have an Apple product are slim. The chances that future civil rights movements become crushed before they begin is a reality. This talk was one of those more sobering ones of the week, with no clear hope or resolution to offer. Putting a webcam sticker on your phone camera to protect yourself from malware that enters your phone via the camera is a good start.
Rebecca Mackinnon, internet freedom advocate. This talk was a call for public transparent oversight of how the information that we consume and generate is used, controlled, tracked and silenced. Bloggers and journalists are under attack from their own governments in the name of protection. The problem is that credible voices are being smothered, even by democratic governments and major social media platforms. Reporting is being confused with promoting. There are many examples of true stories, be thankful if your first name isn’t Isis, which in reality is a very popular first name, taken from the Egyptian goddess.
Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine. This talk was an introduction to the several talks on Artificial Intelligence (AI), and its impact on humanity’s future. According to Kelly, AI will drive the second industrial revolution, the first being fueled by physical power. We will no longer refer to a “two hundred horse power” but a “two hundred mind power”. AI is already a new commodity. And just like automation, new tasks that we don’t know that we want or need will be part of our future lives, creating new jobs. We’re so good at wasting time. Science is inherently inefficient, just as art is. Experiments, test trials, analyzing, creating, sketching, practicing…it all takes time to figure it out. AI’s think differently. There are apparently no big AI experts today, but it’s going to be a huge business. Kelly says that we are in the infancy of the internet era, and that the most popular internet tool(s) haven’t even been invented yet. Scary? Exciting? I don’t know.
Suzanne Simard, forest biologist. This talk spoke to the inner biologist in me. Simard has done some amazing research on trees. Not the above ground trees that we see and admire everyday, but the complicated and proven network that is beneath the ground. Trees communicate to each other. Trees protect each other. Trees have preferences, allies, collaborative partners. Trees network. They truly have “mother trees” that take care of their clan. It’s just like what we do up on the ground. Friendships, partnerships, elbowing out, encouraging, families, relatives, bended families…it’s all there. And it starts with an interdependent pact between trees and fungus. It’s fascinating and the linked talk above leads to Suzanne’s easy-to-understand explanation because she has storytelling skills, that, matched with her biologist expertise, would make a great children’s book. I was able to go on a forest walk with her later in the day, and she has so much fun out in forests because she is in complete admiration of every little thing she sees and touches.
Alexander Betts, Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, the Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. Alexander was asked to give a TED talk on Brexit for us. He was given about 36 hours to prepare. And he pulled it off beautifully. Although he is a refuge expert (see his 2015 talk on helping refugees to help themselves here), he explained the complex and distressing situation in the UK in an incredibly coherent way. Yes, it’s a meltdown. There are deeper structural issues at work behind the Brexit vote: immigration and the division in society; and sovereignty & globalization, which is working for the elite. Brexit is a protest vote. A response would be a tolerant and inclusive globalization where wealth is distributed. Today, globalization is antagonistic and exclusive. It creates winners and losers, and a consequence, the poor get poorer and the rich, well, richer. And so if globalization is to remain, it needs to be reclaimed. Fear and alienation need to be addressed. Social scientists will have an important role to play in figuring this all out. Betts calls for more civic education, interaction across diverse communities, a re-booting of who benefits from globalization, and more responsible politics and media. A big agenda for the world…
Monica Araya, climate activist. Monica is from Costa Rica, where almost 100% of their electricity use comes from renewable energy. In 1948, after civil war, they abolished their army and have diverted military funds to investing in public health and education instead, because a stable country doesn’t need an army, right? (She did not address the possibility of defending its borders, however). She is calling for Costa Rica to lead the world further, and completely decarbonize. The next step is to get transportation under control. The paradox of Costa Rica is that its transportation system is still dependent on fossil fuels. Monica is fighting for electric cars and buses, for cities built for people, not cars, and this needs transformational changes, not incremental ones. She started Costa Rica Limpia, a group that has started a ground up movement to involve citizens in creating a sustainably cleaner Costa Rica. Keep your ears tuned for more talk about Costa Rica’s efforts to lead the world in this initiative.
Jonathan Tepperman, editor, writer, analyist from the Council on Foreign Affairs. Jonathan’s latest book, “The Fix: How Nations Thrive and Survive in a World in Decline” was the focus of his talk on media’s fixation with gloom and doom instead of progress. To show us how other nations have solved their big problems, he took us to Canada, Mexico, and Indonesia. Canadians, believe it or not, are most proud of their multiculturalism, over hockey. This whole new approach to embracing immigrants and seeing the assets that they bring started back in 1968 with Pierre Trudeau, known for his progressive, transformative, color blind policies. His son Justin Trudeau, the current Prime Minister, is a leading example on the American continent for welcoming refugees with open arms and celebrating diversity. Indonesia took religion out of politics and has gone from a threatening theocracy to a stable democracy. Their leaders understood that in order to deal with religious extremism, they must deal with equality first. Mexico has shattered the political paralysis by bringing together parties overcome by mountains of problems. How? Compromise. He has a couple of suggestions for the rest of the world: embrace the extreme; and you can only please all of the people some of the time.
Shai Reshef, educational entrepreneur and President of the University of the People. We are in the worst refugee crisis that the world has ever known. According to Reshef, knowledge is a key to solving this crisis. By providing refugees higher education, we can turn a problem into an asset. There is a huge return on investment. In order to make education accessible and affordable to qualified individuals, Reshef founded the University of the People, the world’s first online, free, and accredited school for collegiate-level studies, and believes that education should be a basic human right, as shown in this 2014 TED talk. As far as I understood, Reshef has designed a new program by Syrian refugees for Syrian refugees. We will no doubt hear about this in the news.
Pavan Sukhdev, environmental economist. Sukhdev’s call is for a redesign of multinational corporations–a green and sustainable model. Currently driving our economy are four elements that need to change: the pursuit of size (big is beautiful); leverage without limits (Wall Street is too big to fail); aggressive lobbying; and advertising without ethics. An ambitious agenda…
Zeynep Tufekci, techno-sociologist. Tufekci writes and teaches on how technology is affecting sociology, which concerns all of us. How Artificial Intelligence (AI) weaves its way into ethical decisions is a reality because “machine intelligence”, which is different than computer programming is now here. Once a computer has been coded with information to compute subjective problems that humans have traditionally solved (which candidate should we hire?) there are no clear anchors or bench marks. Because we simply don’t really know what the machine knows, or has learned. Human wiring is biased. Computers are generating machine bias by gathering our “digital crumbs” that we scatter everyday. Early detection of depression? Aggressive behavior? Single woman without children about to get married? This type of information scooped up will lead to “should we hire this person”. Machine biases are hidden in hidden algorithms. Her research has shown that a user looking up things on African American men will sooner than later be shown ads for criminal histories. A woman will see less ads for high paying jobs than men. Her call is that we cannot outsource moral responsibilities to machines. Gulp.
Sam Harris, philosopher and neuroscientist. This talk on the dangers of AI was a logical one to follow Tufekci, and incredibly sobering. Gains, he claims, in AI will ultimately destroy us, if we do not stop ourselves. Talk about gloom and doom. Something would have to destroy civilization as we know it in order to stop the inevitable. If we build smarter machines, they will become smarter than us. And their goals will not necessarily be our goals. Think back to HAL, the computer is the cult film 2001 A Space Odyssey. General intelligence will enter into machines and we will continue to improve them until the train is out of breaks. Harris says that we are not even near the summit of intelligence. Machines will exceed us by unimaginable measures and speed until it will be impossible to measure, understand, or stop. It will be a winner-take-all situation once “super-intelligence” has been attained, and humans have no idea how to do this safely. His talk was forceful, convincing, and yes, we were left dumbfounded.