These are the weblog reports I posted each day of the TED 2002 conference in Monterey, CA. (My weblog is here).
Report on highlights of the first full day at TED, the Technology Entertainment and Design conference in Monterey, an eccentric mix of presentations and performances, celebrities and civilians.
This morning gave us a dull-as-it-sounds panel discussion of the design of chairs preceded by a sparkling performance by singer-songwriter Jill Sobule The only moment of interest (for me, anyway) in the chair panel came when the guy from SteelCase talked about Bluespace, a project with IBM to rethink the cubicle. The chair becomes the brain of the place, automatically adjusting the lights and temperature. Of course, the desk folks are going to insist that desks are the center of the universe. And Apple has already made it clear that it thinks that all revolves around the desk lamp. (Bluespace is reminiscent of Bruce Tognazzini's Star Office concept.)
The chair panel was followed by the truly mirthful Respyni Brothers juggling act.
Walt Mossberg was next up. Before he started his tech column at the Wall Street Journal. ten years ago he was covering wars, the world economy, international affairs and other such frothy delights. Yet he would only get one or two letters a year from readers. As soon as he started the tech column, he started hearing from hundreds of readers a day. Why, he asked, do people not care enough about world affairs to write, but if they disagree with his slightest opinion about computers, they write long, passionate missives? Great question with lots of answers. (My book, Small Pieces, actually is an attempt to answer that question, at least with regard to the Web.)
Mossberg is quite funny, by the way. And frank. He said that James Baker, Secretary of State under Bush Sr., used to have a computer in his office that Baker had no idea how to operate. One key was color coded and hard wired to call up the current value of the dollar so that in meetings with foreign dignitaries, Baker could spin around, hit the key, and say "Hmm, looks like the dollar is currently trading at 1202 Lira," or whatever. He also said that when Mossberg told Baker that he was dropping his coverage of the State Department in favor of writing a tech column, Baker said, "What the fuck would you do that for?" Answer: Mossberg saw that a revolution in technology was going to change the world. When last seen, Mossberg was one of the most respected tech journalists with an international readership and James Baker was fixing a tawdry election in Florida.
Dean Kamen gave a 30 minute presentation, standing the entire time on a Segway. The Segway is supremely cool, but seeing Kamen "pacing" on the scooter made it look like a cybernetic attachment rather than a mode of transportation. In his rambling (rolling?) remarks, he defended the value of the Segway by saying that because it goes three times faster than walking, it extends the effective range of a person without a car and thus can replace cars within cities. (Of course, so can bikes for most people.) I have no idea if the Segway will catch on because it involves replacing so many ingrained habits and assumptions. His bionic pacing only seemed to make the hurdle higher. (Dan Bricklin's article on the Segway's importance is likely to become of historic interest as we look back on how the Segway phenomenon transformed human mobility and cities ... or just fizzled.)
But Kamen really wanted to talk about First, not Segway. First is his program to involve more women and minorities in the sciences. He showed a tape of one of the First robotic competitions. The high school students' stories were quite moving. There is greatness wrapped up in Kamen. And legends have already begun.
He also said that the Ibot — the stair-climbing, human-elevating wheelchair — should be cleared as a Class 3 medical device this year. And, he showed one of the Stirling engines he's been working on. He says that the small engine can move a Segway from New York to Boston on a kilogram of propane. And, the heat that it throws off could be used, he said, to distill 10 gallons of water an hour, potentially ending the curse of dirty water that is the world's biggest killer while simultaneously bringing electricity to remote villages.
Yo-Yo Ma brought out a troupe of musicians playing instruments from around the world. They performed two pieces written around 1500, the sort of courtly, tuneful European music of the time that I've found no more than entertaining. This I found moving. In part it is the joy with which Ma leads his group and the joy with which they play. It helped also that I've been listening to Ma and watching his astonishing growth (from his astounding beginning) all my adult life. Ma is not particularly articulate in terms of his sentence structure, but he is remarkably eloquent. He conveyed vividly the way in which the world's music is connected. I choked up.
Then, in response to the multiple standing ovations, he played Bach, alone. This was one of the richest musical experiences in my life. I wept. (Good thing he stopped because the next escalation of my response would have involved unsightly stains.)
There were many other speakers. Some were excellent. A few were self-involved, conspicuous duds. For the rest of the day, I never quite left Ma's performance.
TED is all about the time between the presentations when we mingle and the class sytem is evoked in every glance even as it is ostensibly being overcome. I bumped into Ma and did the standard fan thing: shook his hand, told him that his performance moved me. Among the other celebrities: Rupert Murdoch dressed like someone had to tell him what "business casual" means. Bruce Villanch, the center square on Hollywood Squares. Neil Simon. Art Buchwald. Jeffrey Katzenberg.
I am not counting computer industry folks such as Danny Hillis, Jeff Bezos and Alan Webber. And, of course, why would I even mention the non-celebrities? Just because that's from whom I'm learning almost everything of value? It does seem that there is an extraordinarily high percentage of really interesting non-celebs here; almost anyone you strike up a converation with is passionate and articulate about something.
There's no reason to point to the dud presentations. But I'm steamed about one. A marketing guy from Nike talked with great pride about the "world shoe" project, which he presented as a way for Nike to expand sales from the 180M sneakers per year it's been stalled at for three years. So, he came up with the idea of designing a shoe that can sell in the third world for about $10. Fine and dandy.
I'm not saying he had to use the word "sweatshop," but some acknowledgement in his brief history of Nike that there have been some, let's say, concerns about Nike's record would have been appreciated ... especially since he said that "Now the kids who work in the factory can buy the sneakers they make." "Kids"?! Can a Nike marketing guy really be that insensitive to the perception of Nike as an exploiter of children? But what really moved my cheese was his casual assumption that if Nike needs to make more money, of course it should stimulate demand for swooshed shoes among those who could find a better use for their $10. Demand stimulation is one of the things wrong with capitalism although in an affluent society it is merely wasteful and psychologically debilitating. In an impoverished society, it is manipulative, selfish, and pornographic. So, fuck him and the sneaker he rode in on.
[Note: The author wishes to acknowledge that the preceding remarks on Nike show a remarkable naivete about the world economy and the nature of capitalism. Thank you.]
Report on Friday at TED, the Technology Entertainment and Design conference in Monterey, an eccentric mix of presentations and performances, celebrities and civilians.
This was a more successful day than yesterday, IMO. The highlights from my point of view:
Robert Full from UC Berkeley discussed his group's research into animal motion. They've been able to make robots that navigate through complex landscapes without requiring a computer brain to match actions to an internal representation. Instead, legs made out of materials that are complexly flexible — just like animal legs — adjust the critter's movement to the terrain simply because of the shape and nature of the legs themselves. This seems quite similar to Rodney Brooks' work on getting inner representations out of the AI picture. Full also talked about the mechanism by which geckos can scoot up walls: It turns out that the gecko's toe pads foliate to such small nodes that molecular Van der Waal forces can overcome gravity. (Was that a look of inspiration I saw in Dean Kamen's eyes as he thought about he might apply this to wall-climbing Segways? Nah.)
Frans Lanting, a photographer for National Geographic (is there a more evocative job description?) cycled through astonishing photographs of wildlife. You can see a few here.
Jeffrey Katzenberg showed the first 7 minutes of his new animated feature ("Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron") about wild horses. It puts characters drawn in 2D illustration style into a detailed 3D world. The artwork is beautiful (but familiar) and the movie's opening tries for the bravura sweep of the opening of The Lion King. The problem is with the writing. The narration is so hackneyed and trite that Matt Damon's reading can't save it. And the very first words of the script are just flat out wrong: The star horse intones that the horses have been in the American west forever. Yeah, even before the Spanish brought them?
The late morning session presented a string of humorists (a chuckle of humorists?). Bruce Vilanch told some funny jokes of the Viagra, Shirley Maclaine and Richard Gere and smally furry mammals variety. Emily Levine did a routine that managed to be genuinely funny about philosophical dualism. And MacArthur Genius Ben Katchor deadpanned his way through his arch, illustrated prose-poems that are as willing to be ambiguous as Katzenberg is willing to be trite. Jill Sobule performed again; I had the chance to tell her that I fall more in love with her every day.
Dan Dubins, a CBS News producer, demo'ed software that combines satellite imaging data with geological elevation data so that you can zoom, tilt and pan as if you were flying a space-capable helicopter. Others have produced similar software, but this had more data than I'd seen and, more dramatically, treated the entire experience cinematically, an excellent example of the importance of entertainment in presenting information. Unfortunately, Dubins didn't give the software's name, although I thoughtI heard him refer to "earthview."
Steven Petranik, editor of Discover magazine, ticked off his Top Ten list of ways the world could end suddenly:
He wasn't kidding about any of these. See you in hell.
Amory Lovins talked about the hypercar project, a radically redesigned car that uses hydrogen fuel (producing water as its exhaust) or fuel cells. It reverses most of the principles that have guided car design from the beginning. Most exciting, he has put the design into the public domain so that no one can patent it and many can build them.
Nicholas Negroponte wrapped up the sessions by predicting that in 1-2 years, we will see the development of a "viral telecommunications network" based on 802.11 wirelessness, a single installation serving an entire neighborhood. This will go beyond merely enabling multiple connections to the Internet, Negroponte predicts, resulting in a peer-to-peer network that parallels the current Internet topography. Further, he suggests that establishing wireless networks in areas of strife will enable children to reach past their parents' stupidity.
He connected this with our culture's odd idea that at the age of 5 children should stop learning by playing and start learning by facing forward and being taught. Give kids a connected computer and they will teach themselves and others by exploring the Internet. Pointing to his experience building schools in rural Cambodia, he said: "People say it's not sufficient to give kids computers and connectivity. You know what? It is."
Damn good stuff.
Finally, the day ended with an astounding set of musical performances. In the first half, Gary Burton, Maokoto Ozone and Julian Lage played. Julian is a prodigy, a 14-year-old with technical expertise and musicality that's jaw-dropping. I shared an elevator ride with him and his parents and they seemed loving and grounded. Could my impression based on this 45 second experience be wrong? Actually, no, it couldn't be. You can't lie in an elevator any more than you can lie down in an elevator.
The second concert featured Herbie Hancock. Astounding.
As a bonus, I ran into Jakob Nielsen, the Usability Guy. I'd long wanted to meet him. By happy coincidence, he was talking with Maryam Mohit, in charge of Amazon's UI. (She's on a generous maternity leave. Her 4-month old son is gorgeous.) Very enjoyable discussion, in part about the importance of voice and its relation to authority.
A good day.
This was an extraordinarily good day. The only weaknesses of the day are weaknesses of TED's format itself: the presentations are non-interactive with the audience and with one another so it is very difficult to develop ideas. For example, if a Nobel prize winner raises a provocative issue in his allotted 15-20 minutes, there's no Q&A, no panel, and no further discussion by later speakers who, by and large, have labored for months polishing a presentation from which they dare not swerve.
This weakness was quite apparent in the first presentation of the day. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher of amazing clarity and originality of focus, compared the ideas humans are willing to die for to an actual virus whose propagation requires causing its hosts — ants in this case — to commit suicide. As he led us to believe he was talking about militant Islam, he pulled the rug and said that our Western memes are a virus that threatens to do to the non-Western world what real viruses did to the native Americans when the Europeans arrived. Just as he was about to tell us what he thinks can and should be done to protect the world from these mental viruses, his time was up. As a result, he left us at the weakest part of his argument, it seemed to me. Yes, ideas are like viruses in that some multiply at the cost of their hosts' lives. But, unlike viruses, they do not necessarily act in a mechanistic, deterministic way (unless one believes that all thought is deterministic). There is something profoundly anti-intellectual and demeaning about the "ideas are viruses" meme. After all, this view has to say that all ideas are viruses, doesn't it? Rationality is a virus as much as extremist religious views. Otherwise, we're just picking the ideas we don't like and labeling them viruses, smuggling the negative sense of "virus" under the coat of the genetic sense of virus. But Dennett would have revealed all ... if only Ted slots were wider and the speakers fewer.
Here are some more highlights:
Steve Jurveston had 7 minutes to talk about the nanotech revolution. Fascinating but way too abbreviated. He expects revolutions in computing, medicine, materials and manufacturing in 5-10 years. He also pointed out in passing that the human genome is smaller than MS Office.
Nobelist Kary Mullis gave a country-boy reminiscence of his discovery that the scientific method is a human invention. After giving a vivid sense of what "doing science" means to him, he attacked politicized science, taking global warming as his example. He cited two recent studies that found no warming in the past 50 years, throwing into doubt the "More CO2 = More Warming" hypothesis first formulated 100 years ago.
Next came Richard Dawkins who pissed me off mightily. He's obviously one of our great minds but ... he's got an impressively blinkered view of religion. I wholeheartedly agree with his main point: American culture needs to accept atheism as a mainstream belief, and I liked his proposal that atheists come out of the closet in order to legitimize the atheist position. But he wrapped this in a virulent and, frankly, ignorant attack on religion. I wanted to go up to him afterwards and say: "I hate science. Scientists experiment on animals." He would reply (I imagine): "First of all, you twit, astronomy, physics, etc. don't experiment on animals." Then I would pounce, it being my fantasy and all: "Exactly. And a critique of religion-in-general is just as twitty." It genuinely irks me that he recklessly conflates all religions as if they all reject science, all insist on blind faith, and all appeal only to the weak-minded. (The fact that my wife, who has a doctorate in philosophy and is one of the clearest-headed people I know, is an orthodox Jew certainly doesn't affect my attitude :)
Josef Penninger gave a fascinating presentation on his genetic research that may result in treatments for osteoporosis, arthritis, and pain management. More interesting, however, was his explanation of discoveries about how particular genes work. For example, the gene that controls the death of cells is also used by the body to "sculpt" fingers out of fetus's webbed mass. I spoke with him afterwards and found him to be shy and friendly. (Yes, you can be both.) When he talked about his new institute, he talked mainly in terms of human values. Emotionally, he felt like Dawkin's mirror image.
By the way, I also had a chance to talk briefly with Dean Kamen. "Since Segway challenges so many of our habits and many of our institutions," I asked, "how do you see it getting accepted? Who's going to adopt it first? Where will the breakthrough be?" "I wish I knew," Kamen said while standing, as always, on his Segway. But, he said, things are looking up since the Segway's introduction: Automobile companies don't hate it the way he thought they would and two states have passed laws allowing Segways on sidewalks.
Steven Pinker, whose work on language and the brain is brilliant and too hard for me, gave a highly understandable preview of his new book that argues that there is indeed such a thing as human nature. He pointed to four reasons we fear that idea: We don't like the inequality of capability it implies, we think it means that we are not perfectable, it seems to imply determinism and it seems to suck all the meaning out of life. He gave brief, effective counters for each fear.
Next up was Deepak Chopra, a popular spiritualist. He opened up by saying that Dawkins "seems to be a bit of a fundamentalist [laughs from the audience] and even perhaps a bit of a bigot [gasps from the audience]. He then spent his twenty minutes trying to erase science's distinction between observed and observer, using indeterminacy and quantum leaps as his proof points. He spoke the language of physics fluently, but even I, whose lack of understanding of quantum mechanics is truly deep, spotted some misunderstandings. I think. Besides, his approach can't possibly convince scientists because he's not telling them anything they don't already know.
Quincy Jones talked about his life. Frank Gehry chatted about his life as an architect. Chris Bangle, BMW's chief designer, told an amusing story to show that love and trust are at the heart of the collaborative process.
Overall, it was an amazing line up of intellect, squeezed, alas, into slots as small as veal pens — with just as much room to move around.
This is Richard Saul Wurman's last year as the head of TED. Next year, Chris Anderson, founder of Business 2.0, will host it. Chris is promising to maintain TED as it is, but it remains to be seen if it can weather the departure of its leader and icon.
By the way, I managed to leave out one extraordinary presentation yesterday. David Macauley cycled through about 100 drawings in 20 minutes to show the process by which he created his upcoming book about Rome. (What's the graphical equivalent of thinking out loud?) He is such a magnificent artist.