TED Day 1 Roundup (#TED)

This is our second daily post covering this week’s TED conference. You can follow all our TED coverage.


TED Day 1
For a conference that’s supposed to be about long-term ideas, those ideas sure get spread at record speed. Thanks to blogs and especially Twitter, reports from the first day of this year’s TED conference (here’s a TED primer for managers, if you need one) began flowing within seconds after a speaker noted something particularly noteworthy. As I write this post before dawn the following morning, I see that there is plenty of good, almost-instant coverage, particularly from Ethan Zuckerman, BoingBoing, and the official TED blog. Rather than deliver a blow-by-blow list of everything that happens, which can get tedious quickly and allows for hardly any reflection, the idea here is to identify the most important parts of the long day and night (with 48 speakers or performers, events started at 8:30 a.m. and ran past 11 p.m. — and that’s just the official events) and give a sense of what it is like to be here.

This is our second daily post covering this week's TED conference. You can follow all our TED coverage.

TED Day 1
For a conference that's supposed to be about long-term ideas, those ideas sure get spread at record speed. Thanks to blogs and especially Twitter, reports from the first day of this year's TED conference (here's a TED primer for managers, if you need one) began flowing within seconds after a speaker noted something particularly noteworthy. As I write this post before dawn the following morning, I see that there is plenty of good, almost-instant coverage, particularly from Ethan Zuckerman, BoingBoing, and the official TED blog. Rather than deliver a blow-by-blow list of everything that happens, which can get tedious quickly and allows for hardly any reflection, the idea here is to identify the most important parts of the long day and night (with 48 speakers or performers, events started at 8:30 a.m. and ran past 11 p.m. -- and that's just the official events) and give a sense of what it is like to be here.

The two stars of the big morning session were Juan Enriquezand Bill Gates. Enriquez is the sort of polymath made for a diverse conference like TED: he's done everything from run the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School to serve as a member of the peace commission in Mexico that negotiated the cease-fire in Chiapas' Zapatista rebellion. He's best-known, perhaps, as a presenter: I've witnessed him speak engagingly on everything from why schools in the Arabic world used to be the best in the planet but aren't anymore to why being knowledgeable about genetics is just as important as being digitally literate.

Back in October, just as the political and business leaders were starting to understand the ramifications of the financial crisis, Enriquez delivered a raw, whirlwind presentation at the Pop!Tech conference that focused on what the then-yet-to-be-elected new president needed to do, with an emphasis on austerity. I don't know how long it will be until Enriquez's talk yesterday is posted to TED.com, but those who want a taste of it can see an earlier iteration from Pop!Tech:


Juan Enriquez (2008) Pop!Tech Pop!Cast from PopTech on Vimeo.

Enriquez started his talk and the conference by jumping straight into the economy. TED is 25 years old this year, and Enriquez was the first of many speakers the first day to couch his analysis in terms of a 25-year cycle. He's updated the talk substantially since its October debut; its tone is now more optimistic than its shell-shocked counterpart at Pop!Tech, with a persuasive argument that, in the long term, technology is more powerful than the current financial catastrophe. He identified our ability to engineer cells, tissues, and robots as the economic engines that will outlast the downturn. Among his most compelling examples was a realistic robot from Boston Dynamics that comes astonishingly close to moving like a human:

In a later presentation, coincidentally, another speaker cited the same robot in a talk about the future of war: most technology is neither inherently good nor evil. It's all in how it's used.

Bill Gates needs no introduction: he's the most successful capitalist and philanthropist of his time. And, in keeping with the theme of the event, he stated "I am an optimist" (why shouldn't he be?) and spoke fluently and passionately about two of the big questions his foundation is trying to answer: how do you stop deadly diseases spread by mosquitos?" and "how do you make a teacher great?" He spoke with both anger ("there's more money put into treating baldness than malaria") and disbelief (in some school districts, teacher contracts require that a principal can only enter a classroom once a year, with advance notice). But the blogosphere and twittersphere (there has to be a better word than this) were, er, buzzing with a stunt Gates pulled while discussing malaria, the deadly disease spread by mosquitos:

Photo: TED / James Duncan Davidson

"Not only poor people should experience this,” Gates said as he opened the jar and let a pair of (malaria-free) mosquitoes into the room. Several prominent blogs referred to Gates "unleashing a swarm of mosquitoes on his audience" but I don't think two counts as a swarm. The move did lead TED curator Chris Anderson, who's got a background in publishing, to crack that a good headline for the talk would be "Bill Gates Releases More Bugs Into the World." Anderson also said that Gates's talk will be posted to the TED website later today. We'll point to it.

The pick of the afternoon sessions included talks by co-chairman of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani, filmmaker Jake Eberts, MIT's own Pattie Maes, and Interface CEO Ray Anderson. The morning sessions start soon, after a breakfast appointment, so for now let me offer some highlights (more detail coming later in the day):

  • Nandan Nilekani spoke about his upcoming book, Imagining India, in which he endeavors to consider the wild disparities of India in terms of four types of ideas: ideas that have arrived, ideas in progress, ideas in conflict, and ideas in anticipation.
  • Filmmaker Jake Eberts showed a nine-minute rough set of excerpts from Oceans, a new film from the team that made Winged Migration about the underwater world. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful and earned a standing ovation for its thrilling shots of jumping whales, forests of jellyfish, and (apparently) friendly sharks. There's no link available yet for the video; the film isn't coming out in the U.S. until April 2010.
  • Pattie Maes, who runs the Fluid Interfaces Group at the MIT Media Lab, showed off an early version of "Where Ur World," a multitouch system developed with Pranav Mistry that seeks to combine online information with real-world interaction in surprising ways. The example that left the audience smiling was one in which Pranav shook hands with someone and a tag cloud relating to that person was projected onto that person's shirt. The website for the project is still under construction.
  • Almost-president Al Gore offered an update of his Inconvenient Truth talk (summary: things are getting worse), but more compelling was Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, who spoke of how he's turning the world's largest manufacturer of modular carpet into a model of sustainability. Anderson had plenty of useful nuts-and-bolts information about how companies should think about sustainability, which we'll spell out later, but his money quote came from Amory Lovins: "If something exists, it must be possible."

The sun is up, the day is beginning. I have much more to pass on about Day 1 of TED (yes, I waited on line for food with stars; yes, the Long Beach experience is different from Monterey) and I will as the day progresses. But right now I'm interested in learning more from Ray Anderson, which is why I'm signing off and going to interview him.

Much more to come ...

(Housekeeping note: someone has asked what the "#TED" in the headline means. It's a hash tag, intended to make it easier for people to search for, in this case, blog and Twitter posts about TED.)