TED Day 4 Roundup (#TED)

(Follow all of MIT Sloan Management Review’s TED coverage.)

TEDsters smile through financial meltdown. That’s the headline of a blog post WIRED‘s Steven Levy wrote yesterday, essentially arguing that all the optimism in the presentations ignored the multi-trillion-dollar elephant in the room: the current financial horror. TED curator Chris Anderson took that on from the stage first thing this morning. “There might be issues in our world more important than the Gross Domestic Product,” he said. “Market cycles come and go. Good ideas last forever.” To underline that final point, he pulled out a John Maynard Keynes quote from 1930 that felt like it could have been written today:

“This is a nightmare, which will pass away with the morning. For the resources of nature and man’s devices are just as fertile and productive as they ever were. The rate of our progress toward solving the material problems of life is not less rapid. We are as capable as before of affording for everyone a high standard of life … We were not previously deceived. But today we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time — perhaps for a long time.”

The point of the conference, I suppose, is to think beyond the current catastrophe to what may lie beyond. That’s how Juan Enriquez started the conference on Wednesday, and that’s how the mostly sober panels today ended it.

TED-prediction-slideThe best way to predict the future is to invent it, Alan Kay (once a TED speaker, naturally) said famously, so it’s not surprising that these makers of the future are interested in predicting it, too. The first session today took on the notion of prediction from a variety of angles. It’s a topic our magazine has covered intensely recently (see our most recent issue).

The first predictor up was Nate Silver, who became everyone’s favorite statistician during the last election cycle with his website fivethirtyeight.com. Silver has a point of view — he’s left of center (no surprise; I’m guessing there were more mosquitoes than Republicans at TED this year) — but he seems much more interested in where the numbers take him than in making political points. And his interests are wide-ranging: before he turned to politics he was best know for his sabermetric research. As with so many TED speakers, Silver started his talk with a provocative question — “Is racism predictable?” — and used presidential election results from 1996 to 2008 to back up his argument that it is. His evidence wasn’t particularly surprising: uneducated, rural whites who have little interaction with African Americans are most likely to be racist, the numbers show. This being TED, Silver also took a crack at how to fix the problem. The most provocative of his suggestions was an intercollegiate exchange program between urban and rural colleges. These might seem far-fetched, but they illuminated Silver’s basic point that what is predictable is also designable.

Political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita was more grandiose. A consultant to the CIA and Department of Defense, he uses game theory to predict the future. Some of his more famous predictions weren’t particularly revelatory (everyone saw the second intifada in Palestine coming), but he agreed with Silver’s predictable=designable premise, saying “you predict the future so you can engineer it.” His provocative question was “What will Iran do?” Bueno de Mesquita argued that full development of a bomb is unlikely and President Ahmadinejad is likely to see his power lessen in the years to come. He “backed up” his hypothesis with plenty of charts, but unlike Silver, who labelled every slide meticulously, he offered up some charts that didn’t even bother to mention what both axes stood for. I hope his prediction of a relatively accommodating Iran is true, but I also took photos of all of his slides just in case. Trust, but verify.

Two MIT-associated speakers rounded out the session. Media Lab giant Nicholas Negroponte gave a brief talk about the status of his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project that managed to be both angry and optimistic. It was part rant against the makers of tiny “netbook” laptops, which dominate the market OLPC created, and part vision for the future of OLPC. Both parts were entertaining. “The commercial markets will go to no end to stop us. Netbooks didn’t steal the right things from us,” Negroponte said as he tossed two of the sturdy OLPC devices across the stage. They landed hard and unharmed; you could count on regular laptops to do only the former. The next step in the development of the OLPC is to move to open source hardware: build hardware with open specifications that everyone can copy. It’s a canny move, changing the playing field when the current one isn’t yielding ideal results.

Then Dan Ariely talked about behavioral economics. His stories wouldn’t have been new to anyone who read his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions or read senior editor Alden M. Hayashi’s interview with him in MIT Sloan Management Review. Yet he’s an energetic speaker and most in the audience seemed unfamiliar with his work, despite his book having been sent to TED attendees several months ago. His vision of a world in which people reliably make easily anticipated errors has quickly moved from counterintuitive to conventional wisdom.

“From counterintuitive to conventional wisdom” is also, in a sense, the dream that powers TED. Ideas are launched here and sometimes, as with, say, Al Gore’s initial climate crisis presentation, the world accepts them. Some may be put off by the event’s optimism and elitism — and there are good arguments against both of them, but the ideas are stronger than any inadequacies in attitude. As fellow TED attendee Paul Kedrosky twittered earlier today, “For all TED’s flaws, criticisms, etc., it remains a magic thing.” Now let’s see what happens to the ideas from this year’s TED over the next 12 months.