Julian's blog: TED session 2: Human Systems

July 14th, 2010
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This was a classic session!

First Matt Ridley, giving a tour de force talk on how ideas have sex… the process is exchange, which is probably what cause homo sapiens to displace the neanderthals and what distinguishes us from tool-using animals. When we trade (which we’ve been doing for 100,000 years) we make room for specialisation, and thus we create a ‘collective brain’, which knows how to make everything – no one person knows how to make anything from beginning to end, but as a collective we can make things no individual understands. Brilliant.

 

Second, and the perfect complement, is Steven Johnson, author of upcoming book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’. Coffee shops were fundamental for the Enlightenment because the thinkers switched from alcohol all day (depressant) to tea and coffee (stimulant) and sobered up! Ideas are networks: most are mashups from previous ideas. They are very rarely single moments of inspiration – more common is the ‘slow hunch’. Open systems are vital because chance favours the connected mind. Outstanding.

 

Next was Chris Wild, self-proclaimed ‘retronaut’. A charmingly British (ie reserved, self-deprecating and wryly amusing) presentation contains one really big reframe: instead of looking back at the past (dark and boring and behind us) why not conceive of time like light radiating out from the sun, an expanding sphere, so that we look out at the time scape, and the further out we go, the earlier we are looking. Wild shows some photographic ‘wormholes’ from the retroscope, though I am not convinced the thing actually exists yet – only resource on the web appears to be this.

 

Fourth up is legendary game designer Peter Molyneaux. Books, films, TV – ‘Rubbish!” he says, not one to mince his words, “because they don’t include me.” He demos a game which is controlled by Kinect (so no control device, just natural gesture and voice), includes an AI avatar of an 11 year old boy called Milo, and lets the player develop a relationship with Milo, eventually becoming his invisible friend, holding real conversations with this cloud-based AI brain, which will learn from all players simultaneously. Amazing, yet rather spooky to me. Not scheduled for release yet, this will doubtless be the shape of computer entertainment to come. But what’s the point?

 

Finally, joyfully, we had Annie Lennox. I saw her on Later a while back and thought her voice had gone – but it so hasn’t! She lit the whole theatre up with her radiant energy. Her face is so beautifully animated it’s mesmerising, and she is so clearly completely expressed in her song when you see her in the flesh. And the voice… powerful, pitch perfect, many-faceted, leaping from falsetto to alto in a trice, it was a visceral thrill to be in the room when she cut loose on classics like You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart, Love Is A Stranger and of course Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This. What a treat!

 

Time to reflect on a fine first day, with a  top class TED-U session this morning (seems like a week ago now) which starred the wonderful Lee Hotz, talking in near-poetry about the team drilling ice cores in deep Antarctica, a hurdy-gurdy tour de force by Basque-domiciled Caroline Phillips, and a brilliant talk on risk management by Ron Dembo: if the risk is deterministic (it’s probably going to happen, you just don’t know when) then you execute action; if it’s stochastic (any outcome is possible) then you hedge – so GM scrapping its electric car was dumb, as was Bush not sending the National Guard to New Orleans, both of which would have been wise hedges, where the cost of being wrong is moderate if you go for the hedge and massive if you don’t. Then we had for the first time a TED-U partners session, where TED sponsors got the chance to pitch a talk (not a sales pitch) under the same rules as TED-U. Results were fair – Gasche Joost was excellent on gender tech, Giles Corbett faschinating on mobile futures, and Nick Allen convincing on the need for behaviour change now to avert climate disaster (new technology will not arrive in time). An experiment worth repeating I think.

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