Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 2

Today's sessions were numerous and extremely good.  No talk was less than good, many were excellent, and a few were superb. 

The first session, "What are We Thinking?", began with a talk by MIT professor Laura Schulz on how babies learn and adapt to such factors as sample sizes.  Schulz does a great job of constructing experiments that illuminate new aspects of cognitive development.  If that sounds dull, it's not; catch her talk if you can. 

Jason Padgett talked about how a mugging lead to a brain injury that altered the way he perceived the world--and ultimately brought him to love math. 

In one of the more technologically amazing presentations, David Eagleman challenged what we think we know about our senses and showed how we might one day soon be able to add to them. 

Donald Hoffman also spoke about perception, but from an entirely different perspective as he addressed how our senses worked and what goals they most serve.  A philosophically intriguing talk, this one will leave you pondering your own sense of what's real. 

The morning session ended with an emotionally compelling presentation by Daniel Kish, who talked not only about how he uses echolocation to observe his surroundings but also about how his lack of vision means only that he sees the world differently. 

Stanford AI researcher Fei-Fei Li kicked off the next session, "Machines that Learn," with a presentation on how convolutional neural networks are leading to great strides in computer learning.  I read in this area fairly regularly, so I already knew all the concepts involved, but seeing her talk about the progress in computer vision was nonetheless entertaining. 

In a talk that merged the theoretical and the practical, Rajiv Maheswaran discussed how analyzing moving dots can ultimately make better basketball teams.  Almost all of this year's NBA contenders are using data from his organization, so the theories are playing well in practice. 

Roboticist Chris Urmson, Director of Self-Driving Cars at Google, discussed why he feels driverless cars are both inevitable and ultimately better than driver-assisted vehicles.  I also read heavily in this area, so I found nothing new here, but hearing his take on the subject was enjoyable. 

TED Curator Chris Anderson then interviewed mathematician, code breaker, hedge fund manager, and now philanthropist Jim Simons.  The most entertaining parts of this presentation were the ones in which Simons discussed his past work.  I quite enjoyed it.

In a short talk, Evan Tann basically plugged his company's new Verified Location Technology as a means for thwarting hackers. 

Philosopher Nick Bostrom warned of the dangers of creating super-intelligences.  A philosopher who works with computer scientists, he wrote the book that convinced Elon Musk to tweet about this very topic. 

Following him, Oren Etzioni, head of Paul Allen's AI lab, gave a short audience talk in which he claimed we had nothing to fear in this area.

Hearing both sides of this debate was useful and interesting. 

In a move I quite like, Chris Anderson and his team made session 4's topic be "Out of this World," a series of talks on space exploration.  As a lifelong advocate of exploring other worlds, I naturally loved this session, but I think it was approachable and interesting to all. 

Alan Eustace led off with the story of how last October he rode a balloon up to 135,890 feet and then fell to the Earth, his parachute opening at 10,000 feet.  I loved the whole story, though I had read a lot about it before. 

Fred Jansen then discussed the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, in which a team put a lander on a comet.  A fascinating tale of good science--and a bit of good luck--this one showed how much we can still do in space. 

Planetary scientist and MacArthur Fellow Sara Seager discussed her work on finding other planets that support life.  I wish her luck and look forward to reading more about her work. 

Nathalie Cabrol, a senior research scientist at the SETI institute, then talked about how we can use knowledge we gain from studying extreme environments here on Earth--in this case, high-elevation Andean lakes and deserts--to learn about where we might find life on Mars. 

The session wrapped up with Stephen Petranek explaining why he believes we will have a colony on Mars by 2025.  (Short answer:  He believes Elon Musk will make it happen.)  Though I do not share his optimism, he presented a lot of interesting data. 

The day's last session, "Life Stories," began with the most powerful talk of the day:  Anand Giridharadas' story of two men in Texas whose lives became powerfully intertwined in the days right after 9/11.  Moving from the specific to the general problems of America today, he brought the entire watching crowd to its feet.  Do not miss this talk when it is available online. 

Dame Stephanie Shirley, a pioneer in software, a woman who created a business of primarily women back in the early sixties, a champion of research into autism-spectrum disorders whose son was profoundly autistic, and a philanthropist, flit engagingly over a wide variety of intriguing topics.  In one of my favorite lines of the day, she said, "You can always tell ambitious women by the shape of our heads:  flat, from being patted."  She smiled as she said it, but the iron and anger in her from suffering this treatment for decades were clear and strong. 

Martine Rothblatt next ranged over a broad variety of topics, from her work with satellite radio, to her mid-life change from Martin to Martine, to her fight to find a way to cure the disease of one of her daughters. 

The penultimate act of the day was the presentation of the $1M TED Prize to Dave Isay, story collector and head of StoryCorps.  I am apparently the last person in the U.S. not to know StoryCorps, but I found Isay's presentation and goals to be exciting and compelling. 

TED ended for the day with two songs from eleven-year-old Indonesian jazz piano prodigy Joey Alexander.  Though jazz is not my favorite music, I very much enjoyed his playing. 

In every way, today delivered on the essential promise of TED:  great talks about ideas worth spreading. 

The day's only real weakness comes from me, not the show:  I suck at fitting in.  I hung with Bill all day and was quite comfortable doing so.  We ate dinner in a small local pub and then went back to our rooms, while elsewhere fellow attendees ate in groups, went to an ice-skating party, and then ran a St. Patrick's Day pub crawl.  I wish I were more social and better at joining such groups, but I'm not, and I have to confess that I found the time with Bill more peaceful and ultimately more productive than hanging with the crowd. 

Tomorrow, more talks!

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