Tuesday, April 25, 2017

TED 2017: A day that started well and ended wonderfully

The title for the morning sessions was Our Robotic Overlords. Marc Raibert of Boston Dynamics kicked it off by showing one of his company's robots and discussing his vision of robotics. The demo was fun, but as someone who follows AI and robotics, I didn't learn a lot from it.

Noriko Arai followed with a discussion of the AI she is building in the hopes of one day passing the entrance exam to the University of Tokyo. Like the first talk, this one was pleasant but not particularly informative.

Stuart Russell's talk was also not particularly new, but I found it more intriguing because it focused on how to align human and AI values and objectives, a topic that might well be vital in the future.

Joseph Redmond's discussion and demo of image and object recognition showed that this technology is improving rapidly enough that in no time we can expect it to be in all of our smartphones and to be operating there at a high level of capability.

Tom Gruber, one of the creators of Siri, provided the most optimistic viewpoint of the session as he argued for what he called humanistic AI, AI that makes us all smarter.  I didn't find his arguments particularly compelling, but he clearly is an AI optimist.

In a fun break, Todd Rejchert debuted the Kitty Hawk Flyer. The initial unit will be available, they hope, late this year, and will fly only over water. I don't have a use in the world for such a device, but I sure would like to try one.

Schooling and other collective behaviors are fun to watch and to study, so I quite enjoyed Radhika Nagpal's talk. She reviewed the basics of this topic and discussed how her Harvard lab team built a set of 1,024 mini robots that they programmed to exhibit such behaviors.

After a short break, we returned to the theater for a session on a very different topic, The Human Response.

Rutger Bregman, an historian and writer, gave the most moving talk of the day to that point by pointing out that despite the belief of many, poverty is not a character flaw, and by then arguing for a basic income guarantee. He provided a lot of supporting data and left me leaning heavily toward this concept, which he claimed we could implement in the U.S. with a negative income tax for $175B, a price worth paying to lift all Americans out of poverty. Definitely catch this talk when it hits TED online.

Martin Ford's talk started by asking if we were heading to a future without jobs but ended up with another, albeit less compelling, argument for a basic income guarantee.

I've followed Patreon for some time but still found it interesting to hear the story from its founder, Jack Conte. We have no way to know just how well the concept is playing out, but right now he said that they have over 50,000 creators earning money via Patreon. I hope the platform continues to link audiences and artists effectively.

Sarah DeWitt argued for the potential positive power of screens in the hands of kids.

I'm still quite torn between the vision of his company that Ray Dalio presented and what I've read about it in other places, but certainly the general goal of an idea meritocracy is one I support in principle. Implementation, though, is everything in this case.

I've been a member of the ACLU for most of my adult life, so I was interested to hear what its executive director, Anthony Romero, would have to say. Despite his topics, which I care very much about, and his use of the art of Italian masters, which I have studied a bit, I found his talk ultimately a bit flat. I'm still grateful for the good work he does, but I wanted more from this talk.

This session closed superbly, however, with a talk from Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon, the founders of GirlTrek. This group focuses on African-American women and girls and encourages them to walk as a way to fight health issues. I teared up at this talk and gave it a standing ovation, as did most of the people in the hall.

After lunch, which for me was some tasty mac-and-cheese with pulled pork from a food truck, I joined the first TED en Espanol session. I have no Spanish, so I listened to the talks via headphones and live translation.

All of the talks were at least interesting, but it's late and I'm running out of steam, so I'm going to mention only a few.

I enjoyed Jorge Drexler's music, but the rest of his talk felt less engaging.

Journalist Jorge Ramos, on the other hand, showed a dedication to journalism and a willingness to stand up for his beliefs that touched me, and watching him be thrown out of a Trump press conference (when Trump was a candidate) was chilling. Ramos deserved his standing ovation.

His talk's intensity, though, understandably paled next to that of the presentation from Ingrid Betancourt, which was one of the most riveting of the day. A candidate for the presidency of Colombia in 2002, Betancourt was kidnapped by guerilla rebels and held captive for six years. Her story of her struggles and how she fought with fear, her own violent urges, and hopelessness moved me greatly, and I was impressed by how much she came to forgiveness and the divine. I stood and clapped long and hard for her.

After another short break, we headed into the day's final session, Health, Life, Love. It began with a pleasant but otherwise straightforward interview of Serena Williams by Gayle King.

Atul Gawande really touched me with his story of how employing a coach not only improved his performance as a surgeon but ultimately proved instrumental in greatly increasing the quality of care in birthing centers in low-income areas.

Anna Rosling Ronnlund showed us a great way to visualize the degree of poverty and wealth in people all over the world with a demo of her project, Dollar Street. This is a site you're going to want to allow some time to play with and to study.

In a surprise move, TED Curator Chris Anderson then came on stage to announce that we were going to see the debut of a talk recorded earlier for TED 2017 by Pope Francis. I was blown away by the degree to which the Pope focused on solidarity and inclusiveness. This talk is already live on TED.com, with the title Why the only future worth building includes everyone, and you should check it out.

Jon Boogz and Lil Buck debuted an original dance that was at times moving and at other times just not my thing. Overall, I'm glad I got to see it.

The day ended with the award of the $1M TED Prize to Raj Panjabi, whose dream is to bring health care to the one billion people in the world's most remote communities. His approach is pragmatic and proven to work, and I hope his new organization, communityhealth.org, succeeds.

I was once again more than happy to stand and applaud.

A great end to a strong TED day.

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