Thursday, April 12, 2018

TED 2018, day 3: spinning up and down and all around

My head, not the conference, is doing the spinning.  After a day full of sessions and a Jeffersonian dinner on spirituality, my brain is fairly full and I'm exhausted.  So, today I'm going to retreat even more deeply into the land of greatest hits and not even try to mention every speaker.

The first morning session, "Space to dream," delivered solid talks.  My favorite was from Nora Atkinson, a craft curator, who discussed and showed many images of the art from Burning Man.  Years ago, I yearned to go to Burning Man, and parts of me still think it would be great, but other parts think it might well suck.  This talk gave fuel to the former.  Either way, I admire the art she showed.  The talk in the session that I found a downer was physicist Stephen Webb's discussion of whether we were alone in the universe.  He concluded that we were, but that we should be thankful for that.  Fair enough:  we should be glad we exist.  I still hope he's wrong and we one day meet aliens.

The second morning session, "What on earth do we do?", was rich in scientific content and generally strong. 

Physicist Aaswath Raman talked about a new material that basically lets you wick heat to the upper atmosphere.  I won't tell you how it works; check out the talk when it comes online. 

Chemical engineer Jennifer Wilcox discussed ways to pull carbon dioxide out of our air.  Her analysis was strong and intriguing.

Environmental data scientist Angel Hsu talked about using richer data sets to truly understand the state of pollution in China. 

In a fun talk I want to believe will work but seriously doubt, Rodin Lyasoff showed video of and discussed a prototype, electrically powered, VTOL, autonomous personal aircraft.  Who wouldn't want your plane to fly you to work?

Penny Chisholm discussed Prochlorococcus, the smallest photosynthetic microbe.  This little rascal proved to be fascinating, and her enthusiasm for it and love of it was contagious. 

Marine ecologist Enric Sala brought the room to its feet with a compelling, data-driven argument for banning fishing on the high seas.  I am now all for this notion.  Do not miss this talk when it appears. 

After a food truck lunch, I headed to a different theater to catch "How dark is the future?", a 90-minute interview of Steven Pinker by Chris Anderson.  Pinker came across as completely prepared and unflappable.  I look forward to reading his book, but so far, he's sold me that on the whole, things are getting better. 

The sessions concluded with one they called, "Wow.  Just wow."  I very much enjoyed its first talk, a presentation from Chinese computer scientist and investor Kai-Fu Lee.  He argued that what we humans can do better than AIs are to love one another and to create.  I'm not sure the latter is true--ref. the next talk--but he was very entertaining.

Speaking of that talk, in it Pierre Barreau, a young entrepreneur, discussed his AI, AIVA, which he taught to compose and play music.  He played one of its original compositions, a piece he had it create around the conference's theme of amazement, and I have to admit that to me--and I confess here to massive ignorance of classical music--it sounded pretty good.

Luhan Yang reviewed the research that let her team breed pigs free of a retrovirus (named, amazingly enough, PERV) that makes pig-to-human organ transplants unsafe.  With pigs free of PERV (what a story title!), one big hurdle to such transplants is gone. 

Simona Francese, an analytical chemist, discussed some amazing work in extracting data from the molecules on fingerprints using mass spectrometry.  We're talking CSI stuff here that is actually ahead of the TV shows (I think; I confess to not watching any of them in years). 

Singer-songwriter Luke Sital-Singh performed two sad songs and explained why he wrote only sad songs.  I enjoyed them and will look for his music.

The sessions concluded with rock climber Alex Honnold's story about free-climbing El Capitan.  I have zero desire to go rock climbing, but I still very much enjoyed his talk.

Dinner this evening took place right after the sessions ended.  We all headed out to local restaurants for one of TED's Jeffersonian dinners.  Ours focused on the topic of the future of spirituality.  The food was decent, and the discussion lively. 

Wow, am I tired, but I am also very glad that I get to come to TED.  It is a great privilege, and one I treasure.

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