Wednesday, April 17, 2019

TED 2019 – Day 2

View from my hotel room of sunrise over the harbor
It was a typical gray, cool, spring Vancouver day with a constant threat of rain, but little actual rain. Even in that weather, the city’s location on the water made it quite beautiful. Today’s sessions felt about the same—mostly good, but with enough greatness to make the day a good one.

The first session consisted of five talks or interviews entitled Power. As with most of the session titles, this one only loosely applied to some of the talks. This was ultimately a disappointing session because most of the talks revealed little new information and sometimes left me shaking my head in disagreementRafael Casal is writer, producer, and actor. His talk, which he read from a book, on how he led a protest about a prominent African-American actor's removal from a Broadway play after only a couple weeks. Casal was proud of the "online riot" he caused. The play shut down, but now there are more actors of color in leading productions so he felt it was worth it. Given the vitriol on the Internet, I'm a little more skeptical that this was the best way to bring about those ends. 

Chris Anderson interviewed Jack Dorsey, the founder and CEO of Twitter. Dorsey gave long, thoughtful answers about how Twitter is dealing with hate speech, election interference, and the general future of social media that ultimately answered nothing. I didn't feel like Dorsey was being evasive, but his answers were basically, "We're aware of the problems, they are difficult, and we are carefully planning to put in place mechanisms to deal with them some day." Anderson countered with a dream he claimed to have had where Dorsey was the captain of the Titanic heading toward an iceberg with everyone yelling about the iceberg ahead. Dorsey's response in the dream was that he was aware of the problem, trying to figure out solutions, and would deal with the problem soon. A very apropos dream!  

Adena Friedman, CEO of NASDAQ gave a weak attempt at defending capitalism. Sadly, the talk was more about markets than strict capitalism. I wish someone else would have spoken in her place to make a better defense. Peter Beck told about his company's, Rocket Lab’s, success at and future direction of building small rockets that operate with a new generation of very small payloads. Think the size of coin rather than a bus. Very cool. 

Julius Maada Bio spoke compellingly about his attempts to lead Sierra Leone in its attempt to drag itself up out of poverty. The country has been devastated by decades of corruption and its education is so bad that three out of five adults cannot read. He told of his military coup in 1996, giving leadership to a democratically elected leader, and then getting elected as president in 2018. His progress in the last year sounded very positive. However, I ended up wondering whether he was really making the progress against corruption that he claimed, but if he is, then there may be hope for his country. 

David Deutsch speaking via a remote presence robot
The second session was six presentations under the title of Knowledge. It was generally a good session. The first speaker was David Deutsch. He spoke from a wheeled remote presence robot. Deutsch quoted from Ecclesiastes 1:9 where the writer, Qoheleth, said “there is nothing new under the sun”. Deutsch took that to mean that things did not change in the writer's time, there was no innovation, no novelty. (I disagree with his interpretation as I think Koeleth was talking about human behavior, which still hasn't changed, rather than the lack of technical innovation.) Deutsch views life when that passage was written as just suffering, so people explained things in terms of warring cosmic forces. He argued that today science is not much better as it sees things as a conflict between order and chaos that (via the second law of thermodynamics) chaos will ultimately win. He instead sees innovation and novelty, and thus humans, as making us not the playthings of cosmic forces, but rather the users of them. The talk was interesting, but one I'll need to listen to again. 

The middle of the session consisted of three interesting talks. David Liu described his work with altering DNA using base editing rather than CRISPR. CRISPR can change sequences of DNA, but not individual DNA base pairs. His process can and should be useful for single base-pair differences and could be used for diseases caused by that like sickle cell and cystic fibrosis. They have success with on testing with animals, but have not progressed to human trials yet. Brittany Packnett spoke from her experience as a teacher on the importance of confidence and that imparting knowledge is not enough. Roger Hanlon showed amazing videos of cephalopods (think the octopus in Finding Dory) and their camouflage.

The next to last "talk" was a performance by a mentalist, Derren Brown. He had people write questions, put them in a sealed envelopes, and put their initials and where they were sitting on the outside. He then asked one such woman a few questions and correctly figured out that she was asking whether she would be able to sell her farm in Virginia. Another guy he told had asked about the broken big toe in his left foot. He did more and was really good. I have no idea how he did it. Quite simply, it was amazing. 

On the stage and the right screen is Doug Roble
wearing his capture rig and on the right the
computer generated version of him
The next presentation was actually even more amazing. Doug Roble demonstrated his team's creation, a simultaneous capture and computer generated image of himself. The image was sometimes close up and sometimes full-body. Its lips moved as he spoke and it walked and gesticulated as he did. The picture on the right gives some sense of how it looked. Roble described how they digitized him to create a very accurate 3D model of himself. That included not just his physical characteristics, but every possible facial expression under varying light conditions. The technology is similar to how movies use motion capture and 3D models to create all sorts of digital characters. The big deal here is that it was happening in real time. There was actually a one-sixth of a second delay, but it was difficult to detect. 

In the middle of his talk, they switched the 3D model so that the computer generated version of him looked like some sort of gnome from a fantasy movie. The lips still move properly as did its body. Though it looked like nothing you'd ever encounter in life, it looked real. The most surprising thing to me was that though neither of the models looked perfect, they were both on the other side of the "uncanny valley" where many 3D models look creepy because they are not quite right. 

Former Google employee on working for US government
After lunch, was a session called TED Unplugged. It consisted of TED attendees giving 6-minute talks on topics they cared about. Speakers included a wide variety of topics such as an astronaut on being in space, a former Google employee on his experiences trying to computerize government paper-based systems, and a magic card act. The talks were enjoyable, but none was truly great or inspiring. 

The final session of the day was where they unveiled the winning Audacious Projects. From over 1,500 applications, they chose eight projects that they felt were far enough along and had a good enough chance at succeeding, if they had enough money to do so. The projects all sounded compelling, though some resonated more with me than others. As Anderson said, some were dangerously inspiring. 

Phillip Atiba Goff on using a data-based
approach to reducing police violence
The first project was Phillip Atiba Goff's efforts through the Center for Policing Equity to attack police violence. Like others have done, he described the problems of police violence, especially against people of color. His organization has a solution. They use data from police departments to help them identify exactly where their biggest problems are so they can tackle them. He told of their experiences with the police force in Minneapolis. By helping them see that their biggest problems were because of homelessness, they were able to come up with solutions. After one year, there was a 46% reduction in police violence. His goal is to scale the program up to work in many more cities. 

Other projects included the Ellen Agler and the End Fund looking to reduce the rampant problem of intestinal worms in Africa, Claudia Minor and Upstart trying to dramatically increase preschool education in America through an at-home solution, David Baker's work to design custom proteins to address a myriad of problems, Safeena Husain and Educate Girls looking to decrease by over 1M the number of girls in India not being educated, and the Nature Conservency's efforts to help island nations combat the decline of the ocean ecosystems around them.

Joanne Chory on modifying plants to consume more CO2
Joanne Chory with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a plant geneticist. Her idea is to create plants that gather more carbon than normal and sequester it. They have been modifying plants to make more subarin that contains lots of carbon and doesn't readily decay. Subarin grows in the roots that they plan to make bigger and deeper than in unmodified plants. They want to add the necessary DNA to crops like corn and wheat without lowering the yields. Doing so would capture carbon across the world while enriching the soil. 

Julie Cordua of Thorn told about the heart wrenching scourge of child pornography (sexual abuse) and the effect on those children. Her idea is to create the necessary automated tools, databases, and communications channels for law enforcement agencies, governments, and service providers (Facebook, Google, Youtube, etc.) to remove the content, identify the people creating it, and rescue the affected children. 

The total price tag for all of these projects was over $500M. At the end of the session, they revealed that half of that money was already pledged via donations during the session and ones gathered before the announcement by large donors and foundations. Check out the Audacious Project for more information on all of these projects. 

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