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TED2008: What will tomorrow bring?

(Unedited running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California. Session nine)

Jim Marggraff gives a demo of the Livescribe smartpen, which looks like a big pen but has two microphones to record sound, a speaker to play it back, a small display and the capacity to capture handwritten notes and drawings in digital form. So it can record what you write and simultaneously it captures the surrounding sounds/voices. It requires a special paper with "buttons" and navigational tools. It can also be loaded with other features, like on-the-fly translation (click on a word in a language and the pen spells it out on the display and by voice in the other desired language), interactive books, and more.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the author of "The Black Swan", one of the most influential current books (first chapter available here). In it, he argues that it’s the random, unlikely and unexpected events ("black swans") that generally have the most extraordinary impacts on the future and our ability to model and decide what the future will be — and that our blindness with respect to this randomness has a price. Taleb — a former Wall Street trader — classifies numerous events as part of the "black swan" phenomenology, including the emergence of Google and the  9/11 attacks, Viagra and the Macintosh, the Beatles and Harry Potter.
"The law of large numbers tells you that when the number is very large, no single element can make a difference. That’s why if you take 1000 persons chosen randomly and add the heaviest person in the world, that person will represent only a tiny fraction of those 1001 people’s total weight.  But take 1000 persons randomly chosen, and add the richest person in the world: that person would represent almost all the wealth in that group of 1001. This is the difference between mediocristan (the former) where things fit neatly under a bell curve, and extremistan (the latter) where extreme phenomenons are dominant.
Why are we moving into extremistan. The information age will be dominated by winner-take-all effects. Take books: a few dozen of them represent half the sales. We have to have alot of respect for the unobserved. Experts often can’t predict because they miss on large deviations, that extreme outcomes and major discontinuities are so rare that we can almost ignore them.
I advocate the following: don’t disturb a complex system, don’t mess with it. Complex systems know about probability more than us. Consider WW2 or Irak: we don’t see the link between action and consequences. We don’t understand nature. This advocates conservatism.
Plato and Karl Marx tried to teach us to use our knowledge to make decision; and I’m trying to convince them to use our lack of knowledge — our ignorance and our awareness of it — to make decisions. We’re never gonna understand the world, or the climate: all we can is focus on our decision process and try not to mess with complex systems.

Chris Anderson — the editor of Wired magazine — has just published a must-read cover story on "Free", which is a sort of preview of his next book, about "Freeconomics". He talks 3 minutes about developing small, cheap (less than 100 USD) blimps, fitted with sensors, infrareds, etc, that can fly indoors."

Peter Schwartz is a specialist in drawing roadmaps of the future. He is
a co-founder of the Global Business Network think-tank. His last book,
"Inevitable Surprises", champions quick thinking and adaptability in a
world in flux.
"The future isn’t what it used to be. I’m amazed that many of the most prosperous, most successful people in the world have become pessimistic about the future. People have lost confidence. Why have we lost confidence in the future? The future is more uncertain. There are really 4 big questions for the future and if we find an answer we can have a better sense of the future:

  • War: Will there be a big world war involving US/China/islamic world/India/Russia? (Schwartz’s answer: war is unlikely, too much common interests among countries)
  • Prosperity: Will the global economic growth we have seen in the second half of the 20th century continue? (Yes, says Schwartz, but it’s the spread of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge productively that mattes, yet he makes his point by comparing Singapore and Nigeria, which of course aren’t really comparable)
  • Equity: Will the fruits of economic growth be relatively evenly spread? (Yes, he says, hundreds of millions of people are likely to climb out of poverty in the next 15 years in BRIC countries)
  • Environment: Will we be available to achieve growth in an ecologically sustainable manner? (Schwartz answers through Paul Ehrlich’s equation: environmental impact = population x affluence x technology (i=pxaxt). Population won’t double again, will reach 9 billion and plateau. Affluence is going to go up. So the real lever is technology; Craig Venter is the James Watt of our era, Stamets’ fungi in the previous session was very inspiring, we will see a transition to a bioindustrial era, there is a good chance that we will be able to make the world richer without destroying the environment).

Gregory Petsko is a professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University, gives a 3-minutes speech. Unless we do something, he says, over the next 20 years we are going to see an epidemics of neurologic diseases — because of population aging. Neurological diseases for which we don’t have  a cure yet (such as Alzheimers) already cost  half a trillion dollars, and that cost will improve rapidly.

In Western countries, few women die of cervical cancer: regular exams
catch it early. But in poorer countries, it’s one of the top causes of
cancer death for women. Harvard’s Sue Goldie applies decision science
and cost-benefit analysis to finding ways to model public health
scenarios and make decisions about where to best spend limited
resources
.
Consider three viruses of public health importance: HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and Human Papilloma Virus. HPV, which leads to cervical cancer, is the most common viral sexually-transmitted disease in the world. Fighting it has been a success in some countries in the world, and a failure in others, mostly poor. There are several alternatives: low-tech screening, high-tech screening, vaccine (which is the most expensive). What’s the optimal program? Her model for cervical cancer, which she describes in details, shows that a
simple exam done once in a patient’s lifetime would reduce the death
rate by a third. But the consequences of delaying access to cures will be enormous (million of deaths).

TEDster Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, gets 3 minutes to talk about plug-in hybrids. Electricity is cheaper, cleaner and domestic (BG: as long as it is produced from renewables). We can have plug-in hybrids today, with no new technology, just converting existing cars by adding a battery, that you can charge overnight from an ordinary socket, and if you want to go to the mountains you still have the fuel engine. The planet can’t wait for perfection.

Larry Burns of GM presents the self-driving Chevy SUV that has won
the Darpa Urban Challenge last year (see this previous post or the
Wikipedia page). He shows a video of the car, and it’s really impressive. It’s on display at TED:

Ted08gmdarpa

Walter Isaacson, the director of the Aspen Institute, has written a few magistral biographies of great men: Benjamin Franklin and, more recently, Albert Einstein. He’s speaking from TED@Aspen, which the Institute is hosting in its Doerr-Hosier Center.
What could the future hold for the art of narration? Narration is about making sense of the world, connecting the dots. In the past 15 years narrative has been dismissed, as in "imposing a narrative on events". But those of us that believe in narrative think that we are weaving a narrative. It works not only in novels and fiction, but in all sectors of life. One of the salient characteristics of most narratives is that they tend to be chronological. In fact, perhaps the greatest of all narratives begans with the most simple three words, "In the beginning" (Bible). So they tend to be linear. Now that we are entering a digital — interactive, hypertextual, collaborative — age, how do we preserve the beauty of narrative? A long time ago, narrative was interactive and collaborative storytelling process, and over the years and decades the story evolved, and that applies to most great narratives of the ancient times (the Song of Roland) to plays (the interplay between actors and public at the Globe theatre), etc. Then something happens, the invention of the printing press, and that makes narrative less collaborative, less iterative, less interactive process. It makes narrative more carved in stone (or written on paper). So this notion of a broadcast-type phenomenon, where we have a centralized production of a narrative that goes out to a mass audience, begins with the invention of the printed press. The same with movies, with broadcast television. With the digital age, can we restore the great qualities of narrative of time past? So far, alot of what we have done is old wine poured  into old bottles. As wonderful as YouTube can be is still people producing videos and finding a new distribution channel. Likewise most websites. We haven’t really changed the essence of what narrative can be in the digital age. Where do we see glimmers of the new narrative? In the wiki phenomenon, where people collaborate. My next book will be an experiment in this, not only a multimedia product but also which allows people to add their own thoughts and informations, an always-evolving book. No idea what the business model will be, but that’s probably how the Iliad and the Odyssey were written.

Comedian Zé Frank closes the session with a hilarious standup routine.