News

TEDGlobal 2012 Fellows Talks: A recap of Session 1

Posted by: Karen Eng

Usman Riaz, TEDGlobal Fellows talk
Photo: Ryan Lash

At the Lyceum Theatre today, the TEDGlobal 2012 Fellows brought audiences to their feet with two sessions of astonishing and moving talks before TEDGlobal 2012 mainstage sessions began. Here’s the rundown:

Usman Riaz, musician & artist
Usman plays guitar like an introverted genius alien from another planet who landed here, happened to pick up a guitar, and proceeded to make all the sounds its human inventors never even considered. Ringing, percussive, thoughtful, sinuous and impassioned, his performance pulls the audience along as his fingers dance across the strings.

Catarina Mota, open-source advocate and researcher
Catarina thinks we should be allowed to tamper with our personal stuff. Yet we’re discouraged from peeking under the hood of many of the things we use daily, like mobile phones. But now, open source hardware is changing everything. It’s not just a cool idea to design and share the plans for, say, a bicycle, which can be modified or personalized or upgraded. Open source is a solid business alternative, but more importantly, it can save lives. In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the shortage of radiation detectors was addressed by open source community led by makers in Japan, China and Singapore, which responded by joining efforts to make many civilian-grade radiation detectors available. The devices can be made locally when needed, and the plans are available online.

Max Little, applied mathematician
Max is developing a way to detect Parkinson’s disease by analyzing the human voice, which is affected by the disease, though the effects can be subtle. Using any digital microphone, precision voice analysis software, and the latest in machine learning, researchers can now take measurements of someone’s voice patterns and tell with 99 percent accuracy whether or not the donor has the disease. Max has just announced the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative, which asks the public to call in to contribute voice samples. The project aims to gather enough data to help identify the disease at early stages, develop a way to monitor patients over the phone, and accelerate the search for a cure.

Kristen Marhaver, coral reef biologist
Kristen tells the story of a living creature looking for a place to live, a creature we don’t think much about until it appears solid as a rock before us – coral. Showing beautiful images of corals with mouths and tentacles, or as poppy seed–sized eggs launching into the ocean, Kristen explains that young coral are amazingly sophisticated when seeking habitat –where they may end up living for 500 years –sensing light and sound, and tasting surfaces to determine the safest place to stay, a very complex decision that has to be made in a very short amount of time. Meanwhile, humans are making it harder and harder, with dredging, overfishing and pollution for corals to find a place to land. The good news, says Kristen, is that corals are more adaptable and resilient than once thought. The more we learn about them, the easier it is to help them, keeping this precious and beautiful resource safe for the future.

Eric Berlow, complexity scientist
Like it or not, we are data, says Eric. Everything we do online is tracked, generating vast quantities of data that we don’t control, yet it can be used for good or ill. How can we avoid being harmed and instead benefit from this data? To help understand and address this massive problem, he enlisted the help of Fellows and tech luminaries to start breaking down and mapping the many facets of this massive and massively complex problem, an undertaking called the Vibrant Data Project. First they interviewed a community of experts to identify the biggest challenges to democratizing data. Meanwhile, Fellow David Gurman at BrainVise developed an online tool that let a community vote on how these challenges are related. Eric shows a graphic representation of what they’ve mapped so far – a tangle of nodes and links he calls a “hairball – but a hairball with structure.” The project is still crowdsourcing input; meanwhile it has defined the problems to be solved, and has mobilized a community to solve them.

Bel Pesce, entrepreneur + innovator
Bel grew up in a loving family – so loving they expected her to grow up and live with them forever. But her irrepressible passion for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible (like simply showing up for an unscheduled interview for a university in a different country, or insisting on taking the SATs even though she’d never heard of the test) as well as her drive to innovate sent her on a breakneck journey that catapulted her to MIT, Google, Microsoft and finally Silicon Valley, where she became the founder of a tech startup, Lemon. If that’s not enough, she also decided to write an ebook about her experiences which – to her utter shock, was downloaded by more than half a million people in a month.

Juliette LaMontagne, education + innovation consultant
Senior Fellow and educator Juliette quotes Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The irony, she says, is that most of the education is dedicated to filling the pail. She tells the story of how, as a frustrated a teacher who sought an education system that valued curiosity, intrinsic motivation, collaboration and resourcefulness, she gave up looking for it and invented one herself. Her project, Breaker, is a design-led entrepreneurship program that chooses a small, passionate group of young people with various disciplinary backgrounds, poses a pro-social challenge – such as urban farming to feed cities or increasing literacy – and then gives them access to the vision, resources, and creative and business guidance, making space for the group to innovate an entrepreneurial solution – giving them such skills as agility and creative problem-solving, all while building their own ventures.

Salvatore Ianconesi, open-source engineer + artist
Human beings are inherently creative, says Salvatore. With the advent of social networks, we’re collectively generating all sorts of ideas about water, health, ending wars – or even starting new ones. How can we get these ideas to flow more smoothly, continuously, from one side of the globe to the other, creating usable knowledge for people across the planet? Salvatore works to harvest information, process it, and make useful apps from it. Case in point: he introduces an application he’s developed that uses data being generated on social networks, showing where people were reporting violence during a riot in Rome. By holding out a smart phone, users could scan the area and get a red-light/green-light guide out of danger – “90,000 people telling you this is a safe way out.” The technology can also be used to help develop cities. Simple interfaces can produce important results, he says – an elegant call to collaborative creativity.

Andrew Nemr, tap dancer
With a casual, almost nonchalant fluidity, Lebanese-American dancer Andrew tells – rather, taps the story of his life-changing moment: dancing on a New York City jazz club stage at the age of 12 with the encouragement of the legendary Jimmy Slyde. “Just dance from your heart,” said Slyde, punctuating every phrase with a frenzy of footwork. So he did – and hasn’t stopped since. The founder of tap dance company Cats Paying Dues/CPD PLUS and co-founder with Gregory Hines of the Tap Legacy Foundation, Andrew dances to “share the joy I’ve found in life through grace.”

Alexander McLean, African prison activist
Growing up in London wanting to be a barrister, Alexander was intrigued by the fact that “one person’s words could affect another’s liberty.” Living in Uganda for a year, he cared and advocated for abandoned people in hospitals – many of them prisoners – who were dying of AIDS and tuberculosis. Noticing that many were dying from starvation or dehydration, he began visiting desperately overcrowded prisons to investigate. What he found horrified him: inmates – men, women, and children who’d been imprisoned for years, many without trial, without evidence against them, or on trumped up charges. He discovered women imprisoned with their small children, and who were imprisoned for crimes committed by their husbands. The experience inspired him to established the African Prisons Project while in university. The organisation offers healthcare, education, access to justice services and help with transition back into the community. “If it’s true that we’re citizens of a global community,” he says, “and we judge society by how it treats its prisioners, how would we want our children to judge us?”

Ed Ou, photojournalist
Ed is a young photojournalist who found himself documenting young Egyptian activists organising protests, calling for the downfall of a dictator. Even as he forged close personal relationships with his subjects, his photos of them were published in such papers as the New York Times. Despite his role as a documenter, he came to fear for their safety, understand and identify with their grievances, and be moved by the courage they showed, risking their lives to challenge those in power. In short, he recognized these were his peers, whose struggles as young people mirrored his own, and those of all the world’s youth. “This is not just the story of a revolution, but the story of a generation – one that’s now bound up in protest that we’ve now seen all over the world,” he says, calling for all of us to take responsibility to not take freedoms for granted while so many are fighting for theirs.

Candy Chang, designer + urban planner
Candy is in love with her home city, New Orleans, and curious about its many neglected and abandoned spaces, as well as about her neighbors – their lives, hopes and dreams. To start the conversation, she turned the side of a derelict house into a giant chalk board, creating a fill-in-the-blank that said “Before I Die____”. By the next day the wall was completely filled out with wishes and aspirations by turns wistful, funny, and moving. “Before I die, I want to be tried for piracy.” “Before I die I want straddle the international date line.” “Before I die I want to hold her one more time.” “Before I die, I want to be completely myself.” The once-ignored building made space for reflection and contemplation, giving voice to a place and its people and helping them remember what matters.