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TED Fellows Talks: Report from TED2013

Posted by: Karen Eng
Jane Chen gives an update on her mission to make affordable infant incubators, during TED Fellows session 1 of TED2013.

Jane Chen gives an update on her mission to make affordable infant incubators, during TED Fellows session 1 of TED2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

Packed house, check. Excited buzz, check. It’s time for TED2013 Fellows talks!

Session 1
Tunde Jegede, composer
Nigerian-British composer and musician Tunde Jegede opens the session with his kora, the West African 21-string bridge harp. Sitting curled around the instrument, his fingers deftly pluck the strings, making a sound like rain dancing on water.

Ryan Holladay, musical artist
Ryan Holladay uses technology to dream up new ways to interact with and experience music in everyday life. Using location-aware mobile apps, he and his brother Hays augment landscapes with music, creating compositions that unfold as listeners move around in space. In a piece created for the National Mall in Washington, DC, people traverse the park with headphones on as a musical score unfolds, creating a journey of sound based on their own chosen trajectory — a choose-our-own-adventure aural experience that includes the sounds of instruments warming up, violins and a choir, an array of distinct melodies that fit together. The landscape and architecture are intrinsic to the listening experience, says Ryan; you have to be there. Next project: a musical project for the entire length of Highway 1 in California.

Louisa Preston, astrobiologist
Lousia Preston looks for aliens on Earth, hoping someday to find life on Mars. Earth is a lush, watery oasis compared to Mars, a dry, cold, high-UV and oxygen-free planet. Only extremophiles – life forms that thrive on such harsh conditions – could live there. But Mars once had water, too, presenting the possibility of past and present life. Louisa looks for analogues on Earth for Martian environments. Surprisingly, there are hundreds. Some iron-rich riverbeds, such as the Rio Tinto in southwestern Spain, provide habitat for both living and fossil acidophiles. Earth’s volcanoes – perfect analogues to Martian ones – harbor living thermophiles and fossil tubules. Impact craters from asteroids provide a habitat for such microbes as cyanobacteria. But the most Mars-like place on Earth is Antarctica, home to such creatures as tardigrades and cryptoendotiths. What are the chances we’ll find life on Mars, she asks? It’s predicted there are 17 billion Earthlike planets in the Milky Way alone, so they’re pretty good. Mars is simply the first step.

Video:
Short animated films by Safwat Saleem from his new project, Pardon Me, but WTF?, wherein s
tories or observations that can best be described as BS submitted by others are animated or illustrated by Safwat. 

David Lang, maker + writer
A few years ago, David Lang’s desire to pursue lost treasure in an underwater cave in the foothills of the Sierras inspired him and a friend to develop an affordable remote-controlled underwater robot. Using the internet as a resource, he published his vision on a website to share his intentions and plans, and slowly began to attract feedback from makers, hobbyists and ocean engineers. With the help and contributions of an enthusiastic online community, he developed an open-source, underwater ROV that anyone can build with mostly off-the-shelf parts, opening up the possibility of underwater exploration for all. “We never found gold,” he says, “but the long-term potential is the network of DIY ocean explorers. What might we find with thousands of these devices at the bottom of the sea?”

Eddie Huang, writer, host + chef 
Striding out onto the stage to Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothin,” Taiwanese-American Eddie Huang declares, “I’ve never had a home. I went to Taiwan and they considered me Chinese, and in China they consider me Taiwanese. In America, where I live, they consider me Korean.” Cue a photo of Kim Jong Il. His journey has been one of learning how to be himself, noticing early on that the exotic food packed for his school lunches marked him out as “other.” Recounting his first encounter with racism via a bully at school, his response was to fight back – and in the process close himself off completely to the dominant culture. Then, on a trip to Taiwan, he saw thousands of Taiwanese people “in cubicles, rollerblades, hot springs, Uggs” – and realized that living reactively only served to cut him off to a whole world of experience. Huang ultimately found cultural cohesion through food. He is the founder and head chef of Baohaus, a joint on New York’s Lower East Side which serves up Taiwanese-style street food, as well as the author of memoir Fresh Off the Boat and host of a food show of the same name on VICE.

Kibwe Tavares, architect + animator
Kibwe started drawing and animating robots and jetpacks at 15 – and went on to study architecture, using 3D animation to design and model spaces. While attending the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, he revisited his early love for telling stories, learning techniques and skills over the internet, and finding a community of like-minded people online who gave him the tools he needed. His short film Robots of Brixton, a retelling of the 1981 London Brixton riots, is visually startling, with futuristic figures moving through highly detailed, disintegrating urban landscapes. The film went viral on the internet and won a special jury prize at Sundance, leading to a commission by Film4 and the British Film Institute, Jonah, which combines more live action and 3D animated effects.

Baile Zhang, electrical engineer
There are two ways to see an object, says Baile Zhang. One is by reflection, and another way is by the shadow it casts. So can we make an object invisible by removing its shadow? True invisibility cannot be achieved unless we can recover the shadow as though the object were not there. How? Bend the light around the object like a stream around stone. Zhang has used the light-bending qualities of calcite, a cheap and abundant mineral, a form of calcium carbonate, to create the world’s first macroscopic invisibility cloak. He demonstrates onstage placing a piece of calcite over a rolled-up Post-it note submerged in oil, making the pink tube appear to disappear. The research has many possible applications, including imaging, communication and defense.

Renée Hlozek, cosmologist
Cosmologist Renée Hlozek works to understand what the universe is made of, what its initial conditions were, and how it’s changing with time. Using data gathered from the Atacama Cosmology telescope in Chile, which measures the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation with unprecedented accuracy, she examines tiny fluctuations in temperature in the universe to map the journey of photons, tracing the incredible journey they have taken to get to us. Mapping the temperature fluctuations of the CMB radiation onto an imaginary sphere outside of the Earth, we can see what the early universe was like: places that were a little bit more dense act like a sink for radiation and appear a bit cooler; places that are less dense appear a little bit hotter. These tiny fluctuations eventually grew to be all the stars and galaxies we see today.

Mohammad Herzallah, neuroscientist
The situation in Palestine is extremely complex, but almost everyone focuses entirely on politics, ignoring the region’s most precious resource – its people. And they are at risk: Palestine has an extremely high prevalence of clinical depression. A staggering 40 percent of the population of the West Bank — about 1,060,000 Palestinians — suffer from depression, 65 percent of them under the age of 24. What stands in the way of treatment? Social stigma, few doctors, little biomedical research and, ironically, brain drain. But there’s an upside: Palestine has a young, genetically uniform unmedicated population – a boon for biomedical research. Mohammad’s Palestinian Neuroscience Institute at Al-Quds University is building infrastructure for such research that also integrates training, patient education and care, promoting brain health and brain power in Palestine. The PNI has already led to globally significant research and discoveries – such as the effects of antidepressants on memory.

TED Fellows Hero – Taghi Amirani
In the midst of the proceedings, Tom Reilly announces that for the first time, the Fellows program would honor a Fellow – recognizing service to the wider TED Fellows community. “This person has gone above and beyond in writing, participating, a certain amount of kvetching, convening Fellows retreats, offering their apartment and taking them out for the best Persian food in the world,” said Tom. “They offer the yarn that knits the community together.” Watch for an interview with Taghi Amirani, filmmaker and provocateur, later on this morning.

Christine Sun Kim, sound artist + composer
Deaf from birth, Christine Sun Kim grew accustomed to ignoring the politics and etiquette of sound because she didn’t have access to it herself. For years, she struggled to find her own voice as an artist, and ironically,  found it in sound. Using todays’ advanced technology, she investigates and rationalises her relationship with sound and spoken languages on her own terms. Her experiments have including making seismic calligraphy – speakers she controls knock loaded paintbrushes off the surface onto paper. She’s also “listened” to feedback for hours with her body, which resulted in extreme physical reactions – anxiety, insomnia, physical dementia – which she translated into a graphic score titled Feedback Aftermath. As to silence, she asks, “With no access to sound, what can I equate to silence? Maybe it doesn’t exist in my book.”

Jane Chen, infant health entrepreneur
When Jane Chen started out on her path developing affordable infant incubators, she was sometimes asked whether high infant mortality rates in developing nations – a phenomenon so common that it is often used as an indicator – meant that mothers simply accepted it as a part of life. What she found, of course, was that each loss is no less a profound tragedy. Three million babies around the world die a year – six infants every minute – partly due to lack of affordable life-saving technology. Her low-cost, reusable Embrace warmers, a simple pouch with a waxlike substance that melts to a constant temperature for up to 8 hours, are now being distributed to medical personnel as well as mothers to help save the lives of thousands of premature infants. But it’s the mothers, she notes – the ones who are most deeply invested – who use them the most effectively.

Negin Farsad, comedian + filmmaker
Negin Farsad wants to make white people laugh. It’s the best way to deal with the problem of racism, she says. But why white people? Only because they control government, politics, outer space – and TED talks. She offers three guidelines to making white people laugh: #1: Change the stereotype. If you’re from Belgium, you’re associated with waffles, if you’re from Brazil, with big-breasted women wearing and selling fruit. If you’re from Iran, you’re associated with … uranium. So she wrote a show called Bootleg Islam that conflates Iran with eggplants. Because everyone knows Iranians love eggplants. #2: Don’t be afraid to talk about politics. Her PG-13 rated animation, “Israeli Palestinian conflict: A romantic comedy,” depicts Israel and Palestine hooking up in a one-night stand. #3: Get up in people’s faces, but in a delightful way, and #4: Get some nonthreatening allies – i.e., white people. “As long as we keep white people happy they’re less likely to start wars,” she says.

Video:
A brief animation from artist and TED Senior Fellow Colleen Flanigan depicts sea creatures suddenly drawn to a Greek temple-shaped structure as it’s plugged in. Colleen designs coral habitats with Biorock technology, which uses metal and electricity to draw hard minerals to form a coral-friendly substrate.

Asha de Vos, blue whale researcher
Asha researches an unusual population of blue whales who stay in the warm waters of Sri Lanka to feed, rather than migrating as blue whales normally do. Why do they do it? Is there really enough food? She set out to answer these questions, and offers the results for the first time today. It turns out the south coast of Sri Lanka is teeming with krill, which is the blue whales’ exclusive diet. Unfortunately, this fertile strip also happens to be a busy shipping lane, and whales are often injured or killed. The next phase of her research will be to reduce whale death by ship strike: she plans to use science to measure where the overlap is, work with shipping companies to move the lanes, and launch a public campaign to mobilize public support, so that humanity can marvel at whales in their own natural habitat. Asha recently completed a TED-Ed lesson, which she unveiled from the Fellows stage. And was gifted with an adorable puppet of herself.

Alicia Eggert, interdisciplinary artist
Alica Eggert is preoccupied with time. Her sculptures of clocks and neon lights often call our attention to what’s happening now, while incorporating words as objects and physical forms. Signs installed on the sides of buildings that say “now” and “then” physically divide time and space, delineating past from present or present from future, depending how one approaches. But now isn’t static, she says. It’s dynamic. One kinetic sculpture shapes the word NOW over again, but, like the present moment, never comes to a complete stop. One moment is continuously being replaced by another. In “Eternity,” clocks wired to hands materialize the word out of the chaotic movement of lines once every 12 hours. “Wonder,” a kinetic wall-mounted piece that at first appears like a constellation in the night sky, responds to viewers’ movements in front of it by sometimes moving to spell out the word itself. Wonder is both a noun and a verb: Alicia’s work encourages people to play and discover the unexpected about themselves or the world around them.

cool-glasses

Cyrus Kabiru, a found object artist, shares his amazing sunglasses at the TED Fellows session 2. Photo: Ryan Lash

Meklit Hadero, singer + songwriter
In session two, audience was greeted by a sensual and elegant performance by TED Fellow Meklit Hadero and bassist Miles Jay. The Ethiopian-American songwriter, musician and cultural instigator uses music as a platform for bridging cultural boundaries and borders. Today, she performs “Outside of Time.”

Jinha Lee, inventor + interaction researcher
Throughout the history of computers, we’ve shortened the gap between us and digital information. At the moment, we have the digital at our fingertips. But what if there were no boundary at all? Jinha Lee’s experiments with digital interaction started by creating a tool that penetrates into digital space, translating pressure into pixels so that designers could draw directly in 3D. Next, he explored how to manipulate digital information using the dexterity of our hands. Using advanced technologies such as transparent displays and objects digitized in space to record and transmit movement, he devises ways to let us reach out and manipulate pixels with our bare hands. As we increase physical contact with the digital world, he predicts that soon, we’ll be able to enter the digital realm and start acting upon our own physical world — until the only boundary left is our imagination.

Miriah Meyer, science visualization designer
Miraih Meyer’s thoughtful visualisations help scientists untangle complex concepts – like comparing the human genome with that of a lizard. She works in partnership with scientists to create visualisation tools that could make clear the relationships between datasets, building intuition out of the information contained in it. But it’s not just about making pretty infographics. In one collaboration with genomic researcher Manfred Grabherr, her visualisation allowed him to see how noisy his data was – a problem that had been obscured by previous, off-the-shelf visualisation methods. He revised his theory entirely. Designing visuals for scientists is about getting a deep understanding of their problems, questions and mental models, says Miriah. When treated as a deep investigation into sense-making, visualisations can move beyond helping scientists to influencing them.

Video:
A short film featuring Le Chal, shoes that are guided by GPS and Googlemaps via Bluetooth, being developed for use by the visually impaired by TED Senior Fellow Anthony Vipin Das. 

Alanna Shaikh, global development expert
Alanna Shaikh pulls the veil off a few things we don’t know – or choose not to look at – around international development. Fact 1: We don’t know what it is. The number of definitions out there for international development are huge and varied, from reduction of poverty and achieving Millennium Development Goals to the ’60s, idealistic vision of liberating people based on structural transformation. Fact 2: It’s about more than aid. Reforming protectionism trade policies in the wealthy world, allowing more immigration into wealthy countries, and slowing climate change would all benefit poor people. Fact 3: The developing world is subsiding to the developed world: corrupt officials hide their money in international banks, and money is paid out of the developing world to the developed world for massive infrastructure, such as a mosque built in Turkmenistan by a French contracting company. International developing is surprisingly personal, says Alana, and you have to define for yourself what it means. For her, it’s about a fairer future for all our children, no matter where in the world they are growing up.

Paul Wicks, medical architect
Medicine is pretty good at measuring the physical parameters of some diseases: heart disease, HIV. But how do you take the measure of autism, depression, ALS, and Parkinson’s? Diseases like MS skirt the boundary: it can be seen via scanner in the human body, but this doesn’t always match what the patient experiences from day to day. His startup, PatientsLikeMe, is a free platform that gives patients the tools to track their own diseases. They can also share with a community of fellow patients, contributing to their own care while generating valuable data – from frequency of symptoms to responses to medication. These tools can help measure the disease and even predict its progress over time. Paul announces that in 2013, PLM will be building the world’s first open-source  platform for the development of patient-centered health outcome measures, supported by funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Every tool developed using this platform will be made free to everyone – a step towards consigning diseases to the history books.

Antonio Torres, architect + naturalist
Waterbed gardens with grass rippling underfoot, ice fortresses that look like melted popsicles, pavilions made of giant balloons. Antonio Torres challenges what it means to build, experimenting with membranes filled with living biological matter, gases and liquids as architectural building blocks. Textured, colourful, playful and fantastical, his work invites full-bodied contact with the outdoors. Grounded treehouse pods invite you to crawl in and lie down in the softness. Giant sausages stuffed with wood chips create outdoor seating, and later sprout mushrooms. Pressurised membrane structures respond to temperature, environment, and touch. Above all, this architecture is designed to be played with. What next? For the future, he envisions gelatinous floating ecological reefs, allowing marine habitats to drift freely through water.

Ben Burke, writer, performer + designer
Puppeteer, junkyard tinkerer, showman and poet Bed Burke makes a life and an art out of winging it. He’s made kinetic sculpture from junk: magical, mechanized and resembling fantastical Victorian inventions. He’s sprouted a theatre company from a gathering of friends reading poetry – an assembly of performers cobbled together with characters developed from real-life personalities. “Too busy to memorize lines? You get to play a mute.” He’s sculpted trash into boats, which serve both as floating art and as a stage for performance, and motored them up the Hudson River, or across the Adriatic to Venice. His point? “We spend a lot of time trying to get things we think we want, then throw them away for something else – a terrible story. Working with what we’ve got is a path to something you’ll love and keep, and that at least gives you a better story. And a story is all we ever get in the end.”

Eric Berlow & Sean Gourley, ecological networks scientist, military physicist
Eric and Sean together explored the TEDx ecosystem, scraping 24,000 talks, their transcripts and associated data off YouTube to analyze the ways the key concepts connect and relate to each other – a complex representation of a vibrant global conversation. Working with this data, they generated 3D visualisations showing an architecture of networks which can be manipulated and examined from many angles, from the complexity of interconnectivity within themes, sub themes, and disciplines to the all-time most-watched topics – gratitude, nutrition and, of course, porn – and how the topics fare over time. The network structure can also be used to find talks that may otherwise be overlooked, like those that creatively bridge disparate fields. It works well with TEDx talks, but demonstrates that networks are the cartography that allow us to navigate the landscape of ideas.

Shivani Siroya, mobile finance entrepreneur
Many of us take our credit score – and the purchasing power it gives us – entirely for granted, but there are 4.5 billion people in the world who lack a financial identity. Shivani Siroya created a solution, InSight, a mobile-phone based technology allowing unbanked consumers to build a credit score out of the details of daily life and their spending habits. Using voice and SMS technology on a simple cell phone, users can input food, transport, medicine and inventory expenses to be run through an algorithm that generates an accurate score, acceptable by participating commercial banks. Small-business owners who could only previously operate in cash can buy in bulk inventory, keep track of income and expenses, and reinvest in and grow their own businesses. InSight has backtested scores against real repayment data and is 98% accurate. With something as simple as a credit score, InSight gives people access to formal markets, and has the potential to empower billions.

Tunde Jegede, composer
Born to a Nigerian father and Irish mother, Tunde Jegede had to learn to balance cultures and carve out an identity from an early age. Music was his refuge. Leaving England as a child, Tunde traveled to Africa to train with master of kora Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, whose family has held the ancient griot tradition since the 13th century. Here, Tunde found a sense of home and belonging, a place “where my inner and outer voice began to merge.” He was shown that music is a way of life, an integral part of society. In parallel to studying kora, Tunde also studied cello in the Western classical tradition, but played these instruments in isolation from each other. Only later, after a quest for a universal truth in music that took him through improvisational jazz and musical collaboration, did he finally find the space that allowed him to weave together all his musical threads. He says, “Living between worlds allowed me to form my identity, embrace my path of a nomad.”

Cyrus Kabiru, found object artist
Cyrus Kabiru sees the world through glasses fashioned from what others discard. The self-taught painter and sculptor makes pieces from found objects and trash collected from the streets of Nairobi – his life-size sculptures of street musicians are made from 20,000 to 60,000 bottle caps each. His spectacles – C-Stunners – are surreal, whimsical, wearable sculpture crafted from scrap metal, wire, stone and other found objects. “Elephant” made of stone and metal, calls attention to the problem of poaching, while the Dictator series includes “Mugabe” – a pair of spectacles that resemble bullet holes through glass.

Safwat Saleem, graphic designer and satirist
Safwat has always struggled with his ability to deal with bullshit – it’s everywhere. Outraged by rampant Islamophobia and Arizona’s SB1070 anti-illegal immigration law, he began making satirical art in order to stay sane. His series of posters, A Bunch of Crock, call out absurd biases and injustice in a colourfully retro, deeply irreverent and cathartic way. When his work began to take off on the internet, he realised that it resonated with people because they, too, clearly needed this form of catharsis. In response, he’s taking his work a step further, soliciting submissions from the around the world at pardonmebutwtf.com to make work from what other people think is bullshit. He has already received some sobering stories, teaching him that “Life can be difficult, full of challenges. But a little bit of creativity and humour can help us get through.” The end slide: a poster that says “If you don’t like this talk, you’re racist.”

Myshkin Ingawale, medical device innovator
At TED2012, Myshkin Ingawale’s TouchB noninvasive anemia detector made waves. His latest idea takes his goal of democratising medicine even further – a smartphone app for urinalysis. “We all have two things,” he quips. “Cell phones, and urine. There must be something going on here.” In fact, he says, urine can tell a lot about health, but gets second-grade treatment to blood. Taking advantage of urinalysis dipsticks, which have been around for decades, are inexpensive and readily available, Myshkin developed Uchek, a smartphone app that uses a color mat to accurately read and analyse them. Onstage, he demonstrates, using a bottle of urine donated from an unnamed audience member. The phone app takes a photo of the strip against the mat, producing a readout. The app includes reference information to help users understand the results. The Uchek can be used for early detection of kidney, liver, glucose level and bladder problems, and so on – putting a clearer picture of our own health into our own hands.

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