Live from TED2020

A smarter future: Notes from Session 7 of TED2020

For the penultimate session of TED2020, an exploration of amazing forces shaping the future — from cancer-fighting venom to spacecraft powered by lazers and much more. Below, a recap of the night’s talks and performances.

Amanda Gorman shares a powerful spoken-word poem about ending the devastation of climate change. She speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on July 2, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Amanda Gorman, poet

Big idea: We all have the power to end the devastation of climate change. Let’s get to work.

How? In a stunning spoken word poem, Gorman calls on us all to recognize the urgency of climate action. She weaves vivid imagery and metaphors to underscore searing insights on the state of global environmental damage, and hope for a sustainable future. Gorman encourages us to use our unique abilities and expertise to reverse the harm of climate change, and says that we all have a place in the movement. “We see the face of a planet anew, we relish the view … which inspires us to ask deeply, wholly, what can we do,” she says.


“Someday, snail venom might just save your life,” says molecular chemist Mandë Holford. She speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on July 2, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Mandë Holford, molecular chemist

Big Idea: Venom can kill … or it can cure. We’re now learning how it can be used as a force for good. 

How: Chemist Mandë Holford is investigating the power of venom to treat diseases and disorders, like certain cancers. Beyond common venomous snakes and spiders, Holford introduces us to the underbelly of the animal kingdom: killer snails, deadly platypuses and assassin Gila monsters. But she sees these creatures as both the supervillain and superhero, and she’s harnessing their venom to transform lives. She explains that venom’s power lies in its complex mixture of deadly peptides — a “cluster bomb” that attacks specific physiological targets like the blood, brains or membranes of the victim. Holford’s research focuses on discovering and utilizing these peptides to create therapeutics that disrupt cancer cells communications, particularly liver cancer. Venomics, or the study of venom, is an especially attractive area of research because poison has been honed and tested by nature over millennia, making for particularly potent, successful concoctions. “Someday, snail venom might just save your life,” Holford says.


Physicist Philip Lubin investigates how to use concentrated light as a propellant for spacecraft. He speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on July 2, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Phillip Lubin, physicist

Big idea: By using massive quantities of concentrated light as a propellant, we can fuel spacecraft to journey to explore solar systems beyond our own.

How? We’re making huge strides in the field of laser technology that will enable us to transform how we launch and fuel spacecraft. Much like wind in a sailboat, light can be concentrated as energy to push spacecraft towards new and farther destinations. This would work by synchronizing enormous numbers of lasers into “phased arrays”, which may be as large as a city, to build up the power necessary for inter-solar system flight. Though spacecraft may initially only be as big as a human hand, the discoveries this technology could reveal are awe-inspiring. Traveling to another solar system could alter our fundamental understanding of life itself — and breakthroughs in this technology could revolutionize how we live on Earth as well. “Everything is profound in life. The same is true of the lowly photon which we use to see every day,” says Lubin, “But when we look outside and imagine something vastly greater, we can imagine things which are extraordinary. The ability to go to another star is one of those extraordinary capabilities.”


Antonio Muñoz Fernández plays “Taranta” and “Calblanque” at TED2020: Uncharted on July 2, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Guitarist and composer Antonio Muñoz Fernández keeps the session moving and lively with performances of plays “Taranta” and “Calblanque.”


“What would America look like if everyone had a seat at the table?” asks Shari Davis, executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project. She speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on July 2, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Shari Davis, executive director, Participatory Budgeting Project

Big idea: We have to throw out the top-down processes that have hobbled democracy, and throw the doors of government open so wide that all kinds of people will be inspired to claim the reins.

How? For most of US history, government has overwhelmingly consisted of rich white men, who installed systems rewarding people like themselves, says Davis. “What would America look like if everyone had a seat at the table?” she asks. Participatory budgeting is a grassroots democratic initiative that empowers marginalized voices from young queer communities, communities of color and the economically disenfranchised, by giving them chunks of city budgets to solve problems close to their hearts. In Boston, this came about via Youth Lead the Change, an initiative to increase education, expand technology access to students and give graffiti artists a space to legally practice their art. By nurturing new political leaders drawn from those historically denied governmental access, participatory budgeting has become a global phenomenon with the potential to transform democracy. “Participatory budgeting is actually about collective radical imagination,” Davis says. Everyone has a role to play in PB, and it works because it allows community members to craft real solutions to real problems. It provides the infrastructure for the promise of government.”


“If machines can learn, or process memories, can they also dream, hallucinate, involuntarily remember or make connections between multiple people’s dreams?” asks media artist Refik Anadol. He speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on July 2, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Refik Anadol, media artist

Big idea: What does it mean to be an AI in the 21st century?

How? The year is simultaneously 1991 and 2019, media artist Refik Anadol having just seen Blade Runner and its sci-fi future for the first time — an experience which sets in motion his inspired career of using architectural spaces as canvases to make buildings dream and hallucinate via AI. Anadol brings us on a journey from that formative childhood moment to his studio’s collaborations with architects, data scientists, neuroscientists, musicians and storytellers in experimenting with ways of augmenting our perceptions to collide the virtual and physical worlds. Each project showcases the poetic, ethereal and dynamic power of data — such as “Archive Dreaming,” conceptualizing vast knowledge in the age of AI; “Machine Hallucination,” an exploration of time and space; and “Melting Memories,” which visualizes the moment of remembering — evoking a meditative experience beyond human imagination while simultaneously enveloping you into the mind of the machine. “If machines can learn, or process memories, can they also dream, hallucinate, involuntarily remember or make connections between multiple people’s dreams?” Anadol asks.


“Most people think technology and they think that’s going to lead to unethical behavior. I think it’s exactly the opposite: I think new technologies lead to more ethical behaviors,” says futurist Juan Enriquez. He speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on July 2, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Juan Enriquez, futurist

Big idea: Tech doesn’t always lead to unethical behavior. 

How? By making problematic systems obsolete, technology is actually a powerful force for ethical change. If we embrace these changes, we’ll put ourselves on the right side of history for issues like civil rights, climate change and economic justice. As ethics continue to evolve over time, technology’s explosive growth will lead to an exponential transformation of culture. Some examples: our tolerance of wasteful meat production will soon change with lab-created, cruelty-free beef, and as tech revolutionizes renewable energy, we will naturally leave behind coal and oil. “Technology is moving at exponential rates,” Enriquez says. “Technology is changing ethics, and therefore one might expect ethics could change exponentially, and that means your notion of right and wrong changes exponentially.”