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Lies, sex, an even freer Wikipedia and Sir Ken at a slaughterhouse: A recap of “The future is ours,” All-Stars Session 5 at TED2014

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By Kate Torgovnick, Morton Bast, Thu-Huong Ha

Elizabeth Pisani. Photo: Bret Hartman

Elizabeth Pisani. Photo: Bret Hartman

The future. When it comes down to it, it’s not about flying cars, flashy robots, jetpacks, or awesome sunglasses. It’s about the little things we can do to advance healthcare, better education, create opportunities, improve connections between each other, and make lives just a little bit easier. In this session, we’ve invited some classic speakers back to share what’s happened to their idea since they first shared it with the world.

Below, read a detailed recap of each talk given in this session:

Stanley McChrystal is the military leader who asked us to “Listen, learn … then lead” at TED2011. He’s here today to talk about the massive information leak that took place in the summer of 2010. “One of the first questions we asked was, ‘Why would a young soldier have that much access to sensitive things?’” See, the military has long survived on secrecy, says McChrystal in a lyrical talk. “We bled, we died and we killed to stop Al Qaeda’s violence that they were putting largely against the Iraqi people,” he says. “We relied on our gut and one of the things in our DNA was secrecy. We protected information and only gave it to people who had a demonstrated ‘need to know.’” But then, in Iraq, the decision was made to declassify enemy personnel records. “As we passed that information around, I realized that information is only of value if it’s given to the people with the ability to do something about it.” This experience forever changed McChrystal’s view on secrecy — he now full-heartedly believes in transparency. “It changed my idea of information from ‘knowledge is power’ to ‘sharing is power.’ I am more scared of the bureaucrat who holds information in a desk drawer than the person who leaks.”

Philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Dennett has a plan. A Plan C, to be specific. Inspired by Danny Hillis’ Plan B for the Internet, Dennett believes that, in the case of a total Internet failure, we’d need more – we’d need someone and something to keep the panic at bay for that tumultuous first 48 hours. In short, we’d need human and structural lifeboats. One in every hundred Americans, he proposed, can serve as a local lifeboat to carry us to safety in the event of this potential disaster.

Susan Cain, the speaker behind “The power of introverts,” starts with an exercise: She asks the audience to split in groups of four and share private childhood experiences. Luckily she’s just kidding. “This is how so many introverts feel about the team-building exercises we’re endlessly asked to participate in,” she says. Cain expected to go back to writing books after her TED Talk, but says that the huge reaction from her talk led her to, instead, form a company dedicated to empowering introverts. She shares how she is partnering with Steelcase to bring private, quiet spaces back to offices; to help train a generation of quiet leaders; and to raise awareness in schools that not every student excels under pressure to participate in class and take part on group projects. (Read much more about Susan Cain’s quiet revolution.)

We’ve been on a global search for low-cost labor, says roboticist Rodney Brooks. We may be able to find what we’ve been looking for in robots, but the trouble is, most robots are incredibly complicated to use. At last year’s TED, Brooks introduced Baxter, the user-friendly robot, who’s been an enormously popular member of his Pennsylvania factory – because he’s willing to take all the horrible tasks no one else wants to do.) In the future, says Brooks, these robots will be the key to our entire economy. They’re far from perfect now, but nor do they need to be: If they could achieve the object recognition of a two-year-old, the speech recognition of a four-year-old, the manual dexterity of a six-year-old and the social understanding of an eight-year-old, robots could truly become our partners in production, and we could reach a very different structure of manufacturing on a massive scale.

Elizabeth Pisani asked us to get rational on “Sex, drugs and HIV” at TED2010. “I don’t think only about sex,” says Pisani. “For the last few years I’ve mainly been telling lies.” Pisani tells the story of doing research in rural Indonesia and how she found herself making up a fictional husband and two children in order to forge a connection with the people she met. The lie eventually ended up in a newspaper photo caption. Pisani tells us this because, she says, the nation of Indonesia itself has been telling a lie. Under the military rule of General Suharto a million Indonesians were slaughtered. “The national lie was that all of the killing was a noble and necessary act of anti-communism,” says Pisani. Indonesia, she believes, is not quite ready to admit that this was a lie. Because, as her fictional family helped her research, the lies worked. “Families of the killers, and the killed, have been able to live perfectly happily for at least 50 years,” she says. “Indonesians are not ready to give up the fiction that there was nothing to apologize for.”

Michael Shermer, professional skeptic, stepped onto the TED stage brimming with good news: We are living in the most moral time in our species’ epic. Slavery is illegal in every country on Earth, and he believes that by 2030 it may be eliminated in practice. Electoral democracy covers the planet as never before, claiming a full 60 percent of countries by this January. Importantly, our sphere of morality has expanded greatly – rights movements for women and minorities have taken hold and aren’t letting go. And science dominates our thinking, despite the persistence of some dogmatic thinking. These days, said Shermer, you have to have reasons for your moral beliefs, you can’t just assert them. And more is coming: “I found biblical support for both gay marriage and pot legalization: ‘If a man lies with another man, he must be stoned,’” he joked. All in all, he’s feeling very optimistic on how science and reason have bent the moral arc of the universe to truth, justice and freedom.

Jimmy Wales. Photo: Bret Hartman

Jimmy Wales. Photo: Bret Hartman

Jimmy Wales is the technologist behind Wikipedia, which today gets 532 million visitors a month. “I thought it was interesting that Stanley McChrystal said that sharing knowledge is power,” says Wales. “Perhaps my army of Wikipedians is the most powerful army in the world.” Wales says we all know that mobile is the next big thing in technology, but he says people in this industry greatly underestimate how quickly this is happening. Smartphone costs are coming down, and within five years, says Wales, hundreds of millions of people in Africa will have smartphones. “They’re going on Google, Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia,” says Wales. And that’s why he is creating Wikipedia Zero. “We’re working with mobile carriers to bring Wikipedia to people free of data charges,” he says to loud applause. (And stay tuned to the TED Blog for more on Wales’ other new project: The People’s Operator.)

The World Peace Game poses 50 of the world’s thorniest problems to a group of state officials gathered in the US Defense Council … as role-played by a group of John Hunter’s nine-year-old students. It may have only been a game, but the students left Pentagon officials totally floored. His students, Hunter shared, studied hard and debated earnestly, even coming to conclusions about action against climate change – plant a billion trees in every country and construct hydrogen fuel cells – impressing US Army General Martin Dempsey. Each student earned a coin of honor and all were invited back to the Pentagon. Education like this, Hunter said, allows children to consider the future truly theirs. Pentagon officials wholeheartedly agreed.

Helen Fisher, the biological anthropologist who gave the talk “Why we love, why we cheat” at TED2006, was recently traveling in New Guinea with a man who had three wives. “I asked him how many wives he would like to have,” says Fisher. “He said ‘none.’” She tells this anecdote because, while many societies allow a man to have more than one wife, human beings for the most part tend toward monogamy, seeking out pair bonds. “Marriage has changed more in the last 100 years than in the last 10,000,” says Fisher. She notes that we’ve returned to a time, like in agricultural and hunter gatherer societies, where women as as socially and economically powerful as men. Not only are we marrying more for love, but in a survey Fisher conducted, 81 percent of people said they’d marry the person they married again. Women are embracing their sexuality and men are showing their romanticism. “Any forecast of the future of relationships must take into account: the indomitable, unquestionable and primordial human drive to love,” she says.

For nearly all of history, astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees begins, threats have come from nature. Now the danger comes from us. Yet we seem to totally misunderstand the nature of that danger: We worry about minor risks like airplane crashes and carcinogens in our food, but we worry far too little about the many catastrophes that could occur on a global scale. Not only nuclear warfare, but robots going rogue, worldwide panic spread through social media, and release of deadly pathogens are all real threats — and someone has to worry about them. “The global village has its village idiots, and they have a global range,” he warned. To be sure, the end of humanity wouldn’t be the end of everything. “As an astronomer,” he said, “I can’t believe that humans are the end of the story.”  But just in case, he and his colleagues at Cambridge University have set up a center specifically to deal with giant problems.

Steven Johnson, who showed us “Where good ideas come from” at TEDGlobal 2010, is here to show us one of the great artifacts of our time. It’s the first audio recording, made in 1860, on a device called the Phonautograph, about 20 years before Edison started on the phonograph. So how have you never heard of its creator, Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville? Because he never created a playback device for his recording. It wasn’t that he never developed it — he simply never thought of it. His idea was for the sound to be stored as etchings, and to become a kind of quick transcription system. “I think there’s an important lesson here,” says Johnson. “When we study the history of innovation, we so often focus on the breakthroughs and successes. But it’s as often defined by blind spots — the things that weren’t in the field of vision.” He encourages us all to think about the question: What are we not thinking about?

Sir Ken Robinson. Photo: Ryan Lash

Sir Ken Robinson. Photo: Ryan Lash

In a Q&A between session host Helen Walters and “the all-star of all-stars” Sir Ken Robinson, he has the audience in stitches by the first sentence. Through the tears of laughter from the crowd, he manages to mention the progress he has seen in schools all over. School districts, individual teachers, homeschoolers responded to his talk so strongly, says Robinson, that it signals that people really do want a major upheaval to our education paradigms. He tells the story of a slaughterhouse he visited when he was younger, where there was a veterinarian’s office which would perform autopsies every once in a while. “Isn’t it a bit late?” Robinson joked. But the larger point is: If you build a system designed to crush spirits and dreams: Don’t be surprised if it works. What Robinson has learned is that policy makers and administrators do indeed want to change – but through command and control. An organic education system, says Robinson, is nothing like that. You don’t implement a large change and wait for an outcome to measure success; each individual makes a small shift and effects change. And as Robinson says, “if enough people change their world, we change the world.”
The Q&A ends prematurely for a special surprise guest appearance by TED favorite Amanda Palmer, who sings a song about conformity in kids, in a solemn ode to Robinson: “Here’s to you, Sir Ken Robinson, heaven is a place where people play and spray the walls outside.”