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Pattern Makers: Notes from Session 2 of TEDWomen 2019

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“You don’t predict the future; you imagine the future,” says author Charlie Jane Anders. She speaks at TEDWomen 2019: Bold + Brilliant, on December 5, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

In Session 2 of TEDWomen 2019, we met some extraordinary pattern makers: people helping us predict the future, improve our relationship to technology and unearth powerful discoveries.

The event: TEDWomen 2019, Session 2: Pattern Makers, hosted by Pat Mitchell and Cloe Shasha

When and where: Thursday, December 5, 2019, 8:30AM PT, at La Quinta Resort & Club in La Quinta, California

Speakers: Lucy King, Jennifer Zhu Scott, Angie Murimirwa, Jiabao Li, Eva Galperin, Charlie Jane Anders

The talks in brief:

Lucy King, elephant advocate

Big idea: As their foraging territories shrink, African elephants encroach on agricultural lands, upsetting a delicate balance between them and their human neighbors. Amid an increase in wrecked crops and houses, Lucy King developed a method to bar elephants from cultivated fields without needing to erect huge (and often ineffective) electric fences.

How? Through research inspired by local folklore, King discovered that elephants avoid beehives, because they don’t want to get stung. As a result, she developed “beehive fences” that release insects when elephants attempt to breach them — and send these pachyderms packing. In tandem with these fences, King’s “Human-Elephant Co-Existence” program encourages farmers to plant crops that pollinators love and elephants hate, which could help farmers establish new livelihoods.

Quote of the talk: “Can you imagine the terror of an elephant literally ripping the roof off your mud hut in the middle of the night and having to hold your children away as the trunk reaches in looking for food in the pitch dark?”

Jennifer Zhu Scott, entrepreneur and technologist

Big idea: Our personal data is a valuable asset — but we’re not getting paid for it. Giving individuals pricing power over their own data could reduce inequality by empowering people, instead of businesses.

Why? The most successful companies in the world profit from the data produced by the everyday people who use their services. So why aren’t we getting a paycheck? Data ownership is a personal and economic issue, says Jennifer Zhu Scott, yet too often our conversations fixate on data privacy and regulation rather than the potential prosperity that data ownership could bring. For some, it might even be a path out of poverty. Take China — a society that saw its poverty rate plunge from 88 percent in 1981 to 0.7 percent by 2015 as businesses went from being state-owned to privately owned. It wasn’t a perfect transition by any means, she says, but it’s a case study for how personal ownership can improve people’s lives. We can create an economic model for individuals to control and barter their own information, instead of letting Facebook or Tencent do it, and startups are already creating tools to make this a reality.

Quote of the talk: “Whoever owns the data owns the future.”

Angie Murimirwa, education activist, executive director of the Campaign for Female Education for Africa

Big idea: “Social interest,” or paying back interest on a loan through service rather than currency, can promote economic prosperity in communities across Africa — helping girls stay in school, get job training and obtain and pay off loans.

How? Young women in sub-Saharan Africa often can’t afford school and have difficulty finding consistent wages and loans, keeping them trapped in a cycle of poverty and inequality. Angie Murimirwa believes that one solution lies in empowering young people through “social interest” — a kind of loan that can be paid off by service, such as mentorship and teaching, and not by currency. Not only has social interest facilitated Murimirwa’s own success, but she has also watched it benefit thousands of others. In fact, nearly 6,300 young women have borrowed close to three million dollars — with a repayment rate above 95 percent. 

Quote of the talk: “We are building a powerful force gaining ever greater momentum, as we open the door for more and more girls to go to school, succeed, lead and, in turn, support thousands more.”

Jiabao Li, artist and engineer

Big idea: Technology affects the way we perceive reality, creating a hyper-fragmented humanity vulnerable to seemingly “mental” allergies. But as with many cures, the problem is also the solution.

How? To emphasize this human-made phenomenon, Jiabao Li created a series of perceptual machines to help question the ways we experience the world in the age of digital media. Her conceptual designs include a bulbous helmet that mimics the amplification effect of social media and two web browser plug-ins — one that helps us notice things we’d usually ignore and another that dilutes algorithmic influence. Technology is designed to change what we see and what we think, and in many ways it’s separated us from each other. But we could use it to make the world connected again.

Quote of the talk: “By exploring how we interface with these technologies, I hope we could step out of our habitual, almost machine-like behaviors, and finally find common ground between each other.”

Eva Galperin, cybersecurity expert and technical advisor

Big idea: Stalkerware is on the rise. We need to educate the public on how to protect themselves and convince antivirus companies to begin detecting it.

How? Eva Galperin was shocked to discover that an alarming number of people are being hacked by their current or former partners. A common and particularly insidious form of this abuse is “stalkerware,” software designed to track or spy on someone without their knowledge. Stalkers buy a program, install it on their victim’s devices and gain remote access, allowing them see their victim’s every movement, text message or email. When Galperin discovered that most antivirus softwares do not detect these programs, she launched the Coalition Against Stalkerware to raise awareness and advocate for antivirus companies to detect it. She hopes that by next year, antivirus software will be able to offer stalkerware detection to discourage abusers and protect victims. 

Quote of the talk: “Full access to a person’s phone is the next best thing to full access to a person’s mind.”

Charlie Jane Anders, author and futurist

Big Idea: Dreaming about our collective future is the first step toward creating a better one.

How: The world is changing so fast that no one — not even futurists like Charlie Jane Anders — can predict what it will look like in a few years. Now, instead of trying to predict it, she vaccinates herself against the acute onset of future shock by imagining it in all its wild possibilities. In a process that’s part fever dream and part research-based extrapolation, she constructs future worlds by living them through the characters in her work and speculating about the delights and challenges that could arise. It’s by engaging in such directed flights of fancy, Anders suggests, that we can begin constructing a better world of tomorrow. 

Quote of the talk: “You don’t predict the future; you imagine the future.”