Live from TED2019 TED Conferences

Possibility: Notes from Session 7 of TED2019

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Judith Jamison + Members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Judith Jamison (seated) watches members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform at TED2019: Bigger Than Us, April 17, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

To close out day 3 of TED2019, we imagine different versions of the future — from the magical possibilities of deep-sea exploration to the dark future of humanity if something goes horribly wrong. Gulp.

The event: Talks and performances from TED2019, Session 7: Possibility, hosted by TED’s Helen Walters and Kelly Stoetzel

When and where: Wednesday, April 17, 2019, 5pm, at the Vancouver Convention Centre in Vancouver, BC

Speakers: Judith Jamison, Rob Reid, Nick Bostrom, Ella Al-Shamahi, Victor Vescovo and Hannah Gadsby

Opening: Members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform “Wade in the Water” (from choreographer Alvin Ailey’s iconic 1960 work Revelations) and “Cry,” the solo piece Ailey created for his mother in 1971.

The talks in brief:

Judith Jamison, artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

  • Big idea: Dance elevates our human experience, communicating struggles, thrills and universal emotions that go beyond words.
  • How? Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded in 1958 by the legendary dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey. In the middle of the civil rights movement, the dance company put on bold works that presented the African-American experience in its fullness — and as an essential part of American culture. Just over 60 years later, Judith Jamison, the Theater’s artistic director emerita, reflects on Ailey’s visionary legacy and the enduring power of dance to turn history into art that thrills and excites global audiences — and, not infrequently, brings tears to their eyes.
  • Quote of the talk: “When you’re sitting in the dark, in the theater, having a personal experience, you don’t feel blocked or misunderstood. You feel open, alive … inspired.”

Rob Reid, entrepreneur and cyberthriller author

  • Big idea: We must act fast to build a global immune system that could fight off a massive biotech attack.
  • How? Rob Reid raises the unthinkable specter of suicidal mass murder on a global scale, using tools of synthetic biology to create weaponized biotech. What can we do to protect ourselves? It’s (probably) years away from being a possibility, but now’s the time to start thinking about it. A couple ideas: enlisting the experts and creating more experts (for every million-and-one bioengineers, Reid notes, at least a million of them are going to be on our side) and finding a way to safeguard our prosperity and privacy that doesn’t rely on government and industry.
  • Quote of the talk: “I have come to fear [synthetic biology] … but more than that, to revere its potential. This stuff will cure cancer, heal our environment, and stop our cruel treatment of other creatures. So how do we get all this without annihilating ourselves?”

Nick Bostrom, philosopher, technologist, author, researcher of existential risk

  • Big idea: The more technological power we invent, the more likely we are to create a “black ball” — the one breakthrough that could destroy us all.
  • How? It’s an uncomfortable dilemma: as tech accelerates, so too does the potential for a bad actor to use those very advancements to wipe out civilization. Consider synthetic biology: at the current rate of progress, in the not-too-distant future someone could theoretically cook up a city-destroying organism after an afternoon’s work in the kitchen. (Yikes.) So, what are we to do? In conversation with Chris Anderson, Bostrom outlines four possible responses: restrict tech development (not very feasible, he notes); eliminate bad actors (also unfeasible, considering the many obstacles to success); mass surveillance (uncomfortable, but potentially palatable if done right); and global governance (risky, but if we’re lucky, it could help us survive). In short: if we want power, we better figure out how to limit it.
  • Quote of the talk: “You could put me down as a frightened optimist.”
Ella Al-Shamahi speaks at TED2019

Paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi asks scientists to push harder to work in unstable areas. She speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us, April 17, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Ella Al-Shamahi, paleoanthropologist and standup comedian

  • Big idea: Science has a geography problem.
  • How? We’re not doing frontline scientific exploration in a massive chunk of the world: the regions  governments have deemed too unstable. But many of these places, especially in Africa and the Middle East, have played a big role in the human journey. Al-Shamahi’s family is from Yemen, a place that’s so under-studied it’s akin to near-virgin territory. She can’t go there — but she did take an epic, risky journey to study Socotra, an island off Yemen known as the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean. Ninety percent of the reptiles and 30 percent of the plants there exist only, well, there — and the story of early humans there is barely told. Al-Shamahi is hoping to return to Socotra and, with the help of local collaborators, continue to explore.
  • Quote of the talk: “Science was about going out into the unknown. It was about truly global exploration even if there were risks. When did it become acceptable to make it difficult for science to happen in ‘unstable places?'”

Victor Vescovo, undersea explorer

  • Big idea: New submersible designs can let us explore depths of the world’s oceans that have never been seen before.
  • How? Vescovo joined TED’s science curator David Biello to discuss his experiences of deep sea exploration. Vescovo believes his team — packed into their two-person, self-designed submersible — is the very first to have dived to the bottom of the Southern Ocean, the expanse of water surrounding Antarctica that’s known for particularly hostile conditions. His submersible is engineered as a sphere, the shape best able to handle the immense pressure of deep sea dives; it’s built to make multiple journeys to the ocean floor. When you go that deep, Vescovo says, it’s possible to discover a whole lot of new species. He describes his project as “kind of the SpaceX of ocean exploration, but I pilot my own vehicles.” And if you hadn’t heard of the robust assfish before today? You’re welcome.
  • Quote of the talk: “There are only two rules to diving in a submarine. Number one is close the hatch securely. Number two is go back to rule number one.”

Hannah Gadsby, serious comedian

  • Big idea: Comedy has rules. Break them. Tell your story.
  • How? Gadsby was a “pathologically shy virtual mute with low self-esteem” when she first tried standup comedy. And “before I’d even landed my first joke, I knew I really liked stand-up and stand-up really liked me.” But it was only when she quit comedy, and broke its rules, that she could tell her own story and build a true connection with her audience — not as a mindless, laughing mob but as individuals who could carry her story along with her. Read more about Hannah Gadsby’s TED Talk.
  • Quote of the talk: “The point was not simply to break comedy, but to reshape it to better hold everything I wanted to share.”

“I broke comedy,” Hannah Gadsby says at TED2019: Bigger Than Us, on April 17, 2019, at Vancouver, BC, Canada. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)