TED Radio Hour: Hacking our way to a better world

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the_hackers_deskThis week’s TED Radio Hour examines the hacker, a term often associated with computer crime. But, as host Guy Raz tells us, “All of our TED speakers today are hacking for good — hacking into our brains, into the environment, even into the DNA of extinct animals — hackers trying to save the world.”

First up, Mikko Hypponen, the programmer who visited the creators of The_Brain, the very first computer virus that plagued the technology world in 1986. In his talk from 2011, Hypponen tells the story of how his investigation of the virus led him to an address in Pakistan. Embedded in the code of an infected floppy disk, Hypponen found English text that said, “Welcome to the dungeon 1986. Beware of this virus. Contact us for vaccination.” Following their instructions, Hypponen found himself face to face with the people who had made history. The reason they did it: to prove that the new PC computers were insecure. it’s evidence that the first hackers were actually good hackers.

The next TED speaker in the episode is a completely different kind of hacker. Stewart Brand is using DNA from fossils and preserved specimens to bring a species back from extinction. In his talk from TED2013, he tells the story of Martha, the last living passenger pigeon who died on September 1, 1914. Brand and his colleagues are engaged in “resurrection biology,” also known as “de-extinction.” The idea is to insert genes from an extinct species into a closely related living species. Brand says he is using hacking to organize the past. “Sorrow, anger, mourning?” he says. “Don’t mourn; organize.”

David Keith imagines hacking the planet — the idea that we could correct climate change by manipulating the stratosphere. As he explains in his TED Talk, the addition of sulfuric acid droplets to the stratosphere could create small wisps of cloud that can deflect some of the sun’s rays. Adding one pollutant to another could cool the global temperature back down again. But the unintended consequences could be dire. Just as people drive faster when they have an airbag in their car, would such scientific manipulation keep us from truly solving the problems with our environment? Keith concludes, “The understanding of nature gives us power to do great harm as well as, potentially, power to do good..”

Jay Silver is the most literal hacker on the show, and he gives us an interesting way to think about the job. “A hacker is someone who doesn’t ask how something works, they just see what works,” he says. He compares his work to a kid who tries something over and over again in order to explore the different possibilities. The creator of the Makey-Makey, Silver suggests that almost everything is hackable: “Humans, plants, kitty cats, grandmas, water, graphite.” For Silver, hacking has made the very landscape of life a form of expression.

Closing out the episode this week is Andres Lozano, the renowned neurosurgeon who is hacking into the human brain. Lozano explains how it is possible to adjust the circuits of the human brain using electricity, turning up or down areas of activity using something similar to a remote control. In his TED Talk, Lozano shows a video of a woman with Parkinson’s disease and demonstrates his technique by alleviating her tremor almost entirely.

Having conquered the control of movement, Lozano suggests, could we also use this technique to clear the dark cloud of depression? In the episode, he broaches the controversial subject of what he calls “cosmetic brain surgery.” He says that the possibility of altering cognitive personality is within reach and describes it as “mapping an unexplored galaxy, an unexplored universe.” But like David Keith’s issues with manipulating the atmosphere, the celebration of human ingenuity is not the only consideration here. Lozano asks the important questions: should we be messing with intrinsic personality? And is it fair that only the rich will have this expensive opportunity?

All these speakers prove that humans have developed incredible ways to manipulate the universe — but just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. The question, then: Who should be making the decisions?

Check out your local NPR schedule to find out when TED Radio Hour’s “The Hackers” airs or listen to via the NPR website »

You can also head to iTunes, where the podcast is available now »