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Voter suppression, pandemics, fish, curing Alzheimer’s: Session 2 of TED U at TED2013

TED’s Bruno Giussani is back on the TED stage to invite up this morning’s cadre of audience talks. No long preamble … we’re straight into it:


Photos: Ryan Lash

Photos: Ryan Lash

Jason Pontin, editor and publisher of MIT Technology Review, wants us to think about why we can’t (or think we can’t) solve big problems anymore — what is our generation’s moon landing? Some people blame the culture of Silicon Valley, or VCs unwilling to invest in big problems, but Pontin doesn’t buy this excuse. The real problems are that humanity’s big challenges are hard, our political systems are unwilling, and too often we don’t really understand the real issue. Landing on the moon, it turns out, was relatively easy. “The solutions of our future will be harder won,” he says. A sobering start to the morning.

In a hilarious talk, David Pogue shares some basic tricks for using our technology — tricks that you might think everyone knows, but they don’t. For example, hit control (or command) and “+” to make the text in a web browser bigger. When writing, double-click a word to highlight just that word. (We’re asking him for the list.)

TED2013_0056749_AO8A26412006 TED Prize winner Larry Brilliant, the president and CEO of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, is here to tell us the good news about pandemics. Hurray! This is important; as he and his team helped to lay out in the movie Contagion, which they advised on, pandemic viruses are a huge, insidious threat to humanity. But with social media, participatory surveillance, better policy and better regional cooperation, global pandemics might become a thing of the past. “I think we can end pandemics in our lifetimes,” he says.

Ghislaine Maxwell gives a stirring call to care about the oceans — a resource that is held by law to be for the benefit of all, but in reality is being exploited by the few. She proposes six things we can do to help: 1) Enforce the Public Trust Doctrine; 2) Demand more marine public areas; 3) Adopt models that produce more revenue without as much waste; 4) Ban wasteful fishing practices; 5) Fish sustainably; and 6) Come together as a community around the seas. We are all citizens of the oceans, after all.

“Look to the person to your left; look to the person to your right,” instructs Scott Noggle, director of the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory. “One of you will get Alzheimer’s by the time you are 80.” This is not a cheery thought. “This is a catastrophe,” confirms Noggle. Yup. He’s here to tell us about his work, which involves taking living cells from cadavers of those who died from Alzheimer’s. He and his team have figured out how to re-create stem cell lines, and therefore brain tissue, to try and figure out how the disease starts and develops–with the end goal of creating more effective therapies to treat the disease. Astonishing.

Dan Miller, Managing Director of the Roda Group, is concerned with the growing food crisis facing the world — and is looking for solutions. He’s found one possibility: hydrogels, chemicals that can hold 100 times their weight in water. These can be put into the soil at the same time as seeds and fertilizer. Because of the way the gels retain water near the plants, this could increase yield while reducing water use. Some convincing tests on broccoli make his point.

TED2013_0055634_5Q4C3848Jessica Green is here to talk about the microbes that both define who we are and that exist in their own ecosystems on everything we touch. She’s been working with architects and biologists to take samples from rooms at the University of Oregon to get a deeper understanding of the microbial community within space. “Bathrooms are like a tropical rainforest,” she says. “Offices are like temperate grassland.” The implications for designers of this genre she calls “bio-informed design,” particularly for those thinking about designing air systems or working in health care, are huge.

TED2013_0055701_5Q4C3915Tony Tjan studies entrepreneurs, and tries to work out what makes them successful. He has found four attributes that each can contribute: Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck. He says there is no one way to success, but a key is the self-awareness to understand which part is their own primary driver.

TED2013_0055847_5Q4C4061Harper Reed, CTO of Obama for America, is here to talk about how politics is changing, and in particular about what will be important in 2016. On his list: micro-targeting; micro-listening; micro-media buying. We’re going to get a lot more focused, in other words. Other challenges: voter suppression; voter contact; and potential cyberattack, Reed’s biggest fear. Did you know this: The presidential campaigns of both John McCain and Mitt Romney were hacked by a foreign entity. “We were safe, because we invested in security,” he says, but he doesn’t think it’ll be so easy next time around. The solution? Trust the experts. Get the right people in the right place, and let them do their jobs to the best of their ability.

TED Fellow Julie Freeman is an artist who thinks about how to represent data in art. She was asked to curate a set of artworks based on data for the Open Data Institute, and she found some remarkable examples, such as a vending machine that only dispenses snacks when there is news of an economic downturn.

David Peterson creates languages for a living, including the language Dothraki, which he developed for the television series Game of Thrones. He’s here to give us an insight into how he does it, and to take us on a whistlestop tour through the evolution of language. Why go to all the trouble? Fans, of course. Every single detail of a hit show like GoT is analyzed in depth; results are shared instantaneously, and they’ll realize quickly if a fake language is systematic or just gibberish. This respect for viewers might be the difference between a hit and a multimillion-dollar flop. That’s why it matters.

And finally, David Pogue, who turns out to be a former Broadway conductor as well as technology writer for the New York Times, returns to sing his new composition, “The Twitter Song.” a show tune take on living in the 140-character age.