TED 2016 — “(Virtually) Real & Spectacular” or “The Kids are Alright”

Ross Rosenberg
Mar 31, 2016 · 15 min read
The youngest TEDster demonstrating a pint-sized Radio Flyer/Tesla Model S

In February 2016, I was fortunate to attend the TED conference for the 4th year in a row. This year was special because I was joined by one of my closest childhood friends (Peter Leech) and, since he agreed to co-author this post, you get to see the event through the eyes of a “TED Virgin”… Enjoy!

I’m often asked, “Why do you go to TED?” Aside from experiencing the mind-bending content in TED’s immersive sensory overload environment, it is for the following reasons:

  1. It’s one week a year to think broadly about the world (a “brain spa”)
  2. Passion, courage, ambition and originality are contagious, yet are in VERY short supply in my daily world (far too much conformity, fear and apathy)
  3. It’s a sneak peek into the future (what problems will/should my children and grandchildren be working on?)
  4. A rare chance to establish relationships with 1,200 extraordinary people

Mostly, TED is a “vaccine”, an addictive slow-release dose of optimism and inspiration that I draw upon throughout the year. My goal is to convert the serum into a permanent hormone!

The great Dan Pallotta celebrating an extraordinary breakthrough and sight

WHAT IS TED?

Loyal readers of this blog can skip to the next section. For the uninitiated, click here to read my overview of the mission, history, culture and circus that is the TED conference. For the truly bored, a collection of my prior blatherings about TED can be found at the website pictured below.

https://medium.com/ross-s-ted-recaps

For those with shorter attention spans, watch this recent CBS News segment:

WHAT’S NEW IN TED-LAND?

As TED grows in its global reach and influence, the conference annually gets its fair share of gushing praise, flattering imitation (“ELI Talks” for Jews) skeptical evaluation (“We Are Now at Peak TED”), cynical criticism and hilarious parody:

You know you’ve hit the big time when The Onion apes you!

TED’s unshakable optimism and libertarian bent are a welcome antidote to the poisonous atmosphere created by the most dysfunctional and dystopian election process the US has seen in many decades. (More than a few attendees noticed the uncanny resemblance Ted Cruz’s campaign logo bears to TED’s emblem and chafed about mis-directed tweets with the hashtag #TED2016).

In 2016, Chris Anderson’s “radical openness” (democratizing TED content) hit an all-time high as TED broadcast the opening session of TED live to 1,000 movie theaters around the US and Canada and sold the live video feed (at a discounted price) of the entire conference to anyone who wanted to save the airfare and enjoy TED from the comfort of their own computer/TV. For anyone familiar with the formerly secretive ethos of TED founder Richard Saul Wurman’s original conferences, these moves are an enormous change, but ones that, paradoxically, only increase the demand for a coveted seat at the “big dance” in Vancouver. It did not disappoint…

THE 2016 CONFERENCE

2016 marked TED’s third year overlooking gorgeous Vancouver Harbor and the glorious setting of blue seas, snow-capped mountains and urban rain forest park was an ideal background to this year’s theme: “DREAM”.

How Can You Concentrate on TED Talks With This Outside?

The unusual timing of this year’s conference during President’s Week had a significant (and perhaps unanticipated) impact on TED 2016. The result of TED landing on top of schools’ February break was: a) many long-time attendees (Jeff Bezos, others) skipped the conference in favor of a family vacations or b) die-hard TEDsters brought their kids to TED! (apparently even billionaires are subject to the laws of familial gravity). The injection of this youthful ingredient (5 year old Tesla toy model drivers, 10 year old TED speakers, suburban high-schoolers and more than a few college students) added an even more hopeful tone than normal while metering considerably some of the typical raucous evening activities and after-hours parties.

Only at TED: A ten year old speaker becomes a celebrity

I found interacting with these prodigies intoxicating and it was an inspiring reminder that this is an EXTRAORDINARY time to be figuring out/experimenting with/what you “want to be when you grow up”. Careers are getting completely re-defined (doctor as data scientist, car designer as software developer, etc), access to mentors is a single Tweet away, inventing/validating/funding a product is as simple as creating a Kickstarter page, etc. For this reason, I am deeply envious of the young and motivated.

The other big theme of TED 2016 was the profound impact that virtual and augmented reality technology is starting to have on how we create, consume and share content. At least a half a dozen talks (see below), phenomenal demonstrations, immersive exhibits and optional classes on the topic were sprinkled throughout the week.

As usual, TED 2016 was a grueling and exhilarating 5-day cerebral marathon, comprised of fifteen(!) intense, two-hour sessions of public speaking designed to keep you slightly off-balance: a harrowing tale of sexual abuse was sandwiched between an African funk band performance and an “experimental physicist” inventing new forms of solar energy; the prime minister of Bhutan shared a session with former Saturday Night Live star Julia Sweeney and the leader of a politically conservative think tank was followed by John Legend talking and singing about the over-incarceration of African-American men. TED’s dizzying mental menu stands in stark contrast to the rigid and linear way most of us were educated and the way we work and organize our lives. I’d argue we could all use a bit more chaos as we develop and grow.

TED seeks speakers who stand at the intersection of genius and courage. A classic example from TED 2016 is Wanda Diaz Merced (yeah, just your average, run-of-the-mill, Puerto Rican, blind, sonic astrophysicist working at NASA while pursuing her Ph.D. in Glasgow, Scotland). She has made breakthrough discoveries in cataclysmic stars and magnetars AND overcomes her disability using sonar to “listen” to space (“space produces music”) since she can’t see gamma ray light bursts with the naked eye. Wanda LOVES studying space and will NOT be deterred (“I dream of a level scientific playing field”).

While genius can’t be taught, courage can. Tell someone about Wanda the next time you hear “I want to, but it’s too hard.”

Picnicking in the TED forest

Outside the theater is a parallel universe of organic gourmet brain food (“have you tried the non-dairy milk made of pea protein?”), natural wellness balms, beautifully designed “social spaces” made of faux trees/grass, lounges where you can watch TED talks from a ball-pit, book stores, sensory-overloading exhibits that rival the best science museums. At first glance, it can all seem trite and self-congratulatory, but it creates an environment which fosters the collision of new ideas and the people with resources to convert those ideas to action.

That is, of course, the real gift of attending TED in person: the 1,200 extraordinary attendees (present company excluded) from 58 countries. TED manages to curate an amazingly diverse and eclectic mix of artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers and philanthropists each filled with a delightfully lethal combination of deep knowledge of their subject area, a passionate bias for action and a hyper-awareness of the network required to get things done. Roaming the halls in 2016, you might meet: 1) the head of Google’s robot lab, 2) the founder of a non-profit who is relocating to Albania to lead the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe, 3) the former CEO of MTV, 4) a host of people with titles like: “stranger enthusiast”, “national dream director”, “obsessive speciologist”, “memory evangelist” and “occupational therapist who hacks fart machines”, and 5) the usual crop of celebrities. (Don’t let category #4 fool you, by the way, these are highly accomplished and well-connected folks at the top of their fields).

As I discovered and wrote in last year’s blog, TED is a launching pad for careers, companies and causes thanks to a custom-built social networking app, repeat attendance and an almost universal desire for relationship-building.

(Click here to see one of the many reasons why TED is, as one attendee proudly called it, “the dork Olympics”)

All meetings should be held in ball pits

TED 2016 HIGHLIGHTS

OK, on to the main course…TED 2016: 106 speakers, 13 musicians, 1 Iranian political comedian and a 64-year old male modern dancer.

A sea of drones envelopes the TED audience

As a reminder, TED sessions are broken up into 3 categories: 1) main stage talks (18 minutes), 2) TED Fellows (an exceptional group of young people changing the world — each year 20 Fellows are chosen from a pool of 1,000 applications, 5 minutes) and 3) TED University (attendees giving short talks on their subject matter, 5–7 minutes).

Peter’s and my top 10 (ok, 11) main stage talks are below (note: not in rank order). Links to the speakers’ sites or blogs if TED has not posted the talk yet — check back here as I will update the blog when they do come online.

Raffaello D’Andrea — Meet the Dazzling Flying Machines of the Future. Raffaello, a “autonomous systems expert” wowed the TED audience by launching a swarm of drones (you know, micro-quadcopters) throughout the theater.

Al Gore — The Case For Optimism on Climate Change. The former Veep passionately updates us a decade after An Inconvenient Truth. Say what you will about Big Al, but he is exceptionally well-informed, pragmatic (he’s a venture capitalist by day) and completely fired up at a stage of life where he could easily fade into the background.

Tim Urban — Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator. Hilarious and poignant talk by the awesome Tim Urban on how to fall into, and escape, the delaying trap. After you watch it, do yourself a favor and read Tim’s fantastic blog (Wait But Why); as the name suggests Tim goes deep on lots of subjects.

Joe Gebbia — How AirBnb Designs for Trust. The co-founder of AirBnb blows up the childhood lesson of “Strangers = Danger” and weaves lessons about how people come to let others inside the inner circle into an amazing start-up story. It’s a good reminder that the new class of “technology” companies are actually tapping into something deep in human nature.

Chris Milk — The largest collective VR viewing in history. Distribute 1,200 pairs of Google Cardboard, headphones and a mobile app (Vrse) and you re-define a TED talk for the new world. Please DO try this at home!

TEDsters going virtual with Chris Milk

Kenneth Lacovara — Hunting for Dinosaurs. TEDsters geeked out to paleontologist Ken Lacovara who crammed 100 million years of earth’s history in 18 minutes. You can also watch Ken enthuse about his latest dinosaur discovery here.

Nothing says TED like a good paleontologist

Michael Murphy/Bryan Stevenson — Architecture That’s Built to Heal. Combine a brilliant architect and a lawyer/civil rights activist and you have a recipe for an outstanding dual talk. Murphy is designing the first national memorial to peace and justice in honor of African-American victims of lynchings in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2012, Stevenson delivered one of the most beloved TED talks of the last decade (see below).

Adam Foss — A prosecutor’s vision for a better justice system. Adam, an accomplished Boston DA shared his ideas for a reformed justice system in which law enforcement can break the cycle of over-incarceration by evaluating an accused’s potential to contribute to, rather than take from our society. John Legend supported Adam on stage and performed a coda to this powerful message.

Casey Gerald — The Gospel of Doubt. The founder of MBAs Across America shared a compelling story of his own journey, from a harrowing childhood to a break with his religion to the the commencement address at Harvard Business School.

Alex Kipman — A futuristic vision of the age of holograms. Virtual reality’s cousin (augmented reality) came to “life” as a Microsoftie and inventor of the Kinect device showed off his latest creation (the HoloLens)

Shonda Rimes — My Year of Saying Yes to Everything. This choice is not without controversy (while the sentiments are real and delivery powerful, many felt this talk came off as forced and not authentic). I included it because it hit a chord with me as a father.

TED FELLOWS TALKS

The Fellows are one of my favorite parts of the TED experience. This is unvarnished passion mixed with exceptional young talent — think: future TED speakers, future leaders, future world-changers. Watch this space!

Jessica Ladd — The Reporting System That Sexual Assault Survivors Want. A 6-minute emotional powerhouse of a talk that combines the story of a victim of sexual assault with the introduction of a well-developed technological/legal tool that improves the chances of convicting and (perhaps) rehabilitating repeat sexual offenders. For our daughters, I hope Jessica is successful.

Michael W. Twitty — introduces himself as a “black, gay, Jewish, culinary historian” (Twitter: @koshersoul) who is obsessed with the foods of his ancestors and seeks “culinary justice”. He recently became the first black antebellum chef since the civil war and traveled through the South, living like a slave while mastering his cooking craft.

A culinary historian studying Torah

Nicole Amarteifio — Nicole is a TV director and producer from Ghana who created a “Sex and the City” for Africa (“An African City”). Nicole is demonstrating the power of using new positive stories of smart, empowered rising middle-class women pursuing fun and friendship to replace the tired narrative of Africa as a place of victims, famine and violence.

Creator of African TV’s version of “Sex and the City”

Shivani Siroya — A companion talk to Joe Gebbia’s (above) on how you establish trust; this time in micro-finance in emerging economies. Shivani is a “mobile finance entrepreneur” who has developed software (Inventure) to create synthetic “credit scores” for the 2.5 billion in the world who have no traditional financial history (the “great unbanked”).

Kiana Hayeri — powerful exhibition of this Iranian-Canadian photographer who chronicled Afghan millennial youth who decided to stay in their broken country rather than become part of the European refugee crisis.

Sanford Biggers — Sanford creates provocative video art pieces that portray African-American victims of police brutality. A sample below.

Carrie Nugent — an “asteroid hunter” from Caltech who uses data from NASA’s Neowise mission to model predictive analytics on near-earth objects that might kill us.

Safwat Saleem — a funny and deeply personal talk by a Pakistani graphic designer who found confidence by editing his voice to sound more self-assured.

Negin Farsad — the always hysterical Iranian political comedian put the current racist, xenophobic, fearful, anti-Muslim climate into context.

TED UNIVERSITY TALKS

Our favorite TED University talks:

Shaolan Hsueh — The founder of “Chineasy” (see her terrific 2013 TED talk below) returned to TED to continue encouraging TEDsters to deepen their knowledge of Chinese language and culture, including the Chinese Zodiac.

Paul Tudor Jones — the billionaire hedge fund manager gave a post-script to his 2015 TED talk (below) on the need to mix “justness” into pure capitalism. As with anything in life, it’s important to understand how experts view a new doctrine and learn who disagrees and why.

Tom Hulme — IDEO designer turned Google venture capitalist spoke about the virtues of taking the unplanned path in life.

Dave Troy — Software developer who is proposing a “Data Bill of Rights” that would govern encryption, anonymity and data access. Dave gave a popular talk in 2014 on “Peoplemaps”

Peter J. Toren — an intellectual property litigator shared a story of recovery of family art that had been looted by the Nazis.

MUSICIANS/PERFORMERS

The exceptional Blitz the Ambassador teaching TEDsters about African funk

TED has always been an outstanding launching pad for new musicians and some of my favorites have come out prior conferences: Amanda Palmer, Moon Hooch, Usman Riaz, Eric Lewis/ELEW, Somi, Joshua Roman, Bill T. Jones (and even a combination of the last 3).

TED 2016 added more great “discoveries” to the list and brought back some old favorites:

Blitz the Ambassador — an EXCEPTIONAL African funk band from Ghana (led by a TED fellow) blew the doors off during each of their multiple performances at TED. Here’s a sample:

AR Rahman — Oscar-winning composer (“Slumdog Millionaire”), singer-songwriter and a household name in India, AR and his colleagues put on a haunting performance.

Bill T. Jones — performed a mesmerizing half talk/half modern dance routine that managed to recap his extraordinary journey from the son of sharecroppers to struggles with HIV and being a gay, African-American in America. Until TED puts it online, watch this:

John Legend — Another moving dual performance (TED talk and singing), including a stirring version of “Redemption Song” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in support of Adam Foss’s talk on changing the criminal justice system

CONFESSIONS OF A TED VIRGIN

(By Peter Leech)

It’s very hard to compress a week of insightful and compelling speeches, art, music, virtual reality, drone demos and former Vice Presidents into one summary. But it was mind expanding in a modern, non-drug induced manner. It’s like drinking from a geyser in many ways but opens up to some cross-presentation findings.

1) The best part of TED is the discussions in the halls, dinners and lunches. I went to a Jeffersonian dinner which was driven to answer a key question: are we investing enough in pure science research in America (and globally)? A question that is truly important but has a simple answer from a scientist (of which there were several around the table) and a different one from the business people/VC people (of which there were some, but outnumbered). Scientists told of crazy last minute funding losses and the catastrophic waste and loss of learning and … the loss of big, foundational improvements in human life. The business people pointed to waste in the pure science funding and amounts of money going to the institution vs the direct funded work at hand. Both sides were well behaved and truly engaged. I learned a ton.

2) The second best part is the Food Trucks… Love the mac and cheese and the burger! But seriously. The second best part of TED is a view into the future. The future of human proactive endeavor… art, science, medicine, politics, society and individual growth… it’s a cool view that makes you reset your mind in terms of thinking more forward in your everyday life. As a newbie, I was blown away by discussions of gene drives and self driving cars, etc. VR and AR are also big game changers.

3) The third most personally engaging part for a newbie is how much we can (as individuals) be DOING. The feeling of being the worlds laziest and least generous person on the planet hits the newbie pretty hard on the nose… maybe it was just me. It was exciting to hear how much we can get done today (not in the future)… I was impressed by stories about the impact of simple agricultural tools being shared to fight global hunger…. and the limited costs to expand these proven “old school” solutions.

4) The fourth was the incredible emotional well-being that I received as a newbie from the energy of the presenters. Across the board you get a wave of powerful and activated energy from these leaders. I felt like I was baptized in the Church of Modern Progressive Action. And it has you singing halleluiahs all up and down the aisle. I thought John Belushi was going to ask me to get the Blues Brothers back together. For me, my new groove is to learn more about reforming education and find my way to contribute. It’s a big, hairy, nasty challenge and important as I’m a dad too!

That’s enough from a simple newbie. Thanks to TED for opening my mind and then putting nitro in it and hitting the “burst” button. Until next TED…

ONLY AT TED MOMENTS

Ross: Al Gore as a background “singer” supporting Amanda Palmer’s dual musical tribute to David Bowie and astronaut/TED speaker Chris Hadfield

Ross: Mentally calculating the ROI of my MBA degree during dinner with two fellow business school classmates who founded and sold multiple tech $tart-up$

Peter: Dinner with the physicist responsible for creating the 4 kilometer long vaccum tube used to measure changes in mass that occurred when two stars collided galaxies away — this guy proved that Einstein’s theory of relativity was true. Puts my work on marketing strategy in a very new and humble perspective

Peter: Attempting to engage Harrison Ford in a conversation, but managing barely more than a “Hi” and an awkward wave

Peter: Getting to meet and speak with Gordon Segal (founder of Crate & Barrel) a legend and icon in my field

The authors celebrating their 35-year friendship at TED 2016

Ross's TED Blog

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