TED conference provides glimpse into the future

by Pam Maples

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

7 April 2008

Robert J. Lang, origami artist and speaker at TED Conference 2008, displays his work, in Monterey, California. (Robert J. Lang/TED/MCT) 

MONTEREY, Calif.—Renowned geneticist Craig Venter took the stage first. He was followed by a young scientist who has developed techniques for folding and manipulating DNA, who was followed by a British psychologist who studies memes—ideas that spread. And this session of the TED conference closed with presidential historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin taking her turn at addressing the question “What is Life?”

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) has become popular for its intense program of tightly timed, polished presentations by people from a range of disciplines. Conference producers have a reputation for surprising the audience of overachievers with at least a speaker or two who arrive largely unknown, but set off a buzz with especially moving or cutting-edge presentations.

At this year’s gathering in Monterey, Calif., in March, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor was a crowd favorite for her vivid recollection of her massive stroke. So was doctoral student Johnny Chung Lee, whose short demonstration of some of his technology hacks was a late addition to the program.

Other speakers included former Vice President Al Gore, Queen Noor of Jordan, author Amy Tan, political scientist Samantha Power and an array of physicists, anthropologists, paleontologists, artists, designers and musicians. The audience of 1,200 was equally eclectic: a handful of Hollywood celebrities, several technology billionaires, social entrepreneurs and researchers. Despite the $6,000 fee, the non-profit Sapling Foundation that runs the conference had another 3,000 on a waiting list for the four-day event.

In the summer of 2006, TED began putting the videos of its “TED talks” on its Web site for viewing or free downloading. TED Media Director June Cohen said the decision has expanded the organization’s reach beyond expectations. About 15 million people have viewed 30 million talks, and the site has about 1 million visitors per month. There now are more than 200 videos available, including of Venter and Taylor’s talks, and about three are added weekly. The site is www.ted.com.


Microsoft’s online WorldWide Telescope launches this spring, using a technology that combines feeds from satellites and the best space and ground-based telescopes around the world. Science educator Roy Gould, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Microsoft’s Curtis Wong gave attendees a sneak peak of the new web-based tool for exploring the universe during the TED Conference 2008, in Monterey, California. Pictured is a giant Hubble mosaic of the crab nebula (TED/MCT)


Microsoft’s online WorldWide Telescope launches this spring, using a technology that combines feeds from satellites and the best space- and ground-based telescopes around the world. Science educator Roy Gould, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Microsoft’s Curtis Wong gave TED attendees a sneak peak of the new web-based tool for exploring the universe. The virtual telescope, which will be a free desktop download, enables panning and zooming across the night sky by blending images and data from multiple sources.

“It’s going to change the way we do astronomy,” Gould said. “It’s going to change the way we teach astronomy. And most importantly, I think, it’s going to change the way we see ourselves in the universe.”

Gould said he believes the WorldWide Telescope will be transformative because it enables individuals to experience the universe holistically, to tour it with astronomers as guides and to create their own tours and share those with friends.

Video of Wong and Gould’s brief TED presentation:

More about the project here.



Robert Lang, a mathematician and origami artist, dispels the common notion that origami is merely the art of folding paper to create birds or simple objects. He uses math to create origamis with hundreds of folds and intricate curves. He is a pioneer in combining the two fields and has consulted on the application of origami to address an array of engineering issues, including the packing design of automotive air bags. He has presented technical papers on origami-math at several mathematical and computer science meetings. He worked as a physicist and engineer for several years before becoming a full-time origami artist. He has written several instructional origami books, and has created origami for print and broadcast advertisements. Lang explains that origamis revolve around crease patterns and follow four rules: colorability (they can be colored so that two colors never touch), even numbers of folds, alternate angles and ordered layers (a sheet can never penetrate a fold).

Lang’s Web site.

In this Mitsubishi commercial for which he created the origami, only the car is real:



Computer scientist Paul Rothemund practices “DNA origami,” folding long, single strands of DNA into sometimes whimsical, familiar shapes—a smiley face, the shape of China. Why? Rothemund, who won a MacArthur genius grant last year, says he and colleagues believe the techniques of DNA origami can be applied to figure out how to build faster, smaller computers. He sees a lot of similarities between genetic and computer programs, including a sensitivity to small changes that in turn can result in large changes.

“I think life is about computation,” said Rothemund, a senior research fellow at California Institute of Technology. “Remember, to create life’s very complex forms, life performs computations.”

Video of Rothemund’s presentation at TED 2007:

Rothemund’s Web site.


Tod Machover presents his hyperscore software application at TED Conference 2008, in Monterey, California. (Andrew Heavens/TED/MCT)


Composer and inventor Tod Machover is working on ways to help physically and mentally disabled people compose and perform music.

Machover, head of MIT Media Lab’s Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future Group, believes people get more from making music than from just listening to it. And he has developed several technologies that enable people with no training to make music. He created the Brain Opera, which lets the audience, live and via the Internet, be involved in creating and performing a piece of music. And his lab’s research led to the phenomenally popular Guitar Hero.

“Everybody in the world has the power to be part of music,” Machover says.

He also developed “hyperscore,” a software application that lets anyone use colors and lines to compose music that can then be converted into musical notation.

In recent years, he has focused on making it easier for children to make music and he has started working with physically and mentally disabled patients at Tewksbury Hospital near Boston.

Hyperscore has been used successfully by some Tewksbury patients, most notably Dan Ellsey, who has severe cerebral palsy.

Doctoral student Adam Boulanger has built a system that enables Ellsey to perform his music using movements of his head, which are relayed by an infrared head tracking device he wears. Machover concludes his presentation at TED by bringing Ellsey, 34, onstage to perform one of his compositions, “My Eagle Song.”

Beautiful music fills the hall. The expression on Ellsey’s face is pure jubiliation.

Opera of the Future Group Web site.

Video of a presentation by Machover and musical performance by Ellsey.



Sometimes, TED organizers introduce a technology whiz who wows even the most cutting-edge thinkers in the crowd. This year, doctoral student Johnny Lee drew the “ooohs” and “aahs” and two standing ovations by showing modifications he has made to create new uses for a Nintendo Wii controller. Lee, who researches human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has become a hit on YouTube with his how-to videos that explain his modifications, or hacks, of the controller. In his brief TED talk, he explained that the tip of a Nintendo Wii remote controller ($40) holds a pretty sophisticated infrared camera. He demonstrated how, by pointing it to an LCD display or a projection screen, a person can create a low-cost white board. Or, because the camera can see multiple dots, the board becomes a multi-touch screen.

Some of Lee’s YouTube videos:

His Web site.



A photographer, Chris Jordan tries to visually represent otherwise numbing statistics in a way “we can feel them, so they will matter to us.” Jordan believes numbers can get so big, “we can’t make meaning out of these enormous statistics.”

In his latest series of large-scale photographs, “Running the Numbers,” Jordan tries to show the scale of Americans’ consumption.

From a distance, the photos are familiar—sometimes iconic—images. But zoom in close and you’ll see he’s composed them by arranging materials in numbers that represent certain habits.

“I have this fear that we are not feeling enough as a culture now,” Jordan said. “We’ve lost our sense of outrage, our anger and our grief over outrages occurring because of our behaviors.”

More of Jordan’s photographs.

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