Harvard physicist Lisa Randall is so nervous in her delivery on stage at TED (and she's losing her voice) that it's hard to keep up with what she's saying. She's a particles specialist, and her talk is about "extra dimensions" (beyond the three dimensions we're all accustomed to: length, width and height). Why, actually, are we even worried about extra dimensions, since we can't see nor experience them anyway? One of the reasons, she says, is: why not? More seriously, the interest in extra dimensions is driven by the existence of the "string theory", which, if proven, could be a "theory of everything". She mentions the Large Hadron Collider in construction at CERN in Geneva, an accelerator that should be switched on in 2007, and where "we could be able to observe particles that travel in the extra dimensions".
Paul Berg is a biochemist at Stanford and the 1980 co-Nobel Prize for chemistry. His main work is on recombinant DNA - think of it as a way to "edit" two DNA sequences to produce a new one. He talks about the way genomic information is encoded.
Bill Joy (bio) is a technology icon - he co-founded Sun Microsysytems and co-developed some key software such as Java. In recent years however he has mostly been heard sounding the alarm concerning the risks of genetic engineering and nanotech, starting with his famous April 2000 cover story in Wired magazine "Why the future doesn't need us":
The 21st-century technologies - genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) - are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.
Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.
I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.
Bill start his speech by pointing out that individuals and small groups are today superempowered by easy access to biological and other technologies ("you can download the gene sequences of pathogens off the Internet if you want to"), and that represents a growing danger.
He's now writing a book building on that article and these thoughts. But he wants to use his 18 minutes to talk about "three areas that I'm particularly excited about" (note to Europeans: Americans use "excited about" to say "really interested in"):
- education: "there is alot of development left in Moore's law; it will give us another 100-fold improvement in what microchips can do, so a computer that costs 1000 USD today in 2020 will cost 10 dollars, and that would be a great tool for education"
- environment: "new materials are driving our ability to address environmental problems"
- pandemics: "we need to speed up the research and production of vaccines"
Will that solve the overall problem? "No, we can't solve a tech-generated problem with more technoloogy; what we need is better policies and better-working markets - for example factoring into the cost of doing business the cost of potential catastrophes - and to limit access to certain kinds of information. That is hard to accept for many of us who believe in free speech, but that's the price to have civilization and keep the rule of law: limit the access to this kind of knowledge".
Jeff Han of New York University, a last-minute addition to the program, gives a spectacular presentration of a computerized table developed in his lab, whose large screen includes multi-touch sensing (you can have interact with the system using several fingers - several points of contact - at the same time: think of multiple mouse or pen devices operating on the screen at the same time, just more sophisticated than that; or of multiple simultaneous users - think digital conference table, or big "brainstorm wall"). He draws, moves across documents, etc, using his fingers at an impressive speed and quality of display. There is basically no structured interface to the device: he just "navigates" in the information, zooming in and out of a map or tilting it or redistributing images on the screen just by moving his fingers on it. Producer Chris Anderson said, introducing Jeff, that "when I saw this, I had a aha! moment like when 20 years ago I saw the first Macintosh": that's an appropriate definition of what we've just seen. Jeff adds: "Google could really use one of these in their lobby". Only hiccup: the technology is called "multi-touch sensing trough frustrated total internal reflection" (I didn't make that up - go see by yourself, and do watch the video demo), these guys need some branding help. But Jeff gave the best speech of the session.
The session ends with a performance by the Children of Uganda, a troupe of about 20 children and young people (8 to 18 years of age) orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Wearing colorful traditional dresses, they perform East African songs of joy and sorrow, play (xylophone, panpipe, drums, flutes and other instruments) and dance to raise awareness about AIDS and its impact on children in Africa: despite the campaigns, the disease is spreading, and in Uganda nearly one million children under the age of 15 have lost one or both of their parents to AIDS. The organization supports two orphanages in Uganda, as well as children living with HIV-positive widowed mothers, and has over 700 children under its care.
(tags TED2006 - TED 2006)