TEDActive 2013: Don’t Ask for Permission. Ask for Forgiveness.
by James Yeats Smith, filed from TEDActive 2013, Palm Springs. Wednesday, 27 February. The ingenuity, bravery and resilience of today’s speakers were a rare sight to behold. Each of the four sessions; Disrupt, Dream, Create & Sustain brought the crowd to its feet at least once and out of the four, three featured talks by fellow South Africans.
Surprisingly it wasn’t my personal deity, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solar City that spurred the crowd response I had anticipated (despite being compared to Steve Jobs by TED Curator, Chris Anderson). Nor was it the ungainly presentation by Lesley Perkes that lacked cohesion and left everyone feeling awkward and confused, but came instead from a much more unlikely and unexpected source, Allan Savory. Delivering his talk with tremendous eloquence and clarity, the conservationist received a lengthy standing ovation for his noble fight against desertification of the world’s grasslands. Admittedly, it didn’t seem like the kind of topic that would get the crowd juiced and elicit such an overwhelming surge of support, but that’s exactly what makes this conference so unique.
Staying in the vein of the unexpected, Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, made a surprise appearance to demonstrate Google’s latest innovation, Google Glass, a product that displays information in a smart phone like format, freeing up your hands and enabling you to navigate your digital interactions via an optical display. Asked by Chris Anderson at the end of his talk if this product shouldn’t perhaps have come from Apple, there was a pregnant pause before Sergey sarcastically rebutted, “Well thanks Chris. I appreciate your confidence in Google’s technology…” an eerie silence rang out across the theater, something I actually found rather refreshing.
The most profound and certainly the most iconoclastic of all the speakers was futurist, Stewart Brand. Brand intends to re-create, or “de-extinct” certain animals that have disappeared from the planet by using cutting edge biotechnology developed by his wife, Ryan Phelan and George Church from the company, DNA Direct. By harvesting ancient DNA from extinct animals they’ll be able to sequence the genomes of species and resurrect them by implanting germ plasma into animals from the same genus. The result? Brand and his team have performed the first ‘de-extinction’ in history by successfully breeding the departed Pyrenean ibex in Northern Spain. Granted, resurrecting the woolly mammoth using ancient DNA my sound like mad science, but Brand’s Revive & Restore project has an entirely rational goal: to learn what causes extinctions so we can protect currently endangered species, preserve genetic and biological diversity, repair depleted ecosystems and essentially, undo the harm that humans have caused in the past.
After the talk I picked up ‘Regenesis’ from the TEDBookstore by a member of Brand’s team, George Church, which outlines how synthetic biology will reinvent nature and ourselves. Church is widely considered one of the most brilliant scientists in the world and if the opening sentence, “What follows is the greatest story ever” is anything to go by, I would strongly recommend getting your hands on a copy.
Do we want extinct species back? Well, tune into the live stream from the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington for the TEDxDeExtinction debate on 15 March to see a myriad of perspectives on what is surely one of the most exciting and frightening technological advancements in human history.
After breaking for lunch with the co-founder of Groupon and an engineer from Tesla Motors, I returned to the theater and surrendered myself to notion that I don’t need to work harder, I need to work smarter. It sounds simple, but we’re so conditioned to feel that long hours are directly related to productivity that it may take quite a bit of practice and recalibrating to truly understand what this really means.
The next speaker however seemed to have understood this at birth. After losing a family friend to pancreatic cancer, fifteen year old, Jack Andraka has been hailed as the Edison of our time. Jack decided that the diagnostic systems currently at our avail were simply not effective enough at early cancer detection, so he decided to improve it. Carbon nanotubes, a biology lecture on antibodies and a flash of insight led Jack to design a cheaper, more sensitive cancer detector. Andraka’s invention has shown over 90% accuracy in early detection of cancer markers, costs a mere $3 and earned him the 2012 Intel Science Fair grand prize, and the most violent applause I have ever had the privilege of participating in. Mind bending.
I could go on, but time to run and meet my new Intel buddies for more chatter about mobile futures, which after today’s fantastic showing is not at all intimidating.
Don’t sweat the technique. JYS.
– For more stories for TEDActive 2013 be sure to check back tomorrow
– James Yeats Smith is an award winning Creative Director and writer focused on the convergence of marketing, entertainment and technology. He is based between New York, Cape Town & Johannesburg.
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