TED

Beauty everywhere: The talks of Session 6 of TED2020

We’re six weeks into TED2020! For session 6: a celebration of beauty on every level, from planet-trekking feats of engineering to art that deeply examines our past, present, future — and much more.

Planetary scientist Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle shows off the work behind Dragonfly: a rotorcraft being developed to explore Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, by air. She speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle, planetary scientist 

Big idea: The Dragonfly Mission, set to launch in 2026, will study Titan, the largest moon orbiting Saturn. Through this mission, scientists may discover the secrets of the solar system’s origin, the history of life on Earth — and even the potential for life beyond our planet.

How? Launched in 1997, the Cassini-Huygens Mission provided scientists with incredible information about Titan, a water-based moon with remarkable similarities to Earth. We learned that Titan’s geography includes sand dunes, craters and mountains, and that vast oceans of water — perhaps 10 times as large as Earth’s total supply — lie deep underneath Titan’s surface. In many ways, Titan is the closest parallel to pre-life, early Earth, Elizabeth Turtle explains. The Cassini-Huygens Mission ended in 2004, and now hundreds of scientists across the world are working on the Dragonfly Mission, which will dramatically expand our knowledge of Titan. Unlike the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, Dragonfly will live within Titan’s atmosphere, flying across the moon to gather samples and study its chemical makeup, weather and geography. The data Dragonfly sends back may bring us closer to thrilling discoveries on the makeup of the solar system, the habitability of other planets and the beginnings of life itself. “Dragonfly is a search for greater understanding — not just of Titan and the mysteries of our solar system, but of our own origins,” Turtle says.


“Do you think human creativity matters?” asks actor, writer and director Ethan Hawke. He gives us his compelling answer at TED2020: Uncharted on June 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Ethan Hawke, actor, writer, director

Big idea: Creativity isn’t a luxury; it’s vital to the human experience.

How? We often struggle to give ourselves permission to be creative because we’re all a little suspect of our own talent, says Ethan Hawke. Recounting his own journey of creative discovery over a 30-year career in acting — along with the beauty he sees in everyday moments with his family — Hawke encourages us to reframe this counterproductive definition of human creativity. Creative expression has nothing to do with talent, he says, but rather is a process of learning who you are and how you connect to other people. Instead of giving in to the pull of old habits and avoiding new experiences — maybe you’re hesitant to enroll in that poetry course or cook that complicated 20-step recipe — Hawke urges us to engage in a rich variety of creative outlets and, most importantly, embrace feeling foolish along the way. “I think most of us really want to offer the world something of quality, something that the world will consider good or important — and that’s really the enemy,” Hawke says. “Because it’s not up to us whether what we do is any good. And if history has taught us anything, the world is an extremely unreliable critic. So, you have to ask yourself, do you think human creativity matters?”


Singer-songwriter and multiinstrumentalist Bob Schneider performs for TED2020: Uncharted on June 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Keeping the beauty of the session flowing, singer-songwriter Bob Schneider performs “Joey’s Song,” “The Other Side” and “Lorena.”


“We have thousands of years of ancient knowledge that we just need to listen to and allow it to expand our thinking about designing symbiotically with nature,” says architect Julia Watson. “By listening, we’ll only become wiser and ready for those 21st-century challenges that we know will endanger our people and our planet.” She speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Julia Watson, architect, landscape designer, author

Big idea: Ancient Indigenous technology can teach us how to design with nature, instead of against it, when facing challenges. We just need to look and listen. 

How? In her global search for ancient design systems and solutions, Julia Watson has encountered wondrous innovations to counter climate challenges that we all can learn from. “High-tech solutions are definitely going to help us solve some of these problems, but in our rush towards the future, we tend to forget about the past in other parts of the world,” she says. Watson takes us to the villages of Khasi, India, where people have built living bridges woven from ancient roots that strengthen over time to enable travel when monsoon season hits. She introduces us to a water-based civilization in the Mesopotamian Marshlands, where for 6,000 years, the Maʻdān people have lived on manmade islands built from harvested reeds. And she shows us a floating African city in Benin, where buildings are stilted above flooded land. “I’m an architect, and I’ve been trained to seek solutions in permanence, concrete, steel, glass. These are all used to build a fortress against nature,” Watson says. “But my search for ancient systems and Indigenous technologies has been different. It’s been inspired by an idea that we can seed creativity in crisis.”


TED Fellow and theater artist Daniel Alexander Jones lights up the stage at TED2020: Uncharted on June 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

TED Fellow and theater artist Daniel Alexander Jones lights up the (virtual) stage by channeling Jomama Jones, a mystical alter ego who shares some much-needed wisdom. “What if I told you, ‘You will surprise yourself’?” Jomama asks. “What if I told you, ‘You will be brave enough’?”


“It takes creativity to be able to imagine a future that is so different from the one before you,” says artist Titus Kaphar. He speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 25, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Titus Kaphar, artist

Big idea: Beauty can open our hearts to difficult conversations.

How? A painting’s color, form or composition pulls you in, functioning as a kind of Trojan horse out of which difficult conversations can emerge, says artist Titus Kaphar. (See for yourself in his unforgettable live workshop from TED2017.) Two weeks after George Floyd’s death and the Movement for Black Lives protests that followed, Kaphar reflects on his evolution as an artist and takes us on a tour of his work — from The Jerome Project, which examines the US criminal justice system through the lens of 18th- and 19th-century American portraiture, to his newest series, From a Tropical Space, a haunting body of work about Black mothers whose children have disappeared. In addition to painting, Kaphar shares the work and idea behind NXTHVN, an arts incubator and creative community for young people in his hometown of Dixwell, Connecticut. “It takes creativity to be able to imagine a future that is so different from the one before you,” he says.

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The Audacious Project expands its support of pandemic relief and recovery work

The Audacious Project, a funding initiative housed at TED, is continuing its support of solutions tailored to COVID-19 rapid response and long-term recovery. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to develop, The Audacious Project is committed to targeting key systems in crisis and supporting them as they rebuild better and with greater resilience. In this phase, more than 55 million dollars have been catalyzed towards Fast Grants, an initiative to accelerate COVID-19 related scientific research; GiveDirectly, which distributes unconditional cash transfers to those most in need; and Harlem Children’s Zone, one of the pioneers in neighborhood-specific “cradle-to-career” programs in support of low-income children and communities in the United States.

Accelerating our scientific understanding of COVID-19 and providing immediate relief to communities hardest hit by the virus are just two of the myriad challenges we must address in the face of this pandemic,” said Anna Verghese, Executive Director of The Audacious Project. “With our COVID-19 rapid response cohort, we are supporting organizations with real-world solutions that are actionable now. But that aid should extend beyond recovery, which is why we look forward to the work these organizations will continue to do to ensure better systems for the future.” 

Funding directed toward these three new initiatives is in addition to the more than 30 million dollars that was dedicated to Partners In Health, Project ECHO and World Central Kitchen for their COVID-19 rapid response work earlier this year.


Announcing three new projects in the Audacious COVID-19 response cohort

Fast Grants aims to accelerate funding for the development of treatments and vaccines and to further scientific understanding of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Fast Grants)

Fast Grants

The big idea: Though significant inroads have been made to advance our understanding of how the novel coronavirus spreads, and encouraging progress is underway in the development of vaccines and treatments, there are still many unknowns. We need to speed up the pace of scientific discovery in this area now more than ever, but the current systems for funding research do not meet this urgent need. Fast Grants is looking to solve that problem. They have created and are deploying a highly credible model to accelerate funding for the development of treatments and vaccines and to further scientific understanding of COVID-19. By targeting projects that demand greater speed and flexibility than traditional funding methods can offer, they will accelerate scientific discovery that can have an immediate impact and provide follow-on funding for promising early-stage discoveries.

How they’ll do it: Since March, Fast Grants has distributed 22 million dollars to fund 127 projects, leveraging a diverse panel of 20 experts to vet and review projects across a broad range of scientific disciplines. With Audacious funding, they will catalyze 80 to 115 research projects, accelerate timelines by as much as six to nine months and, in many cases, support projects that would otherwise go unfunded. This will accelerate research in testing, treatments, vaccines and many other areas critically needed to save lives and safely reopen economies. They will also build a community to share results and track progress while also connecting scientists to other funding platforms and research teams that can further advance the work. 


GiveDirectly helps families living in extreme poverty by making unconditional cash transfers to them via mobile phones. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

GiveDirectly

The big idea: The COVID-19 pandemic could push more than 140 million people globally into extreme poverty. As the pandemic hampers humanitarian systems that typically address crises, the ability to deliver aid in person has never been more complicated. Enter GiveDirectly. For nearly a decade, they have provided no-strings-attached cash transfers to the world’s poorest people. Now they are leveraging the growth in the adoption of mobile technologies across Sub-Saharan Africa to design and deploy a breakthrough, fully remote model of humanitarian relief to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

How they’ll do it: Over the next 12 months, GiveDirectly will scale their current model to provide unconditional cash transfers to more than 300,000 people who need it most. GiveDirectly will enroll and identify recipients without in-person contact, first using the knowledge of community-based organizations to identify and target beneficiaries within their existing networks, and second by leveraging data from national telephone companies to target those most in need. GiveDirectly will also systematize the underlying processes and algorithms so that they can be deployed for future disasters, thereby demonstrating a new model for rapid humanitarian relief.


Harlem Children’s Zone, one of the leading evidence-based, Black-led organizations in the US, is supercharging efforts to address Black communities’ most urgent needs and support recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo courtesy of Harlem Children’s Zone)

Harlem Children’s Zone

The big idea: In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black communities. Not only are Black people being infected by the virus and dying at greater rates, the effects of the economic crisis are also hitting hardest vulnerable communities that were already facing a shrinking social safety net. At the onset of the pandemic, Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), one of the leading evidence-based, Black-led organizations in the US, pioneered a comprehensive approach to emergency response and recovery. The model is focused on five urgent areas: bridging the digital divide, preventing learning loss, mitigating the mental health crisis and providing economic relief and recovery.

How they’ll do it: Based in Harlem, New York, HCZ is leveraging deeply rooted community trust and best-in-class partners to deploy vital emergency relief and wrap-around support, including: health care information and protective gear to keep communities safe from the virus; quality, developmentally appropriate distance-learning resources, while developing plans for safe school reentry; and the provision of cash relief. They are also equipping backbone organizations across the US with the capacity to execute on a community-driven vision of their model nationally. They will be working side-by-side with leading, anchor institutions in six cities — Minneapolis, Oakland, Newark, Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta — to supercharge efforts to address Black communities’ most urgent needs and support recovery.


To learn more about The Audacious Project, visit https://audaciousproject.org.

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Hope, action, change: The talks of Session 5 of TED2020

Daring, bold, systems-disrupting change requires big dreams and an even bigger vision. For Session 5 of TED2020, the Audacious Project, a collaborative funding initiative housed at TED, highlighted bold plans for social change from Southern New Hampshire University, SIRUM, BRAC, Harlem Children’s Zone, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), Project CETI and One Acre Fund. From aiding the ultra-poor to upending medicine pricing to ensuring all communities are visible on a map, these solutions are uniquely positioned to help us rebuild key systems and push the boundaries of what’s possible through breakthrough science and technology. Learn more about these thrilling projects and how you can help them change the world.

“We can create radical access to medications based on a fundamental belief that people who live in one of the wealthiest nations in the world can and should have access to medicine they need to survive and to thrive,” says Kiah Williams, cofounder of SIRUM. She speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Kiah Williams, cofounder of SIRUM

Big idea: No one should have to choose between paying bills or affording lifesaving medications. 

How? Every day in the US, people must make impossible health decisions at the intersection of life and livelihood. The result is upwards of ten thousand deaths annually — more than opioid overdoses and car accidents combined — due to the high prices of prescription drugs. Kiah Williams and her team at SIRUM are tapping into an alternative that circumvents the traditional medical supply chain while remaining budget-friendly to underserved communities: unused medication. Sourced from manufacturer surplus, health care facilities (like hospitals, pharmacies and nursing homes) and personal donations, Williams and her team partner with medical professionals to provide prescriptions for conditions, ranging from heart disease to mental health, at flat, transparent costs. They currently supply 150,000 people with access to medicine they need — and they’re ready to expand. In the next five years, SIRUM plans to reach one million people across 12 states with a billion dollars’ worth of unused medicine, with the hopes of driving down regional pricing in low-income communities. “We can create radical access to medications based on a fundamental belief that people who live in one of the wealthiest nations in the world can and should have access to medicine they need to survive and to thrive,” Williams says.


Shameran Abed, senior director of the Microfinance and Ultra-Poor Graduation Program at BRAC, shares his organization’s work lifting families out of ultra-poverty at TED2020: Uncharted on June 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Shameran Abed, senior director of the Microfinance and Ultra-Poor Graduation Program at BRAC

Big idea: Let’s stop imagining a world without ultra-poverty and start building it instead.

How? At the end of 2019, approximately 400 million people worldwide lived in ultra-poverty — a situation that goes beyond the familiar monetary definition, stripping individuals of their dignity, purpose, self-worth, community and ability to imagine a better future. When he founded BRAC in 1972, Shameran Abed’s father saw that for poverty reduction programs to work, a sense of hope and self-worth needs to be instilled alongside assets. He pioneered a graduation approach that, over the course of two years, addressed both the deficit of income and hope in four steps: (1) supporting the basic needs with food or cash, (2) guiding the individual towards a decent livelihood by providing an asset like livestock and training them to earn money from it, (3) training them to save, budget and invest the new wealth, (4) integrating the individual socially. Since starting this program in 2002, two million Bangladeshi women have lifted themselves and their families out of ultra-poverty. With BRAC at a proven and effective nationwide scale, the organization plans to aid other governments in adopting and scaling graduation programs themselves — helping another 21 million people lift themselves out of ultra-poverty across eight countries over the next six years, with BRAC teams onsite and embedded in each country to provide an obtainable, foreseeable future for all. “Throughout his life, [my father] saw optimism triumph over despair; that when you light the spark of self-belief in people, even the poorest can transform their lives,” Abed says.

Pop-soul singer Emily King performs her songs “Distance” and “Sides” at TED2020: Uncharted on June 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Lending her extraordinary voice to keep the session lively, singer and songwriter Emily King performs her songs “Distance” and “Sides” from her home in New York City.


Chrystina Russell, executive director of SNHU’s Global Education Movement, is helping displaced people earn college degrees. She speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Chrystina Russell, executive director of SNHU’s Global Education Movement

Big idea: Expand access to accredited, college-level education to marginalized populations by reaching learners wherever they are in the world.

How? Education empowers — and perhaps nowhere more so than in the lives of displaced people, says executive director of SNHU’s Global Education Movement (GEM) Chrystina Russell. Harnessing the power of education to improve the world lies at the foundation of GEM, a program that offers accredited bachelor’s degrees and pathways to employment for refugees in Lebanon, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda and South Africa. Today, the humanitarian community understands that global displacement will be a permanent problem, and that traditional education models remain woefully inaccessible to these vulnerable populations. The magic of GEM, Russell says, is that it addresses refugee lives as they currently exist. Degrees are competency-based, and without classes, lectures, due dates or final exams, students choose where and when to learn. GEM has served more than 1,000 learners to date, helping them obtain bachelor’s degrees and earn incomes at twice the average of their peers. Only three percent of refugees have access to higher education; GEM is now testing its ability to scale competency-based online learning in an effort to empower greater numbers of marginalized people through higher education. “This is a model that really stops putting time and university policies and procedures at the center — and instead puts the student at the center,” Russell says.


David Gruber shares his mind-blowing work using AI to understand and communicate with sperm whales. He speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

David Gruber, marine biologist, explorer, professor

Big idea: Through the innovations of machine learning, we may be able to translate the astounding languages of sperm whales and crack the interspecies communication code. 

How? Sperm whales are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet; they live in complex matriarchal societies and communicate with each other through a series of regionally specific click sequences called codas. These codas may be the key to unlocking interspecies communication, says David Gruber. He shares a bold prediction: with the help of machine learning technology, we will soon be able to understand the languages of sperm whales — and talk back to them. Researchers have developed a number of noninvasive robots to record an enormous archive of codas, focusing on the intimate relationship between mother and calf. Using this data, carefully trained algorithms will be able to decode these codas and map the sounds and logic of sperm whale communication. Gruber believes that by deeply listening to sperm whales, we can create a language blueprint that will enable us to communicate with countless other species around the world. “By listening deeply to nature, we can change our perspective of ourselves and reshape our relationship with all life on this planet,” he says.


“Farmers stand at the center of the world,” says Andrew Youn, sharing One Acre Fund’s work helping small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. He speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Andrew Youn, social entrepreneur

Big idea: By equipping small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with the tools and resources they need to expand their work, they will be able to upend cycles of poverty and materialize their innovation, knowledge and drive into success for their local communities and the world.

How? Most small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are women who nourish their families and communities and fortify their local economies. But they’re often not able to access the technology, resources or capital they need to streamline their farms, which leads to small harvests and cycles of poverty. The One Acre Fund, a two-time Audacious Project recipient, seeks to upend that cycle by providing resources like seeds and fertilizer, mentorship in the form of local support guides and training in modern agricultural practices. The One Acre Fund intends to reach three milestones by 2026: to serve 2.5 million families (which include 10 million children) every year through their direct full-service program; to serve an additional 4.3 million families per year with the help of local government and private sector partners; and to shape a sustainable green revolution by reimagining our food systems and launching a campaign to plant one billion trees in the next decade. The One Acre Fund enables farmers to transform their work, which vitalizes their families, larger communities and countries. “Farmers stand at the center of the world,” Youn says.


Rebecca Firth is helping map the earth’s most vulnerable populations using a free, open-source software tool. She speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Rebecca Firth, director of partnerships and community at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT)

Big idea: A new tool to add one billion people to the map, so first responders and aid organizations can save lives. 

How? Today, more than one billion people are literally not on the map, says Rebecca Firth, director of partnerships and community at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), an organization that helps map the earth’s most vulnerable populations using a free, open-source software tool. The tool works in two stages: first, anyone anywhere can map buildings and roads using satellite images, then local community members fill in the map by identifying structures and adding place names. HOT’s maps help organizations on the ground save lives; they’ve been used by first responders after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, by health care workers distributing polio vaccines in Nigeria and by refugee aid organizations in South Sudan, Syria and Venezuela. Now, HOT’s goal is to map areas in 94 countries that are home to one billion of the world’s most vulnerable populations — in just five years. To do this, they’re recruiting more than one million mapping volunteers, updating their tech and, importantly, raising awareness about the availability of their maps to local and international humanitarian organizations. “It’s about creating a foundation on which so many organizations will thrive,” Firth says. “With open, free, up-to-date maps, those programs will have more impact than they would otherwise, leading to a meaningful difference in lives saved or improved.”


“Our answer to COVID-19 — the despair and inequities plaguing our communities — is targeting neighborhoods with comprehensive services. We have certainly not lost hope, and we invite you to join us on the front lines of this war,” says Kwame Owusu-Kesse, COO of Harlem Children’s Zone. He speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Kwame Owusu-Kesse, COO, Harlem Children’s Zone

Big idea: In the midst of a pandemic that’s disproportionately devastating the Black community, how do we ensure that at-risk children can continue their education in a safe and healthy environment?

How? Kwame Owusu-Kesse understands that in order to surpass America’s racist economic, educational, health care and judicial institutions, a child must have a secure home and neighborhood. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Harlem Children’s Zone has taken on a comprehensive mission to provide uninterrupted, high-quality remote education, as well as food and financial security, unfettered online access and mental health services. Through these programs, Owusu-Kesse hopes to rescue a generation that risks losing months (or years) of education to the impacts of quarantine. “Our answer to COVID-19 — the despair and inequities plaguing our communities — is targeting neighborhoods with comprehensive services,” he says. “We have certainly not lost hope, and we invite you to join us on the front lines of this war.”

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Conversations on the future of vaccines, tech, government and art: Week 5 of TED2020

Week 5 of TED2020 featured wide-ranging discussions on the quest for a coronavirus vaccine, the future of the art world, what it’s like to lead a country during a pandemic and much more. Below, a recap of insights shared.

Jerome Kim, Director General of the International Vaccine Institute, shares an update on the quest for a coronavirus vaccine in conversation with TED science curator David Biello at TED2020: Uncharted on June 15, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Jerome Kim, Director General of the International Vaccine Institute

Big idea: There’s a lot of work still to be done, but the world is making progress on developing a COVID-19 vaccine. 

How? A normal vaccine takes five to 10 years to develop and costs about a billion dollars, with a failure rate of 93 percent. Under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic, however, we’re being asked to speed things up to within a window of 12 to 18 months, says Jerome Kim. How are things going? He updates us on the varied field of vaccine candidates and approaches, from Moderna’s mRNA vaccine to AstraZeneca’s vectored vaccine to whole inactivated vaccines, and how these companies are innovating to develop and manufacture their products in record time. In addition to the challenge of making a sufficient amount of a safe, effective vaccine (at the right price), Kim says we must think about how to distribute it for the whole world — not just rich nations. The question of equity and access is the toughest one of all, he says, but the answer will ultimately lead us out of this pandemic.


Bioethicist Nir Eyal discusses the mechanism and ethics of human challenge trials in vaccine development with head of TED Chris Anderson at TED2020: Uncharted on June 15, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Nir Eyal, Bioethicist

Big idea: Testing vaccine efficacy is normally a slow, years-long process, but we can ethically accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development through human challenge trials.

How? Thousands of people continue to die every day from COVID-19 across the globe, and we risk greater death and displacement if we rely on conventional vaccine trials, says bioethicist Nir Eyal. While typical trials observe experimental and control groups over time until they see meaningful differences between the two, Eyal proposes using human challenge trials in our search for a vaccine — an approach that deliberately exposes test groups to the virus in order to quickly determine efficacy. Human challenge trials might sound ethically ambiguous or even immoral, but Eyal suggests the opposite is true. Patients already take informed risks by participating in drug trials and live organ donations; if we look at statistical risk and use the right bioethical framework, we can potentially hasten vaccine development while maintaining tolerable risks. The key, says Eyal, is the selection criteria: by selecting young participants who are free from risk factors like hypertension, for example, the search for a timely solution to this pandemic is possible. “The dramatic number of people who could be aided by a faster method of testing vaccines matters,” he says. “It’s not the case that we are violating the rights of individuals to maximize utility. We are both maximizing utility and respecting rights, and this marriage is very compelling in defending the use of these accelerated [vaccine trial] designs.”


“What is characteristic of our people is the will to overcome the past and to move forward. Poverty is real. Inequality is real. But we also have a very determined population that embraces the notion of the Republic and the notion of citizenship,” says Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan. He speaks with head of TED Chris Anderson at TED2020: Uncharted on June 16, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan

Big Idea: Peacemaking is a discipline that must be practiced daily, both in life and politics. 

How? Having initiated sweeping economic, trade and social reforms, Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani shares key facets of peacemaking that he relies on to navigate politically sensitive relationships and the ongoing health crisis: mutual respect, listening and humanity. Giving us a glimpse of Afghanistan that goes beyond the impoverished, war-torn image painted in the media, he describes the aspirations, entrepreneurship and industry that’s very much alive there, especially in its youth and across all genders. “What I hear from all walks of life, men and women, girls and boys, [is] a quest for normalcy. We’re striving to be normal. It’s not we who are abnormal; it’s the circumstances in which we’ve been caught. And we are attempting to carve a way forward to overcome the types of turbulence that, in interaction with each other, provide an environment of continuous uncertainty. Our goal is to overcome this, and I think with the will of the people, we will be able to,” he says. President Ghani also shares perspective on Afghanistan’s relationship to China, the Taliban and Pakistan — expressing a commitment to his people and long term peace that fuels every conversation. “The ultimate goal is a sovereign, democratic, united Afghanistan at peace with itself in the world,” he says. 


“How do we make it so that if you’re having a conversation with someone and you have to be separated by thousands of miles, it feels as close to face-to-face?” asks Will Cathcart, CEO of WhatsApp. He speaks with head of TED Chris Anderson at TED2020: Uncharted on June 16, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Will Cathcart, CEO of WhatsApp

Big idea: Tech platforms have a responsibility to provide privacy and security to users.

Why? On WhatsApp, two billion users around the world send more than 100 billion messages every day. All of them are protected by end-to-end encryption, which means that the conversations aren’t stored and no one can access them — not governments, companies or even WhatsApp itself. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more of our conversations with family, friends and coworkers have to occur through digital means. This level of privacy is a fundamental right that has never been more important, says Cathcart. To ensure their encryption services aren’t misused to promote misinformation or conduct crime, WhatsApp has developed tools and protocols that keep users safe without disrupting the privacy of all of its users. “It’s so important that we match the security and privacy you have in-person, and not say, ‘This digital world is totally different: we should change all the ways human beings communicate and completely upend the rules.’ No, we should try to match that as best we can, because there’s something magical about people talking to each other privately.”


“Museums are among the few truly public democratic spaces for people to come together. We’re places of inspiration and learning, and we help expand empathy and moral thinking. We are places for difficult and courageous conversations. I believe we can, and must be, places in real service of community,” says Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum. She speaks with TED design curator Chee Pearlman at TED2020: Uncharted on June 17, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Anne Pasternak, Director of the Brooklyn Museum

Big idea: We need the arts to be able to document and reflect on what we’re living through, express our pain and joy and imagine a better future.

How? Museums are vital community institutions that reflect the memories, knowledge and dreams of a society. Located in a borough of more than 2.5 million people, the Brooklyn Museum is one of the largest and most influential museums in the world, and it serves a community that has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pasternak calls on museums to take a leading role in manifesting community visions of a better world. In a time defined by dramatic turmoil and global suffering, artists will help ignite the radial imagination that leads to cultural, political and social change, she says. Museums also have a responsibility to uplift a wide variety of narratives, taking special care to highlight communities who have historically been erased from societal remembrance and artmaking. The world has been irreversibly changed and devastated by the pandemic. It’s time to look to art as a medium of collective memorializing, mourning, healing and transformation.


“Art changes minds, shifts mentalities, changes the behavior of people and the way they think and how they feel,” says Honor Hager. She speaks with TED current affairs curator Whitney Pennington Rodgers at TED2020: Uncharted on June 17, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Honor Hager, Executive Director of the ArtScience Museum

Big Idea: Cultural institutions can care for their communities by listening to and amplifying marginalized voices.

How: The doors of Singapore’s famed ArtScience Museum building are closed — but online, the museum is engaging with its community more deeply than ever. Executive director Honor Hager shares how the museum has moved online with ArtScience at Home, a program offering online talks, streamed performances and family workshops addressing COVID-19 and our future. Reflecting on the original meaning of “curator” (from the Latin curare, or “to care”), Hager shares how ArtScience at Home aims to care for its community by listening to underrepresented groups. The program seeks out marginalized voices and provides a global platform for them to tell their own stories, unmediated and unedited, she says. Notably, the program included a screening of Salary Day by Ramasamy Madhavan, the first film made by a migrant worker in Singapore. The programming will have long-lasting effects on the museum’s curation in the future and on its international audience, Hager says. “Art changes minds, shifts mentalities, changes the behavior of people and the way they think and how they feel,” she says. “We are seeing the power of culture and art to both heal and facilitate dramatic change.”

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WHAAAAAT?: The talks of TED2020 Session 4

For Session 4 of TED2020, experts in biohacking, synthetic biology, psychology and beyond explored topics ranging from discovering the relationship between the spinal cord and asparagus to using tools of science to answer critical questions about racial bias. Below, a recap of the night’s talks and performances.

“Every scientist can tell you about the time they ignored their doubts and did the experiment that would ‘never’ work,” says biomedical researcher Andrew Pelling. “And the thing is, every now and then, one of those experiments works out.” He speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 11, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Andrew Pelling, biomedical researcher

Big idea: Could we use asparagus to repair spinal cords?

How? Andrew Pelling researches how we might use fruits, vegetables and plants to reconstruct damaged or diseased human tissues. (Check out his 2016 talk about making ears out of apples.) His lab strips these organisms of their DNA and cells, leaving just the fibers behind, which are then used as “scaffolds” to reconstruct tissue. Now, they’re busy working with asparagus, experimenting to see if the vegetable’s microchannels can guide the regeneration of cells after a spinal cord injury. There’s evidence in rats that it’s working, the first data of its kind to show that plant tissues might be capable of repairing such a complex injury. Pelling is also the cofounder of Spiderwort, a startup that’s translating these innovative discoveries into real-world applications. “Every scientist can tell you about the time they ignored their doubts and did the experiment that would ‘never’ work,” he says. “And the thing is, every now and then, one of those experiments works out.”


Synthetic designer Christina Agapakis shares projects that blur the line between art and science at TED2020: Uncharted on June 11, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Christina Agapakis, synthetic designer

Big idea: Synthetic biology isn’t an oxymoron; it investigates the boundary between nature and technology — and it could shape the future.

How: From teaching bacteria how to play sudoku to self-healing concrete, Christina Agapakis introduces us to the wonders of synthetic biology: a multidisciplinary science that seeks to create and sometimes redesign systems found in nature. “We have been promised a future of chrome, but what if the future is fleshy?” asks Agapakis. She delves into the ways biology could expand technology and alter the way we understand ourselves, exposing the surprisingly blurred lines between art, science and society. “It starts by recognizing that we as synthetic biologists are also shaped by a culture that values ‘real’ engineering more than any of the squishy stuff. We get so caught up in circuits and what happens inside of computers that we sometimes lose sight of the magic that’s happening inside of us,” says Agapakis.

Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius perform “White Lies” and “Turn It Around” at TED2020: Uncharted on June 11, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED.)

Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of indie pop band Lucius provide an enchanting musical break between talks, performing their songs “White Lies” and “Turn It Around.”


“[The] association with blackness and crime … makes its way into all of our children, into all of us. Our minds are shaped by the racial disparities we see out in the world, and the narratives that help us to make sense of the disparities we see,” says psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt. She speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 11, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Jennifer L. Eberhardt, psychologist

Big idea: We can use science to break down the societal and personal biases that unfairly target Black people.

How? When Jennifer Eberhardt flew with her five-year-old son one day, he turned to her after looking at the only other Black man on the plane and said, “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane” — showing Eberhardt undeniable evidence that racial bias seeps into every crack of society. For Eberhardt, a MacArthur-winning psychologist specializing in implicit bias, this surfaced a key question at the core of our society: How do we break down the societal and personal biases that target blackness? Just because we’re vulnerable to bias doesn’t mean we need to act on it, Eberhardt says. We can create “friction” points that eliminate impulsive social media posts based on implicit bias, such as when Nextdoor fought back against its “racial profiling problem” that required users to answer a few simple questions before allowing them to raise the alarm on “suspicious” visitors to their neighborhoods. Friction isn’t just a matter of online interaction, either. With the help of similar questions, the Oakland Police Department instituted protocols that reduce traffic stops of African-Americans by 43 percent. “Categorization and the bias that it seeds allow our brains to make judgments more quickly and efficiently,” Eberhardt says. “Just as the categories we create allow us to make quick decisions, they also reinforce bias — so the very things that help us to see the world also can blind us to it. They render our choices effortless, friction-free, yet they exact a heavy toll.”


 

Biological programmer Michael Levin (right) speaks with head of TED Chris Anderson about the wild frontiers of cellular memory at TED2020: Uncharted on June 11, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Michael Levin, biological programmer

Big idea: DNA isn’t the only builder in the biological world — there’s also an invisible electrical matrix directing cells to change into organs, telling tadpoles to become frogs, and instructing flatworms to regenerate new bodies once sliced in half. If Michael Levin and his colleagues can learn this cellular “machine language,” human beings may be one step closer to curing birth defects, eliminating cancer and evading aging.

How: As cells become organs, systems and bodies, they communicate via an electrical system dictating where the finished parts will go. Guided by this cellular network, organisms grow, transform and even build new limbs (or bodies) after trauma. At Michael Levin’s lab, scientists are cracking this code — and have even succeeded in creating autonomous organisms out of skin cells by altering the cell electrically without genetic manipulation. Mastering this code could not only allow humans to create microscopic biological “xenobots” to rebuild and medicate our bodies from the inside but also let us to grow new organs — and perhaps rejuvenate ourselves as we age. “We are now beginning to crack this morphogenetic code to ask: How is it that these tissues store a map of what to do?” Levin asks. “[How can we] go in and rewrite that map to new outcomes?”


“My vision for the future is that when things come to life, they do so with joy,” says Ali Kashani. He speaks at TED2020: Uncharted on June 11, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Ali Kashani, VP of special projects at Postmates

Big idea: Robots are becoming a part of everyday life in urban centers, which means we’ll have to design them to be accessible, communicative and human-friendly.

How? On the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles, delivery robots bustle along neighborhood sidewalks to drop-off packages and food. With potential benefits ranging from environmental responsibility to community-building, these robots offer us an incredible glimpse into the future. The challenge now is ensuring that robots can move out of the lab and fit into our world and among us as well, says Kashani. At Postmates, Kashani designs robots with human reaction in mind. Instead of frightening, dystopian imagery, he wants people to understand robots as familiar and friendly. This is why Postmates’s robots are reminiscent of beloved characters like the Minions and Wall-E; they can use their eyes to communicate with humans and acknowledge obstacles like traffic stops in real-time. There are so many ways robots can help us and our communities: picking up extra food from restaurants for shelters, delivering emergency medication to those in need and more. By designing robots to integrate into our physical and social infrastructures, we can welcome them to the world seamlessly and create a better future for all. “My vision for the future is that when things come to life, they do so with joy,” Kashani says.

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