Last year was my first time at TED’s mainstage conference in Vancouver, and it was an incredible whirlwind of an experience. While I was excited to hear my fellow speakers’ talks, I spent most of my time sweating my own preparation and being incredibly nervous about what speaking at TED would be like.
(You can see the results of all that preparation here, in my TED2016 talk.)
So I was thrilled to go back to Vancouver for the 2017 conference and experience TED in a different light. From the moment I got onto the plane, this year felt different. Last year I was a little panicky. This year I was excited and relaxed.
I got to just be a TED attendee, a member of the audience experiencing what regular TED attendees call “my yearly vacation for my brain.
This year’s theme was “The Future You,” and the nearly 2,000 attendees were focused on how the latest innovations in medicine, tech, science, and psychology are giving us the tools to become our most powerful selves.
The lineup was stacked with stars such as Elon Musk, Tim Ferriss, The Pope, and Serena Williams, along with lesser-known (but no less impressive) innovators in bugs, microbes, and telomeres.
I got to experience The Void, a new virtual reality experience of Ghostbusters that engages all five senses (it even sprayed me with water!), and I got to explore the physics behind the Copenhagen Wheel, a cycling innovation that will transform the way we think about commuting.
But of course, the core of TED is the talks, and everyone who stepped into that iconic red circle offered incredible insights that I couldn’t wait to take back to Austin.
Here are a few of my favorites.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Emphasized the Future Us
On the first day of the conference, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks offered a small tweak to the theme. In a tumultuous moment for our global community, he said, we’re too focused on ourselves: “The icon of our age is the selfie.”
Instead of “you” or “me,” he said, the way to move forward is to focus on us—on community and collaboration.
“When we have too much of the ‘I’ and not enough of the ‘we,’ we find ourselves vulnerable, fearful and alone. […] We need to renew those face-to-face encounters with the people not like us in order to realize that we can disagree strongly and still stay friends. In those encounters, we discover that the people not like us are just people, like us.”
Chess Superstar Garry Kasparov Reminded Us of Our Humanity
The greatest chess player in history, Garry Kasparov’s ego took a big hit in 1997 when he lost a match to IBM’s supercomputer. In his talk, he recalled the very human emotions and doubts he brought into the match. “The only thing I knew for sure was Deep Blue had no such worries at all.”
His takeaway from that day, and the lesson he shared with TED attendees last week, is that our best weapon in the “war” against the machines is our humanity—we can let the machines take over in the areas they have us beat, and take advantage of the opportunity to focus on the characteristics that make us human.
“If we fail, it will not be because our machines were too intelligent or not intelligent enough. If we fail, it’s because we grew complacent and limited our ambition. There’s one thing only humans can do, and that’s dream—so let us dream big.”
Ray Dalio Revealed the Aggregate Decision-Making Algorithms He Uses to Make Decisions at Bridgewater
When Dalio made a losing bet that nearly tanked his company in the ‘80s, he realized he needed to build a culture of “radical truthfulness and radical transparency” in order to overcome our own biases. Because we fail to question our own opinions, the collective decision is often better than the individual decision—if properly considered.
“One of the greatest tragedies of mankind is people arrogantly, naively holding opinions that are wrong and not putting them out there to stress-test.”
So he began asking staffers to evaluate each of their colleagues in every meeting and interaction, then tracking and analyzing those evaluations with algorithms to identify the best ways to collaborate.
His dream? A real-time, in-meeting aggregator that sorts employees’ individual opinions to help them step out of their own biases and objectively identify the right decision.
Siri Creator Tom Gruber Encouraged Human-Machine Collaboration
Gruber reminded us that the future of AI ought to be collaboration, not competition.
His vision for “Humanistic AI” involves machines designed to collaborate with humans and augment our own capabilities to meet our needs. This includes communication assistance for cerebral palsy patients, augmented personal memories for Alzheimer’s victims, automated personal assistants, and so much more.
We already live digitally mediated lives, he said, so why not take technology down the path of partnership, rather than opposition?
“We have a choice in how we use this powerful tech. We can use it to compete with us or to collaborate with us—to overcome our limitations and help us do what we want to do, only better. Every time a machine gets smarter, we get smarter.”
Luma Mufleh Illustrated the Inspiring Resilience of Refugee Children
I see a lot of presentations and talks, and it’s pretty hard to make me cry. But Luma Mufleh, founder of the first accredited private school for refugees in America, had a majority of the TED audience wiping their eyes with her powerful, personal story about her own immigrant experience.
Mufleh, a Jordanian immigrant of Syrian descent, shared how she became a soccer coach for young refugees in Atlanta after running across a group of kids playing barefoot, with rocks as goals. She formed a team that supports players from war-torn nations, affirming their basic humanity as they make new homes.
And she encouraged attendees to offer refugees, and everyone we encounter, that same affirmation.
“What I get to see every day is their hope, resilience, determination, love of life and appreciation for being able to rebuild their lives,” she said. “We have seen advances in every aspect of our lives, except in our humanity.”
What I Learned about the Future Me Us
With today’s political turmoil and the constant buzz about the notion that the future of technology could render us humans irrelevant, it’s easy to get lost in a dark picture of our future.
But the talks of TED2017 were an inspirational reminder that there is a future, and humans are very much involved and in charge. If we cooperate with each other—and with our new technology—that future is bright.