TED conference: Gates, Gore, robot wars

The premiere and exclusive gathering of visionaries and luminaries included Al Gore's not-so-surprising admonishment of the coal industry and Bill Gates' quite surprising release of bugs.

Bill Gates releases mosquitoes into the TED audience on Wednesday. James Duncan Davidson for TED

Bill Gates released mosquitoes into the audience, Naturally 7 recreated the sound of musical instruments with their voices, and Al Gore admonished the coal industry for its "clean" image campaign.

All in all, it was just another day at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference, a premiere and exclusive gathering of visionaries and luminaries that is taking place this week in Long Beach, Calif.

Wednesday started on a sobering note with Juan Enriquez, a philosopher and researcher, who explored how the U.S. economy is floundering but encouraged people to "dance through the flames" and focus on the long term. Enriquez also talked about fascinating discoveries in the areas of biotechnology and robotics. His prediction: the planet is headed toward a day when "homo evolutis" will dominate--a time when humans will have direct control over the development of people and other species.

Author and analyst P.W. Singer discussed his new book, Wired for War, which examines how the military is moving toward an increasingly unmanned force through robots and drones. He theorized about 2016, when perhaps half of the military will be unmanned and ruminated on what that means for warfare, ethics, and emotional detachment.

Later, artist and robotics expert David Hanson showed a series of robots that are meant to emulate human behavior and facial expressions.

Microsoft co-founder Gates, who last appeared at TED in 1992, outlined his hopes for better teachers and reducing mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria. He is concerned that the current economic crisis will mean reduced funding for poorer countries. And as a gimmicky (though still effective) way of illustrating that everyone should all think about this problem, he released some mosquitoes on stage.

I've seen reports that he unleashed a "swarm" of them. But from where I was sitting about 20 rows back, I could barely see more than a dozen or so, if that. It was hard to tell exactly how many he released, but no one seemed fazed by it. He promised they weren't infected, although the Windows/bugs connection was not lost on anyone.

Former Vice President Al Gore spoke about the reduced thickness in Arctic ice and how the melting of land-based ice is releasing gases such as methane into the atmosphere. He also outlined the effect of carbon dioxide on weather patterns around the world and took the coal industry to task for its "clean" image campaign.

A brief presentation with industrial designer Yves Behar showcased a collaborative project that resulted in the "Mission One" electric motorcycle. It didn't get much of a test drive on the stage, but Behar said the motorcycle is capable of twice the range of other electric competitors and can reach 150 mph at top speed--not to mention going from 0 to 100 mph in 5.9 seconds. His appearance was meant to showcase how ideas are generated at TED: it was at TED 2008 that he met his fellow collaborator and developed their concept.

Perhaps the most memorable presentation involved Naturally 7, a group of seven British musicians who practice something they call "vocal play." It's hard to describe their act other than saying each of them used their voices in unison to recreate a different musical instrument from drums to brass instruments to guitars. They made beat-boxing look like child's play. Their "Wall of Sound" song earned a standing ovation. (Click herefor a related video.)

On another musical note, there are about 1,300 TED attendees from 51 countries, and one in particular--whom we'll call "Ross"--was brought to the stage at one point by the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the engaging Ben Zander.

"Ross" volunteered since his birthday is coming up, and Zander proceeded to get the entire audience to rethink how they sing "Happy Birthday." It was energetic and inspired. I doubt "Ross" will get a better present this year. It was also a chance to acknowledge that TED 2009 marks the event's 25th anniversary.

Among the other featured speakers Wednesday were Web creator Tim Berners-Lee and blogger Seth Godin.

Check TED.com in the next day or so for a compelling interview between Gates and TED curator Chris Anderson.

Daniel Sieberg reports on computers and technology for CBS News.

 

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