Cognitive guru Edward de Bono designed the concept of "lateral thinking" in the late 1960 defining it as reasoning that is not immediately obvious, and has formalized it based on an understanding on how ideas develop, and that of "parallel thinking" as a substitute for argument. He wears an odd orange tie with "Dept of Corrections" printed on it, he sits on stage in front of an overhead projector, drawing while he talks. He says: Nothing is more important than human thinking, but we're not really very good at it. The software we are using was designed 2500 years ago by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, but we're still not very good at using it. Our thinking is very good in things like technology, very poor in human affairs and design affairs. Arguing is an extremely inefficient method of thinking. I offer an alternative: parallel thinking, which is much more effective and significantly faster. In parallel thinking, A & B think in the same direction, but the direction changes. The idea is that in traditional arguing or adversarial thinking each side tries to prove that (s)he is right and the other is wrong. It's a method intended to discover "the truth" (or nearing it) rather than construct, create, design. Parallel thinking is a methodology designed to bring people to think in the same direction, in cooperative ways, towards a same goal (which doesn't mean that they need to be in agreement). One last caveat: "When we think of improving things, we always think of the poor, disabled, disadvantaged. But we can be improved and need to be improved too".
Israeli investor and TEDster Yossi Vardi gets three minutes on stage, talking about his "inconvenient truth": if you are scared about global warming, you should be concerned about local warming, he says. He goes off on a very funny speech (with some truth in it: there is serious scientific research done) about males using a laptop on their lap and the possible consequences of the increase in "scrotal temperature". (
Empirical economist Emily Oster is a Steven-Levitt-esque young researcher from Chicago that looks at data in a different way than most. For example, she looked into the millions of "missing women" in Asia, and argued (PDF) that one of the causes of the gender gap (along with the often-mentioned selective abortion and infanticide) was hepatitis-B: the women were not missing, but were never born, she explained, because pregnant woman with hepatitis-B are far more likely to have a boy than a girl. A couple of months ago, she wrote an article for Esquire on "the three things you don't know about AIDS in Africa".
(This is her research. There is another detail in Oster's biography that's worth mentioning. If you've read Malcom Gladwell's "Tipping Point" you may remember that he discusses a study of children's acquisition of linguistic skills, centred around a 2 year-old girl that had more sophisticated skills when she was alone (talking to herself) than when she was speaking with ther parents. That girl was identified as "baby Emily", and was in fact Emily Oster).
She talks about AIDS in Sub-Saharian Africa. AIDS is a policy issue, but the talk is about data -- because we cannot develop effective policy unless we understand how epidemics works. In places with high rates of AIDS, the cost of sex is very high. So somehow we feel that people there should have less sex in order to reduce risk. If you look at data about gay men in the US in 1984-88, there was indeed a big change in sexual behavior, the number of partners dicreased; this is not happening in Africa. It depends very much on life expectancy: not having sex is like an investment, so you value it more the longer you expect to live in the future. Let's check this assumption: do people with more life expectancy change their behavior more? She uses data about malaria, and finds that in regions with a higher risk of death from malaria, people have consistently more sexual partners (graph at left). So if you improve the general life situation, she says, people will have a higher incentive to avoid AIDS on their own. But that's not automatic. What makes HIV epidemics develop faster or slower? There is a correlation between economic activity, particularly export volumes, and the development of HIV. Open markets are good but they come at a cost when it concerns diseases. The AIDS epidemic was introduced in the US by one traveller that got it in Africa. Areas with alot of activity etc have more prevalence of AIDS. So unfortunately it seems that these things are closely related: more trade = more AIDS. If you double exports volume, you quadruple the number of AIDS infected. So making the economy better doesn't necessarily mean that AIDS will decrease. Uganda's ABC campaign is a (unique success) story, but Oster points to a correlation between the decrease of HIV infections in the country, and the decrease in coffee exports. These are figures that suggest that a part of the decrease in infections would have happened even without education campaign.
TEDster Bruce Vaughn from Disney Imagineering demonstrates a "muppetmobile", which is a great adaptation of the Segway self-balancing transporter, with an animatronic puppeteer riding it (picture right) -- basically, it's a cartoon character that jumped out of the cartoon and into the stage.
Then Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway (and other devices), talks about meeting an officer at the Department of Defense saying that 1600 of the young Americans that were sent to Iraq came back missing at least one arm, two dozen missing both. He shows a new prosthetic arm that he and his team developed.
Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman (author of "Emotional Intelligence" and "Social Intelligence") is next (See his recent analysis of the neural mechanics behind "e-mail flaming"). I'm struck by how one of the subtexts of TED is compassion, he says. He talks about a study done at Harvard with divinity students. Half of them were asked to give a sermon about the parable of the Good Samaritan; the other half were given random topics. On the way to give the sermon, they were made to pass in front of a man in need of help, and it made no difference if they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan or not: the only discriminant on whether they stopped to help him or not was in how much hurry they were. If we are supposed to be prepared to help others, we don't we always do it? If we are self-absorbed, we don't notice the other. He gives a series of examples that emphasize the distinction between focusing on ourselves and focusing on others -- from speed dating to walking past homeless people without even "seeing" them, when all it takes, is a simple act of noticing (the others). "So I'm optimistic", he ends.
Hod Lipson works in evolutionary robotics at Cornell University -- on self-replicating, self-repairing robots. He shows some of their work, including this:
The next speaker may be the world's best-known skeptic. James Randi calls himself a "scientific skeptic" and is known for investigating psychic and supernatural claims. He comes on stage with a microphone concealed under his shirt, and another one in his hands, which turns out to be a razor -- to make a point about making assumptions. If someone came on stage claiming to be an ancient Danish prince called Hamlet, you would laugh, he says. But there is an army of people out there who say that they can read your future, speak to the dead, etc, and many people believe them. He decrypt the techniques of psychics and charlatans, and challenges homeopathy (he took a full bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills at the beginning of his talk, but seems to be very much awake) and the whole culture of uncritical thinking. His foundation has offered half a dozen years ago a million dollar prize to anyone who can prove a supernatural or paranormal ability, "but no one has contacted us".