Four mindblowing TED Talks for techies

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Credit: TED

One of the biggest challenges for any tech professional is keeping up with change. But sometimes you’re so focused on advances that affect your particular job, industry or strategic goals that you lose sight of the bigger picture.

Incredible strides are being made in technology and science that promise to change not just how we do business but also how we live, perceive the world and even understand what it means to be human. For anyone on the vanguard of technology, it’s important to stay abreast of these amazing breakthroughs.

Thankfully, TED talks make that possible to do in a single sitting. Here are four talks that in just over an hour will provide you with a glimpse of what the world might look like in the next decade.

1. Can We Create New Senses for Humans?

POPULARITY: 1.3 million views
LENGTH: 20 minutes 34 seconds
POSTED: March 2015
PRESENTER: David Eagleman, neuroscientist

Limited by our five senses -- sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste -- even the most perceptive among us are able to sample just a small slice of what’s really going on in the world. Because of our limited sensory receptors, says David Eagleman, neuroscientist, author and creator of the six-part PBS series The Brain, we are unequipped to experience our full ecosystem -- the light waves, gamma rays, sound waves, etc., that are all around us and even passing through our bodies.

So this limited sensory experience is our objective reality and what we accept as our world.

Eagleman’s mission is to expand that reality, or the experience of being human. His starting point is that the brain’s job is to take in data, extract patterns from it and assign meaning to those patterns. Because the brain doesn’t care where the data comes from, he says, we need to think beyond our usual sensory receptors (or “peripherals),” and feed the brain new forms of data.

David Eagleman

David Eagleman

Eagleman describes and demos his research into sensory substitution, in which people with sight or auditory deficiencies gain the perception of seeing and hearing through alternative input mechanisms. For example, deaf people “hear” through a “sonic vest” that turns small vibrations into auditory information.

The next step is sensory addition, which would imbue humans with completely new types of senses. An example (that Eagleman demos) is directly channeling real-time feeds from the stock market or even Twitter into the brain through vibratory input. It’s the difference, Eagleman says, between accessing big data and “experiencing” it.

So what do you want to experience in the world? The answer, it seems, is just a peripheral device away.

2. What Happens When Our Computers Get Smarter Than We Are?

POPULARITY: 1.6 million views
LENGTH: 16 minutes 31 seconds
POSTED: March 2015
PRESENTER: Nick Bostrom

The history of human intelligence, from the chimpanzee to, say, a string theorist, is a very short one in terms of the Earth’s lifespan. But just wait, says philosopher and author Nick Bostrom. The next chapter -- artificial intelligence that reaches human levels of learning -- will happen even faster than you might think, like within the next 30 or 40 years.

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At that point, Bostrom says, humans will no longer need to do the inventing, as machines will take over. And when that super-intelligence is awakened, he says, we better hope it’s on our side.

Nick Bostrom

Nick Bostrom

To Bostrom, intelligence is power, and supreme intelligence -- whether it comes from a human or a machine -- will always win out. So while machine intelligence could potentially develop cures for diseases or create livable ecosystems in outer space, he says, its pursuit of optimization could also be driven by interests and goals that have no connection with what humans consider meaningful.

Bostrom calls for the work being done in machine intelligence to be accompanied, and even preceded, by training machines to learn what humans value, predict what we’d approve of and be motivated to act accordingly. Otherwise, he says, our future may be determined by the preferences of artificial intelligence, whatever those preferences may be.

Whether you’re enthusiastic or skeptical about developments in machine intelligence, Bostrom’s perspective is worth heeding. We should at the very least question our ability to control our own creation without doing some serious work before it’s complete.

3. We Can Now Edit Our DNA. But Let’s Do It Wisely

POPULARITY: 818,215 views
LENGTH: 15 minutes 53 seconds
POSTED: September 2015
PRESENTER: Jennifer Doudna

A similarly cautionary note was sounded by another TED speaker, Jennifer Doudna, co-creator of the ground-breaking gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. While genomic engineering has been in development since the 1970s, the CRISPR tool (short for clustered, regularly interspaced, short palindromic repeat) is exponentially more simple and effective. In fact, it’s seen as leading us into an era of genetically altered humans.

The technique stems from a research project focused on how bacteria fight viral infections. Researchers discovered the CRISPR process, which seeks out and cuts viral DNA in a very precise way. Doudna and her team realized they could harness the functionality of CRISPR by programming it to recognize particular DNA sequences, and repair, delete or insert new pieces of DNA at or near the site.

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That capability would allow them to correct mutations that cause cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and any other genetic disease. CRISPR, as it turns out, is like software for the genome, Doudna says, making gene editing as precise as fixing a typo in a word processing document.

The technique is currently being tested on mice and monkeys, but progress is moving so quickly that Doudna expects to see clinical applications on adult humans in the next 10 years. But therein lies the rub. As much promise as CRISPR holds for curing disease, its unintended consequences could be momentous.

For example, it could be used to enhance human genes at the embryo stage to either erase disease-causing genes or manipulate traits like eye color and height, aka “designer babies.” While Doudna stresses that those capabilities are not currently possible, she also concedes that genetically engineered humans are no longer in the realm of science fiction. As such, she has organized a call for a global moratorium on any clinical application of CRISPR-Cas9 in human embryos, to allow time to consider the important ethical and societal questions that it raises.

4. My Daughter, My Wife, our Robot, and the Quest for Immortality

POPULARITY: 1 million views
LENGTH: 21 minutes 4 seconds
POSTED: March 2015
PRESENTERS: Q&A with Martine Rothblatt and TED’s Chris Anderson

On the one hand, Martine Rothblatt’s story is replete with traditional themes of American entrepreneurship, love-at-first-sight, parental devotion and the rewards of never giving up. On the other, her life illustrates several ground-shifting developments.

These include her 2001 dissertation on xenotransplantation (organ transplantation from one species to another); her pioneering work in satellite communications (she co-founded Sirius XM); her founding of a biotech that, among other things, keeps lungs viable for transplant outside the human body; her transgender rights advocacy and her own emergence as transgender; her launch of the transhumanist Terasem Movement, which focuses on cyber-consciousness and technological immortality; and her development of Bina48, a sentient robot modeled after her wife.

It would be easy to dismiss Rothblatt’s work in cybernetic companions as being too out-there if it weren’t for the fact that she has overcome so many other seemingly intractable barriers. As she describes in this interview-formatted TED talk, it took three meetings with Glaxo Wellcome before the pharmaceuticals giant would sell her the license for a treatment under development for pulmonary hypertension, a rare lung disease that Rothblatt’s daughter was seriously ill with. Rothblatt went on to found the now $6 billion biotech company United Therapeutics, which developed the treatment into a drug that halts progression of the disease in some patients. Her daughter -- 5 years old when diagnosed with the condition – is now 30.

The combination of Rothblatt’s brilliance, persistence, passion and ability to form teams of ultra-capable thought leaders makes her current forays into mind-cloning, transferred consciousness and cyber-humans worth paying attention to.

Next: 10 TED Talks for techies

Brandel is a freelance writer. She can be reached at marybrandel@verizon.net.

This story, "Four mindblowing TED Talks for techies" was originally published by Network World.

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