8 must-see TED talks for IT pros

Watch these brief, illuminating talks on everything from gesture-based computing and extreme data visualization to gaming to save the world.

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Tim Berners-Lee on making the world's data open source

Date: February 2010

Length: 5 minutes, 34 seconds

When Tim Berners-Lee talks, IT folks pay attention. Back in the '90s, he proposed the World Wide Web and created the first Web browser and server. Now an MIT professor and leader of the World Wide Web Consortium, he is also a major advocate for open-source data repositories.

In his talk, he explains how open data from government agencies, universities, private companies and even individuals can revolutionize how we visualize data. For example, an interactive map of a disaster area could show real-time information on road congestion, building and infrastructure damage and the location of refugee camps, all based on open data repositories.

Berners-Lee's talk highlights OpenStreetMap, an open-source community project that encourages users to contribute to a worldwide street map; this data can then be used in other open-source map projects, such as the OpenCycleMap. The idea is this: The more openly available data there is, the more you can create mash-ups with helpful visualizations linking all of that data together.

Tim Berners-Lee: The year open data went worldwide.© TED Conferences LLC, distributed under Creative Commons license.

Reality check: While data mash-ups and open-source projects are worthwhile, Enderle warns that it's often hard for them to generate a structure and continuity that will appeal to businesses.

"The problem is that as a race we are generally more concerned about someone stealing credit for our work than we are in assisting others in solving a common problem," says Enderle. "Amazing things can result if people cooperate and share, but most have to be behaviorally altered."

Ray Kurzweil on machines that think and grow

Date: February 2009

Length: 8 minutes, 45 seconds

Futurist Ray Kurzweil has a way of taking ideas to far-reaching -- some might say fantastic -- conclusions. For example, he posits that the rampant growth of computing could lead to super-intelligent thinking machines sooner than we might expect.

The purpose of his February 2009 TED talk is ostensibly to introduce Singularity University, a kind of think tank for computer scientists who want to "learn by doing" and solve world problems, such as third-world poverty or our dependence on fossil fuels. But most of Kurzweil's talk is a concise overview of how computer processing has grown exponentially from the vacuum tube to the modern integrated circuit. So where can it go next?

Kurzweil suggests that three-dimensional "molecular circuits" that think and grow will be available in a decade or two. These circuits will mimic the interconnected, self-replicating neurons in our brains.

Ray Kurzweil: A university for the coming singularity.© TED Conferences LLC, distributed under Creative Commons license.

When I followed up with Kurzweil recently, he said chip maker Intel has already created prototypes of these thinking machines that will be available commercially by 2022. Once this intersection of brain waves and chip sets occurs, Kurzweil said, it's just a matter of time before humans can live forever. [Related story: "Nanotech could make humans immortal by 2040, futurist says"]

Reality check: Kurzweil is famous in high tech for his speech-recognition work and infamous for pushing the boundaries of rational ideas, so it's no surprise that the analysts we consulted were reluctant to comment specifically on his predictions. However, Peddie did say, "I think anyone who doesn't pay attention to Ray Kurzweil, his findings and his conclusions, will be sadly surprised in just a few years."

Meanwhile, Kurzweil says the university "is going great" and is well funded. It now has 80 students, compared to just 40 last summer.

John Brandon is a veteran of the computing industry, having worked as an IT manager for 10 years and a tech journalist for another 10. He has written more than 2,500 feature articles and is a regular contributor to Computerworld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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