Food for Thought

Are You Ready For The Future?

Larry Page of GoogleThis year’s TED conference featured a variety of noteworthy speakers (hello, Larry Page from Google), but one constant theme kept popping up: Technology is quickly changing the way we’re doing business. Are you ready for the future?

Videos of aerial bicycles, an astronaut channeling David Bowie, a victim of the Boston bombings dancing with a prosthetic leg, and a surprise debate between whistleblower Ed Snowden and the NSA were just a sampling of happenings on the stage at the annual TED conference, the powwow held in March in Vancouver that is quickly becoming one of the most buzz-worthy get-togethers in the business world.

Attended by business leaders, entrepreneurs, techies, educators and the simply curious, this year’s famous Ted talks (short lectures delivered by visionaries throughout the world) had a wide variety of themes, but as usual, technology topped the list of debated topics. Our editors were on the scene as the talks unfolded. Here’s a recap of some the most attention-getting speeches.

Crazy Prediction? Maybe Not
Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, has been making predictions about the future of technology for years, and has been right on the money in many cases. For example, in his first TED Talk in the 1980s, Negroponte predicted that we’d move from the computer mouse to using our fingers to control phones and laptops.

“Everybody thought that was ridiculous,” he told the TED audience.

He also talked about how, during that same period of time, a student at MIT envisioned a system called “Backseat Driver” that would give audio directions to the driver. He was advised against it due to the liability surrounding the idea. “It shows you how people don’t really look at what’s already happening.”

And, he predicted that people would eventually read their newspapers and magazines via the Internet. A New York Times editorial in the 1980s called the idea “preposterous.”

Negroponte sees the biggest challenge of the future is to connect the last billion people on earth to the Internet. His One Laptop Per Child project is manufacturing low-cost, wireless Internet-enabled computers to put in the hands of children throughout the planet. He hopes to construct a stationary satellite to connect people in more rural areas. The effort, he said, will cost $2 billion. Early evidence shows that children who get laptops, but no training, are easily adapting.

“We dropped off tablets with no instructions and let the children figure it out,” he said. “They were using 50 apps in five days – and they hacked Android within six months.”

Negroponte left the audience with his latest prediction: “In 30 years, people will swallow a pill to learn Shakespeare,” he said. “I won’t be alive then, but most of you here will be around to experience it.”

Accessing the Sky
Looking for a solution to gridlock and air pollution? Look to the sky, said Larry Page, CEO of Google, who showed attendees a short video of one of Google’s side projects: aerial bikeways where people can get from point A to point B via connected wires suspended in the air. Frustrated at having to wait in the freezing cold for buses while going to school in Michigan, Page said, he dreamt about a plan where people could travel on their bikes in an area away from cars.

“It would be a great way to cost-effectively separate bikes from traffic,” Page said. “Projects like this just get your imagination going.”

Page also envisions a day in the near future where automated cars will safely transport passengers while they nap or do work. Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death of people under 34 years old in the United States, he said. Automated cars “would save millions of lives, save space and just make life better. I think we can be there very, very soon.”

One other technology-related concern on Page’s plate: Internet privacy. While Page took a few shots at the NSA (“Sadly, Google’s in the position of protecting its users from the government doing secret things that nobody knows about”), he acknowledged that “a tremendous amount of good” could come from people sharing information on the Internet, using medical records as an example.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone’s medical records were available anonymously to research doctors?” he said. “Maybe you could learn more about the conditions you have that way, and lives could be saved.”

Like Negroponte, Page is also looking for ways to connect more people to the Internet. One brainstorm his team is experimenting with: launching a worldwide network of balloons that would offer connectivity to people in remote areas. When people balk at his ideas, he reminds himself that most of the things that have been successful at Google were initially rejected by people.

“I’ve looked at lots of companies that haven’t succeeded, and what they’ve fundamentally done wrong is that they’ve missed the future,” he said. “If you’re working on things people may not think about, if you’re willing to take that risk. . . that’s where the opportunity really is.”

Policing Twitter
Most of the messages posted via Twitter (think pics of cats) don’t harm anyone. But it’s the job of Del Harvey, vice president of trust & safety at Twitter, to look out for the ones that do. It’s not an easy task, considering that in January 2014, there were 500 million Tweets posted. “That means a one in a million chance [of an abusive or dangerous Tweet] happens about 500 times a day,” Harvey told the TED crowd.

Besides tracking down Tweets that are abusive or Spam, Harvey’s team looks for ways to protect Twitter users themselves. As an example, she said, Twitter strips geodata out of Twitter users’ photos, so that if someone displays, for example, a picture of their cat, “a would-be stalker or murderer” wouldn’t be able to track down his or her location.

In regards to Internet security, Harvey said, it’s a company’s job to allow people mechanisms to share information, but at the same time, “You should pause and think, ‘How could all of this go horribly wrong?’” she said. “It’s sort of like writing your wedding vows at the same time as your prenuptial agreement.”

E-mail: mligos@asicentral.com