Tag Archive | "TED"

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There are no crew on spaceship Earth -mixed messages about Mars

Posted on 19 March 2015 by JasonK

TED 2015 is on right now in Vancouver and while I am not there (one day:) I have been watching the various media streams when I have a moment.

What I was struck by on the first day was what I think is a profound dissonance between a couple of presentations on the general topic of missions to Mars and the implications.

While I recall previous talks by Prof Brian Cox “Why we need the Explorers” and various others over the years in support of the general thesis I was very interested in Lucianne Walkowicz was talking about this year.

Contrast the comment attributed to Elon Musk (below) “50,000 people living on Mars by 2050″ with a more sobering assessment by Walkowicz.

Lucianne gave a TED talk in 20111 Finding planets around other stars so she has a different perspective to most of us. Marcus Wohlsen of Wired.com has been writing about #TED2015 this week – scroll down to Day one or search on the title “TED Day One: Mars Isn’t a Good Backup Plan for Humanity” or for another view On blazars, quantum computers, and looking for life on Mars: A recap of TEDFellows Session 1 at TED2015

“But the biggest challenge to an audience steeped in Silicon Valley pieties was astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz. Her work involves looking for what she called “choice alien real estate,” searching the cosmos for planets that might be hospitable to life. “The more you look for planets like earth,” she said, “the more you appreciate our own planet itself.” Among the planets that don’t quite measure up is Mars.

Mars might have been inhabited by life once, Walkowicz said. But these days, she said, compared to earth, it’s a pretty terrible place to live. She pointed to the fact that humans have so far failed to colonize the least hospitable places of our own planet, such as deserts, which have the advantage of a rich, highly oxygenated atmosphere. Aspirations to colonize Mars, as described by Walkowicz, have an air not of innovative ambition, but of giving up.

If we can figure out how to make Mars habitable by humans, she said, we ought to be able figure out how to keep earth habitable for humans, too—an effort at which we are currently failing miserably.

That last statement about how we should “figure out how to keep earth habitable for humans” really struck a chord with me (italics are mine.)

Here is a talk she gave earlier. When this years talk is released on video I will update this post with the new clip. Lucianne is not some disinterested bystander; she works on the NASA’s Kepler mission so to hear her frame her talk in this way is significant.

Many years ago Marshall McLuhan was quoted as saying – “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew”. What I think Lucianne is saying is that we aren’t behaving like crew and really solving the big issues that face earth. Instead we are like a bunch of passengers trying to get off to the lifeboats of Mars.

I’m surprised that given that #TED2015 is being held in Canada that quote is not being mentioned. I’m guessing that McLuhan himself may have been referencing “Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth which is a short book by R. Buckminster Fuller, first published in 1968″.

In my view the short version is that we shouldn’t give up on spaceship earth – despite it being a hard question to ask and answer. Like in the famous “Space Seed” episode of StarTrek 1967 I’m paraphrasing here – Khan says despite the improvements in technology, we humans are still much the same and in 2015 that is still the case.

I look forward to the video of  Lucianne’s latest talk but in the meantime here is another quote by her.

For anyone to tell you Mars will be there to back up humanity is like the captain of the Titanic telling you that the real party is happening later on the life boats,” Walkowicz said. “It is hubris to believe that interplanetary colonization will be enough to save us from ourselves.

What do you think?

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Ed Snowden at TED 2014

Posted on 24 March 2014 by JasonK

Last week Ed Snowden appeared at the TED 2014 conference via telepresence robot. Of the 2046 registered TED members who have rated that talk so far most of the votes were that the presentation was “courageous” and “informative”.

ted-ed-snowdonI would encourage everyone who is interested in the balance between individual privacy and security intelligence ( oxymoron alert right there) to watch this video and the follow up by the NSA spokesperson (Richard Ledgett) which came a couple of days later.

Here is a snippet of the transcript where Edward (ES) is talking about the PRISM programme.

“ES: The best way to understand PRISM, because there’s been a little bit of controversy, is to first talk about what PRISM isn’t. Much of the debate in the U.S. has been about metadata. They’ve said it’s just metadata, it’s just metadata, and they’re talking about a specific legal authority called Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
That allows sort of a warrantless wiretapping, mass surveillance of the entire country’s phone records, things like that — who you’re talking to, when you’re talking to them, where you traveled. These are all metadata events.

PRISM is about content. It’s a program through which the government could compel corporate America, it could deputize corporate America to do its dirty work for the NSA. And even though some of these companies did resist, even though some of them — I believe Yahoo was one of them — challenged them in court, they all lost, because it was never tried by an open court.

They were only tried by a secret court. And something that we’ve seen, something about the PRISM program that’s very concerning to me is, there’s been a talking point in the U.S. government where they’ve said 15 federal judges have reviewed these programs and found them to be lawful, but what they don’t tell you is those are secret judges in a secret court based on secret interpretations of law that’s considered 34,000 warrant requests over 33 years, and in 33 years only rejected 11 government requests.

These aren’t the people that we want deciding what the role of corporate America in a free and open Internet should be.”

Further into the conversation Ed notes the the difference between public interest and national interest and that there are many more revelations to come. (CA) stands for Chris Anderson who was asking the questions.

ES: “The public interest is not always the same as the national interest. Going to war with people who are not our enemy in places that are not a threat doesn’t make us safe, and that applies whether it’s in Iraq or on the Internet. The Internet is not the enemy. Our economy is not the enemy. American businesses, Chinese businesses, and any other company out there is a part of our society. It’s a part of our interconnected world. There are ties of fraternity that bond us together, and if we destroy these bonds by undermining the standards, the security, the manner of behavior, that nations and citizens all around the world expect us to abide by.

CA: But it’s alleged that you’ve stolen 1.7 million documents. It seems only a few hundred of them have been shared with journalists so far. Are there more revelations to come?

ES: There are absolutely more revelations to come. I don’t think there’s any question that some of the most important reporting to be done is yet to come.”

Here is the clip.

“CA: Sorry. Do you think there’s a deeper motivation for them other than the war against terrorism?

ES: Yeah. The bottom line is that terrorism has always been what we in the intelligence world would call a cover for action. Terrorism is something that provokes an emotional response that allows people to rationalize authorizing powers and programs that they wouldn’t give otherwise. The Bullrun and Edgehill-type programs, the NSA asked for these authorities back in the 1990s. They asked the FBI to go to Congress and make the case.

The FBI went to Congress and did make the case. But Congress and the American people said no. They said, it’s not worth the risk to our economy. They said it’s worth too much damage to our society to justify the gains.

But what we saw is, in the post-9/11 era, they used secrecy and they used the justification of terrorism to start these programs in secret without asking Congress, without asking the American people, and it’s that kind of government behind closed doors that we need to guard ourselves against, because it makes us less safe, and it offers no value.”

Tim Berners Lee was on stage for a couple of questions at one point.

“CA: And Ed, I think you’ve read the proposal that Sir Tim has talked about about a new Magna Carta to take back the Internet. Is that something that makes sense?

ES: Absolutely. I mean, my generation, I grew up not just thinking about the Internet, but I grew up in the Internet, and although I never expected to have the chance to defend it in such a direct and practical manner and to embody it in this unusual, almost avatar manner, I think there’s something poetic about the fact that one of the sons of the Internet has actually become close to the Internet as a result of their political expression.

And I believe that a Magna Carta for the Internet is exactly what we need. We need to encode our values not just in writing but in the structure of the Internet, and it’s something that I hope, I invite everyone in the audience, not just here in Vancouver but around the world, to join and participate in.”

Feel free to join the debate over on the main TED site – Edward Snowden

The talk about a magna carta for the internet is a clear marker for the divide between concerned internet users and those in the “intelligence community”. We see the debate in terms of privacy and the protection of hard won freedoms of speech and thought and yet the NSA claims the same interests prevent them from doing that.

For New Zealanders the claims by Ed that the NSA is proactive to weaken legal protections and encryption technologies globally is one to watch. In this story just last week Snowden: US helped create loopholes in NZ law

“NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden says the United States’ spy agency has helped find or create loopholes in New Zealand law to enable widespread spying.

In testimony to the European Parliament, the exiled former NSA worker said the agency’s Foreign Affairs Division put pressure on other countries to change laws to create legal gaps through which mass surveillance could be carried out.”

… and later in that article it says:

“In listing New Zealand among countries targeted, he said: “Each of these countries received instruction from the NSA, sometimes under the guise of the US Department of Defense and other bodies, on how to degrade the legal protections of their countries’ communications.”

Cyber rights group Tech Liberty’s spokesman Thomas Beagle said the new laws introduced in New Zealand last year appeared surprisingly quickly.

“It was like someone had it sitting in a drawer ready to go. Who is really writing these laws.”

He said the greater concern was the lack of oversight. “It’s never being able to test what they are doing what they say.”

It seems like the NZ government is being disingenuous in claiming NZ is acting independently when behind the scenes deliberate measures are being taken to undermine trust and faith in the very government it seeks to protect.

After TED managed to get Ed Snowden to present they also asked the NSA if they wanted to offer their view. That presenation was delivered via video conferencing and Richard Ledgett: The NSA responds to Edward Snowden’s TED Talk gave a somewhat defensive pitch on behalf of the NSA.

Crucially Ledgett agreed that a greater level of debate over the governance and activities was needed. He still strongly believed that Snowden should have used internal mechanisms at the NSA to raise his concerns but as Edward noted those avenues were not available to contractors.

Ledgett clearly has had some media training and none of the questions put to hime were disclosed in advance so he did well to present an alternative view of the various NSA programmes but in the end he wasn’t that convincing and in my view gave a more idealogical viewpoint than something that would help to rebuild trust and faith in the NSA processes and various oversight structures.

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Robert Gordon on the end of growth at TED 2013

Posted on 28 April 2013 by JasonK

Here is the Prof Robert Gordon TED2013 talk on the end of growth which was answered by the Erik Brynjolfsson counter view (posted on last week.) Then the two of them had a 12 minute debate. The first point I noted is that instead of the 6 headwinds the presentation is now about 4 headwinds. ( Losing 2 headwinds seems odd to me*.)

“So I started wondering and pondering, could it be that the best years of American economic growth are behind us? And that leads to the suggestion, maybe economic growth is almost over. Some of the reasons for this are not really very controversial.

There are four headwinds that are just hitting the American economy in the face. They’re demographics, education, debt and inequality.

They’re powerful enough to cut growth in half. So we need a lot of innovation to offset this decline. And here’s my theme: Because of the headwinds, if innovation continues to be as powerful as it has been in the last 150 years, growth is cut in half. If innovation is less powerful, invents less great, wonderful things, then growth is going to be even lower than half of history.” ….

“The problem we face is that all these great inventions, we have to match them in the future, and my prediction that we’re not going to match them brings us down from the original two-percent growth down to 0.2, the fanciful curve that I drew you at the beginning.” ….

“If so, that’s going to require that our inventions are as important as the ones that happened over the last 150 years.”

Twelve minutes is not long enough for this kind of argument but so far most viewers of the clip seem to think that Gordon is unconvincing. Note: * The 2 headwinds Gordon left out of this updated version of his thesis were environmental impacts and the twin deficits of government and consumer debt.

I wonder if this is because we all want to be more optimistic in the face of some grim economic news and we just hope that the economy will improve or we really do believe in the brave new world of technology driven change.

Brynjolfsson makes a couple of telling points in his talk on how the impacts of change are measured. GDP doesn’t do that at all for the “weightless economy” and also that for a number of key innovations it took a time lag of decades before we not only worked them out but before we changed the work paradigms we were used to.

Zero pricing for “free products & services” and huge price reductions don’t show up in GDP measurements which undermeasures the economic growth and related changes.

It is highly probable that Gordon and Brynjolfsson are both right.

Innovation is very hard to measure because as a species we don’t really like change but the irony here is that some of the headwinds Gordon refers to as slowing innovation are exactly the same ones which will stimulate more innovation.

In the education space ( where I work part time) the increasing costs of tertiary qualifications and the globalisation of markets means that educators are very much looking at ways to improve the learning ecosystems all round. I think the quality of education will improve and that the cost will go down because of technology innovations which are here but not yet well understood.

The real kicker though is that my 11 year old daughter may train for a job that hasn’t been invented yet in only a few years time. These future jobs will have a connection to current ones but measuring the impact of that kind of technological change is too difficult for most of us to imagine.

Here is a clip from one of the masters of innovation on how we have to start with the customer experience rather than the technology because it is not the technology itself that brings the real changes.

When innovation comes along there is a very well known dynamic which sees early adopters and tech users who can make use of new products and services but it is not until they mainstream ( “crossing the chasm”) that they truly become useful products.

I remember the Apple Newton from 1993 to about 1998 and it failed then for various reasons but look around today at tablet computing including iPads and it is a very different world.

An iPad now is a consumer device for all whereas the Newton was a geek toy which was innovative but not really that useful but perhaps without that product evolution we wouldn’t have got to where we are today.

To be fair to Gordon – many innovation stories are hard to measure well in the GDP numbers but the journey from idea to product is one that is gaining in velocity and usefulness.

There are also other localised innovations which are being held up because of finance or political will. These innovations that may not seem hugely significant in terms of GDP impact will have a huge impact in quality of life terms.

The examples I’m thinking of are wider availability of malaria nets and cleaner (less smoke) cooking techniques in parts of the world outside the U.S. Equivalent quality of life innovations happened many years ago in the U.S which is where Gordon’s data is focussed.

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