A talent search preceding this year’s TED conference turned up enough startlingly smart prodigies to lend an American Idol feel to the event. There was the 15-year-old who invented a better test for pancreatic cancer, the 18-year-old who presented his second nuclear reactor design, and the 13-year-old who strung flickering light-emitting diodes around his family’s livestock to keep the lions away. But in the end, the older and wiser speakers had some of the best ideas. Here are a few.
The idea behind the network of networks more than 30 years ago was originally centered on machines talking to one another, but we now know the real purpose was people. But why stop there? On the TED stage last week Google’s Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s founders, MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld and others made the case for including our animal friends. To emphasize the point, Gershenfeld hopped out of his seat to Skype in some dolphins, bonobos and elephants (who, it turned out, didn’t have much to say). But the idea isn’t as ridiculous as it may sound. New technologies that make it possible for people to interact with machines by gestures, facial expressions, eye movements and brain activity may also make the minds of intelligent animals accessible. And in 100 years, when the first earthly probes begin to arrive at distant stars, there’s a chance that we could make contact with extraterrestrial life. If that happens, experience in communicating with intelligent life forms on our own world may come in handy.
Mary Lou Jepsen is an engineer who underwent a brain operation that left her partially debilitated and reliant on hormone therapy. She recalled experimenting with different combinations of supplements, at one time trying dosages “typical of a man in his early 20s. I was angry all the time. I thought about sex all the time. I thought I was the smartest person in the entire world,” she says. “It gave me a new appreciation for men.” The experience also piqued her interest in neuroscience. Jepson, founder and CEO of Pixel Qi, a maker of LCD screens for laptops, is now noodling ways of tapping brain imaging as a tool for creative work, she told TED. Her premise is that creative people often hold a mental image of what they’re working on, which can conceivably be read with fMRI scanners. A computer interface that could capture a musician’s image of a song or a movie director’s notion of a shoot would be quite a productivity tool. It would bypass language and allow us to upload our thoughts directly into the cyber realm.
The big bottleneck—or perhaps the first bottleneck—is to build imagers that have high enough resolution. Scanners now require huge magnets, and higher resolution would call for even bigger ones. A better approach, says Jepson, might be to develop a new class of magnets that coax fine images out of overlapping magnetic fields. In 5 or 10 years, she says, engineers may devise the ultimate data-entry device.
Bring Back the Dead
Passenger pigeons once darkened the skies until they were hunted to extinction in 1914. The same fate befell the Carolina Parakeet, the Heath Hen, European Aurochs, the Bucardo and the Tasmanian tiger. But these animals left behind samples of their DNA, which scientists are now trying to coax back to life. The idea is to graft the bits of DNA that make an extinct animal unique onto the genome of a close living relative. The band-tailed pigeon, for instance, would give birth to passenger pigeon. Scientists have already birthed at least two genetically-modified stand-ins for extinct animals, but none has survived for very long. Writer and “peer leader” Stewart Brand told TED that scientists are confident of refining their methods and bringing extinct species back to life.
Make Room for Microbes
We each host our own personal ecosystem of microbes on our skin, mouth and intestines. When humans inhabit a building, the multitude of personal ecosystems combine to form a meta-ecosystem of microbes, according to Jessica Green, an ecologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Bathrooms, she said, are a bit like tropical rain forests—rich in microbial diversity—while office cubicles are more like grasslands. The way these microbial populations are distributed in a building, she thinks, could affect human health. Ventilation ducts, for instance, can play a big role in microbe transport, for better or for worse. Architects and engineers don’t take microbes into account in their designs, but she believes they should. She is working with architects on principles of “bioinformed design.”
More Food Please, Hold the Water
Hydrogels are big polymer molecules that act like sponges in the soil, holding water and nutrients close to seeds and roots to help them grow with less fertilizer and water. The U.S. Department of Agriculture first developed them in the 1960s, but the molecules they used turned out to be toxic, and hydrogels were relegated to sanitary napkins and disposable diapers. In recent years, however, chemists have concocted cheap and non-toxic formulations that persist for a long time in the soil and are easy to apply, said TED speaker Daniel Miller, managing director of the Roda Group, a venture capital firm. Tests on broccoli, lettuce and tomatoes show promising gains in yields and savings in water.