TED 2014: Satellites, Fireflies and Ass-Kickers

I didn't really know what to expect from my first TED conference. I am not a techie (far from it), nor rich (at least in the financial sense), so this wasn't really my native habitat. Nonetheless, I was curious and determined to make the most of the opportunity I'd been presented.

In truth the first few hours were a bit off-putting with people comparing notes about how many conferences they had attended, how long they had been donors, etc. The capper was an Ivy League professor who, when I said hello, never even asked my name but instead declared, "This is my tenth TED but this year. I am not speaking which makes it sooo much easier for me." Then he turned and walked away. Ughhh.

But, fortunately, my determination to keep an open mind paid off and the next four days turned out to be extraordinary. Hugh Herr, robotic prosthetics researcher at MIT, strode onto the stage on his extraordinary robotic legs. At the end of his fascinating talk he introduced Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a professional ballroom dancer who had lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombing. Wearing her robotic leg, she danced publically for the first time since the attack. As the music faded she burst into tears as did many of us lucky enough to witness her performance.

I met Avi Reichental, the father of 3-D printing, and understand how it works now -- basically a realtime version of the Star Trek replicator. The implications are staggering for potential resource efficiencies, opportunities for consumers to self-manufacture products, and loss of traditional manufacturing jobs.

Cyber-security expert, Karen Elazari, made the case that hackers are people too and may in fact be the immune system of our global cyber-organism. As a non-geek I had never considered these things before.

I knew I was with the real deal of geeksville when a robot rolled out onto stage wearing Edward Snowden's face in a telescreen. From wherever he was physically located, Snowden operated the tele-presencing robot and engaged in a live interview on the TED stage. The entire audience was rapt; both the technology and the controversial subject were compelling. The NSA had declined an invitation to speak but, following Snowden's big reveal, reversed that decision and addressed the crowd the following day. This is certainly a complicated case and the TED audience seemed just about split on who was most in the wrong.

I dined with firefly expert Sarah Lewis. I find these glowing creatures so enchanting that when I first saw the movie Avatar and the beautiful bioluminescent night scenes I thought of fireflies and wondered why more people didn't find our own sparkling Earth environs as magical as those of Pandora.

A far cry from ferry-like, peaceful fireflies, Ed Yong delivered a creepily entertaining description of parasitic insects that take over the minds of other insects and then blow them up from the inside out; and bacteria harbored in cats, that when ingested by mice, takes over their minds and causes them to seek out cats. He called it "Eat, Prey, Love!"

I had lunch with GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt and half a dozen energy and climate experts to discuss global energy issues. For that one hour, talking about natural gas, solar panels, efficiency standards and carbon, I was in an oasis of familiarity.

Then it was back to TED talks. I was moved by the courageous accounts from the son of a terrorist turned peace activist and a supermodel who had been born with male genitalia but never felt like a boy. I was fascinated by a sports science reporter describing the "Big Bang of Bodies," as sports have selected for freakishly large or small or disproportionate body types.

I believe I may have witnessed a future Nobel prize winner in Will Marshall of Planet Labs. His company, started in a garage in Silicon Valley, has developed and are deploying tiny satellites in a full circle around the planet. This will enable realtime monitoring of everything from the expansion of urbanization to deforestation. Had this system been in place the whereabouts of the missing Malaysian Airlines 777 would have been known within hours. Stunningly he announced that their goal was to "democratize satellite data" and so all the information collected by the Planet Labs satellites would be accessible to the public.

Determined to exercise my body as well as my mind, I got up early two mornings to attend "the class." I workout hard and regularly, so I was shocked by the intensity of this blend of cardio, yoga, pilates and kickboxing. Through all the butt-burning and sweat-dripping, tiny powerhouse Taryn Toomey kept shouting, "Oh yeah! Stay with it. It's supposed to feel like that! Inhale! That pain is just all the junk, all the stuff you're carrying. Let it go. Let it shift! Exhale!" Well, I knew I had "stuff" -- everybody does -- I just didn't know I carried mine in my buttcheeks!

And so I returned from the TED immersion experience with my back-side battered and my mind broadened. I know a bit more than I did, about things I hadn't thought about before. I met fascinating, and a few irritating, people. I stretched my perspective. Now I've got to try to do the same with my seized-up glutes!