… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

July 15, 2010

TEDGlobal: Heribert Watzke – We cook therefore we are

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 11:12 am

Heribert Watzke isn’t a real popular guy with the raw foods crowd, I suspect. He theorizes that humans aren’t omnivores, but coctivors – we are the animals that eat cooked food.

He asks us to smile at each other, and asks us to look at each other’s canine teeth. They’re pretty pathetic, not really useful for ripping meat off bones. Our teeth are now evolved to eat soft, easily digestible, cooked food – our behavior has changed our body over time.

We’ve had to cook food because big brains are expensive. The human brain is 2-3% of body mass, but takes up 20% or more of energy. We can’t get that energy from raw food, he tells us. Cooked food allowed us to be a migrant species, because every time we encountered new food, we could transform it and make it edible. We do this by roasting or burying it in the ground to ferment it. Over the same time our brain has grown, the gut has shrunk 60% from its previous size due to cooked food.

Our bodies make decisions about food based on taste, reward and energy. Three tastes sustain us – sweet (energy), umami (protein), salty (which we need). The other two – sour and bitterness – ward us off from dangerous, spoiled and poisonous foods.

But for feedback on whether this food is good for us, we rely less on taste and more on the reaction of our gut. Watzke tells us that our guts have a full-fledged brain, and he’s not speaking metaphorically. The gut – the stomach, small intestine, colon – has two layers of muscle with lots of nervous tissue between them, which penetrate muscle layers. These nerves also penetrate the mucosa, the layer actually touching the food. If we stretched the gut to its full length, it’s 14 meters, the length of a tennis court. It’s got as many nerve cells as a cat’s brain.

This second brain has 20 different neuron types that sense food. Based on sensing it, it instigates chemical and mechanical processes to digest it. This second brain controls mechanical actions like our gag reflext and the secretion of chemicals to igest the food.

This lower brain can be inhibited by the higher brain. We can ignore the signals we get that tell us we’re full or that we’re hungry. If the brain ignores the healthy hunger signal, this can manifest as anorexia. He tells us, pointing to his own belly, that the more usual case is overeating.

We learned to talk to the big brain about food based on reward. He wonders, “how do we talk to the gut brain so that signals are so strong we can’t ignore it” so we can generate a balance between hunger and fullness. We see an experiment with the digestion of a bubble of oil in the intestine – is it possible that we can change structures so that they trigger different reactions and send different signals to the brain? Watzke believes we can, and that we can even do this by cooking. He asks us to consider this possibility, “I cook therefore I am.”

TEDGlobal: Gero Miessenbck wants to control our brains

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 10:46 am

Gero Miessenbck tells us he has a dopplegander – Dr. Gero from Dragonball Z. This sinister character has his skull removed and can control things with his brain. And Miessenbck believes we can control the brain through light. But that’s where the resemblance stops – Miessenbck promises he’s doing this to learn, not to build a robot army.

If we could record the activity of all neurons, we would understand the brain. But this is so difficult, it’s probably as hard as understanding the brain as a whole. We don’t know how to break the code of the brain, how to decipher the signals the brain sends out.

If we want to break the code, we need to play with it and experiment. And that means controlling some of the neurons in the brain. The thought is that if we can control some of the neurons in the brain, we can understand something about how they work.

Galvani’s discovery that the nervous system works through electric impulses is still, in a sense, state of the art. But there are huge limitations – there are only so many wires we can stick into the brain. To create something less invasive, Miessenbck proposes reengineering the brain so we can control some neurons to be receptive to light.

We can make the proper receivers using genetic material. He shows us a neuron that has a light-activated pore, which fires when it detects light. Different mixes of genes could allow different parts of the brain to respond differently to light. We can write messages to the brain, and he suggests, control brains.

He shows us a fly that responds to a flash of light – two neurons have been changed so they are triggered by light. But how do we know the fly isn’t reacting to the flash of light? His assistant carrying out the experiments removed the fly’s head. They can survive for a day without heads, he tells us, but they don’t do much, just stand around grooming themselves. “The only trait that survives decapitation is vanity.” Even without their heads, the flies respond to the light as a control mechanism.

Behavior, he tells us, is a control loop – actions react to disturbances in their environments and feedback allows their action to change. In an experiment, flies walk through a chamber filled with one odor. At a point in the pathway, it crosses a path with another odor, and the fly has a choice. And since the fly is an intelligent being, it’s got an internal narrative around this decision, a critical voice. “You can think of this as the Catholic Church if you’re an Austrian like me. Or the superego if you’re a Freudian. Or your mother, if you’re a jew.”

When the flies moved into the other odor, specially engineered flies with a hundred light addressable cells were activated. The targeted cells are ones that produce dopamine. In one set of flies – those with neurons on the left activated – the fly won’t cross the threshhold between odors. Through experimentation, they were able to discover that “the critic” was a complex of only 12 cells, which then stimulate a part of the fly’s brain called “the mushroom body” which controls movement.

The system is simple enough that it can be replicated through a small circuit – sensors report to a critic which fires actors, which if strong enough will move the fly.

“I don’t know about you, but I find it very exciting to see vague emotional understandings evaporate” in the the face of discovering mechanical systems. But we’ve still got a mystery – the critic, and how intelligent behavior springs from these signals.

TEDGlobal: Peter Eigen and global transparency

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 8:06 am

Peter Eigen, the founder of Transparency International, warns us that our governance systems are failing us in the face of a globalized economy. We can see evidence of this failing governance: billions of poor, hungry, people without access to sanitation. And we can see that some problems are beyond the reach of national or multinational governance: the image of a helpless Obama at a oil-covered beach, a helpless Ban Ki Moon at a refugee camp.

Eigen was World Bank director for East Africa and discovered that many of the best things he tried to do were destroyed by corruption. He was trying to understand why the worst thought-out projects – massive infrastructure projects that had little chance of success and terrible environmental impacts – seemed to go ahead first. These projects often were rejected by the donor community, but they were pushed through by powerful kleptocrats within governments. As Eigen worked to reveal this corruption, he was censured by his bosses at the World Bank, who objected to his “romatic, unprofessional work” on exposing corruption.

The uncomfortable truth is that most countries that were members of the World Bank felt that corruption was okay. German companies paid many millions in bribes, systematically, and over long periods of time. Indeed, the practice was so well established that bribes were tax deductible under German law. Worldwide, roughly 1 trillion was paid a year in bribes.

So Eigen left the World Bank in protest and started Transparency International. He tells us that the lessons learned in starting the project have implications for other issues, like the work Auret Van Heerden is doing on global supply chains. As with the supply chain, there’s a real danger that as you stop permitting bribery, you’ll get outcompeted by countries that do permit it. You have to overcome this prisoner’s dillemma by cooperating with businesses. Eigen advocates “antagonistic cooperation” – using a term his wife, a prominent political scientist coined. In Germany, he explained that in the first meetings, no one was willing to admit that they paid bribes. In the second, everyone admitted they did, and in the third meeting, they all agreed to change. This was especially amazing because the government explicitly didn’t apply pressure, and believed that bribery was necessary to keep German business competitive.

Transparency International now provides tools to make it easier to escape the prisoner’s dillemma. The Corruption Perception Index is one tool, as is the fact that TI now has presences in 130 countries and national chapters dedicated to tackling corruption.

The challenge he’s focused on now is adding transparency to extractive industries. Abundant, easily accessible resources tend to lead towards corruption, because the opportunities are simply so tempting. So EITI is working with the biggest mining and oil companies of the world, the governments of nations dependent on extractive industries, and civil societies. Four countries have committed to a very high set of standards – Azerbaijan, Liberia, Mongolia, Norway – and others are on their way towards compliance.

The magic of this process, Eigan tells us is the interaction of government, corporation and civil society – it’s a magical triangle to lead to a better world. But all participants – including civil society – need to become more participatory and transparent.

TEDGlobal: Auret Van Heerden and bringing human rights into the global supply chain

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 7:27 am

Auret Van Heerden of the Fair Labor Association holds up a cellphone and tells us that the phone started its life with artisinal mines, run by gangs and staffed by slaves in the Congo. It was built in a factory in China where people have committed suicide and died after impossibly long work shifts. Chocolate comes from cocoa harvested by children in Ivory Coast. Diamnonds come from impossibly dangerous mines in Zimbabwe. Uzbekistan shuts down the schools to bring children into the cotton fields to harvest – they allow the country to be the world’s second largest cotton producer. And all these products end up in dumps in slums in places like Manila.

These are evidence of governance gaps – gaps in our supply chains. Some happen in failed states. Some happen in states that feel like deregulation or lack of regulation is good for trade. But they provide a human rights dillema for all of us. And most of the companies involved in these supply chains can’t assure us that no one had to suffer to make our products.

We need a reality check, to realize what a serious deficit of rights we have. The independent republic of the supply chain is not being governed in a way that promises ethical trade. We would expect that a drug like Heparin is produced in a way that’s “squeaky clean”. But the active ingredient comes from pigs… which means that it’s produced in sweatshops, which buy their materials from backyard abbatoirs. We had a global scandal based on contaminants – some intentionally introduced – into the supply chain.

Why didn’t the FDA prevent this from happening? Because there are 500 suppliers in China providing these materials, and the regulatory system doesn’t allow us to oversee this. And 85% of the active ingredients in the pharma industry are now produced outside the US. Governments can’t regulate their own supply chains, and they have even less ability to monitor these changes on an international level.

When we look at global challenges like climate change, we wonder where the leadership is from government. But governments are national – they’ve got voters and interests that are local. So we need a different mechanism.

In 1996, President Clinton convened a meeting of labor, manufacturers, consumer groups and activists and challenged those assembled to ensure that globalization didn’t mean a race to the bottom. Companies didn’t feel it was their responsibility for labor standards in the supply chain – everyone else felt that they couldn’t shirk that responsibility. Eventually, they agreed on a common set of standards, a code of conduct, and made it part of the supply contracts. “They harnessed the power of the contract – private power – to make public goods.”

Van Heerden points out that the contract from a major manufacturer is much more powerful than local authority. Most of these manufacturers never see an inspector. If they did, they’d bribe him. If they got fined, the fine would be tiny in comparison to profits.

This method doesn’t come naturally to multinational companies – their goal is profit. But they’re very efficient, and if they can get this right, it’s an incredibly powerful model. The best chance that a 15 year old girl in Bangladesh isn’t abused by her employer – we hope she’s working for a major multinational corporation that’s signed a code of conduct. And we don’t just trust – we trust, but verify, and we inspect the facility of organizations that sign onto these codes of conduct. “You don’t need to believe me, you shouldn’t believe me, you should go to the website, read the audit” and see for yourself.

“I hate the idea that governments aren’t protecting human rights.” This started out as a stopgap measure. But it’s starting to look like a new way of addressing governance challenges. This seems overwhelming for the corporations who participate – too daunting or dangerous to take on. But four thousands companies have taken this on, especially the sporting goods industry. The role models are there.

“Human rights comes down to a simple question: Can I give this person their dignity back?” His simple plea to every decisionmaker in the room – make a decision to run with the ball that government has dropped, because no one else will do it.

TEDGlobal: Jessica Jackley’s new project, Profounder

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 7:03 am

Apologies for missing much of the morning. I gave a lecture in my friend Munro Price’s program at the Annenberg Summer program in Oxford. I’ll be missing some more talks this afternoon as well, getting ready for my afternoon talk… Sorry!

Jessica Jackley, one of the cofounders of Kiva, tells us that she’s going to tell us a love story. “The stories we tell each other, and tell about our own lives matter.” She first heard stories about the poor when she was six years old and in Sunday School. She was told that we needed to help and that Jesus wanted us to give to the poor, and she was psyched to help. But she was also very frustrated, because Jesus also said, the poor will always be with us. She said she felt angry, overwhelmed, like a homework assignment that couldn’t be completed. “I didn’t know what would happen when I ran out of things to give.”

As she grew up, the other stories about the poor were no more positive – “I got the idea that the poor in the world live lives wrought with suffering, sadness, devestation and hopelessness.” This led her to feel guilty about her relative wealth… which meant she stopped listening closely to their stories and stopped expecting real change.

“I gave when solutions were on sale – you can save a child’s life for the cost of a cup of coffee, who can argue with that?” The giving wasn’t out of a place of generosity or hope – it became a transaction, a purchase of the right to go on with her day and not be bothered by bad news.

Things shifted for her when she heard Dr. Mohammed Yunus speak, three years before he won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in microfinance and microlending. She was excited both because microlending looked like something she wanted to be a part of… and because the stories Yunus told about the poor were about strong, creative entrepreneurs, not about the helpless and desperate.

So she quit her job, moved to East Africa and started interviewing people who’d received $100 loans. She got to see the implications of these loans – the fact that people could send kids to school, put locks on their doors, buy sugar to put in their tea.

“Even if I could have taken a magic wand and fixed things, I would have gotten a lot wrong.” When people help themselves, they get to find their own solutions, which was humbling for her to discover. She also discovered that no one asked her for donations – if anything, they wanted a loan.

Jessica decided that passing on these stories would lead a group of people to want to lend money to the people in East Africa she’d meant. So she came back with a digital camera, did work her with partner Matt, and launched a site that she “spammed” to friends and family. in 2005, Kiva facilitated $500,000 in loans… now, five years later, it’s facilitated $150 million in loans in 200 countries.

“To me, Kiva’s really about stories – it’s about retelling stories about the poor.” The goal is to avoid the “donor-beneficiary weirdness” that characterizes a lot of aid relationships and to blur lines between rich and poor, leading to more open, just and creative interactions.

Loans are a form of connectivity. When you lend people money and they pay you back over time, it’s an ongoing relationship and the opportunity to build a relationship. And loans are a way to give community and money, which is more powerful than just providing money.

Jessica’s new project looks at entrepreneurship closer to home. Profounder, launching this week, is designed to provide crowdfunding for investments from friends and family and provide returns to them. Founders can design terms for investment, and can give revenues from the business to investors, who can either keep those returns or automatically donate them to a charity. The project focuses on the idea that 85% of funding for new businesses in the US comes from friends and family. This process is usually pretty awkward, and Profounder makes it easier, more formal and better organized.

Jessica reminds us that these systems – Kiva, Profounder – are just tools. We need to care to make them work.

July 14, 2010

TEDGlobal: Transforming voting, and education

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 1:53 pm

David Bismark has a very clever idea for making elections more transparent and verifiable. He explains that elections are incredibly hard to carry out – “running a country wide election is messy and bad things happen.” To make sure as few things as possible go wrong, we have all sorts of procedures in place, and generally, our trust that our vote is counted is a trust in the voting systems.

That trust may be unwarranted. Voters should be able to check that their vote was counted correctly without breaking the secrecy of a ballot. Bismark’s solution is one that uses computers, but doesn’t depend on them. Each ballot is different – the candidate list is different on each one, and it’s got a unique bar code. Remove the ballot from the form and no one knows who you’ve voted for. But the cryptography let you check online and verify your vote. I’m looking forward to reading his paper and I admire his dedication to transparent, verifiable elections.

Emily Piloton has a big idea for a small community. She and her design firm, Project H Design (which is basically her and her partner Matt) are focused on transforming education in Bertie County, North Carolina. The community is extremely rural, has only 20,000 people sparsely distributed in a community in northeastern NC, about two hours from Raleigh. She sees the community as an example of the “demise of rural America”, the hollowing out of small towns and the transformation of downtowns to ghost towns. Bertie County has a heavy dependency on farm subsidies, underperforming schools and rural poverty. The biggest industry is farming, the biggest employer the Purdue chicken plant. There are five restaurants in the county, and few other public spaces – no coffee shop, book store, internet cafe, WalMart.

These communities, Piloton warns us, don’t get enough philanthropic attention. 6.8% of philanthropic dollars in the US focus on rural communities, which have 20% of the population. And they’ve got serious problems in their educational systems. While the county is 60% African American, students in the schools are 86% African American, because the wealthier students leave and go to private schools. There are no qualified teachers to pull from – 8% of the local population has a college degree. And 27% of 8th graders were reading and doing math at grade level.

So why Bertie County? “Dr. Z” – the new superintendant of the broken school system, is the legendary founder of some of the first charter schools in the 1980s. She came to work with him, bringing a design perspective to the school reform project.

Her firm focuses on six principles:
Design through action
Design with, not for
Design systems, not stuff.
Document, share and measure.
Start locally and scale globally.

In the spirit of the fifth principle – and because she fell in love with the community – she and Matt now live there. And they’re working on three projects designed to transform the local education system through design.

The first rebuilds the computer labs from a place designed for “kill and drill”, getting students to take tests. Now it’s a creative, open space for exploration and interaction.

An educational playground system, the second project, invites students to learn kinetically. We see an example of kids learning to multiply by hearing a problem and running to sit on the appropriately numbered tire in a landscape. Peloton tells us there are reports of higher test scores and more comfort with the materials – especially with the boys. And teachers are able to use these games as assesment tools for understanding the comprehension levels of students.

Second, there’s a public branding campaign – Connect Bertie – which raises a fund to put a computer and broadband connection in every home with a child in school. In effect, it’s asking the school system to become a catalyst for the community.

Finally, they’re designing a project to teach design within the public schools. Shop class, originally designed as a form of trade school for kids not going to college, has now mostly disappeared from the curiculum in funding cuts. She and her partner are reintroducing shop class as a year-long junior year design class, moving from brainstorming, visualizing and prototyping to building community projects – an open air farmers market, bus shelters, improvement for the elderly. They’re turning abandoned spaces into public spaces and turning youth into a community asset.

While this is a small story – one course, 13 students, one year – it’s a model for how design could lead education in the future and how small communities might use education to transform themselves.

TEDGlobal: Growing away from styrofoam

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 1:15 pm

Anne Quito tells us that she discovered a Warhol – a signed screen print – which she’d walked past in her office for seven years without noticing it. Discovering this for her was subtle, but epic. She works in an office with an art collection spread throughout the building, uncurated and largely undiscovered. It’s everywhere and nowhere, and sometimes in the way.

The cow she shows us is a fragment of wallpaper, part of a Warhol exhibition. What a great metaphor for how art disappears in her office. Ever since her moment of eye contact with Warhol’s cow, she’s spent her Monday lunch hours walking the building with coworkers, discovering the art. They’ve discovered a David Hockney and two Rauschenbergs hidden in a corner. They also found a white board penholder, which looked like art.

There are many things to discover when you look closer and even more when you look together.

Eben Bayer (@ebenbayer) of ecovative design makes packaging out of seed hulls and mushroom roots. He asks us to think about synthetic materials like plastics. They use a huge amount of energy and take a long time to decompose, which means they’re polluting our environment.

Bayer suggests we think of Styrofoam as “toxic white stuff”. The material that protected your computer contains about the energy of 1.5 gallons of petrol. It will be used for only a few weeks. And by volume, it occupies about 25% of our landfills. It takes thousands of years to decompose. If it finds itself in the ocean, it floats perpetually, until it’s broken into small particles in the Great Plastic Gyre.

To make better materials, we need to think about three things:

Feedstocks – we use the same material for our feedstock as we for transportation, which is insane

Energy – we need to use far less energy and CO2 for these materials

Recycling – we need to think about materials that can return to the earth without preprocessing, like human bodies do.

When trees are done with their leaves – those amazing photon processors – it drops them and they’re “upcycled” into next year’s topsoil. And mushrooms are nature’s recyclers.

Bayer looks specifically at mycelium, which is the mushroom’s root system. It’s able to turn woody waste into a chitinous substance that’s useful as a glue. They’re grown from natural products and are completely compostable with no preprocessing.

He walks us through the future of packaging. We choose a locally available feedstock, put in into a mold, then add mycelium. When we remove the mold, we’ve locally manufactured a plastic-like, biodegradable product. In China, you might use rice husks – in the US, oat hulls. A video makes clear that it’s a bit more complex – the hulls (cotton husks) are cleaned, washed and injected with the mycelium. They fill the molds, and we see packaging corner blocks grow in a dark room for five days. It’s very strange – the manufacturing facility is, basically, a room for growing chitinous polymer matrix… mushrooms.

A major Fortune 500 company is now using these corner blocks to protect tables that they ship. Customers can discard these blocks and they’ll improve the local soil.

Multiple feedstocks is important – we don’t want to see the age of peak rice hulls. Self assembly is critical, because it’s a very low-energy manufacturing process. The yield rates are very high, because the materials not converted become part of the polymer. And the outcome is completely disposeable and will disappear in the foreseeable future.

TEDGlobal: Tan Le reads our minds and moves our robots

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 12:50 pm

Vietnamese/Australian entrepreneur Tan Le tells us that our communications with machines have always involved explicit commands. Human communication is much more subtle – we communicate expressively, through our faces, bodies, etc. Her project – and her company, Emotiv – is intended to let computers respond to our facial expressions and emotional experiences by interpreting the signals from our brains.

We can measure brain signals by mapping electrical impulses on the brain. But brain structure can be very different based on how the brain folds – even in identical twins, signals might come from different places. So the first breakthrough is to build a map that can unfold the brain and identify where a signal is coming from.

The second challenge is building sensors that can interpret signals from the brain. Generally, this requires a “hairnet” of sensors that’s expensive ($10,000+) and awkard to wear, involving conductive gel.

A preselected (bald) volunteer puts on a headset designed to interpret his brain signals. Tan Le creates a new user in her system – the EPOC headset – and starts training based on a “neutral signal”, the normal state of his relaxed brain. Then he thinks about a movement, and the system trains on that data. Before Tan Le can tell us that he’s now going to try to move the cube with his mind, the cube is pulled forward to him, getting applause from the audience.

Now, she asks him to imagine the cube slowly fading out. Again, he’s able to dim it and bring it back with nothing but his thoughts. At first, he’s only able to do it for a few seconds – after about a minute, he makes it disappear completely and the crowd cheers.

We see a demo of how this technology might interface with robots – a helicopter that lifts off, a robot that moves around based on facial expressions. We see someone opening and closing the curtains in her smart house with her mind (it looks like more work than getting up and closing them, to be frank), but other applications make much more sense – using the interface to control an electric wheelchair, which could be profoundly useful for someone who is seriously disabled.

TEDGlobal: Neil Gershenfeld promises us a replicator

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 12:37 pm

The final session of day 2 at TEDGlobal 2010, Different by Design, starts with a strange, ethereal multimedia performance by Miwa Matreyek. Using animations, music, and her body, we move through a world that looks like a child’s picturebook come to fluid life. Matreyek, in shadow against a screen of animation, interacts with the figures, buildings and birds projected before her. Her arms, stretched wide, become a highway for a toy car, then they open a window on her heart, which drains out milk, filling the screen. Watching on simulcast, as I am, I can’t tell what’s being performed live and what’s on video, but I get the sense the essense of the piece is about the interplay of the physically present and the virtual, the real and the imagined. It’s extremely beautiful.

Neil Gershenfeld, the director of the center for bits and atoms at MIT’s Media Lab, offers us Neo’s choice from the Matrix – whether to take the red or the blue bill. He tells us that Oakridge has a computer that takes the power of a city – you can power the city or the computer. There’s another planned computer in Japan that costs a billion dollars – you could buy the city or the computer.

We tend to pretend that software works in a virtual world, not a real one, and this distinction is breaking down. Gershenfeld blames Alan Turing and John von Neumann, and specifically the split between storage and processing of information. This isn’t a deep truth of nature, or of information – it’s what had to happen in the 1940s to build a computer. Once computer science and technology split in the 1940s, we got stuck with this old architecture.

Gershenfeld explains asynchronous logic automata, a form of computing that takes advantage of moving tokens, and the distances between those tokens carry weights and values. The program is a spacial structure. It runs at the speed of nature. It doesn’t occupy power when it’s not working. It can run in molecular systems. It promises a future where we buy computing by the pound as a pure commodity, a raw material.

At this point, a program isn’t a thing – it’s a spatial structure. Buildings waste a third of their energy because they’re stupid – what if we treated them like programs, programs that were structures. This might also give us insight for how brains work, because processing isn’t islated – it happens everywhere. (I confess I didn’t get this set of points at all.)

Gershenfeld shows us a visualization of one of these shaped programs. This is a step towards growing constructions of inorganic materials. This gives us the potential of following a path that looks like this:
– We can overcome the disconnect between computers and the physical world
– Then we build programs that are things can make other programs that are things
– Then we put data into the raw materials
– In the future, we grow technology

The goal at the end: the Star Trek replicator. The goal is not to build what you can buy at the store – it’s the ultimate tool for personal expression. The experiments Gershenfeld has done – fab labs, machines that make machines are steps towards this ultimate goal.

Gershenfeld admits that his first couple of experiments in the field were designed to satisfy the NSF, and that he was concerned about parachuting in technology. “You can’t wake up in Cambridge, MA and decide that rural Afghanistan needs precision engineering.” But it’s been extremely useful to build antennas to build bottom-up wireless networks to bring information into these rural communities, including MIT’s Open Courseware.

A team in Barcelona started using portable fabricators to continue Antonio Gaudi’s work. The tools have now turned into prototyping tools to build solar powered cars.

Gershenfeld tells us that kids in rural Africa and in the Arctic are mastering these tools so much faster than conventional engineers that it’s becoming a problem to keep this talent in local communities. Rather than having smart kids take their knowledge and leaving communities, they’re building the Fab Academy, a virtual school to help teach the kids playing with these tools. His hope, ultimately, is that schools like this – nonphysical, decentralized – can unseat institutions like MIT.

At the turn of the last century, books were for elites. But Andrew Carnegie believed that making libraries accessable to the general public, and they had a huge impact on creating literacy. Literacy now is about how a description becomes a thing and a thing becomes a description.

Industry has historically been about controlling means of production. But if we send data to local factories, we no longer have control over means of productions. You can’t sue the planet for infringement of your patents, he tells us – it’s too leaky.

In the world Gershenfeld predicts, we won’t necessarily have huge national labs – we’ll have community labs that share their information, processes, tools and things.

The research agenda is working, he tells us. In twenty years, we’ll show off the Star Trek replicator at TED. But it’s not too early to think about the implications – how do we live, work, educate and play in a world where anyone can make anything? He challenges us to take on this challenge, presumably because he’s got producing a replicator taken care of.

TEDGlobal: John Hardy’s Green School

Filed under: TEDGlobal 2010 — Ethan @ 11:19 am

John Hardy tells us he grew up in a small village in Canada as an undiagnosed dyslexic. He was the little kid in the village who cried each day on the way to school.

At 25, he ran away to Bali and met his wife, with whom he built a jewerly business. They retired, and life looked beautiful. But then his wife took him to see a film that ruined his life: An Inconvenient Truth. “I have four kids. And even if part of what he says is true, they’re not going to have the life that I had.”

Hardy decided to focus on “giving back locally” and building a project for Bali, the Green School. It’s an ambitious project to build a school that’s off the grid, based on principles of green design. He shows us bamboo blackboards, classrooms lit with natural light, cooling shades built with cotton. There’s a new power generation system coming in based on a hole dug in a riverbed to create a vortex – it should be able to generate 8000 watts based on water falling only a few feet. He’s integrating pigs and cows into the space, asking them to take care of waste and to trim grass. There’s composting toilets and gas free cooking stoves that run on sawdust. The building is built of sustainable bamboo and may be one of the largest bamboo structures in the world.

He admits that not everything has worked – the original, recycled skylights failed. And teachers hated the blackboards and tried to bring in their own whiteboards. So Hardy is now trying to make whiteboards from recycled windshields and white paper.

Hardy’s vision is for the school to be the center of a community of green houses, green industries and restaurants. In the meantime, it’s a small community – 160 children, with a commitment that 20% of the children will be Balinese supported by a scholarship fund. Hardy feels strongly that the programs he supports should be local and sees the commitment to 20% local students as a essential part of that commitment.

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