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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Elon Musk Wasn’t the Only Reason to Be at TED

Hi, everyone. Elon Musk says he’s utterly obsessed with truth. But not so much that he’ll stop misinformation on Twitter?

The Plain View

The hundreds of protesters blocking the entrance to the Vancouver Convention Centre last Sunday were angry—about vaccines, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and, it seems, any scientist or official attempting to censor them by committing public health. They were spirited and loud as they catcalled the attendees of the TED conference, which was holding its annual event in person at its very own auditorium for the first time in three years.

Whether you agree with the protesters or not, they had their target right. TED is a bastion of knee-jerk belief in, if not outright worship of, science. Those (like me) entering the conference hall through a side door Sunday were about to be exposed to a five-day fire hose of data, delivered by anxious humans standing on a stage inside of a red ring. Much of the content was about “awe” and “imagination,” and there was an abundance of feel-good stories about how inspiring people perform wonderful deeds, but plenty of it tiptoed into the weeds of biology, astrophysics, neurology, and, yes, epidemiology. Some had a Mad Lib twist on their scientific specialty: There was a space architect, an artistic entomologist, a crop psychologist. In exchange for their five-figure conference fee, TED-sters would learn about how dragonflies behave in virtual reality, how to build brain circuits in the lab, and the tonnage of carbon that a blue whale removes from the atmosphere in a year. (If we paid whales a salary for this, it would be in the millions of dollars!)

All of that is so very TED. The world has changed since 2019, when TED last gathered its 1,800 or so mind-cadets in person. For one thing, there’s Covid—everyone attending had to get tested upon arrival, and the few who had unhappy results were banished to quarantine. Beyond that, the world in general seems darker, with democracy in peril and a possible world war looming. But the conference itself has resumed its comforting cadence of brief talks recorded for broad distribution on the TED website, to bend the minds of millions thereafter. While TED did add some last-minute Ukraine content, like Garry Kasparov reminding everyone that he had warned us about Putin, the carnage in Europe didn’t dominate the discussion. That’s not the way TED rolls.

“When you have an existential war of this kind that is challenging the whole world order, we have to cover it,” says TED’s leader and curator-in-chief, Chris Anderson. But not too much. “Politicians come and go, but ideas are forever,” he says. “We celebrate the real drivers of the future, which are inventions, discoveries, entrepreneurship—things that really, really impact the long term even more than most politicians.”

So even as an apocalypse looms, TED persisted in packing its 11 sessions with a familiar mix of speakers hoping to uncover unknown corners of the human psyche and the natural world. This year was characterized by groupings that started in an organic flow but often took weird turns. Anderson says that the whiplash is intentional: “If you push the same part of the brain for too long, it gets boring,” he says. In a session that started with three space-related talks, one speaker dazzled us with details of the giant Webb telescope, followed by another who demanded that the device be renamed after Harriet Tubman. Then, suddenly, the session pivoted from exploring distant moons to Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, who tried to convince us that his employers were about to embrace blockchain-powered open systems. Another session began with a Bjork-like game designer praising the creative wonders of Minecraft metaverses, and ended with a stern dude warning us that metaverse-like games will become the incubators of dystopian violent clans.

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As usual, a few big names showed up. Bill Gates—targeted specifically by the protesters, a circumstance he deemed “weird”—strolled on stage with an ancient Roman fire bucket, indicating the readiness he hopes society will have for the next pandemic. Al Gore, meanwhile, was literally screaming as he bemoaned how we’re losing ground on climate change because of corrupt politics. The artist JR told the spellbinding story of how he transformed a high-security prison with one of his projects.

And then there was Elon Musk, who was originally set to appear in a prerecorded interview taped days ago. As Musk dominated the headlines with his attempt to buy Twitter this week, Anderson abandoned his focus-on-the-long-view stance and brought Musk to Vancouver to discuss the issue of the moment—though it’s likely that his Twitter obsession will fade sooner than later. Anderson’s interview went well past the usual 18 minutes or less allotted to TED speakers. It also broke through the cloistered real-time TED bubble and made news everywhere. In a first on the TED stage, a CEO of two huge public companies called SEC officials “bastards.” An idea worth spreading?

Despite TED’s Musk coup, the opening day spectacle of barbarians at TED’s gates raises the question of whether this annual brain Valhalla is still relevant. Covid has not been kind to TED or its finances. In 2020 it soldiered on in virtual form, and last summer, it hosted a diminished IRL version. Even this year, you could see empty seats in the usually packed 1,250-seat theater. Anderson proudly announced that registration is open for 2023, but it used to be that the following year’s conference was sold out before the current year’s first session began. There’s also the larger question of whether, in a world increasingly divided and stressful, it makes sense to huddle together in a bubble of artisanally cooked-up wonder, awe, and silly robots.

But as often happens at TED, something somehow cuts through the cynicism. For me, it was someone I’d never heard of, an engineer turned “social entrepreneur” named Manish Bhardwaj. With passion and eloquence, Bhardwaj made the case that corporations must become diverse, ecologically responsible, and non-rapacious—not because it’s good for business, but because it’s the right thing to do. His argument for “moral clarity” broke through all the bullshit of a couple of relatively tedious preceding speakers and seemed true and authentic.

I spoke with him afterwards. His TED talk, which he practiced at least 60 or 70 times, was his opportunity to advocate for what seemed a Ghandian ideal of economic morality, not just in Vancouver, but to potentially millions on the website. Delivering the spiel, he told me, was like an out-of-body experience. “I have very little memory of what happened in the talk.”

But I do. Looking for the next Bhardwaj, I’ll probably go back to TED next year—if Covid or something else doesn’t kill me first.

Time Travel

I’ve been doing TED wrap-ups since I began covering the conference for Newsweek years ago. Here’s a bit of my 2007 dispatch, written back when we called the climate crisis “global warming.” TED, of course, was on it.

[New owner Chris] Anderson, who'd made serious loot from selling two publishing companies, had been a TED-ster himself. He'd adored TED's camaraderie and cerebral pyrotechnics, but having begun his own charitable organization, the Sapling Foundation, he wanted to hit harder on the do-good component. “My foundation was all about trying to leverage the power of ideas,” he explained to me during a break in the action last week. Implicit in his view of the conference was a sentiment that would be uttered countless times by TED speakers in the next few years: “You people are the smartest, most resource-rich conglomeration on the planet—imagine if you turned your attention to … [and here the speaker would insert the name of some dire problem] … ”

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Today, TED is a little like one of those old rock festivals where one band follows another. Some performances are great acts doing a show that makes history; some touted sets don't deliver, and some obscurities come out of nowhere to rock your world. Still, at one point, after a cluster of socially conscious speakers, this year's TED was threatening to turn into a Mensa version of a Jerry Lewis telethon. Among the problems we were asked to ponder, if not resolve, were global warming (very big last year when Al Gore was a central presence), energy independence, AIDS in Africa, biodiversity, disabilities of Iraq veterans, and man's inhumanity to man in general. (On the other hand, Stephen Pinker gave a talk that contended that things were never better for humanity, and he had a PowerPoint presentation to prove it.) 

John Doerr, the famous venture capitalist, nearly wept on stage when he envisioned a moment 20 years hence when he might have to admit to his daughter that we failed to save the planet from a climate catastrophe. (Verkempt-ness was a leitmotif at TED this year; tears flowed at filmmaker Deborah Scranton's interactions with soldiers back from combat, and even Lost creator J. J. Abrams threatened waterworks while reminiscing about his grandfather.) But spiffy technology, challenging ideas, and the force of great personalities claimed the spotlight in the last couple of days.

Ask Me One Thing

Chris asks, “Do you think Web3 is an answer to the problem of content moderation?”

Thanks for the question, Chris. (And no, it’s not TED’s Chris Anderson asking this question.) You must be thinking of Elon Musk’s plans to create a transparent algorithmic regime to handle speech on Twitter, an idea he vaguely outlined in his TED interview. In short, I think that the blockchain might have uses in online speech, most notably identifying who is saying things. A trusted source of content verified mathematically might be better than a blue check mark to evaluate who is posting what. And it would be nice for an individual to have the option to block every “speaker”—especially bots—that hasn’t achieved a certain level of trustworthiness or civility.

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But ultimately, no, Web3 is not the answer. Content moderation on a mass-market platform is a devilishly difficult task that is as much art as science. It’s just about impossible when a big part of the platform involves making angry, insulting, or misinforming posts go viral. It’s hard to envision that the solution is to introduce a bunch of opt-in algorithms that most people won’t bother with. But if Elon makes it work, more power to him.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

Half a world away, the devastation in Ukraine is terrifying. Also scary: a subway stop in Brooklyn.

Last but Not Least

TED doesn’t have all the big ideas: Here’s my story about a company that thinks earbuds might be the window to the brain.

Musk is right about Twitter being a public square, says Gilad Edelman.

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Tech companies swiftly laid down the hammer on Russia—but they harmed innocent Russians while barely bonking the oligarchs.

Another candidate for a future TED talk: the California farmer with an idea to level out drought and deluge.

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