Amid Dire Visions of the Future, Glimmers of Hope at TED

Jason Tanz in Wired:

Ted-anxiety-ft-660x440A recent piece in The New York Times compared TED to an evangelical tent revival—one that flattered its listeners into believing they could overcome the world’s injustices, that “simply showing up to listen makes you part of the solution.” To be sure, there have been moments that inspired an almost spiritual response. Fred Jansen’s tale of landing the Rosetta probe on a spinning, craggy comet was a stirring testament to human ingenuity. Neuroscientist David Eagleman unveiled a vest that pulsed against the wearer’s skin in response to data, allowing him to expand his sensory perception of the world around him. And Stanford’s Fei-Fei Li showed how neural networks could identify objects in photographs—and describe them in full sentences—at about the level of a three-year-old child.

And yet, sitting through the first two days of presentations, I have not felt like part of the solution. If anything, I feel powerless in the face of forces, cavalierly unleashed, that have grown beyond our control. The official theme this year is “Truth or Dare,” which sounds optimistic but actually carries a vague undercurrent of menace. Nick Bostrom, the author of Superintelligence, delivered a grim vision of a future in which humanity is dominated by a machine intelligence it can no longer contain. In her terrifying discussion of antibiotic resistance, Superbug author Maryn McKenna predicted that our wanton overuse of antibiotics would lead to 50 million annual deaths by 2050. “We did it to ourselves,” she said, “by squandering antibiotics with a heedlessness that is almost shocking.” The True American author Anand Giridharadas argued that American inequality had created an empathy gap that prevented the privileged—including the entire TED audience—from knowing or much caring about the struggles of the vanishing middle class. “If you live near a Whole Foods; if no relative of yours serves in the military; if you’re paid by the year, not the hour; if no one you know uses meth,” he said, “if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that you may not know what’s going on. And that you may be part of the problem.”

Perhaps at the prodding of TED organizers, even the direst conclusions were counterbalanced by a stab at optimism.

More here.