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Recapping TED 2015: Flour Made From Coffee and Eight More Things to Chew On

A mother's love, a vest that adds new senses and a Nobel Peace Prize winner talking about the importance of anger.

Bret Hartman/TED

Of course, there were an abundance of powerful speeches, cool new technologies and amazing performances at TED this year.

Well publicized were the talks by Monica Lewinsky and Bill Gates as well as a new 3-D printing technology. But so much more happened last week onstage and in convention center halls that housed the weeklong conference.

Here are a few more “ideas worth spreading” (as the TED crowd likes to say) from Vancouver.

Necessity really is the mother of invention

This was another theme present throughout many of the talks and interviews at TED.

James Duncan Davidson/TED

Martine Rothblatt knows a lot about shifting, having moved between industries and genders during her career. But it was the very real risk of losing her daughter to a rare disease — pulmonary arterial hypertension — that led her to start her current company, United Therapeutics. She bought a potentially promising drug technology from a pharmaceutical giant that wasn’t pursuing it. Not only is her daughter alive and well, but Rothblatt has a company that generates more than $1 billion a year in revenue. The irony: The drug company that had no interest in the medication sold its intellectual property for a 10 percent share of the proceeds, so it gets more than $100 million a year.

Singer Aloe Blacc got his start as a business consultant before being laid off during a company-wide reduction in force. Pondering a return to business school, Blacc chose instead to pursue his passion in music — a career that led him to become a chart-topping singer.

Blacc said, “It’s not my goal necessarily to write hit songs, but it’s nice when it happens.” More important, though, is to use his music to pursue social justice. At the conference, he sang poignantly about not wanting to die young, raising his hands at the end in a gesture reminiscent of the post-Ferguson “Don’t Shoot” pose, before concluding with a stirring acoustic version of his No. 1 hit, “Wake Me Up.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Kish has been completely blind since losing both eyes to a rare cancer as an infant. However, Kish taught himself a different way to visualize the world around him — using echolocation in much the way a bat sees through sound. Making clicking noises may not offer the sharpest of vision, but Kish said it gives him a pretty good sense of his surroundings. Plus, it allows him to see behind himself as well as around corners.

“I call this process flash sonar,” Kish told the crowd. “It is how I have learned to see through my blindness.”

The main obstacle that Kish is still working to overcome? The fear with which much of society treats blind people.

Getting computers to understand a pick and roll

Rajiv Maheswaran loves sports, but for most of his life imagined that would have to be a hobby while he pursued his day job in computer science.

Instead, he has managed to marry the two passions into a technology now in use by more than a third of teams in the National Basketball Association. Maheswaran and a team from the University of Southern California have essentially taught a computer to understand basketball. In reality, the computer still only sees moving dots. That said, it is able to recognize when those dots are setting a pick and roll, how the opposing team defends it and catalog the results.

James Duncan Davidson/TED

The system can also tell which shots are made and missed by whom and assess whether a so-so shooter is actually a good shooter taking bad shots or a bad shooter who just knows where to stand.

Maheswaran said the technology is only used by pro teams for now, but he sees it going to colleges and high schools and, eventually, even recreational leagues. “We’re going to be doing other sports,” he promised.

Now, if he could only teach Kara Swisher a thing or two about sportsball. But, alas, even technology has its limits.

Hearing through silent video

Abe Davis demoed a technique to listen to video that was shot without an audio track. Davis’s method reconstructs sound by using high-speed video and reconstructing the audio from the vibrations the sound makes on nearby objects, such as a bag of potato chips being filmed through soundproof glass.

Bret Hartman/TED

He demonstrated how high-speed video of the chip bag could be used to determine, in fact, it was “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that was the song being played in that room.

Taking it one step further, Davis also showed how the technology could be used to study small motions and then take those motions to create an interactive animation. For example, by observing a small wind blowing on leaves, one can see what a much bigger gust could do by just clicking on the leaves to rustle them at will.

While such animation of virtual objects is pretty commonplace, being able to manipulate real objects in this way was pretty powerful.

He also showed the ability to capture normally imperceptible motion, such as an infant’s breathing or the pulsing of a wrist.

“We created software that finds the subtle motions in video and amplifies them so they become big enough for us to see,” Davis said.

Using virtual reality to tell real stories

I’ve tried on a bunch of virtual reality headsets but one of my critiques is that having 360 degrees of vision doesn’t always lead to a more powerful narrative

Bret Hartman/TED

This was decidedly not the case with Chris Milk who used the immersive properties of virtual reality to tell the story of Sidra, a 12-year-old girl living in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. The virtual reality element lets you not just peer into her world, but really get a feel for life inside the camp. In “Clouds Over Sidra” you feel as if it is you encircled by barbed wire, forced to live in tiny barracks surrounded by so many similar-looking bungalow buildings.

“When you’re sitting there in the room, you are not watching through a screen or window, you’re with her,” Milk said. “When you look down, you’re sitting on the ground she’s sitting on. … You feel her humanity in a deeper way.”

Attendees could watch “Clouds Over Sidra” for themselves using several Samsung Gear VR devices that were in the exhibit area. Sadly, there is still no technology to avoid looking like a dork wearing the things.

Two people wearing virtual reality headsets Ryan Lash/TED

Plugging in new senses

If you could wear a vest and gain a new sense, would you do it? And what sense would it be?

Ryan Lash/TED

That was the question raised by a demo from David Eagleman. The vest could, for example, help a deaf person hear or a blind person see. But, it could also be used to allow those with all traditional human senses to add another one. A pilot, for example, could get a variety of input from cockpit instrumentation and over time actually be able to feel exactly what was wrong with the plane.

Growing evidence suggests the brain can not only replace missing senses but is capable of getting input from any sensor that is wired into it.

Here’s a video of Eagleman’s mind-bending talk:

Learning anger from a Nobel Peace Prize winner

“I’m urging you to become angry.”

It’s not the kind of talk that you expect to hear from a Nobel Peace Prize winner but it is anger that Kaliash Satyarthi said fuels his work fighting injustice.

“For centuries,” said Satyarthi, “We were taught that anger is bad. Our parents, teachers and priests — everyone taught us how to control and suppress our anger.”

But it is anger that Satyarthi said has been the source of all his truly good ideas. In his talk, he described an early effort to bring together leaders in India with the untouchable class. The effort failed to bring any upper-class leaders other than himself. Worse, it was decided that as punishment for his actions, he would have to purify himself in order to avoid being treated as an outcast.


Instead, Satyarthi decided he would cast them out. It was then that he dropped his family name and adopted Satyarthi — which means “seeker of truth.”

“That was the beginning of my transformative anger,” he said. Since then, that anger has helped reunite tens of thousands of child slaves with their families.

A new kind of flour, made from coffee

One of the tastiest technologies on display at TED was Coffee Flour, a new type of baking material backed by Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures. Coffee Flour, as the name implies, is made from the coffee plant, specifically from the pulp of the fruit. Coffee, the drink, comes just from the bean, meaning the rest of the fruit has historically been a burden on the farmer and a scourge to the environment of coffee-growing regions.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

With Coffee Flour, backers hope to make it a potential additional source of revenue for the farmers.

“This can be a very stabilizing effect for them, especially during the low times when coffee prices are depressed,” said company founder Dan Belliveau. “The idea behind this is to try to take a waste product that is currently acting as an environmental hindrance in a lot of these origin countries and turn it into a nutritious food.”

Coffee Flour does have some of the caffeine kick, but less than the beverage — about 10 percent to 15 percent of the beverage — roughly similar to the same amount of chocolate.

Some chefs have already started using it and the backers of coffee flour are looking to get it baked in to a range of goods from chocolates to pastries.

Critiquing TED

This year, as every year, there were also the standard critiques of TED, heard most often from those far away, but even on occasion from those taking part.

It’s a religion; it’s a cult; it’s a lot of talk and no action. Curator Chris Anderson has heard it all.

“TED is clearly not a religion,” Anderson said, during a lunch meeting with reporters. He quoted atheist philosopher Dan Dennett (a frequent speaker at TED) who has said that the secret to happiness is to work for an idea that is bigger than you are.

And there are a lot of ideas at TED and it is clear that attendees and speakers get excited talking with one another.

“If you have a dream and you work for it, it’s kind of infectious,” Anderson said. “That’s not religion. That’s just taking ideas seriously.”

And, he admitted that some people may gravitate to the TED community to replace the kind of community that others find in religion.

“Community isn’t the same as religion either,” he said.

Perhaps, but still minus five points for having an oxygen bar.

Duncan Davidson/TED

Are we creating a world we will grow to hate?

This was a question raised onstage by several speakers and explicitly by the organizers, who held an off-the-record discussion with attendees on the topic.

Marla Aufmuth/TED

For his part, Anderson said he remains optimistic but said he doesn’t take the potential unintended negative consequences lightly.

Anderson said he also thinks it is important whose hands the technology is in, pointing to Stanford professor Fei-Fei Lee who talked about technology for helping computers make sense of photos. Lee was proud that computers can now not only tell that a cat is a cat, but even write a simple sentence describing the action in front of them. However, Lee was quick to point out the technology’s shortcomings, noting that computers remain unable to tell a statue of a horse from the real thing or make sense of human emotion.

“You can’t just invent the stuff and hope it works out,” Anderson said. “You have to take the downside seriously.”

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