Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of going to the annual TED conference in Vancouver, and hearing from some of the brightest minds in medicine, cosmology, education, climatology, social injustice and, of course, Technology, Entertainment, and Design, which is what TED is all about.
Speakers at TED events have only 18 minutes to share their message via highly polished, succinct speeches intended to inspire, challenge, be thought provoking, appeal to people's curiosity and, in some cases, evoke awe and wonder.
A full list of the speakers from the most recent TED are available on the event's website, and it's worth bookmarking and revisiting as the full speeches are posted over the next few months.
While I really enjoyed all of the talks, there were two that really interested me as a techie. The first was from Nicholas Negroponte, who founded the MIT Media Lab and has spoken at TED numerous time over the last year 30 years. He used this appearance to chronicle his many TED talks and discuss how many of his predictions turned out to be right on the money.
He's not done, though. "My prediction is that we are going to ingest information — we're going to swallow a pill and know English, and swallow a pill and know Shakespeare," he said. "It will go through the bloodstream and it will know when it's in the brain and, in the right places, it deposits the information."
I personally would like to try that out, but hope it does not take 30 years for these magic pills to come to fruition.
Ferren discussed a trip to Rome he took with his parents when he was younger, where he saw the 2,000-year-old Pantheon. It struck him that people were smart 2,000 years ago and were doing some amazing things in design, architecture, and technology in order to make this amazing building. I have visited the Pantheon numerous times over the years and seeing it evokes wonder in me every time I am there.
"The building of the Pantheon required five miracles," Ferren said. The Romans had to invent super-strong concrete to allow for construction; they had to be able to vary the density of the concrete, using five rings of coffers diminishing in size; they had to create the natural convection of air; they had to recognise that light was a substance and could be designed; and they had to understand the Venturi effect.
This got Ferren wondering what would be considered the Pantheon of the modern age. "One is tempted to say today's Pantheon is the Internet," he said. "But I actually think that's quite wrong."
"The Internet is not the Pantheon; it's more like the invention of concrete. Important and absolutely necessary to build the Pantheon, but entirely insufficient itself." It's the physical things that people will create with the Internet that will matter, he said.
Ferren looked to an idea from "the late 1930s that's been revived every decade since": autonomous vehicles. This will be the game-changer, Ferren predicts. "Much of our world is designed around roads and transportation — this was as essential in Rome as it is today," he says. "This will be the key technology to allow us to redesign our cities and by extension human civilisation."
Autonomous vehicles will not only save lives — 10,000 in the United States per year and a million globally — but it will clear road congestion, and give us back valuable time that is wasted today. And autonomous cars will cut pollution in half, Ferren says. Getting there will take five miracles, some of which are already here:
- You need to be able to know exactly where you are and exactly what time it is. (Thanks GPS.)
- You need to know where all roads are and what the rules of driving on them are. (Check, in-car navigation systems.)
- You need near-continuous communications with other vehicles nearby. (Ferren says that current wireless technology, with modifications, could get us there.)
- You need restricted roadways that people agree are safe to use. (We could start with HOV lanes.)
- And you need the ability for machines to recognise people, signs, and symbols. (For this a car might need to wake up to ask its passenger a question, the answer to which it could then share with all other vehicles.)
"I predict that autonomous vehicles will permanently change our world over the next several decades," said Ferren. "The beginning is only a few years away."
I found that Ferren laid out the components needed to create the driverless car with great aplomb, and more importantly, showed how this would eventually affect the future designs of cities around the world. Until this speech I had discounted the importance of a driverless car, but I am now forced to really rethink the role it will play in our future, and why it could be quite important not only for transportation but also for re-architecting cities and environments for our future digital age.
For more, check out my review of TED and why I believe it matters.