As humans, we delight in the discovery of patterns. They appear in the night sky and in the earth under our feet, in animal species and even beneath the surface of our own skin. Today, at TEDActive, we invited some of our favorite TED speakers past to enchant us with their tales of patterns, data and the inherent humanity that lies within. Surprise guest June Cohen hosted.
As a biologist captivated by biomimicry, Janine Benyus explores how we might recreate and evolve nature’s designs into the way we manufacture goods. Manufacturing, says Benyus, is now closer to home than ever with emerging technologies like 3D printing showing up in workplaces, community spaces, and even personal garages. This change is revolutionary and evolutionary, but it comes with some notable concerns. Will this be more benign than the last industrial revolution? How might we ensure that it is sustainable, that it protects rather than destroys our natural environment? This time, Janine points, out, we can see it coming and we have a choice of what kind of impact we want to have.
Janine we must first agree on some fundamental principles with which to design this impending new order. And to do that, we can look to the stories of stuff for inspiration – both our stuff and the stuff of nature. We must create life-friendly chemistry, she says, that builds rather than cuts down. And we can look to nature’s abundant wisdom for new frameworks of production and innovation. Sea urchins can teach us how to salvage CO2 from smoke stacks for alternate uses. Dragonfly wings can teach us about more vibrant structural coloring. You can make a brighter LED if you understand a firefly. Benyus and her team have created AskNature.org, a wiki for biomimicry design that allows anyone to search for a specific engineering function, and discover analogous examples in the natural world.
“We are very young,” she says. “We’re only 200,000 years old, not 3.8 billion. We do have a very big impact. But we can choose what that impact will be. We can tell our children, ‘Gentle.'” We are surrounded by genius, both in this room and out those doors, she says. Our opportunity is to leverage this genius for a new, non-industrial evolution.
Ben Fry is enthusiastic about zip codes. He’s quick to defend his 5-digit hobby with a quick reflection by Charles Kinsgley: “We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” Indeed, bringing life and meaning to vast data sets, like thousands of U.S. postal codes, is what drove Ben to start Fathom, a design and software consultancy based in Boston. “As a designer, I’ve always been able to take some random curiosity and turn it into work. Fundamentally what I’m trying to do is take this curiosity, pull it apart and explore it, and use it as a way to teach and explain this interest to others.”
Ben and his team at Fathom have tackled a range of issues. With National Geographic, they explored how to help people understand what a world population of 7 billion might look like, and ended up with a map that flipped our traditional expectations of quantity, size, population density. In collaboration with Reuters to cover the leadership transition in China, they juxtaposed the hierarchical structure of the Chinese government with the softer human ties that reflected how human networks and relationships actually work. And with Nike, they created colorful collections of quantified self data, illustrating the uniqueness of the individual and the commonality across the human condition.
“What I really want to be doing is making things, and finding ways to work with people who are making things.” Ben’s newborn daughter arrived in October. For her, she says, everything is something to be enthusastic about. He pauses for a moment, holding back tears as he looks at a photo of his daughter on stage. “All we really need is something to be enthusiastic about.”
“The most romantic thing to ever happen to me online started the way most things do. Without me and not online.”
In familiar fashion, Rives weaves the most heart-warming tale of four-in-the-morning you’ll ever hear.
It began with a poem he’d never heard.
The hour from night to day
The hour from side to side
The hour for those past thirty…
The poet was Wislawa Szymborska and the poem was called “Four in the Morning.”
“Did I flirt with this poem in a coffee shop somewhere?,” asked Rives. “I could not place it.”
As time went on, Rives began to have close encounters of the four-in-the-morning kind. On TV sitcoms, in music lyrics. He called it coincidence and tried to move on. To no avail. “Four in the morning was in me now, but mildly. Like a groin injury. I always assumed it would go away on its own, and I never talked about it with anybody.” So he began to look.
After giving his infamous TEDTalk, Rives began receiving 4 a.m. citations from all over the globe. Pamphlets from the American Diabetes Society, gang signs, magazine ads, grocery store signage, movie clips, comic books, Hallmark cards. The list is endless. “I had a hobby I didn’t know I wanted.” As hobbies often do, his hobby became a habit, and he continued to look.
His collection now resides in the Museum of Four in the Morning, which you can visit at your leisure, free of charge. It is, of course, still accepting artifacts, should you come across a winner.
For Rives, though, the quest to place that poem that began it all, came to a sweet end. Among the flood of 4 a.m. artifacts sent to Rives was a simple tweet by an ex-girlfriend. “Reminds me of an ancient mixtape.” The December-May romance came to an end, but the mixtape she made for him still lives in a box among Rives’ possessions. The tape had no song titles, but rather library codes, each corresponding to a particular poem in the school library, for Rives to find, and read, while listening to the corresponding tune. And it was there, in the Polish authors section of the library, Rives found four-in-the-morning, Wislawa Szymborska, and his final answer.
Each one of Nina Tandon’s siblings had difficulty with eyesight. Two were colorblind, one nearly blind at night. For Nina, the conversations that transpired and the obstacles her family faced were an first-hand introduction to biology as technology. “Biology, miraculous as it is, sustaining our bodies, creating our experience of life, is also responsible for the way that we experience it.”
Nina now lives in the world of tissue engineering, a field that uses technology and cells to grow spare parts for the human body. Her company, EpiBone, applies these principles to create living, personalized human bone grafts. She explains that we’re entering a new era of Body 3.0, in which we can think of cells as renewable resources that can be used regenerate new parts of the body.
But this is just one part of the story, Nina says. These principles don’t just apply to our own bodies, but to how we look at and use technology. “I want to tell you that the time of building with living cells has arrived. It will not only change the way we live, but how we view life itself.” Using these principles, we can design and fabricate rationally designed living systems – it’s not about copying biology, but about collaborating with it.
So what can we do with cells? Sharing the work of her colleagues and friends, Nina shows us how scientists, artists, and designers alike are working with cells to create and build. They’ve created bacteria leather for fashion products like shoes and leather. They’ve used biofabrication techniques to grow meat and leather. One Stanford researcher has developed a video game using microbes as living pixels, while another has created a strain of mushroom that serves as an active element in a living coffin to eliminate the waste left behind by death. And yet another group paints portraits with genetically glowing bacteria.
“We can coax cells into doing so much. Saving lives. Conserving the planet. Inspiring unprecedented works of art. And above all, continuing to command our wonder.”
But this journey is not without its questions, Nina points out. If we can grow human cells in the lab, what then does it mean to be human? But she points out, it’s our humanity that can help us drive this movement in the right direction. “If the first industrial revolution was about machines, and the second about information, as we think ahead to the world that we’re preparing for our children and the world that younger generations will prepare for us, aren’t we excited at the prospect that the third industrial revolution can be about life?”
Six months ago, AJ Jacobs received an email from a man in Israel claiming to be his 12th cousin. “I have a family tree with 80,000 people on it, including you, Karl Marx, and a whole bunch of European aristocrats.” At first, AJ panicked. 80,000 relatives? He could barely handle the ones he could count on his fingers.
But then again, he thought, it was rather remarkable. “Here I am, alone in my office, but I’m not alone at all. I’m connected to 80,000 people around the world. That’s 4 Madison Square Gardens full of cousins!”
This was the inspiration for AJ’s recent journey to explore the world of genealogy. And it’s a great time to be in this world. Genealogy sites are going through a fascinating and controversial revolution, empowered and overwhelmed by the power of the crowd, blossoming exponentially into massive, mega-family trees. “I’m connected to one family tree that has more than 75 million people connected to me, by blood or marriage.” AJ’s cousins include Gwyneth Paltrow, Albert Einstein, and Barack Obama. And this next one won’t be any surprise: “Kevin Bacon is my first cousin twice removed’s wife’s niece’s husband’s first cousin once removed’s niece’s husband.
We are all connected.
“The idea of a family of humankind isn’t a cliche anymore,” says AJ. “It’s real!” And so, in collaboration with Geni, WikiTree, and MyHeritage, AJ is endeavoring to build a family tree of the entire world. It’s an overwhelming project to be sure. But AJ is convinced it’s worth it. Mapping the genealogy of the human family has clear scientific value, he says. It can help us collect valuable data about how diseases are inherited, how people migrate, and so on. It also brings history alive, making it relevant and personal. AJ’s son knows he’s related to Albert Einstein. “Now Einstein’s not some dead white guy with weird hair, he’s Uncle Albert!” A global family tree can illustrate our rich interconnectedness. “In 10-12 generations, you’re going to have thousands, millions of offspring. And many of those will be mine as well.” This interconnectedness, AJ posits, will also lead to a kinder world. He’s found this to be true in his own newfound tolerance and appreciation for his 11th cousin four times removed, Judge Judy. And lastly, how can you forget the democratizing effect of being related to everyone, race and background aside.
Next summer, AJ will be hosting the biggest family reunion in history at the New York Hall of Science, on the site of the former World’s Fair. Proceeds from the event will go towards Alzheimers research. AJ reckons it will be one heck of a family gathering. “I don’t know all the answers, but I have a lot of smart relatives, including you. Together, we can solve these big problems.” AJ looks forward to seeing you in Summer 2015 at the Global Family Reunion.