As the TED conference winds up its long run as a California institution and prepares to move to Vancouver, it threw out a host of new ideas and innovations that could help make the world a better place.

Civic Lee Speaking

The Vancouver Sun
Published March 1, 2013 at 2:53pm

Here’s a look at a dozen ideas that have come from the talks.

1. Self-directed education “school in the clouds”

Education research Sugata Mitra’s experiments a decade ago exposing children in an Indian slum to computers without any instruction led to the discovery they will self-teach themselves. He’s expanded on that research to show children in a collective environment will teach themselves languages and solve complex problems. The recipient of this year’s $1 million TED Prize now plans to build a “school in the clouds” that will be overseen by retired teachers who communicate with self-directed classrooms by Skype.

2. Reusable rockets

On Friday just as TED was wrapping up Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. launched its third unmanned commercial mission to the international space station. It was a fitting commentary on his message mid-week at the conference that he one day expects booster rockets to be reusable, returning to earth and refueling within hours for redeployment again to space. He debuted a short film showing a test of his prototype recyclable rocket.

3. Cheap paper cancer detector

TED Curator Chris Anderson thinks Jack Andraka must be an alien; this 15-year-old Maryland self-taught genius has invented a cheap paper sensor that has a 100 per cent success rate in detecting pancreatic cancer cells at an early stage. Andraka says the backbone for this three-cent device can also be used in detecting other cancers and may well set the pattern for detection of a host of other diseases. Andraka, of course, has already patented the technology.

4. Small industrial thermonuclear power plants

Taylor Wilson, another wunderkind kid scientist, was a favourite at TED last year for building a nuclear fusion reactor in his garage. Now he’s back with an idea for small “molten salt” nuclear reactors. He’s invented “Small Modular Fission Reactors”, which can be built in factories and shipped anywhere. Installed safely underground, they can run for 30 years on spent nuclear material and can’t be used for making weapons.

5. Reversing desertification through “holistic management”

Allan Savory’s idea isn’t actually new. He’s been working for decades to reverse desertification of grasslands. He’s proven that it is the loss of large herds of wild animals and poor ranching and farming practices that have turned vast areas of the world into water-draining deserts.
By moving huge flocks or herds of livestock around to mimic the patterns of nature, Savary and others have been able to not only reverse desertification but also dramatically improve animal production levels. He’s currently using this technique on 15 million hectares on five continents and estimates that if this is practiced on just half the world’s decertified lands, we would take carbon levels “back to pre-industrial levels.”

6. Tall wood skyscrapers

Vancouver architect Michael Green was thinking along those same climate change-reducing lines with his argument that new wood building materials have unlocked the potential for wood skyscrapers up to 30 storeys tall. Acting as a carbon sink, fast-growing wood used in just one 20 storey tower would be the same as removing 900 cars from roads. British Columbia has already changed its building code to allow up to six storeys, and in the next five years will likely change that to go up to 10 storeys. Canada is slower in changing its national building code but is expected to eventually follow suit.

7. The Do-It-Yourself House

Staying with the theme of innovative buildings, British architecture designer Alastair Parvin has taken house-building to the open source world. He and a team have developed WikiHouse, an open-source constructive system where people can download and then print shared designs. Likening it to Ikea on a housing scale, Parvin says the parts can then be milled by CNC milling machines using standard building materials and assembled without special tools. He says such quick and easy houses can be built in a day, offering a partial solution to the constant need for habitation.

8. Plastic-eating bugs

With a world full of discarded plastics, researchers have for a long time tried to find ways to cause plastics to safely degrade. A pair of budding Vancouver scientists, Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao have dramatically advanced that cause by cultivating bacteria from the Fraser River that likes to eat a plasticizer compound called Phthalate. They’re still a long ways from finding an effective solution, but their promising research is pointing them towards natural bacteria that can also be cultivated to break down other harmful products.

9. Cheap robots

Okay, there was something of the air of product placement with robotocist Keller Rinaudo’s demonstration of Romo, a smartphone-enabled robot with a happy-looking blue face. At $150, it’s going to be a hot ticket for Christmas. But Rinaudo, the CEO of Romotiv says this kind of device for the first time puts robots into homes at affordable prices and he believes it will unlock a host of other add-on applications, from remote stock-taking in stores to adaptive teaching for people with autism. ROMO’s exposure at TED hasn’t hurt it, either. Rinaudo just got an order for 12,000 from a retailer.

10. Reanimation of extinct animals

No, we’re not talking about Jurassic Park. Yet. But who says that won’t be possible if environmentalist and “de-extinction” pioneer Stewart Brand and his friends are successful in bringing Martha the last passenger pigeon back to life. Brand’s group has successfully retrieved some DNA from Martha’s museum-kept remains and believe they can re-engineer the passenger pigeon back into life with the aid of DNA taken from other pigeon species and even chickens. And he points out that other scientists are making strides in cloning DNA from other recently-extinct animals.

11. Defending the Internet with a Plan B.

We’re always told to back up our data. But what about the Internet? Who backs that up? No one, but we should, says Danny Hillis, the inventor, and computer scientist. (He registered the third domain name in existence, but didn’t want to be a hog so he didn’t go after others at the time.) Hillis got heads turning and mouths talking with his argument that the Internet, developed as a trusted place, is now subject to failure. All kinds of devices are now connected to the Internet that weren’t originally in the cards, and there have been increasing numbers of partial failures from accidental or deliberate hacks. His argument: spend several hundred million dollars to create a backup that will be activated for police, hospitals, utilities and other emergency service providers in the event the Internet goes down.

12. The Interspecies Internet of Things

Speaking of the Internet, TEDsters were told of an idea way out there. In fact, so way out there that it involves millions of light years. Four leading scientists and activists, dolphin researcher Diana Reiss, singer and activist Peter Gabriel, MIT director Neil Gershenfeld and Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet, laid the groundwork for why it must and will evolve into a communications vector for animals. Research is unlocking how animals communicate with mankind, and that will inevitably lead to a method for how mankind communicates with extraterrestrials, Cerf said.

“Forty years ago we wrote the script of the internet. Thirty years ago we turned it on. We thought we were building a system to connect computers together. But we quickly learned that it’s a system for connecting people. You know where this is going.
”What’s important about what these people are doing is they’re beginning to learn how to communicate with species that are not us, but share a sensory environment. [They’re figuring out] what it means to communicate with something that’s not a person. I can’t wait to see these experiments unfold.”