TED2024: 40 years old and more important than ever

Culture3 Editorial
April 12, 2024

As TED approaches a milestone birthday we ask why at 40 years old the high church of techno-optimism is more important than ever.

This 21st century may be the most significant century in the history of humanity. Artificial intelligence, climate change, and genetically-personalised medicines are all inflection points for our species in their own right.

Rapid technological progress, already outpacing democracy and our social fabric, will challenge the very foundations of our society. But this moment is also a chance to deliver dramatic growth and prosperity across the planet.

The next thousand years of our collective history – and whether AI lets us make it that far at all – will be shaped by our actions in the next few decades. If we want the future to improve the lives of everyone, then TED, celebrating its 40th year shaping our world, is more important than ever.

Ideas Changing Everything Since 1984

TED has been home to ideas that change everything since the CD, e-book, and the first Apple computer premiered to the world from the TED stage in 1984.

Ever since, the high church of techno-optimism and interdisciplinary humanity has been the home for ideas that change everything.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin took the TED audience behind the scenes of their Google search engine. Jimmy Wales inspired the world with the Wikipedia story at TED. The touchscreen – which led to the iPhone and much more – debuted on the TED stage in 2006.

Mind control, driverless cars, 3D printing, drones, human-like robots, and of course, ChatGPT, all entered with the global conversation through TED.

Nowhere does interdisciplinary thinking like TED

Diversity of thought has increasingly fallen by the wayside in the 21st century, especially when it coms to tech. In 2021, a majority of people with a view across 17 countries felt left behind by the pace of technology. That was before the world even discovered ChatGPT, the development of which 72% of Americans want to slow down.

“TED brings together technologists, scientists, educators, policy makers, philosophers, historians, and more,” says technology investor Jennifer Zhu Scott. “In the last few decades, tech entrepreneurship has become so focused on capabilities, at the expense of thinking about ‘why’... or ‘why not’. There are many problems with technology and different types of people need to come together to solve them.”

Quantum computing, deep space, biotech, and AI will take centre stage at TED this year, but tech is just one part of it.

Rumman Chowdhury will share her techniques for creating transparent AI systems, whilst Zeynep Ton and Pete Stavros will discuss their ideas for involving workers, at severe risk of automation, in the future of work. Scientists Cliff Kapono and Millie Chu Baird will share their work to unite local communities and global organisations in the fight against climate change.

Can we control AI?

“Change is happening so quickly,” says Professor Anima Anandkumar, formerly Director of AI Research at Nvidia, “and there are so many aspects of what AI can do for science, engineering, and technology.”

But it’s a problem that we don’t know how it works. “I didn’t expect this in my lifetime,” says Alon Halvey, a lead AI researcher at Meta. “We need the AI to work on our behalf and to understand what our needs are, but these are sometimes very hard to articulate.” Get it wrong, and we risk setting AI off on a destructive path. A computer bug of the highest order.

Norman Winarsky, Gruber’s co-creator for Siri, stresses to me that “every technology has good and bad.” He is optimistic about humanity’s potential to navigate the precipice between destruction and progress.

“I have no doubt that AI will help advance humanity, if we build the good and diminish the bad. Forums like TED, where great individuals get together and inspire each other, are what makes that happen.”

How To Save The World (and when to worry)

At TED last year, AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky told me “I’m not scared that [OpenAI’s tech] ends the world, unless…”

If you feel the need to add ‘unless’ in that sentence, it’s worth continuing the conversation. Only a couple more “breakthroughs,” Eliezer says, and he starts to get “really worried.”

Having that conversation requires a “trans-disciplinary group”, says Pelin Thorogood, a chemist using AI to assess new medicines at a fraction of the cost with her startup Radicle Science. “It’s not going to be just the technologists who create the future. We need people from technology who understand how things work; people from industry, researchers, practitioners, or policy figures; and a perspective from the rest of society.

“It requires all of us to collaborate, so that we are making the right decisions for our future.” Bringing diverse ideas together is what makes the change beneficial for everyone. Nobody inspires those ideas quite like TED.

“TED plays an incredible role at amplifying ideas that are more than 140 characters long,” Tom Gruber tells me, co-creator of Siri and a TED speaker in 2017, when he spoke about the future of AI. “TED rewards diversity, deep thinking, and careful thought, and it brings together an important combination of people.”
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