TED Talks

As the story goes, in 1984, a group of “deep thinkers” along with Bill Gates of Microsoft notoriety, and of course his philanthropy, gathered to discuss how to engage the global community in collaborative conversation of powerful ideas worth sharing; witnessed, the birth of “TED Talks”. TED Talks, (technology, entertainment, and design), began as a conference of powerful short lectures, around 18 minutes or less, covering a host of varied topics from science to business to global issues. TED’s agenda “was to make great ideas accessible and spark conversation” by bringing “the authority on the topic” to the worldwide audience (1). Since its inception, the business of TED has grown into a diverse nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation offering a broad platform of media spreading “great ideas”. Now a global community, the business of TED, has branched into: TED.com, an index of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers; TED Talks, live conferences currently available in person, via the world wide web as a video library, or to eager listening audiences on select public radio stations; TEDx, independently run local community events; and TED Studies, offering a deeper understanding of structured educational topics in the form of TED-Ed lesson series and TED Books. Currently, an expanded version of TED Studies is available by license for academic settings designed to help students, professors, and self-guided learners explore important, timely ideas. True to its mission, TED’s guiding staff continue to seek out new avenues to reach as many people as possible with TED’s message; as communication evolves, so will TED.

When faced with the idea of discussing “media comparison” as a topic, my attention was immediately drawn to TED.com and TED Talks (from here forward simply known as TED). It occurred to me that TED was acting as a “double agent”; a double medium, if you will. The first, is as a collective medium; store housing “free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers”(1).  Because of TED’s unbiased selection of ideas from a broad spectrum of science, business, and global issues, in over 100 languages from around the world, it can narrow its collective works to those ideas shared by the experts working in those areas. Much like the “digital self” archived online in Watson’s Studying the Digital Self (2), TED, as a collective medium, utilizes the World Wide Web to archive its vast store house of powerful ideas from across the global community; the best from the best, if you will.

The second form of medium is as a distributive medium. TED takes advantage of multiple avenues of distribution; the most far-reaching and timely, of course, being the internet; free access to powerful information by anyone with a personal computer or a local library. TED is also available in person, in communities, as local TEDx events. For those that prefer a more intimate medium, some of the TED topics are available as TED Books for personal reading. Finally, for academic distribution, professional educators, seeking to expose their students to a deeper understanding of a TED topic, can turn to TED studies; a structured, instructional medium. TED’s multiple avenues of access make it a quick and easy resource of up-to-date information on the topic at hand. For example, recent in class discussion of the OkCupid(3) dating site and online dating in general had me searching “online love” in the TED search box. First up, The Mathematics of Love, by mathematician Hannah Frey; in her TED Talk(1) and TED Book she explored the role of mathematics in successful online dating. In fact, she cites OkCupid and the fact that it was started by a group of mathematicians. She further goes on to show how mathematics plays an important role in the success of dating and even more importantly how it may give us insight into avoiding divorce.

In another class, we discussed the role of robots as a replacement for love and companionship prompted by the reading Alone Together (4). In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle (4) explores the idea of robots as companions but she also developed the idea of robots as a necessity to the care of future elderly. Until recently, robotic assistance of the elderly was merely an idea. According to Ken Goldberg (5) of Berkeley, a roboticist in a TED Talk: 4 lessons from robots about being human, thanks to cloud computing, it is now possible to control mobility and manipulation of robots to carry out complex motions. Difficult tasks, such as picking up an object without crushing it, were impossible prior to the processing power of cloud computing. In fact, thanks to the development of an extraordinary algorithm called “deep learning” by Geoffrey Hinton from the University of Toronto (6) (presented in a TED talk), computer driven robots are learning by doing and one major step closer to near  human performance. But “deep learning” has its negative aspects; as it turns out, it is only as good as the initial information put into the algorithm. Left alone, the initial inputs may not be enough to lead “deep learning” down a safe and productive path. This can be demonstrated today in “deep learning” computer’s used for tissue sample slide review. During analysis of “PAP test” tissue samples, computer analysis failed to correctly diagnose cancer possibilities; failures as a direct result of the computer’s inability to question subtle discrepancies it may or may not have reviewed. And, just for arguments sake, let’s say computer driven robots meet and exceed human performance, what will become of the human services jobs replaced by “deep learning” robots? Will we be better off as a society by having caretakers of our aging population replaced by robots? Or, will this answer the caretaker shortage projected for the future?

As our world appears more complex, mostly from the discovery of intricacies that already exist, we look for guidance from those “in-the-know”, the “experts” if you will. The guidance we seek often presents itself as a question and answer dialog in the beginning; a collective meeting of the minds. We pose questions of safety, reliability, security, and more when introduced to new concepts to the point that new hypotheticals arise and are credited or discredited. As long as it is human nature to grow in our knowledge of life, we will look to reliable forms of media to access the latest and most thought provoking ideas and certainly the answers to our questions. Personally, I draw comfort in knowing that TED.com is a reliable access to the latest ideas from those with the most up-to-date insight; stimulating global dialog.


  1. TED.com. February 2015. Web.
  2. Watson, Julia and Smith, Sidonie. “Studying the Digital Self.” 2014. Chronicle.com. Web.
  3. Rudder, Christian. “The 4 Big Myths of Profile Pictures.” OkTrends. OkCupid, 20 January 2010. Web.
  4. Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.
  5. Goldberg, Ken. “4 lessons from robots about being human.” TED.com/talks/ken_goldberg. February 2012. Web.
  6. ward, Jeremy. “The wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn.” TED.com/talks/jeremy_howard. December 2014. Web

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