TEDxCambridge Explores Innovation in Boston and Beyond

Between two darker brick buildings, the ornate, white façade of the Boston Opera House jumps out at passersby, begging them to peek inside the glass archway into the palatial interior. Towering and domed ceilings, large mirrored walls bordered with gleaming gold molding, and softly glowing crystal chandeliers await those who enter—a shock to eyes accustomed to the sharp, grey lines of the city. With each step they take across the lush carpet towards the gilded grand staircase, visitors are carried back even further into a shimmering vision of the past that they  loathe to ever leave.

But last Thursday, the Boston Opera House came into direct conversation with the future, as over 2,000 visitors flocked to the opulent space in order to attend the 2016 fall TEDxCambridge event—an independently organized set of TED talks focusing on innovation from the minds of the New England community. Over the course of a single evening, the fall session of this biannual series featured six speakers who, through topics ranging from life-saving hand-washing techniques, to the problems posed by Big Data, shared their stories of innovation and creativity and tackled some of humanity’s most pressing questions in the modern age.

Although the Opera House doors opened at 5:30 p.m. for a special exhibit featuring displays from Formlabs, Bowers & Wilkins, Budnitz Bicycles, and Volvo, event production actually began at 7 p.m., allowing attendees plenty of time to find their seats in the spatial opera hall, and notice the gigantic floating eye-like orb (an example of an Aerotain Skye Drone) that hovered near the stage. As upbeat synth music and excited chatter accompanied a countdown flashing on the fragmented LED screens bordering the stage, the giant, blue eye gently floated above the seated audience members, gracefully spinning to film them with its many cameras as they waited for the talks to begin. And, after opening remarks from Dmitri Gunn, the executive director of TEDxCambridge, and Tamsen Webster, the event’s executive producer and EMC, Iyad Rahwan began the first talk of the night.

Rahwan, an AT&T career development professor and associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, began his talk with a deceptively simple statement:

“Tonight,” Rahwan said, “I’m going to talk about technology and society.”

The technology in question was the emergence of the driverless car, which poses increasingly complex ethical dilemmas as the cars’ technology becomes more advanced. As it approaches the point where the car itself must choose between protecting its passenger and protecting the civilians outside, potential buyers are faced with the question of a trade off: are they willing to facilitate a technology that might prioritize the safety of pedestrians over their own safety? Following Rahwan’s surveys, most people are in fact very unwilling to make that tradeoff, and so the ethical dilemma becomes a social one, where people must ask themselves to make impossible choices—sometimes at their own detriment—in order to improve the society they live in. And although Rahwan could not offer a solution, he left the stage with a statement as deceptively simple as the one he began with.

“[The driverless cars pose] a societal cooperation problem,” said Rahwan. “I hope we can at least begin to ask the right questions.”

Rahwan’s talk was followed by that of Laura Gassner Otting, a civic catalyst, who tackled the problem of the human desire to save the world. Otting impressed upon the audience the hard truth that, despite what our egos tell us, we cannot save the world by participating in acts like sending teddy bears to disaster victims, which, despite noble intentions of the giver, are useless in the long term.

“We’re not serving the long-term solution,” said Otting, “we’re serving the short-term problem.”

Otting explained that individuals are limited in their perspectives, and with these inherent blinders, it is impossible to fix a problem that one does not fully understand. Instead of asking ‘How can I help?’ Otting suggested that we must ask ourselves ‘What needs to happen?’ in order to serve the long term solution.

David Autor, the associate head of the MIT economics department, was the next to take the stage, and immediately faced the audience with a paradox: despite the many inventions of the last century designed to eliminate labor, why has the number of adults in the workforce increased?

Autor said, in part, that as more tasks become automated, the skills that require human judgment and expertise hold increasing value in society. So the problem is not the number of jobs available, it is the quality of these jobs. As the value of high-skill employment rises and the availability of low-skill jobs has remained steady, the availability of medium-skill jobs has decreased, resulting in a stratified society.

As Autor stepped off of the stage, a tall, black sink was installed, and Mark Gendreau—an emergency physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine—gave a passionate speech about one of the easiest ways to save a life: proper hand-washing while singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.

Gendreau was followed by technology ethnographer and Constellate Data co-founder Tricia Wang, who spoke about the addictive qualities of quantifying in today’s world, and misuse of Big Data—the technology-driven Oracle of Delphi. Wang emphasized the importance of balancing Big Data with Thick Data, which offers precious (and unquantifiable) insight through human interaction, for it is impossible to quantify our entire existence.

“There is no greater risk than being blind to the unknown,” said Wang.

Janet Wu, a multimedia journalist and news anchor for NBC Boston, took the stage as the final speaker of the night to speak about the danger of attaching happiness to milestones in life. Wu emphasized the importance of redefining our conceptions of happiness throughout our lives, saying that oftentimes we reset our happiness just as we would reset our phones.

“Happiness, when you think about it, is relative and inconstant,” said Wu. “It can only be experienced in the context of our lives.”  

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

October 6, 2016