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May 2, 2011

Rethinking Thought: A Day at TEDx

I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural TEDx UChicago conference a few weeks ago. I've been incredibly busy, but am finally catching up, and wanted to share my experience there. For those that don't know, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a nonprofit dedicated to the spread of ideas. They ask speakers to give a speech in 20 minutes about a topic they study or their philosophy about the world. TED also lends its name and prestige to independently run events, called TEDx events. These are not official TED events, but have the same spirit of spreading important and powerful ideas.

The theme at the TEDx event I attended was "Reinventing the Life of the Mind." There were 14 different speakers, from around the world and from every different background: a artist-turned-paleontologist, a former president of Bolivia, a double amputee, a cyborg, a blind architect, and more. Each of the talks discussed our current perception of aspects of the world, and ways of rethinking them. It was a very long event, lasting from 8 am when registration opened to 5 pm when the last speakers finished. Because of this, I'd like to give you just a quick recap of what I thought were the highlights and take away messages.
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  • Taking control of the future requires a paradigm shift. Build a vision of the future, then make it happen.
    Thomas Frey, Futurist, DaVinci Institute
  • Education requires innovation, critical thinking, and an individualized approach. Kids get far more out of a close reading of one text, with analysis and discussion, then they do out of speed reading and regurgitating many books. People are not a standard computer operating system, and should not be taught as one.
    Michael Strong, Chief Visionary Officer and CEO of FLOW
  • A real cyborg. Seriously. He creates robots that think for themselves with rat neurons. He's had a chip implanted in his arm that lets him send brainwaves directly to another person. Oh, and he's British. His technology would allow for less error and more efficiency in communication.
    Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics, University of Reading in England
  • As awesome as technology is, there are some risks that have to be taken into account. Digital walls inhibit interpersonal, face-to-face communication; electronics create new dependencies, as the sound of a text releases endorphins, the same hormones that make us happy from eating, music, or other enjoyable activities; and the brain rewires to adapt to running background tasks and multitasking, as technology makes that easier and easier to do. And, Facebook would be the 3rd largest country in the world, behind only China and India. So, keep the tech, but keep it under control.
    Candace Cats, Oddcast
  • The former President of Bolivia went to my college, and spoke at the event.
    Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada
  • The first double amputee to summit Mount Everest. If he can do that, then anyone can do anything, if they set their mind to it. Disability is only bad thinking or a lack of resources.
    Mark Inglis, founder of Limbs4All
  • Visualization and imagination are just as important to science as the process and methodology. Science has to be rigorous, but it also has to be creative to figure out how the world could work.
    Paul Sereno, Paleontologist at the University of Chicago
  • There is such a thing as a blind architect. And it's allowed for innovation in acoustics and how to see without sight.
    Chris Downey, Architect
  • Gesturing increases vocabulary, presents more information about the world, and demonstrates subconscious knowledge. So, go ahead and talk with your hands.
    Susan Goldin-Meadow, Chair of Developmental Psychology at the University of Chicago
  • To succeed in life, specializing too heavily or refusing to change is going to get you nowhere. Expanding your horizons, changing the context, and forgetting the "sunk costs" is the way to innovate your life.
    Robert Wolcott, Executive Director of the Northwestern Innovation Network
In summary, this event was awesome. The speakers were all brilliant people, with something important to say.  The MC, Gabrielle Lyons, was also fantastic, and made sure everything ran smoothly and made it fun. There's something really stimulating about hearing these people speak, and being encouraged to think for yourself, come to your own conclusions, and shape your own life. I hope to attend this sort of event again in the future, and if you ever get a chance, go to a conference of smart people like this. I guarantee it will be worth it.