Friday, March 18, 2011

TED Part 2

TED Ideas worth spreading, part 2

When I wrote my article last week, the conference hadn’t finished and as I suspected, other incredible speakers were going to deliver material that I knew I should communicate to you, my loyal readers.

Where should I start?

Well, I will start with an unexpected speaker in TED, Four Star General Stanley McChrystal. As most of you must remember, General Chrystal’s last assignment was as Commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. He is credited with the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a very bad dud, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He was well known for saying and thinking what other military leaders were afraid to, one of the reasons cited for his appointment to lead all forces in Afghanistan where he served from June 2009 to June 2010.

He then made a mistake. He gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine and made some unflattering remarks about Vice President Biden and other administration officials. He was recalled to Washington where President Obama accepted his resignation. He was replaced by General David Petraus and thirty days later General McChrystal retired.

His speech was all about the importance of working as a team. He spoke of making mistakes but correcting them immediately. He spoke highly of the men and women he commanded and never uttered one single word against the President, Vice President or anyone in the administration. That is to be commended. How many times do you see politicians or executives of companies that leave the position and they start bad mouthing everyone in the organization?

He used the example of jumping out of a plane in a parachute as part of their training. How you have to conquer fear and worry, how you must encourage others and work together and finally how in the end, you simply must jump. In other words, all that preparation and you have to take action, you have to jump. How many people do you know that prepare and prepare and prepare and they never jump, they never take action? This was an important lesson for everyone.

Another impressive speaker was Rajesh Rao PhD. The primary goal of his research is to discover computational principles underlying the brain’s remarkable ability to learn, process and store information, and to apply this knowledge to the task of building adaptive robotic systems and artificially intelligent agents.

Some of the questions that motivate his research?

How does the brain learn efficient representations of novel objects and events occurring in the natural environment?

What are the algorithms that allow useful sensorimotor routines and behaviors to be learned?

What computational mechanisms allow the brain to adapt to changing circumstances and remain fault tolerant and robust?

By investigating these questions within a computational and probabilistic framework, it is often possible to derive algorithms that not only provide functional interpretations of neurobiological properties but also to suggest solutions to difficult problems in computer vision, speech, robotics and artificial intelligence.

What is most interesting about this man is how he is now applying this technology and knowledge to decipher the 4,000 year old script of the Indus valley civilization.

The Indus valley civilization was a bronze age civilization (3300-1300 BCE) located in the northwest region of India.

It turns out to be that three different religion sects want to claim ownership of this civilization and the poor professor is now being threatened and fears for his life. Can you imagine? A scientist wanting to discover the truth and he is now in the middle of an emotional controversy which he has nothing to do with.

Finally, I have to mention the speech by legendary American film critic and screenwriter Roger Ebert.

Roger’s movie reviews are syndicated to more than 200 newspapers in the United States and worldwide. He has written more than 15 books including his annual movie yearbook which is a collection of his reviews for that given year. He was, in 1975, the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize and his television programs have been widely syndicated and have been nominated for Emmy Awards.

His speech I must admit made me cry.

Roger, a few years ago, lost his ability to speak after his lower jaw was removed due to a very aggressive cancer. Most people would have given up, retire and await death in the comfort of their home.

Not Roger. He started a search to see how he could recreate his voice through a computer, in other words, he would think his words and they would come out of the computer.

He found a company called Cereproc, founded in 2005, to recreate his old voice using recorded movie commentary. The voice called Roger Jr. he wasn’t able to use in his TED speech, because it is not yet perfected. In fact, the chief technology officer of Cereproc said in an interview that he wasn’t completely happy with the Roger Jr. voice and they still had more work to do.

Nonetheless, Roger used his synthesized computer voice to tell a joke:

“A guy goes into into a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist says, ‘You’re crazy.’ The guy says, ‘I want a second opinion.’ The psychiatrist says, ‘All right, you’re ugly, too.’”

Sure, it was the corny standby stand-up joke, but he made us laugh, which delighted him.

Through a combination of his laptop and readings of a prepared script a friend and his wife, Mr. Ebert told us about his multiyear struggle since he lost his voice in 2006.

He cannot speak because his mouth can’t close to trap the air that is needed to produce oral sounds.

“All my life I was a motor-mouth. Now I’ve spoken my last words, and I don’t even remember, for sure, what they were,” he said via his friend John Hunter who was up in the stage with his wife and they both read part of Roger’s speech.

The point is that this man simply doesn’t give up. He might have cancer, they might have taken his jaw, and he might have been told that he will never speak again and yet, he looked for a solution and he is speaking again, through a computer.

His wife cried while she was reading the script and that made many of us cry too. As she was reading, Roger was recreating what she was saying with his hands and body gestures and making people laugh.

What a sense of humor by a man who has suffered so much.

Seeing this, I wondered how so many of us complain for small stuff, a traffic jam, a lost key, a bad boss, a noisy neighbor when, if you think about it, it is nothing compared to what Roger and many like him go through in life.

I hope that soon, in you will be able to see his speech. It is not yet posted. Bill Gates, Deb Roy and Salman Khan’s speeches I covered in my last article, are now posted for all of you to see.