TED - Day 2: Will We Re-Engineer a New Species? Yikes!

TED Day Two -

Today's TED rundown was a remarkable mix of ideas, images, sounds and conversations.

While all of the talks were interesting and engaging, there were a handful that are rattling around in my head. Juan Enriquez began the day with a talk that started with the financial crisis the US is facing, and then moved to robotics and bio-science. Enriquez is not just brilliant, he's like strangely triple brilliant. So his rather matter-of-fact proposal that the US must extend the retirement age by 4 years seemed like such a clear solution you have to wonder why you hadn't heard it before. Our life-span has increased, but the retirement age remains fixed. Raising it would not solve Social Security, but would be a start. Overall, Enriquez pointed to the fact that a mere 18% of the Federal Budget is not tagged to mandates -- suggesting that we're going to need to make dramatic cuts in those mandates in order avoid the collapse of the US Dollar. Not cheerful. Enriquez said VC-backed startups are .02% of US investment yet 17.8% of total US output. Score one for Startups. But overall, Enriquez isn't that upbeat about the economy. But interestingly, that's the last time we'd hear about the economy all day.

Enriquez went on to suggest that the real future is in the emergence of bio technology that will allow for both the engineering of human replacement parts and then - as the robotics and human bio engineering merge... we will see the emergence of an entirely new, more evolved species. Here's how he explained it:

"Speciation will not be a deliberate, programmed event. Instead it will involve an ever faster accumulation of small, useful improvements that eventually turn homo sapiens into a new hominid. We will likely see glimpses of this long-lived, partly mechanical, partly regrown creature that continues to rapidly drive its own evolution. As the branches of the tree of life, and of hominids, continue to grow and spread, many of our grandchildren will likely engineer themselves into what we would consider a new species, one with extraordinary capabilities, Homo-Evolutis."

Let me take a breath while you re-read that one.

Enriquez is saying that we homo sapiens will purposefully and deliberately modify ourselves into a new hominid. This long-lived, mechanical/regrown creature will rapidly drive its own evolution. As the branches of the tree of life, and of hominids, continue to grow and spread, many of our grandchildren will likely engineer themselves into what we would consider a new species, one with extraordinary capabilities.

And that was how the day started.

Then P.W. Singer spoke about the rapid deployment of robots in warfare. Singer showed a staggering collection of robot soldiers. Singer's Wired for War explained both the technological basis for electronic warfare and the unintended potential consequences of a battlefield of robotic unmanned drones and robots that are given authority to act without a human hand controlling actions. Does the US have technological superiority? Yes. For how long? and at what cost? Unclear. But one thing is clear: Singer's story of nine soldiers killed via a software glitch in a robotic weapon. And this is before we get autonomous robots with authority to kill -- Yikes.

The cool tech of today's TED was Dr. Pattie Maes's demo of new technology interfaces. Maes is a researcher at MIT's Media Lab, demonstrated of a $350 piece of technology called "the sixth sense." Maes's Fluid Interfaces research group collaborates on projects and inventions that augment the interaction between human and machine, including both visual and haptic interfaces that are far more immersive than our traditional keyboard and monitor. It's hard to explain in text. It's like a projected real time internet data stream - 'Minority Report' meets a real time visiual rolodex. Ok, you'll have to imagine it a bit.

Al Gore updated us on Global Warming. Overall, bad news. Everything he said in 'Inconvenient Truth', just worse and faster.

The musical suprise of the day for those who didn't know her - was Regina Spektor.

So - here's what I'm thinking about after one full day at TED. The US economic meltdown, as serious as it is... and as unclear about what it could mean, isn't distracting TED from larger bigger problems that have been facing the planet for a long time. Global Warming, Malaria, The destruction of the Oceans, Poverty. These issues are big -and they've got global, long term, planet-ending danger if we don't deal with them. We solve these issues with new energy solutions (Kites anyone?) new medical solutions, education, and real solutions. Those issues have TEDsters focused on big problems with big solutions. The US economy - at least so far, TED is looking to science not banking to engage the planet and solve problems.

Let's see what day 3 brings.