Archive for the ‘engineering/research/experiments’ Category
Secrets of design
In the great 1980s movie “The Blues Brothers,” there’s a scene where John Belushi goes to visit Dan Aykroyd in his apartment in Chicago for the very first time. It’s a cramped, tiny space and it’s just three feet away from the train tracks.
As John sits on Dan’s bed, a train goes rushing by, rattling everything in the room. John asks, “How often does that train go by?” Dan replies, “So often, you won’t even notice it.” And then, something falls off the wall.
0:48 We all know what he’s talking about. As human beings, we get used to everyday things really fast. As a product designer, it’s my job to see those everyday things, to feel them, and try to improve upon them. For example, see this piece of fruit? See this little sticker? That sticker wasn’t there when I was a kid. But somewhere as the years passed, someone had the bright idea to put that sticker on the fruit. Why? So it could be easier for us to check out at the grocery counter.
1:22 Well that’s great, we can get in and out of the store quickly. But now, there’s a new problem. When we get home and we’re hungry and we see this ripe, juicy piece of fruit on the counter, we just want to pick it up and eat it. Except now, we have to look for this little sticker. And dig at it with our nails, damaging the flesh. Then rolling up that sticker — you know what I mean. And then trying to flick it off your fingers. (Applause) It’s not fun, not at all.
1:58 But something interesting happened. See the first time you did it, you probably felt those feelings. You just wanted to eat the piece of fruit. You felt upset. You just wanted to dive in. By the 10th time, you started to become less upset and you just started peeling the label off. By the 100th time, at least for me, I became numb to it. I simply picked up the piece of fruit, dug at it with my nails, tried to flick it off, and then wondered, “Was there another sticker?”
2:34 So why is that? Why do we get used to everyday things? Well as human beings, we have limited brain power. And so our brains encode the everyday things we do into habits so we can free up space to learn new things. It’s a process called habituation and it’s one of the most basic ways, as humans, we learn.
2:56 Now, habituation isn’t always bad. Remember learning to drive? I sure do. Your hands clenched at 10 and 2 on the wheel, looking at every single object out there — the cars, the lights, the pedestrians. It’s a nerve-wracking experience. So much so, that I couldn’t even talk to anyone else in the car and I couldn’t even listen to music. But then something interesting happened. As the weeks went by, driving became easier and easier. You habituated it. It started to become fun and second nature. And then, you could talk to your friends again and listen to music.
3:37 So there’s a good reason why our brains habituate things. If we didn’t, we’d notice every little detail, all the time. It would be exhausting, and we’d have no time to learn about new things.
3:51 But sometimes, habituation isn’t good. If it stops us from noticing the problems that are around us, well, that’s bad. And if it stops us from noticing and fixing those problems, well, then that’s really bad.
4:06 Comedians know all about this. Jerry Seinfeld’s entire career was built on noticing those little details, those idiotic things we do every day that we don’t even remember. He tells us about the time he visited his friends and he just wanted to take a comfortable shower. He’d reach out and grab the handle and turn it slightly one way, and it was 100 degrees too hot. And then he’d turn it the other way, and it was 100 degrees too cold. He just wanted a comfortable shower. Now, we’ve all been there, we just don’t remember it. But Jerry did, and that’s a comedian’s job.
4:44 But designers, innovators and entrepreneurs, it’s our job to not just notice those things, but to go one step further and try to fix them.
4:54 See this, this person, this is Mary Anderson. In 1902 in New York City, she was visiting. It was a cold, wet, snowy day and she was warm inside a streetcar. As she was going to her destination, she noticed the driver opening the window to clean off the excess snow so he could drive safely. When he opened the window, though, he let all this cold, wet air inside, making all the passengers miserable. Now probably, most of those passengers just thought, “It’s a fact of life, he’s got to open the window to clean it. That’s just how it is.” But Mary didn’t. Mary thought, “What if the diver could actually clean the windshield from the inside so that he could stay safe and drive and the passengers could actually stay warm?” So she picked up her sketchbook right then and there, and began drawing what would become the world’s first windshield wiper.
5:55 Now as a product designer, I try to learn from people like Mary to try to see the world the way it really is, not the way we think it is. Why? Because it’s easy to solve a problem that almost everyone sees. But it’s hard to solve a problem that almost no one sees.
6:15 Now some people think you’re born with this ability or you’re not, as if Mary Anderson was hardwired at birth to see the world more clearly. That wasn’t the case for me. I had to work at it. During my years at Apple, Steve Jobs challenged us to come into work every day, to see our products through the eyes of the customer, the new customer, the one that has fears and possible frustrations and hopeful exhilaration that their new technology product could work straightaway for them. He called it staying beginners, and wanted to make sure that we focused on those tiny little details to make them faster, easier and seamless for the new customers.
7:03 So I remember this clearly in the very earliest days of the iPod. See, back in the ’90s, being a gadget freak like I am, I would rush out to the store for the very, very latest gadget. I’d take all the time to get to the store, I’d check out, I’d come back home, I’d start to unbox it. And then, there was another little sticker: the one that said, “Charge before use.”
7:33 What! I can’t believe it! I just spent all this time buying this product and now I have to charge before use. I have to wait what felt like an eternity to use that coveted new toy. It was crazy.
7:45 But you know what? Almost every product back then did that. When it had batteries in it, and you had to charge it before you used it. Well, Steve noticed that and he said, “We’re not going to let that happen to our product.” So what did we do? Typically, when you have a product that has a hard drive in it, you run it for about 30 minutes in the factory to make sure that hard drive’s going to be working years later for the customer after they pull it out of the box. What did we do instead? We ran that product for over two hours. Why? Well, first off, we could make a higher quality product, be easy to test, and make sure it was great for the customer. But most importantly, the battery came fully charged right out of the box, ready to use. So that customer, with all that exhilaration, could just start using the product. It was great, and it worked. People liked it.
8:43 Today, almost every product that you get that’s battery powered comes out of the box fully charged, even if it doesn’t have a hard drive. But back then, we noticed that detail and we fixed it, and now everyone else does that as well. No more, “Charge before use.”
9:01 So why am I telling you this? Well, it’s seeing the invisible problem, not just the obvious problem, that’s important, not just for product design, but for everything we do. You see, there are invisible problems all around us, ones we can solve. But first we need to see them, to feel them.
9:23 So, I’m hesitant to give you any tips about neuroscience or psychology. There’s far too many experienced people in the TED community who would know much more about that than I ever will. But let me leave you with a few tips that I do, that we all can do, to fight habituation.
9:41 My first tip is to look broader. You see, when you’re tackling a problem, sometimes, there are a lot of steps that lead up to that problem. And sometimes, a lot of steps after it. If you can take a step back and look broader, maybe you can change some of those boxes before the problem. Maybe you can combine them. Maybe you can remove them altogether to make that better.
10:05 Take thermostats, for instance. In the 1900s when they first came out, they were really simple to use. You could turn them up or turn them down. People understood them. But in the 1970s, the energy crisis struck, and customers started thinking about how to save energy. So what happened? Thermostat designers decided to add a new step. Instead of just turning up and down, you now had to program it. So you could tell it the temperature you wanted at a certain time. Now that seemed great. Every thermostat had started adding that feature. But it turned out that no one saved any energy. Now, why is that? Well, people couldn’t predict the future. They just didn’t know how their weeks would change season to season, year to year. So no one was saving energy, and what happened?
10:56 Thermostat designers went back to the drawing board and they focused on that programming step. They made better U.I.s, they made better documentation. But still, years later, people were not saving any energy because they just couldn’t predict the future. So what did we do? We put a machine-learning algorithm in instead of the programming that would simply watch when you turned it up and down, when you liked a certain temperature when you got up, or when you went away. And you know what? It worked. People are saving energy without any programming.
11:34 So, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. If you take a step back and look at all the boxes, maybe there’s a way to remove one or combine them so that you can make that process much simpler. So that’s my first tip: look broader.
11:49 For my second tip, it’s to look closer. One of my greatest teachers was my grandfather. He taught me all about the world. He taught me how things were built and how they were repaired, the tools and techniques necessary to make a successful project. I remember one story he told me about screws, and about how you need to have the right screw for the right job. There are many different screws: wood screws, metal screws, anchors, concrete screws, the list went on and on. Our job is to make products that are easy to install for all of our customs themselves without professionals. So what did we do? I remembered that story that my grandfather told me, and so we thought, “How many different screws can we put in the box? Was it going to be two, three, four, five? Because there’s so many different wall types.” So we thought about it, we optimized it, and we came up with three different screws to put in the box. We thought that was going to solve the problem. But it turned out, it didn’t.
13:00 So we shipped the product, and people weren’t having a great experience. So what did we do? We went back to the drawing board just instantly after we figured out we didn’t get it right. And we designed a special screw, a custom screw, much to the chagrin of our investors. They were like, “Why are you spending so much time on a little screw? Get out there and sell more!” And we said, “We will sell more if we get this right.” And it turned out, we did. With that custom little screw, there was just one screw in the box, that was easy to mount and put on the wall.
13:36 So if we focus on those tiny details, the ones we may not see and we look at them as we say, “Are those important or is that the way we’ve always done it? Maybe there’s a way to get rid of those.”
13:53 So my last piece of advice is to think younger. Every day, I’m confronted with interesting questions from my three young kids. They come up with questions like, “Why can’t cars fly around traffic?” Or, “Why don’t my shoelaces have Velcro instead?” Sometimes, those questions are smart. My son came to me the other day and I asked him, “Go run out to the mailbox and check it.” He looked at me, puzzled, and said, “Why doesn’t the mailbox just check itself and tell us when it has mail?” (Laughter) I was like, “That’s a pretty good question.” So, they can ask tons of questions and sometimes we find out we just don’t have the right answers. We say, “Son, that’s just the way the world works.” So the more we’re exposed to something, the more we get used to it. But kids haven’t been around long enough to get used to those things. And so when they run into problems, they immediately try to solve them, and sometimes they find a better way, and that way really is better.
15:07 So my advice that we take to heart is to have young people on your team, or people with young minds. Because if you have those young minds, they cause everyone in the room to think younger. Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is when he or she grows up, is how to remain an artist.” We all saw the world more clearly when we saw it for the first time, before a lifetime of habits got in the way. Our challenge is to get back there, to feel that frustration, to see those little details, to look broader, look closer, and to think younger so we can stay beginners.
15:55 It’s not easy. It requires us pushing back against one of the most basic ways we make sense of the world. But if we do, we could do some pretty amazing things. For me, hopefully, that’s better product design. For you, that could mean something else, something powerful.
16:17 Our challenge is to wake up each day and say, “How can I experience the world better?” And if we do, maybe, just maybe, we can get rid of these dumb little stickers.
Steve Jobs Keynotes addresses
April 19, 2015
A Steve Jobs keynote was a tightly choreographed and relentlessly prepared presentation, according to the new book Becoming Steve Jobs, by Brent Schlender.
Jobs turned the product launch into an art form.
He leaves a legacy by which entrepreneurs can learn to dazzle their audiences. The following five keynotes will help anyone give the presentation of a lifetime.
1. The Mac launch
Every Steve Jobs presentation had one moment that people would be talking about the next day. These “moments” were tightly scripted and relentlessly rehearsed. Remarkably, Jobs’ flair for the dramatic started before PowerPoint or Apple Keynote were available as slide design tools, which proves you don’t need slides to leave your audience breathless.
On Jan. 24, 1984, Steve Jobs introduced the first Macintosh with a magician’s flair for the big reveal. He showed a series of images and said, “Everything you just saw was created by what’s in that bag.” And with that Jobs walked to the center of a darkened stage that had a table and a canvas bag sitting on top it. He slowly pulled the Mac from the bag, inserted a floppy disk, and walked away as the theme from Chariots of Fire began to play as images filled the screen.
The lesson: A presentation doesn’t always need slides to wow an audience.
2. The iPhone
The rule of three is one of most powerful concepts in writing. The human mind can only retain three or four “chunks” of information. Jobs was well aware of this principle and divided much of his presentations into three parts. Sometimes he even had fun with it.
For example, on Feb. 16, 2007, Jobs told the audience to expect three new products: a new iPod, a phone and an “Internet communication device.” After repeating the three products several times, he made the big reveal — all three products were wrapped in one new device, the iPhone.
The lesson: Introduce three benefits or features of a product, not 23.
3. The first MacBook Air
When Jobs introduced the “world’s thinnest notebook,” the MacBook Air, he walked to the side of the stage, pulled out a manila envelope hiding behind the podium and said, “It’s so thin it even fits inside one of those envelopes you see floating around the office.” With a beaming smile, he slowly pulled it out of the envelope for all to see.
Most presenters would have shown photographs of the product. Jobs took it one step further. He knew what would grab people’s attention. This did. Most of the blogs, magazines and newspapers that covered the launch ran a photograph of Steve Jobs pulling the computer out of the envelope.
The lesson: Don’t just tell us about a product, show it to us, and do it with pizzazz.
4. The iTunes Store
Every great drama has a hero and a villain. Steve Jobs was a master at introducing both heroes and villains in the same presentation. On April 28, 2003, Jobs convinced consumers to pay 99 cents for songs. Jobs began with a brief discussion of Napster and Kazaa, sites that offered “near instant gratification” and, from the user’s perspective, free downloads. On the next slide he listed the “dark side.” They were:
- Unreliable downloads
- Unreliable quality (“a lot of these songs are encoded by 7-year-olds and they don’t do a great job.”)
- No previews
- No album cover art
- It’s stealing (“It’s best not to mess with karma.”)
In the next section of the presentation Jobs replaced each of the drawbacks with the benefits of paying for music.
- Fast, reliable downloads
- Pristine encoding
- Previews of every song
- Album cover art
- Good Karma
The lesson: Great presentations have an antagonist — a problem — followed by a hero — the solution.
5. The genius in their craziness
In 1997, Jobs returned to Apple after a 12-year absence. Apple was close to bankruptcy at the time and was quickly running out of cash.
Near the end of Jobs’ keynote at Macworld in August 1997, he slowed the pace, lowered his voice, and said: “I think you always had to be a little different to buy an Apple computer. I think the people who do buy them are the creative spirits in the world. They are the people who are not out just to get a job done, they’re out to change the world.
We make tools for those kind of people. A lot of times, people think they’re crazy. But in that craziness, we see genius. And those are the people we’re making tools for.”
The lesson: Don’t forget to motivate your internal audience — your team, employees and partners. Give them a purpose to rally around.
When I wrote The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, I argued that Jobs was the world’s greatest brand storyteller. When I watch these presentations over again, I’m convinced he’s still the best role model for entrepreneurs who will pitch the next generation of ideas that will change the world.
Carmine Gallo is a popular keynote speaker and internationally bestselling author. His new book, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speaker to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On And Others Don’t, features famous…
Architects make great lovers: Rumors can be a hit, occasionally
Valentine’s Day brings with it mixed emotions for architects. Love is supposedly in the air, but with all those projects on the go, who has the time to date in the design world?
It’s hard enough finding time to sleep, let alone to find romance.
Hope persists in the shape of some very creative couples that managed to build not only architectural masterpieces, but also a great relationship together. From Charles and Ray Eames, to Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, there are plenty out there who have transcended the trials of architecture and made it work.
As it turns out, your architect friend might just make for the perfect partner — or a great date for Valentine’s Day, at the very least.
Here are just a few reasons an architect could be the perfect match for you, and we’re sure there are many more besides …
Architects, let us know your most attractive qualities in the comments below!
1. Their attention to detail means date night will be perfectly planned every time.
2. They have the patience of a saint (except when the plotter breaks down).
5. They love to travel — they’ll show you the world!
6. They have GREAT commitment (they got through architecture school, after all).
7. They’re great at conflict resolution (with the help of lawyers).
8. They know all the best honeymoon spots (the architectural ones, at least).
9. They know how to make the best coffee.
10. They have the best taste in music.
11. They have the best taste in holiday gifts.
12. They have amazing dress sense.
14. They know culture like no one else.
15. They won’t fall asleep on you.
16. If they do fall asleep on you, it’s for very good reason
17. They have a great sense of humor (although you might not understand all their jokes).
18. They will never clash with you because they always wear black.
19. They know all about Romanticism.
20. They understand the importance of stability — emotional and structural!
21. They are great listeners (to professors, clients, contractors and you … ).
22. They know that form is nothing without function.
23. They are passionate about what they do.
25. They are considerate of the needs of others (clients, contractors, professors and engineers … sometimes!).
26. They value honesty and integrity (in building materials, and in life).
27. They know how to have a good time (once the project deadline has passed).
28. If everything works out, they’ll design a dream home for you and your future architect children.
29. If it doesn’t, refer back to No. 7.
Ways we think about time
I want to share with you some ideas about the secret power of time, in a very short time.
0:17 Video: All right, start the clock please. 30 seconds studio. Keep it quiet please. Settle down. It’s about time. End sequence. Take one. 15 seconds studio. 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two …
Philip Zimbardo: Let’s tune into the conversation of the principals in Adam’s temptation. “Come on Adam, don’t be so wishy-washy. Take a bite.” “I did.” “One bite, Adam. Don’t abandon Eve.” “I don’t know, guys. I don’t want to get in trouble.” “Okay. One bite. What the hell?” (Laughter)
Life is temptation. It’s all about yielding, resisting, yes, no, now, later, impulsive, reflective, present focus and future focus. Promised virtues fall prey to the passions of the moment.
Of teenage girls who pledged sexual abstinence and virginity until marriage — thank you George Bush — the majority, 60 percent, yielded to sexual temptations within one year. And most of them did so without using birth control. So much for promises.
lets tempt 4-year-olds, giving them a treat.
They can have one marshmallow now. But if they wait until the experimenter comes back, they can have two. Of course it pays, if you like marshmallows, to wait. What happens is two-thirds of the kids give in to temptation. They cannot wait. The others, of course, wait. They resist the temptation. They delay the now for later.
Walter Mischel, my colleague at Stanford, went back 14 years later, to try to discover what was different about those kids.
There were enormous differences between kids who resisted and kids who yielded, in many ways. The kids who resisted scored 250 points higher on the SAT. That’s enormous. That’s like a whole set of different IQ points. They didn’t get in as much trouble. They were better students. They were self-confident and determined. And the key for me today, the key for you, is, they were future-focused rather than present-focused.
what is time perspective?
That’s what I’m going to talk about today. Time perspective is the study of how individuals, all of us, divide the flow of your human experience into time zones or time categories. And you do it automatically and non-consciously. They vary between cultures, between nations, between individuals, between social classes, between education levels. And the problem is that they can become biased, because you learn to over-use some of them and under-use the others.
What determines any decision you make?
You make a decision on which you’re going to base an action. For some people it’s only about what is in the immediate situation, what other people are doing and what you’re feeling. And those people, when they make their decisions in that format — we’re going to call them “present-oriented,” because their focus is what is now.
For others, the present is irrelevant. It’s always about “What is this situation like that I’ve experienced in the past?” So that their decisions are based on past memories. And we’re going to call those people “past-oriented,” because they focus on what was.
For others it’s not the past, it’s not the present, it’s only about the future. Their focus is always about anticipated consequences. Cost-benefit analysis. We’re going to call them “future-oriented.” Their focus is on what will be.
the paradox of time perspective, is something that influences every decision you make, you’re totally unaware of. Namely, the extent to which you have one of these biased time perspectives. Well there is actually 6 of them.
There are two ways to be present-oriented. There is two ways to be past-oriented, two ways to be future. You can focus on past-positive, or past-negative. You can be present-hedonistic, namely you focus on the joys of life, or present-fatalist — it doesn’t matter, your life is controlled. You can be future-oriented, setting goals. Or you can be transcendental future: namely, life begins after death. Developing the mental flexibility to shift time perspectives fluidly depending on the demands of the situation, that’s what you’ve got to learn to do.
very quickly, what is the optimal time profile?
High on past-positive. Moderately high on future. And moderate on present-hedonism.
And always low on past-negative and present-fatalism. So the optimal temporal mix is what you get from the past — past-positive gives you roots. You connect your family, identity and your self. What you get from the future is wings to soar to new destinations, new challenges. What you get from the present hedonism is the energy, the energy to explore yourself, places, people, sensuality.
Any time perspective in excess has more negatives than positives. What do futures sacrifice for success? They sacrifice family time. They sacrifice friend time. They sacrifice fun time. They sacrifice personal indulgence. They sacrifice hobbies. And they sacrifice sleep. So it affects their health. And they live for work, achievement and control. I’m sure that resonates with some of the TEDsters. (Laughter)
it resonated for me. I grew up as a poor kid in the South Bronx ghetto, a Sicilian family — everyone lived in the past and present. I’m here as a future-oriented person who went over the top, who did all these sacrifices because teachers intervened, and made me future oriented.
Told me don’t eat that marshmallow, because if you wait you’re going to get two of them, until I learned to balance out. I’ve added present-hedonism, I’ve added a focus on the past-positive, so, at 76 years old, I am more energetic than ever, more productive, and I’m happier than I have ever been.
I just want to say that we are applying this to many world problems: changing the drop-out rates of school kids, combating addictions, enhancing teen health, curing vets’ PTSD with time metaphors — getting miracle cures — promoting sustainability and conservation, reducing physical rehabilitation where there is a 50% drop out rate, altering appeals to suicidal terrorists, and modifying family conflicts as time-zone clashes.
6:06 So I want to end by saying: many of life’s puzzles can be solved by understanding your time perspective and that of others. And the idea is so simple, so obvious, but I think the consequences are really profound. Thank you so much.
What makes certain people so successful? They’re living in the (positive) future:
Quest for immortality? Here we go again
“The genitals don’t determine your gender or even really your sexual identity”.
This time with Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius XM satellite radio, and now heading up a drug company that makes life-saving medicines for rare diseases
Chris Anderson: I guess what we’re going to do is we’re going to talk about your life, and using some pictures that you shared with me. And I think we should start right here with this one. Okay, now who is this?
0:25 Martine Rothblatt: This is me with our oldest son Eli. He was about age five. This is taken in Nigeria right after having taken the Washington, D.C. bar exam.
CA: But this doesn’t really look like a Martine.
MR: Right. That was myself as a male, the way I was brought up. Before I transitioned from male to female and Martin to Martine.
CA: You were brought up Martin Rothblatt.
CA: And about a year after this picture, you married a beautiful woman. Was this love at first sight? What happened there?
MR: It was love at the first sight. I saw Bina at a discotheque in Los Angeles, and we later began living together, but the moment I saw her, I saw just an aura of energy around her. I asked her to dance. She said she saw an aura of energy around me. I was a single male parent. She was a single female parent. We showed each other our kids’ pictures, and we’ve been happily married for a third of a century now. (Applause)
CA: And at the time, you were kind of this hotshot entrepreneur, working with satellites. I think you had two successful companies, and then you started addressing this problem of how could you use satellites to revolutionize radio. Tell us about that.
MR: I always loved space technology, and satellites, to me, are sort of like the canoes that our ancestors first pushed out into the water.
it was exciting for me to be part of the navigation of the oceans of the sky, and as I developed different types of satellite communication systems, the main thing I did was to launch bigger and more powerful satellites, the consequence of which was that the receiving antennas could be smaller and smaller, and after going through direct television broadcasting, I had the idea that if we could make a more powerful satellite, the receiving dish could be so small that it would just be a section of a parabolic dish, a flat little plate embedded into the roof of an automobile, and it would be possible to have nationwide satellite radio, and that’s Sirius XM today.
CA: who here has used Sirius?
2:50 MR: Thank you for your monthly subscriptions.
CA: that succeeded despite all predictions at the time. It was a huge commercial success, but soon after this, in the early 1990s, there was this big transition in your life and you became Martine.
CA: So tell me, how did that happen?
MR: It happened in consultation with Bina and our four beautiful children, and I discussed with each of them that I felt my soul was always female, and as a woman, but I was afraid people would laugh at me if I expressed it, so I always kept it bottled up and just showed my male side.
And each of them had a different take on this. Bina said, “I love your soul, and whether the outside is Martin and Martine, it doesn’t matter to me, I love your soul.”
My son said, “If you become a woman, will you still be my father?” And I said, “Yes, I’ll always be your father, and I’m still his father today.”
My youngest daughter did an absolutely brilliant five-year-old thing. She told people, “I love my dad and she loves me.” So she had no problem with a gender blending whatsoever.
CA: And a couple years after this, you published this book: “The Apartheid of Sex.” What was your thesis in this book?
MR: My thesis in this book is that there are seven billion people in the world, and actually, seven billion unique ways to express one’s gender. And while people may have the genitals of a male or a female, the genitals don’t determine your gender or even really your sexual identity.
That’s just a matter of anatomy and reproductive tracts, and people could choose whatever gender they want if they weren’t forced by society into categories of either male or female the way South Africa used to force people into categories of black or white.
We know from anthropological science that race is fiction, even though racism is very real, and we now know from cultural studies that separate male or female genders is a constructed fiction. The reality is a gender fluidity that crosses the entire continuum from male to female.
CA: You yourself don’t always feel 100% female.
MR: Correct. I would say in some ways I change my gender about as often as I change my hairstyle.
CA: (Laughs) Okay, now, this is your gorgeous daughter, Genesis. And I guess she was about this age when something pretty terrible happened.
MR: Yes, she was finding herself unable to walk up the stairs in our house to her bedroom, and after several months of doctors, she was diagnosed to have a rare, almost invariably fatal disease called pulmonary arterial hypertension.
CA: how did you respond to that?
MR: we first tried to get her to the best doctors we could. We ended up at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The head of pediatric cardiology told us that he was going to refer her to get a lung transplant, but not to hold out any hope, because there are very few lungs available, especially for children.
He said that all people with this illness died, and if any of you have seen the film “Lorenzo’s Oil,” there’s a scene when the protagonist kind of rolls down the stairway crying and bemoaning the fate of his son, and that’s exactly how we felt about Genesis.
CA: But you didn’t accept that as the limit of what you could do. You started trying to research and see if you could find a cure somehow.
MR: Correct. She was in the intensive care ward for weeks at a time, and Bina and I would tag team to stay at the hospital while the other watched the rest of the kids, and when I was in the hospital and she was sleeping, I went to the hospital library.
I read every article that I could find on pulmonary hypertension. I had not taken any biology, even in college, so I had to go from a biology textbook to a college-level textbook and then medical textbook and the journal articles, back and forth, and eventually I knew enough to think that it might be possible that somebody could find a cure.
So we started a nonprofit foundation. I wrote a description asking people to submit grants and we would pay for medical research. I became an expert on the condition — doctors said to me, Martine, we really appreciate all the funding you’ve provided us, but we are not going to be able to find a cure in time to save your daughter.
However, there is a medicine that was developed at the Burroughs Wellcome Company that could halt the progression of the disease, but Burroughs Wellcome has just been acquired by Glaxo Wellcome. They made a decision not to develop any medicines for rare and orphan diseases, and maybe you could use your expertise in satellite communications to develop this cure for pulmonary hypertension.
CA: So how on earth did you get access to this drug?
MR: I went to Glaxo Wellcome and after three times being rejected and having the door slammed in my face because they weren’t going to out-license the drug to a satellite communications expert, they weren’t going to send the drug out to anybody at all, and they thought I didn’t have the expertise, finally I was able to persuade a small team of people to work with me and develop enough credibility.
I wore down their resistance, and they had no hope this drug would even work, by the way, and they tried to tell me, “You’re just wasting your time. We’re sorry about your daughter.” But finally, for 25,000 dollars and agreement to pay 10 percent of any revenues we might ever get, they agreed to give me worldwide rights to this drug.
CA: And so you put this drug on the market in a really brilliant way, by basically charging what it would take to make the economics work.
MR: this really wasn’t a drug that I ended up — after I wrote the check for 25,000, and I said, “Okay, where’s the medicine for Genesis?” they said, “Oh, Martine, there’s no medicine for Genesis. This is just something we tried in rats.”
And they gave me, like, a little plastic Ziploc bag of a small amount of powder. They said, “Don’t give it to any human,” and they gave me a piece of paper which said it was a patent, and from that, we had to figure out a way to make this medicine.
A hundred chemists in the U.S. at the top universities all swore that little patent could never be turned into a medicine. If it was turned into a medicine, it could never be delivered because it had a half-life of only 45 minutes.
CA: And yet, a year or two later, you were there with a medicine that worked for Genesis.
MR: the astonishing thing is that this absolutely worthless piece of powder that had the sparkle of a promise of hope for Genesis is not only keeping Genesis and other people alive today, but produces almost a billion and a half dollars a year in revenue.
CA: So here you go. So you took this company public, right? And made an absolute fortune. And how much have you paid Glaxo, by the way, after that 25,000?
MR: every year we pay them 10 percent of 1.5 billion, 150 million dollars, last year 100 million dollars. It’s the best return on investment they ever received. (Laughter)
CA: And the best news of all, I guess, is this.
MR: Yes. Genesis is an absolutely brilliant young lady. She’s alive, healthy today at 30. You see me, Bina and Genesis there. The most amazing thing about Genesis is that while she could do anything with her life, and believe me, if you grew up your whole life with people in your face saying that you’ve got a fatal disease, I would probably run to Tahiti and just not want to run into anybody again.
But instead she chooses to work in United Therapeutics. She says she wants to do all she can to help other people with orphan diseases get medicines, and today, she’s our project leader for all telepresence activities, where she helps digitally unite the entire company to work together to find cures for pulmonary hypertension.
CA: But not everyone who has this disease has been so fortunate. There are still many people dying, and you are tackling that too. How?
MR: There’s some 3,000 people a year in the United States alone, perhaps 10 times that number worldwide, who continue to die of this illness because the medicines slow down the progression but they don’t halt it.
The only cure for pulmonary hypertension, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, COPD, what Leonard Nimoy just died of, is a lung transplant,
Sadly, there are only enough available lungs for 2,000 people in the U.S. a year to get a lung transplant, whereas nearly a half million people a year die of end-stage lung failure.
CA: how can you address that?
MR: I conceptualize the possibility that just like we keep cars and planes and buildings going forever with an unlimited supply of building parts and machine parts, why can’t we create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs to keep people living indefinitely, and especially people with lung disease.
So we’ve teamed up with the decoder of the human genome, Craig Venter, and the company he founded with Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X Prize, to genetically modify the pig genome so that the pig’s organs will not be rejected by the human body and thereby to create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs. We do this through our company, United Therapeutics.
CA: So you really believe that within a decade, that this shortage of transplantable lungs maybe be cured, through these guys?
MR: I’m as certain of that as I was of the success that we’ve had with direct television broadcasting, Sirius XM. It’s actually not rocket science. It’s straightforward engineering away one gene after another. We’re so lucky to be born in the time that sequencing genomes is a routine activity, and the brilliant folks at Synthetic Genomics are able to zero in on the pig genome, find exactly the genes that are problematic, and fix them.
CA: It’s not just long-lasting bodies that are of interest to you now. It’s long-lasting minds. And I think this graph for you says something quite profound. What does this mean?
MR: What this graph means, and it comes from Ray Kurzweil, is that the rate of development in computer processing hardware, firmware and software, has been advancing along a curve such that by the 2020s, as we saw in earlier presentations today, there will be information technology that processes information and the world around us at the same rate as a human mind.
CA: And so that being so, you’re actually getting ready for this world by believing that we will soon be able to, what, actually take the contents of our brains and somehow preserve them forever? How do you describe that?
MR: what we’re working on is creating a situation where people can create a mind file, and a mind file is the collection of their mannerisms, personality, recollection, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values, everything that we’ve poured today into Google, into Amazon, into Facebook, and all of this information stored there will be able, in the next couple decades, once software is able to recapitulate consciousness, be able to revive the consciousness which is imminent in our mind file.
CA: Now you’re not just messing around with this. You’re serious. I mean, who is this?
MR: This is a robot version of my beloved spouse, Bina. And we call her Bina 48. She was programmed by Hanson Robotics out of Texas. There’s the centerfold from National Geographic magazine with one of her caregivers, and she roams the web and has hundreds of hours of Bina’s mannerisms, personalities. She’s kind of like a two-year-old kid, but she says things that blow people away, best expressed by perhaps a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amy Harmon who says her answers are often frustrating, but other times as compelling as those of any flesh person she’s interviewed.
CA: And is your thinking here, part of your hope here, is that this version of Bina can in a sense live on forever, or some future upgrade to this version can live on forever?
MR: Yes. Not just Bina, but everybody. You know, it costs us virtually nothing to store our mind files on Facebook, Instagram, what-have-you. Social media is I think one of the most extraordinary inventions of our time, and as apps become available that will allow us to out-Siri Siri, better and better, and develop consciousness operating systems, everybody in the world, billions of people, will be able to develop mind clones of themselves that will have their own life on the web.
CA: So the thing is, Martine, that in any normal conversation, this would sound stark-staring mad, but in the context of your life, what you’ve done, some of the things we’ve heard this week, the constructed realities that our minds give, I mean, you wouldn’t bet against it.
MR: Well, I think it’s really nothing coming from me. If anything, I’m perhaps a bit of a communicator of activities that are being undertaken by the greatest companies in China, Japan, India, the U.S., Europe.
There are tens of millions of people working on writing code that expresses more and more aspects of our human consciousness, and you don’t have to be a genius to see that all these threads are going to come together and ultimately create human consciousness, and it’s something we’ll value.
There are so many things to do in this life, and if we could have a simulacrum, a digital doppelgänger of ourselves that helps us process books, do shopping, be our best friends, I believe our mind clones, these digital versions of ourselves, will ultimately be our best friends, and for me personally and Bina personally, we love each other like crazy.
Each day, we are always saying, like, “Wow, I love you even more than 30 years ago. And so for us, the prospect of mind clones and regenerated bodies is that our love affair, Chris, can go on forever. And we never get bored of each other. I’m sure we never will.
19:16 CA: I think Bina’s here, right?
MR: She is, yeah.
CA: Would it be too much, I don’t know, do we have a handheld mic? Bina, could we invite you to the stage? I just have to ask you one question. Besides, we need to see you.
Come and join Martine here. I mean, look, when you got married, if someone had told you that, in a few years time, the man you were marrying would become a woman, and a few years after that, you would become a robot — (Laughter) — how has this gone? How has it been?
Bina Rothblatt: It’s been really an exciting journey, and I would have never thought that at the time, but we started making goals and setting those goals and accomplishing things, and before you knew it, we just keep going up and up and we’re still not stopping, so it’s great.
CA: Martine told me something really beautiful, just actually on Skype before this, which was that he wanted to live for hundreds of years as a mind file, but not if it wasn’t with you.
BR: That’s right, we want to do it together. We’re cryonicists as well, and we want to wake up together.
20:35 CA: So just so as you know, from my point of view, this isn’t only one of the most astonishing lives I have heard, it’s one of the most astonishing love stories I’ve ever heard. It’s just a delight to have you both here at TED. Thank you so much.
Is there a real you?
Wise people fashion themselves
This might seem to you like a very odd question. Because, you might ask, how do we find the real you, how do you know what the real you is? And so forth.
0:23 But the idea that there must be a real you, surely that’s obvious.
If there’s anything real in the world, it’s you. Well, I’m not quite sure.
At least we have to understand a bit better what that means. Now certainly, I think there are lots of things in our culture around us which sort of reinforce the idea that for each one of us, we have a kind of a core, an essence.
There is something about what it means to be you which defines you, and it’s kind of permanent and unchanging. The most kind of crude way in which we have it, are things like horoscopes.
You know, people are very wedded to these, actually. People put them on their Facebook profile as though they are meaningul, you even know your Chinese horoscope as well. There are also more scientific versions of this, all sorts of ways of profiling personality type, such as the Myers-Briggs tests, for example. I don’t know if you’ve done those.
A lot of companies use these for recruitment. You answer a lot of questions, and this is supposed to reveal something about your core personality. And of course, the popular fascination with this is enormous.
In magazines like this, you’ll see, in the bottom left corner, they’ll advertise in virtually every issue some kind of personality thing. And if you pick up one of those magazines, it’s hard to resist, isn’t it?
Doing the test to find what is your learning style, what is your loving style, or what is your working style? Are you this kind of person or that?
I think that we have a common-sense idea that there is a kind of core or essence of ourselves to be discovered. And that this is kind of a permanent truth about ourselves, something that’s the same throughout life.
Well, that’s the idea I want to challenge. And I have to say now, I’ll say it a bit later, but I’m not challenging this just because I’m weird, the challenge actually has a very long and distinguished history.
Here’s the common-sense idea.
There is you. You are the individuals you are, and you have this kind of core. Now in your life, what happens is that you accumulate different experiences and so forth. So you have memories, and these memories help to create what you are.
You have desires, maybe for a cookie, maybe for something that we don’t want to talk about at 11 o’clock in the morning in a school.
You will have beliefs. This is a number plate from someone in America. I don’t know whether this number plate, which says “messiah 1,” indicates that the driver believes in the messiah, or that they are the messiah. Either way, they have beliefs about messiahs.
We have knowledge. We have sensations and experiences as well. It’s not just intellectual things. So this is kind of the common-sense model, I think, of what a person is. There is a person who has all the things that make up our life experiences.
But the suggestion I want to put to you today is that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this model.
And I can show you what’s wrong with one click. Which is there isn’t actually a “you” at the heart of all these experiences. Strange thought? Well, maybe not. What is there, then? Well, clearly there are memories, desires, intentions, sensations, and so forth.
what happens is that these things exist, and they’re kind of all integrated, they’re overlapped, they’re connected in various different ways. They’re connecting partly, and perhaps even mainly, because they all belong to one body and one brain.
But there’s also a narrative, a story we tell about ourselves, the experiences we have when we remember past things. We do things because of other things. So what we desire is partly a result of what we believe, and what we remember is also informing us what we know.
And so really, there are all these things, like beliefs, desires, sensations, experiences, they’re all related to each other, and that just is you. In some ways, it’s a small difference from the common-sense understanding. In some ways, it’s a massive one.
It’s the shift between thinking of yourself as a thing which has all the experiences of life, and thinking of yourself as simply that collection of all experiences in life.
You are the sum of your parts. Now those parts are also physical parts, of course, brains, bodies and legs and things, but they aren’t so important, actually. If you have a heart transplant, you’re still the same person.
If you have a memory transplant, are you the same person?
If you have a belief transplant, would you be the same person? Now this idea, that what we are, the way to understand ourselves, is as not of some permanent being, which has experiences, but is kind of a collection of experiences, might strike you as kind of weird.
actually, I don’t think it should be weird. In a way, it’s common sense. Because I just invite you to think about, by comparison, think about pretty much anything else in the universe, maybe apart from the very most fundamental forces or powers.
Let’s take something like water. Now my science isn’t very good. We might say something like water has two parts hydrogen and one parts oxygen, right? We all know that. I hope no one in this room thinks that what that means is there is a thing called water, and attached to it are hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and that’s what water is. Of course we don’t.
We understand, very easily, very straightforwardly, that water is nothing more than the hydrogen and oxygen molecules suitably arranged. Everything else in the universe is the same. There’s no mystery about my watch, for example. We say the watch has a face, and hands, and a mechanism and a battery, But what we really mean is, we don’t think there is a thing called the watch to which we then attach all these bits.
We understand very clearly that you get the parts of the watch, you put them together, and you create a watch. Now if everything else in the universe is like this, why are we different?
Why think of ourselves as somehow not just being a collection of all our parts, but somehow being a separate, permanent entity which has those parts?
Now this view is not particularly new, actually. It has quite a long lineage. You find it in Buddhism, you find it in 17th, 18th-century philosophy going through to the current day, people like Locke and Hume.
But interestingly, it’s also a view increasingly being heard reinforced by neuroscience. This is Paul Broks, he’s a clinical neuropsychologist, and he says this: “We have a deep intuition that there is a core, an essence there, and it’s hard to shake off, probably impossible to shake off, I suspect. But it’s true that neuroscience shows that there is no centre in the brain where things do all come together.”
So when you look at the brain, and you look at how the brain makes possible a sense of self, you find that there isn’t a central control spot in the brain. There is no kind of center where everything happens. There are lots of different processes in the brain, all of which operate, in a way, quite independently.
But it’s because of the way that they relate that we get this sense of self. The term I use in the book, I call it the ego trick. It’s like a mechanical trick. It’s not that we don’t exist, it’s just that the trick is to make us feel that inside of us is something more unified than is really there.
you might think this is a worrying idea. You might think that if it’s true, that for each one of us there is no abiding core of self, no permanent essence, does that mean that really, the self is an illusion?
Does it mean that we really don’t exist? There is no real you. Well, a lot of people actually do use this talk of illusion and so forth. These are three psychologists, Thomas Metzinger, Bruce Hood, Susan Blackmore, a lot of these people do talk the language of illusion, the self is an illusion, it’s a fiction.
But I don’t think this is a very helpful way of looking at it. Go back to the watch. The watch isn’t an illusion, because there is nothing to the watch other than a collection of its parts. In the same way, we’re not illusions either.
The fact that we are, in some ways, just this very complex collection, ordered collection of things, does not mean we’re not real. I can give you a very sort of rough metaphor for this.
Let’s take something like a waterfall. These are the Iguazu Falls, in Argentina. Now if you take something like this, you can appreciate the fact that in lots of ways, there’s nothing permanent about this. For one thing, it’s always changing. The waters are always carving new channels. with changes and tides and the weather, some things dry up, new things are created.
Of course the water that flows through the waterfall is different every single instance. But it doesn’t mean that the Iguazu Falls are an illusion. It doesn’t mean it’s not real. What it means is we have to understand what it is as something which has a history, has certain things that keep it together, but it’s a process, it’s fluid, it’s forever changing.
This is a model for understanding ourselves, and I think it’s a liberating model. Because if you think that you have this fixed, permanent essence, which is always the same, throughout your life, no matter what, in a sense you’re kind of trapped.
You’re born with an essence, that’s what you are until you die, if you believe in an afterlife, maybe you continue. But if you think of yourself as being, in a way, not a thing as such, but a kind of a process, something that is changing, then I think that’s quite liberating.
Because unlike the waterfalls, we actually have the capacity to channel the direction of our development for ourselves to a certain degree. Now we’ve got to be careful here, right?
If you watch the X-Factor too much, you might buy into this idea that we can all be whatever we want to be. That’s not true.
I’ve heard some fantastic musicians this morning, and I am very confident that I could in no way be as good as them. I could practice hard and maybe be good, but I don’t have that really natural ability.
There are limits to what we can achieve. There are limits to what we can make of ourselves. But nevertheless, we do have this capacity to, in a sense, shape ourselves.
The true self, as it were then, is not something that is just there for you to discover, you don’t sort of look into your soul and find your true self, What you are partly doing, at least, is actually creating your true self.
And this, I think, is very significant, particularly at this stage of life you’re at. You’ll be aware of the fact how much of you changed over recent years. If you have any videos of yourself, three or four years ago, you probably feel embarrassed because you don’t recognize yourself.
11:11 So I want to get that message over, that what we need to do is think about ourselves as things that we can shape, and channel and change.
This is the Buddha, again: “Well-makers lead the water, fletchers bend the arrow, carpenters bend a log of wood, wise people fashion themselves.”
And that’s the idea I want to leave you with, that your true self is not something that you will have to go searching for, as a mystery, and maybe never ever find. To the extent you have a true self, it’s something that you in part discover, but in part create. and that, I think, is a liberating and exciting prospect.
Origins of life? Here we go again with new evidences
In the beginning, there were simple chemicals. And they produced amino acids that eventually became the proteins necessary to create single cells. And the single cells became plants and animals.
Recent research is revealing how the primordial soup created the amino acid building blocks, and there is widespread scientific consensus on the evolution from the first cell into plants and animals.
But it’s still a mystery how the building blocks were first assembled into the proteins that formed the machinery of all cells.
Now, two long-time University of North Carolina scientists – Richard Wolfenden, PhD, and Charles Carter, PhD – have shed new light on the transition from building blocks into life some 4 billion years ago.
“Our work shows that the close linkage between the physical properties of amino acids, the genetic code, and protein folding was likely essential from the beginning, long before large, sophisticated molecules arrived on the scene,” said Carter, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the UNC School of Medicine.
“This close interaction was likely the key factor in the evolution from building blocks to organisms.”
Their findings, published in companion papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, fly in the face of the problematic “RNA world” theory, which posits that RNA – the molecule that today plays roles in coding, regulating, and expressing genes – elevated itself from the primordial soup of amino acids and cosmic chemicals to give rise first to short proteins called peptides and then to single-celled organisms.
Wolfenden and Carter argue that RNA did not work alone; in fact, it was no more likely that RNA catalyzed peptide formation than it was for peptides to catalyze RNA formation.
The finding adds a new layer to the story of how life evolved billions of years ago.
Its name was LUCA
The scientific community recognizes that 3.6 billion years ago there existed the last universal common ancestor, or LUCA, of all living things presently on Earth. It was likely a single-cell organism. It had a few hundred genes. It already had complete blueprints for DNA replication, protein synthesis, and RNA transcription.
It had all the basic components – such as lipids – that modern organisms have. From LUCA forward, it’s relatively easy to see how life as we know it evolved.
Before 3.6 billion years, however, there is no hard evidence about how LUCA arose from a boiling caldron of chemicals that formed on Earth after the creation of the planet about 4.6 billion years ago. Those chemicals reacted to form amino acids, which remain the building blocks of proteins in our own cells today.
“We know a lot about LUCA and we are beginning to learn about the chemistry that produced building blocks like amino acids, but between the two there is a desert of knowledge,” Carter said. “We haven’t even known how to explore it.”
The UNC research represents an outpost in that desert.
“Dr. Wolfenden established physical properties of the twenty amino acids, and we have found a link between those properties and the genetic code,” Carter said. “That link suggests to us that there was a second, earlier code that made possible the peptide-RNA interactions necessary to launch a selection process that we can envision creating the first life on Earth.”
Thus, Carter said, RNA did not have to invent itself from the primordial soup. Instead, even before there were cells, it seems more likely that there were interactions between amino acids and nucleotides that led to the co-creation of proteins and RNA.
Complexity from simplicity
Proteins must fold in specific ways to function properly.
The first PNAS paper, led by Wolfenden, shows that both the polarities of the twenty amino acids (how they distribute between water and oil) and their sizes help explain the complex process of protein folding – when a chain of connected amino acids arranges itself to form a particular 3-dimensional structure that has a specific biological function.
“Our experiments show how the polarities of amino acids change consistently across a wide range of temperatures in ways that would not disrupt the basic relationships between genetic coding and protein folding,” said Wolfenden, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics. This was important to establish because when life was first forming on Earth, temperatures were hot, probably much hotter than they are now or when the first plants and animals were established.
A series of biochemical experiments with amino acids conducted in Wolfenden’s lab showed that two properties – the sizes as well as the polarities of amino acids – were necessary and sufficient to explain how the amino acids behaved in folded proteins and that these relationships also held at the higher temperatures of Earth 4 billion years ago.
The second PNAS paper, led by Carter, delves into how enzymes called aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases recognized transfer ribonucleic acid, or tRNA. Those enzymes translate the genetic code.
“Think of tRNA as an adapter,” Carter said. “One end of the adapter carries a particular amino acid; the other end reads the genetic blueprint for that amino acid in messenger RNA. Each synthetase matches one of the twenty amino acids with its own adapter so that the genetic blueprint in messenger RNA faithfully makes the correct protein every time.”
Carter’s analysis shows that the two different ends of the L-shaped tRNA molecule contained independent codes or rules that specify which amino acid to select. The end of tRNA that carried the amino acid sorted amino acids specifically according to size.
The other end of the L-shaped tRNA molecule is called the tRNA anticodon. It reads codons, which are sequences of three RNA nucleotides in genetic messages that select amino acids according to polarity.
Wolfenden and Carter’s findings imply that the relationships between tRNA and the physical properties of the amino acids – their sizes and polarities – were crucial during the Earth’s primordial era.
In light of Carter’s previous work with very small active cores of tRNA synthetases called Urzymes, it now seems likely that selection by size preceded selection according to polarity. This ordered selection meant that the earliest proteins did not necessarily fold into unique shapes, and that their unique structures evolved later.
Carter said, “Translating the genetic code is the nexus connecting pre-biotic chemistry to biology.”
He and Wolfenden believe that the intermediate stage of genetic coding can help resolve two paradoxes: how complexity arose from simplicity, and how life divided the labor between two very different kinds of polymers: proteins and nucleic acids.
“The fact that genetic coding developed in two successive stages – the first of which was relatively simple – may be one reason why life was able to emerge while the earth was still quite young,” Wolfenden noted.
An earlier code, which enabled the earliest coded peptides to bind RNA, may have furnished a decisive selective advantage. And this primitive system could then undergo a natural selection process, thereby launching a new and more biological form of evolution.
“The collaboration between RNA and peptides was likely necessary for the spontaneous emergence of complexity,” Carter added. “In our view, it was a peptide-RNA world, not an RNA-only world.”