TED Fellows Jane Chen, David Lang and Manu Prakash pose in the Oval Office. Photo: Courtesy of Jane Chen
On June 18, the White House hosted its first-ever Maker Faire – “a celebration of all things built-by-hand and designed-by-ingenuity” – and four TED Fellows were present to show President Obama the inspiring work they are doing. From left to right: Jose Gomez-Marquez, who is designing affordable medical device hardware; Jane Chen, who built a low-cost infant warmer for premature babies; David Lang, who is building a community of citizen ocean explorers using low-cost underwater robots; and Manu Prakash, who has invented a 50-cent paper microscope and a $5 chemistry set inspired by a music box. To find out more, watch Jane’s TED Talk, “A warm embrace that saves lives.” And David’s talk, “My underwater robot.”
Juliana Machado Ferreira holds an ultramarine grossbeak while doing fieldwork in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico
Conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira uses genetic data to fight illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil—a $2 billion-a-year business that affects 38 million animals. In 2012, Ferreira founded FREELAND Brasil to raise awareness of the devastating effects of keeping wild-caught songbirds, parrots and macaws—as well as to release rehabilitated animals and support rural communities vulnerable to wildlife traffickers.
First of all, congratulations on being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer! What does this mean for you and your work?
Thank you! It’s an immense honor to be recognized by my heroes, many of them responsible for me becoming a biologist. I was that kid — reading National Geographic, absolutely in love with every single animal I saw, and awed by every single picture. With this support and recognition, we’ll be able to reach 90 million people through National Geographic’s powerful platforms. This will help us make a huge impact in our battle against wildlife trafficking – especially the wild pet trade in Brazil. I could not be more excited and hopeful!
Tell us how you became interested in wildlife, and in birds, in particular.
During my master’s research at the University of São Paulo, when I was working with the population genetics of sub-Antarctic fur seals, I learned that there was a such a thing called wildlife forensics—the use of science in the legal prosecution of crimes involving wildlife. I was hooked instantly, and I convinced the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory to accept me as a volunteer for three months—a relationship that continued until 2013. Around the same time, I was introduced to Marcelo Rocha, president of the organization SOS Fauna, which combats wildlife trafficking in Brazil. With him, I learned about the illegal wild pet trade in Brazil—particularly the illegal domestic wild bird trade. So my PhD research—developed in collaboration with both these organizations—focused on developing population genetic studies for Brazilian wild bird species exploited by the illegal trade. The idea is that, if we can detect distinct genetic populations within each species, we’ll not only better understand the threat each species is facing, but we can produce data that might help guide future efforts to release rehabilitated animals seized from traffickers.
Ferreira takes a blood sample from an ultramarine grossbeak in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico
What is conservation genetics, and how is it related to wildlife forensics?
First, I should say that while I’m often billed as a forensic biologist, I am not one. I’m a conservation geneticist: I use concepts and techniques from genetics to develop studies aimed at understanding the current extinction rate of species—with the ultimate goal of conserving species as dynamic entities capable of adapting to environmental changes through evolutionary responses. Forensic biologists produce data that are used in court, in legal cases. At the moment, my work can’t technically be considered forensic because the genetic data I’ve produced has not been used in court. It may be included in future legal processes—but in order for this to happen, we still need to develop comprehensive databases of genetic profiles from exploited species populations. It will require extensive fieldwork to collect samples of blood, tissue, fur, feathers, and so on from many individuals from different populations.
Tell us more about the illegal wildlife trade in Brazil. What sorts of animals are typically removed from their ecosystems?
All kinds of animals get taken, but the most highly targeted group is birds—particularly song birds, parrots and macaws, which are extremely popular as pets. Small monkeys, sloths, reptiles and amphibians are popular, too. The Brazilian NGO RENCTAS—the National Network to Fight the Trafficking of Wild Animals—estimates that more than 38 million animals are taken from the country annually by all kinds of wildlife trafficking including zoos and collectors, biopiracy and the pet trade. And that doesn’t count fish or invertebrates.
So this trade is primarily to a global market?
Actually, it’s important to note that, while global illegal wildlife trade is massive in monetary terms—about $20 billion a year—illegal trade between Brazilian states is several times bigger than what gets traded internationally from Brazil in terms of numbers of animals traded. And almost 83% of the seized wild animals in the illegal domestic trade are birds. But yes, a great many animals do get traded out of the country. Bear in mind that not all of it is illegal. Most species can be traded as long as permits are in order, and according to their CITES status. But it is very difficult to have reliable estimates of what gets traded illegally.
A still taken from We Need Us, Julie Freeman’s work in progress, being previewed at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall from 14 to 15 June.
This weekend, data artist Julie Freeman will be showing work in progress “We Need Us” on a 10-meter screen at the famed Tate Modern Turbine Hall. (For a preview, see video below.) The big-screen, two-day preview of data art at the Tate is part of a celebration launch of The Space – a new website for digital art funded by the BBC and Arts Council England. We asked Freeman to tell us about her work, and why The Space is such an exciting new development for data art.
Tell us about your work that’s being previewed this weekend at the Tate Modern.
We Need Us is an animation that explores data as an art material, as an amorphous whole rather than individual values. It works with live user data generated by the Zooniverse citizen science website (fellow Fellow Rob Simpson’s project). The work draws metadata from the activities of Zooniverse’s million+ participants to create a dynamic environment of sounds and animated forms.
The idea is to remind people of the humanity in technology – that we need “us” as much as we need it. The piece requires data from online activities of people to come alive. George Dyson talks of digital organisms, and it seems that data could be viewed as such: creatures that have a function and perform actions as part of our world. I’m looking to expose the idea that as a whole, data have unique characteristics such as growth, momentum and fragility, by creating a framework that comes to life with real-time data.
We Need Us was co-commissioned by Open Data Institute as part of their Data as Culture programme, and The Space.
What is the Space?
The Space is a new website for artists and audiences to create and explore brilliant new data art – to be shared with the Whole Wide World. The preview at the the Turbine Hall celebrates its launch. It commissions new talent and great artists from all art forms, creative industries, technical and digital backgrounds, through regular open calls and partnerships. With around 50 new commissions a year, The Space will be one of the most exciting places on the internet to find new art, free for audiences and artist to explore, express and enjoy.
It’s very exciting as I feel that this has been a long time coming. We need a place to act as a kind of Tate Modern without walls online, a space that nurtures art made with code and with data – a go-to location to experience art that’s comfortable on the web. Imagine a web where we stumble and fall into art as we do in real life. Where are the unexpected Bansky’s we encounter on the Internet? Where are the surprising artworks that we accidentally click into? Where is the space that allows hackers to make art and artists to hack? I’m delighted to be one of the first co-commissioned artists at the Space.
What are some of the other works being shown this weekend?
The works being shown over the two-day hack range from early software art from the 1970s – including from the amazing Lilian Schwartz, who, while at Bell Labs in New Jersey, was experimenting with algorithms and digital imaging – through to recent online works such as Ai Wei Wei & Olafur Eliasson’s Moon project, a participatory global drawing project. Other artists include David Hockney, Sue Austin, and Paul Pfeiffer, among others.
How are you feeling about your Tate debut?
I’m taking the unusual step of previewing an unfinished work this weekend. It’s slightly unnerving, but as the entire piece is being developed in an open source way, with an open license and open data, it seems fitting to continue the trend and just expose the process.
If you’re in London, visit the Tate Modern Turbine Hall to view Freeman’s work live. We Need Us launches in September/early October on The Space. To learn much more about Julie Freeman and her work, visit the TED Blog >>>
Independent journalist Will Potter’s work investigates how environmental whistleblowing is criminalized as domestic terrorism. Today, as Potter’s TED2014 talk is released on TED.com, Potter is launching a Kickstarter campaign to take his research to the air. He plans to acquire a drone in order to document agricultural abuses in states that are currently debating laws that would make it illegal to photograph or film their operations – begging the question, “What are they trying to hide?” We asked Potter to tell us more.
Why do you need a drone to investigate factory farms?
Factory farms are doing everything they can to stop consumers from seeing the reality of most food is produced. And they’ve been quite blunt about their motivations: a wave of new legislation in the United States explicitly criminalizes anyone who photographs or films animal cruelty on farms. These “ag-gag” laws are a direct response to a series of damning investigations by animal welfare groups. In Idaho, for instance, the new law came after investigators exposed workers beating cows and sexually abusing the animals.
Satellite photographs have already revealed shocking environmental pollution at industrial agriculture sites— will a drone allow us to see even more? As a journalist, I think the best way to confront attempts at secrecy is to shine a light on the abuses. Corporations are trying to shoot the messenger, and shut down anyone who exposes what they’re doing. But that just means we, as journalists, need to be more creative in our tactics. So for my next investigation, I am going to purchase a drone and photograph these farms from the sky.
What’s the goal of this Kickstarter campaign? And why now?
I have launched this Kickstarter campaign to purchase the drone, and I will share the results of my investigation in both a short documentary and an e-book. This investigation couldn’t come at a better time: multiple states (and countries) are considering ag-gag laws, while voters are considering efforts to eliminate some of the worst abuses on factory farms.
It’s my hope that this investigation will allow us to have a more informed debate. What are factory farms trying to hide? Let’s find out.
To learn more about Potter and his work, visit the TED Blog >>>
How can examining psychological distress in animals help humans rethink our own mental health issues? TED Senior Fellow Laurel Braitman’s recently launched book – Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves explores how nonhuman animals struggle with varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. Learn more about the new book in the adorable video above – in which Braitman and her furry friends reveal a few gently fractured psyches. And watch this space for a full-length interview with Braitman, coming soon!
British lawyer Alexander McLean’s fascination with issues of inequality began at a young age. At 9, he was reading about the Civil Rights movement and the death penalty, fascinated by the power of the law to inflict punishment as well as deal out justice. At 18, he traveled to Uganda to volunteer as a hospice worker, where he saw that while patients with private resources received care, inmates sent from prisons were left neglected and untreated. His hope to do something about this disparity has over the years evolved into The African Prisons Project, helping prisoners in Uganda and Kenya access a legal education, and working to develop leaders among prisoners and prison staff. We spoke to the TED Fellow to find out more about how the project came to be — and his hopes for its future.
How did you get involved in working in Africa?
I used to volunteer at a hospice in London every Sunday, where I would spend the afternoon on the wards with patients and their families. In my first few weeks there, I met a teenage girl who was dying of brain cancer. Her whole head was wrapped in bandages, and she couldn’t move. Seeing so many people dying in hospice got me thinking that life isn’t guaranteed. We can’t put off any dreams. The experience got me interested in palliative care, so when I read about Hospice Africa Uganda, I decided to ask if I could visit.
You were only 18 years old when you first visited Kampala. Yet it seems like it had a profound effect on what you did next. Tell us about the trip.
It was humbling. One day we went to Uganda’s main government hospital, where I cared for prisoners and abandoned patients. In Uganda, nurses almost never wash patients, feed them and so on. That’s family work. Only patients who have family and the money to stay with them in hospital receive care. I saw a man lying by the toilet on a black plastic bin bag. He had been found in a market in Kampala, unconscious. They didn’t know anything about him, but thought he had diabetes, and they were waiting for him to die. He was lying in a pool of urine, and the flesh on his back was rotten because he couldn’t move. He was just rotting away.
What did you do?
Back at the hospice, I spoke to my mentor. She said that, even if someone is going to die, they can die clean and cared for. So the next day, I found a nurse who’d been trained in palliative care to help me, and we washed him. I brought him some clean sheets, and we asked the doctors and nurses to treat him. We tried to give him food and drink. I did that for five days, and when I came back on the sixth day, he’d died. He was lying on the floor, naked. The porter came with a trolley with a dead woman. He put his body on top of hers, and said they’d go to a mass grave together.
That was a big turning point in my life. It seemed that his life had no value at all — alive or dead. He was treated like an animal, like rubbish. I saw a risk of valuing others not for our shared humanity but for how much money they earn, the job title they have, the kind of house they live in, and the letters they have after their name.
Seems like it’s safe to say this confrontation with inequality and injustice was deeply affecting. How did you get involved with prisoners in Kampala?
I spent three months caring for patients at that hospital, and it turned out a lot of them were prisoners. I started learning how difficult life could be; they simply did not have access to justice as I understood it. So I asked if I could visit Luzira Upper Prison Uganda, a maximum-security prison. It was another life-changing moment.
What did you find there?
I visited the prison hospital. An 18-year-old boy had just died, and he was sewn into a blanket to be buried. The place was gray and dark and smelly and miserable. I thought that no one deserved to die in this kind of environment. While I’d felt the same way at the government hospital, I didn’t feel there was any possibility to make a difference in such a huge place, whereas the prison hospital only had about 70 beds.
So I returned to the UK for a couple of weeks, and with family, friends, my church and my old school, I raised about £5,000. I went back to Kampala and visited every hotel, asking for mattresses, blankets and sheets. I asked paint companies for paint. I worked with the prisoners and prison staff to do the refurbishment, putting in windows and lights and solar panels, so even if prisoners were going to die, they would die in a dignified and hopeful environment. At our opening ceremony, the Condemned Choir, a choir of death-row inmates, performed.
After a childhood spent traveling the world with her rabbinical family, photographer Kitra Cahana found she couldn’t stop. With her camera as her vehicle, she began work as a documentary photographer, shooting for publications like The New York Times and National Geographic. When Cahana is not on assignment, she comes home to a life on the road — living among communities of nomads that wander the United States, documenting their reality. Cahana’s TED Talk, “A glimpse of life on the road,” offers a look into this world. But we wanted to hear more—about her own experiences, about what motivates people to take to the road, and about the history and evolution of American itinerant culture.
That’s always been a complicated question. I was born in the United States—my parents are both American, but they didn’t want to raise their children in the States, mainly for sociopolitical reasons. So we left shortly after I was born and moved frequently when I was a child. I grew up in different places across Canada and Sweden where my father held rabbinic positions. That’s what took us from place to place.
It was part of my parents’ ethos to prioritize experiences over materialism. From our infancy, they took us on adventures. When we moved to Sweden, we spent months making our way from North America to Europe via Asia. We were raised with this deep knowledge that the world was open and that the world was ours. It’s a beautiful thing to instill in a child — a sense of curiosity about the way other people live, to explore other value systems, to give a sense of otherness and sameness all at once. The idea was to be able to feel a sense of home anywhere, while simultaneously having a really strong core — a family core. In our family, that meant a spiritual and religious core as well.
Which came first, being a nomad, or photography? Or did both happen at the same time?
When I spoke in the talk about wanting to run away as a child, I think that emotion came from wanting to escape stagnation, never wanting to be still. Always wanting to see the next thing around the corner. When we moved to Canada when I was 12, I went from being in a Swedish Montessori school to the rigidity of Orthodox Jewish day schools. I did well, but I hated it. I didn’t want an outside voice to dictate my day to day. Every piece of me was just yearning to explode outwards and move again, to feel unencumbered by any authority but my own.
That’s why I gravitated towards photography, because it allowed me to always be on the move, to investigate other people’s ways of life and to pose deep questions of political and social import. It gave me a purpose to continue the adventuring I had been exposed to as a child, but it went far deeper than just having an adventure. It put me at the crux of really critical and telling moments in the lives of others.
I left home as soon as I finished high school at 16; my photojournalism career started shortly after. I’ve been more or less nomadic since, in many different incarnations of the nomadic life. I’ve lived in a more sedentary fashion in certain places — especially while doing my undergrad in philosophy and my masters in visual anthropology — more transient in others. The lengths of my stays are usually dictated by the projects I’m working on, by the worlds I’m moving in and out of. So it’s always completely different. No world is like the next. Altogether, it’s been about nine years of being in motion. It’s just slowly become my way of life.
Young nomads congregate at the “Dirty Kids Corner” at the National Rainbow Gathering in the Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. July 2009. Photo: Kitra Cahana
An illustration of synthetic cell technology: E. coli cells turn green when they “hear” artificial cells speak.
Synthetic biologist Sheref Mansy’s lab at the University of Trento has successfully developed artificial cells that can communicate with living cells — a breakthrough that may someday help us clean up pollutants, treat cancer, and more without having to genetically modify biological cells. As his findings are made public this week in the journal Nature Communications, we ask Mansy to tell us more about how this technology can be used, and why artificial cells represent an important innovation in biotechnology.
What does this paper present, and why is it important?
In a nutshell, our lab has developed a new type of biotechnology that doesn’t require tinkering with the genetic makeup of living things.
Using life forms as a technology is normal and has been for a long time, whether it’s exploiting animals for transportation and agriculture or unicellular organisms like bacteria and yeast for food production. Yogurt, bread, cheese, and wine are all made with age-old processes dependent upon living technologies.
Through careful selection and breeding, these living technologies can be and have been improved. Society never perceived this as scary until recent advances in genetic modification allowed for more rapid and drastic changes. We are not against nor are we afraid of GMOs. But we think there are other options worthy of exploration – rarely does a single solution work for every situation.
Give us an example of how you might use your technology to replace GM.
Some synthetic biologists are trying to engineer bacteria to remove pollutants from the environment, for example. Others scientists are engineering “seek-and-destroy” bacteria that identify and eradicate cancer cells or pathogens found in a patient.
That’s amazing, but how likely are people going to accept having engineered bacteria sprayed in fields, or injected into their bloodstream? When you base a technology on life, you more or less have to take the whole package, the good and the bad. Living things reproduce and evolve, which means that genetically engineered organisms could evolve beyond our control, resulting in unpredictable consequences.
What we wanted to do was pick and choose the parts of life that are useful — and intentionally leave out the parts of life that cause problems. That’s why we build artificial cells from scratch.
Are these cells considered alive?
No, the artificial cells are not truly alive as they don’t have all of the characteristics of life — including the properties of reproduction and evolution. But what they can do is chemically communicate with natural, living cells. Our artificial cells speak the same language as bacteria, so the end result is that we get bacteria to do what we want without having to genetically modify them.
One of the great things of this approach is that our artificial cells degrade in a couple of hours, which means that everything goes back to how it was beforehand. There are no long-term consequences. So, for example, artificial cells could be built to identify pollutants, and respond by sending messages to natural bacteria in the environment capable of feeding on the pollutants. The natural bacteria would then swim to the location and eat the pollutant molecules — all without genetic intervention.
We’d like to build on this technology by developing artificial cells that can carry out preprogrammed function inside of animals. We’re also exploiting our system to explore that bizarre space between living and nonliving.
To learn more about Mansy and his work, visit the TED Blog.
Dan Visconti is updating the image of the classical composer — from lone, fusty genius to dynamic community leader who creates music as a tool for social engagement. Whether he’s telling the stories of Cleveland’s refugee communities or composing a piece for the Mississippi State Prison, Visconti makes concert experiences that invite people to participate. Classically trained, but with a love of American vernacular musical traditions, Visconti infuses his compositions with a maverick spirit—drawing on jazz, rock, blues and beyond. Here, he tells the TED Blog his vision for how to break through the traditional reserve of classical music, making it accessible to a new generation.
How would you describe your compositions? Are you consistent in your style?
In some ways not. But I’m very consistent in my attitude about music. I guess the best way to say it is that I’m trying to make the composer relevant again—not this old guy with a wig and a quill pen laboring in isolation, but a cultural ambassador and collaborator, someone deeply integrated in the communities that he or she serves. One of the ways I do that is by composing music that’s open to diversity of traditions. Often my pieces sound like they’re not classical music. A piece might have the directness of expression of a great jazz performance, or the sense of audience rapport at a small club venue, or the wildness and improvisatory spirit of a really good rock performance. I also believe that music can play a strong role in social change. I think about Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and the great tradition of protest singing in America: using music to transmit a message. What I’d like to do is to go beyond transmitting that as lyrics in a song, to create an experience that immerses the audience and causes them to engage a larger point of inquiry.
Above, watch the Kontras Quartet perform Dan Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs, a work inspired by the spirit of recreational music-making that characterized the Tin Pan Alley-era of American popular music.
Can you give us an example of how this works?
I recently completed a project with the orchestra City Music Cleveland called Roots to Branches. I set to music some of the stories of the city’s nearly 20,000 refugees, who hail from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Congo, Iraq, Nepal, Russia, Somalia and Sudan. We created a whole music festival where we brought in musicians and dancers from the refugees’ home cultures, and the piece of music became a focal point to engage a larger cultural issue. It also had the effect of bringing the city’s different refugee communities together—now they’re working together to solve problems.
I’m also interested in anything that can make going to a concert hall special. For example, a lot of pop and rock musicians employ lighting and amplification, raising the bar so high in terms of stimulating the senses. Classical music really has to catch up and take the advantage of all of those things. Take opera. A lot of people who might otherwise really enjoy it are turned off by the operatic style of singing with vibrato. This style originated because vibrato allows the voice to project more volume in times when no amplification was available. It’s no longer necessary, and now pop singers can sing with wonderful, subtle nuance—they can whisper, sigh. But opera is still stuck where it was in 1600.
You’re also doing some exciting site-specific stuff, such as in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Tell us about that.
That’s a project I’m working on with the Kronos Quartet, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. They’re one of the biggest pioneers in taking so-called classical music and updating it. They’ve brought in the world music, collaborated with people like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits. They’ll be performing a piece of mine at this prison called Parchman Farm in Mississippi, properly known as Mississippi State Penitentiary. This is a prison where a lot of the blues greats like Leadbelly and Son House were incarcerated. It’s notorious for being cruel. What we’d like to do is create an event that draws attention to a lot of the crises in our prison systems right now.
In this recently released talk, TED Senior Fellow Asha de Vos tells TEDxMonterey her personal journey of how a girl from Sri Lanka became a marine biologist passionately dedicated to the study of the Sri Lankan blue whale – with all its joys and challenges. Watch Asha’s TED-Ed animation to learn why blue whales are so enormous. Still curious? Read a full-length interview with Asha on the TED Blog!