More cancers will be preventable in 5 to 10 years, using a vaccine. People wearing artificial feet may scale walls a la Spider-Man. Robots will come with lifelike faces that convey human emotion.
That was just a sampling of the technology envisioned for the future at TED, the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design gathering of corporate, Hollywood and scientific glitterati touted as a caldron of ideas and innovation.
But this year, optimism for the future might have been clouded somewhat by a grim present reality — how to bankroll embryonic initiatives when capital markets are sputtering and enthusiasm wanes for financially risky investments.
“It’s not that people aren’t focused on financial crisis, but this is a place for vision. They’re thinking past the present,” argues Martin Pazzani, an entrepreneur and chief executive-in-residence at Bluestone Partners of Beverly Hills, a private equity firm.
“TED helps us identify the strategic opportunities further down the line, rather than solutions to problems tomorrow.”
Not all share his upbeat philosophy. Venture capital has slowed to a trickle since 2008, when the financial crisis began to ripple through Silicon Valley.
Still, there was little overt discussion of the economic storm blowing just outside the conference’s arts-center venue in Long Beach, California. Attendees preferred to discuss climate change, robotics, and the threat of new viruses.
University of California biologist Robert Full and Stanford University colleagues studied geckos, creating an adhesive material that clings to any smooth, dry surface. Full showed video of a woman using out-sized, artificial “gecko feet” to climb a sheer wall.
Full also analyzed how a gecko’s tail acts as a stabilizer in free-fall and roboticists reproduced the effect in a gecko-robot.
Roboticist David Hanson created a replica of renowned scientist Albert Einstein’s head that could react to human expressions with expressions of its own.
“Tech will lead us out of this,” said James Phillips, head of Pinnacle Investments in Arkansas, who said he was still making investments.
Bill Gates releases bugs
Health concerns permeated the conference, with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates himself making an impassioned plea about the crumbling state of global healthcare, at one point releasing a few mosquitoes into the audience to underscore the dangers of malaria.
Nathan Wolfe, a virus hunter who heads the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, said within five to 10 years, more forms of cancer will be preventable through vaccines.
“Within the next five to 10 years we will find that additional cancers are caused by viruses,” he said. He said that will open to door to more vaccines to prevent cancers, although no one knows which ones yet.
Wolfe is also focusing on monitoring the emergence of viruses around the world that hold the threat of new epidemics like AIDS, which was not contained, or SARS, which was.
“What happens in Central Africa doesn’t stay in Central Africa,” he said.
“Save the Earth” themes also caught on.
The conference celebrated oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who has fought to try and set up ocean protection reserves, in the same way that some virgin forests are protected. She lauded Google for having recently extended its map of the earth to include the oceans.
Another prize went to Jill Tarter, whose SETI — Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence — organization looks for intelligent life beyond earth. Its telescopes are also used for astronomical research.
That theme was picked up by former Vice President Al Gore, who asked his well-connected audience on Friday to help him expand the number of climate-change activists in his organization, climateproject.org, to 10 million from 2 million, and put more pressure on Washington.
Gore said that a fiscal stimulus bill now wending its way through Congress needed to address clean technology — both for the sake of the earth and as a driver for employment now and in the future.