TED: Gates Releases Mosquitoes; Future Of Robot Wars

(Courtesy of James Duncan Davidson)
Bill Gates released some mosquitoes into the audience, a musical group called Naturally 7 demonstrated the diversity of voice, and "Happy Birthday" was performed in a way that the recipient of the timeless tune will never forget. Just another day at TED, one of the premiere (and exclusive) gatherings of visionaries, luminaries and "extraordinaries." It's a place that really requires one to open one's eyes, ears, and mind.

The day started on a sobering note with Juan Enriquez, a philosopher and researcher, who explored how the U.S. economy is floundering but encouraged people to "dance through the flames" and focus on the long term. Enriquez also talked about fascinating discoveries in the areas of biotechnology (cells and tissue) and robotics. His prediction: We're headed towards a day when "homo evolutis" will dominate -- a time when humans will have direct control over the development of people and other species.

Author and analyst P.W. Singer talked about his new book, "Wired for War," which examines how the military is moving towards an increasingly unmanned force through robots and drones. He theorized about 2016, when perhaps half of the military will be unmanned, and ruminated on what that means for warfare, ethics, and emotional detachment.

This shift, he said, will also change the way individuals and governments engage in warfare, and re-define the ongoing war on terrorism. Later, artist and robotics expert David Hanson showed a series of robots that are meant to emulate human behavior and facial expressions.

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Gates, who last appeared at TED in 1992, later went on stage (sans lectern despite my reference to it in a previous story) and outlined his hopes for better teachers and reducing mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria. His big concern is that the current economic crisis will mean reduced funding for poorer countries, and as a gimmicky (though still effective) way of illustrating that we should all think about this problem (including the well-heeled folks at TED) he released some mosquitoes on stage. I've seen reports that he unleashed "a swarm" of them but from where I was sitting (about 20 rows back) I could barely see more than a dozen or so, if that. It was hard to tell exactly how many he released but people didn't seem that fazed by it. He promised they weren't infected, although the Windows/bugs connection was not lost on anyone.

Former vice president Al Gore briefly talked about the reduced thickness in Arctic ice and how the melting of land-based ice is releasing various gases like methane into the atmosphere. He also outlined the effect of carbon dioxide on weather patterns around the world, and admonished the coal industry for its "clean" image campaign.

A brief presentation with industrial designer Yves Behar showcased a collaborative project that resulted in the "Mission One" electric motorcycle. It didn't get much of a test drive on stage, but Behar said it's capable of getting twice the range of other electric motorcycles and can go 150 mph at top speed, not to mention 0-100 mph in 5.9 seconds. His appearance was meant to showcase how ideas are generated at TED -- it was at TED 2008 that he met his fellow collaborator and developed their concept.

Perhaps the most memorable presentation involved Naturally 7, a group of seven British musicians who practice something they call "vocal play." It's hard to describe their act other than saying each of them used their voices in unison to recreate a different musical instrument from drums to brass instruments to guitars. They made beatboxing look like child's play. For a demo of their work just click here. You really have to see it to believe it. Their "Wall of Sound" song earned a standing ovation.

On another musical note, there are about 1,300 TED attendees from 51 countries, and one in particular -- who we'll call "Ross" -- was brought on stage at one point by the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the engaging Ben Zander. "Ross" volunteered since his birthday is coming up, and Zander proceeded to get the entire audience to re-think how they sing "Happy Birthday." It was energetic and inspired. I doubt "Ross" will get a better present this year. It was also a chance to acknowledge that TED 2009 marks the event's 25th anniversary.

Among the other featured speakers Wednesday were web creator Tim Berners-Lee and blogger Seth Godin.

Finally, be sure to check the TED.com site in the next day or so for a compelling and unusually candid interview between Gates and TED curator Chris Anderson.