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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Big thinking for the future
Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click Online

When some of the world's best minds wanted to come together to brainstorm and be inspired they formed an exclusive club called TED. Dan Simmons reports on the place where Apple first revealed the Macintosh and Sony unveiled the Compact Disc.

TED conference in California
More than 800 delegates shared their latest ideas

World leaders have G8, but the world's great achievers have TED. Standing for Technology, Entertainment and Design, the TED get together is strictly by invitation only.

Now in its 21st year, TED has begun to tour the world. It recently visited Oxford, but California is considered its home.

It is an eclectic mix, encompassing everything from a nuclear rocket scientist who has developed an interest in electric fashion, to the founders of Amazon, Google, eBay and even The Simpsons.

"I get in my car every year and drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to beautiful Monterrey, and listen to some of the brainiest people on Earth," says Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons.

"You know they're really brainy because many of them are billionaires.

"It's really cool to see these guys wearing these stupid nametags that bounce off their chests, wandering around and having to mingle with people like me.

"Anyway, I get to hear them talk about the world's problems along with people who are obsessed with specific, weird aspects of life on Earth."

Problem solving

"You might have somebody talking about an entirely new kind of syringe that can be used, or an entirely new kind of vaccine that doesn't require refrigeration," says Jay Walker, founder of Priceline.com.

"You could come to TED and hear an architect talk about a new kind of building design and then know that 10 years later schools all over the world will be using that kind of design, because it encourages a sort of openness."

Transform lives by connecting every hospital, health clinic and school to the internet in one African country.

These are the people who like to think of themselves as making the waves on which the rest of us surf.

But people do not only come to TED for the intellectual stimulation, they also come here to show off a bit, demonstrating their latest ideas and inventions.

Some of the highlights unveiled at this year's conference in California include:

  • Professor Robert Full took a leaf out of nature's book and invented a robot that climbs walls by studying how insects do the same thing. He thinks it could be used in dangerous situations, like climbing up the sides of buildings on fire, but he is open to any other suggestions.
  • Mehran Anvari's telerobotic surgery allows surgeons to perform operations from hundreds of kilometres away.
  • Some more immediate relief is offered by Robert Fischell's migraine zapper. It treats headaches without drugs by using a magnetic field.
  • Could GM's new car of the future be the answer to beating rising oil prices? It uses environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel cells to get around, and emits only water.
  • And for those too young to drive, or who have never grown up, one company has gone Back to the Future, taking inspiration from the hoverboard featured in the famous film trilogy. No, it still doesn't exist; yes, I was disappointed too. But the soft magnetic gels on display at TED could perhaps be used in game park rides to levitate and directly control the speeds of passengers.

    Fun aside, this powerful talking shop also wants to leave a lasting legacy.

    Like the Nobel Prizes for peace or science, the TED Prize recognises those individuals who have tried to change the world for the better, and the winners get to play at being Aladdin.

    "This year for the first time we've identified three remarkable individuals, and we're giving each of them a chance to come to TED and unveil for us their three wishes for a better world," said TED curator Chris Anderson.

    Alongside the medical entrepreneur Robert Fischell and photographer Ed Burtynsky, U2's lead singer and human rights campaigner, Bono was invited to make three wishes.

    Addressing the conference via videolink the rock star left the most challenging wish until last: "I wish for TED to truly show the power of information and its power to rewrite the rules and transform lives by connecting every hospital, health clinic and school to the Internet in one African country, and I would it like it to be Ethiopia.

    "I think it's possible. I think we have the money and brains in the room to do that."

    Bono's right. There are enough brains and money at TED to make all nine wishes come true. Five months later, seven are still being worked on.

    We contacted some of the main companies sponsoring the Ethiopian project through TED. All report the scheme is still in its exploratory stage, though they remain optimistic.

    Many will feel more tangible progress will need to be seen soon if the TED prize is to be taken seriously.

    The TED Prize winners' three wishes:

    Robert Fischell

  • Use the Epilepsy Responsive Neural Stimulator (RNS) for the treatment of other brain disorders.
  • Perform human engineering studies to develop the optimum design for the portable device for treating migraine headaches.
  • Challenge the TED attendees to come up with a way to improve healthcare in the USA by reducing malpractice litigation.

    Ed Burtynsky

  • To use my images to persuade millions of people to join in the global conservation on sustainability.
  • To launch a ground-breaking competition that motivates kids to invent ideas in sustainable living.
  • To create an IMAX film that would make my work accessible to a broader audience.


  • To help build a social movement of more than one million American activists for Africa.
  • To tell one billion people about the One Campaign, the global fight against poverty.
  • To show the power of information - its power to rewrite the rules and to transform lives - by connecting every hospital, health clinic, and school in one African country, Ethiopia, to the internet.

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