Page last updated at 07:01 GMT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009 08:01 UK

Thinkers meet to plot the future

By Jonathan Fildes
Technology reporter, BBC News

Jake Eberts at TED2009

Leading thinkers in technology, design and science are gathering in Oxford to share their ideas about the future.

TED Global (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is the European cousin of an already established top US event.

The invitation-only conferences are dedicated to "ideas worth spreading" and have seen talks by former US presidents and Nobel Laureates.

This year's event will explore questions in neuroscience, astrophysics and economics.

"It is about all the hidden, invisible, not yet discovered or fully explored parts of our lives, society and the world," said Bruno Giussani, European director of TED.

"For example, the human brain; how do you make sense of what I am thinking?"

Other questions to be explored include whether life is a mathematical equation, where motivation comes from and whether it is possible to design the air that we breathe.

'Dark matter'

The invited speakers, who are each given 18 minutes in front of the audience, are drawn from an eclectic backgrounds.

This year's line up includes an aphorist, a wireless electrician, an underworld investigator and a high-altitude archaeologist.

Professor Jonathan Zittrain, a cyber-lawyer at Harvard University, is also one of this year's presenters.


His theme is "ways to tackle problems that do not rely heavily on governments or markets".

"Something I will talk about is how the internet deals with trouble; and by internet I mean the actual fabric of the internet.

"How when there is trouble or outright abuse there are people who come to the rescue urgently, who are not paid to do it, who aren't asked to do it and that don't have any particular authority to do it."

"It's like dark matter in the universe. There's a lot of it, you don't see it but it has a huge impact on the physics of the place."

A similar diversity is represented in the audience of 700, who each pay $4,500 (£2,700) and go through a rigorous application process - including essay questions - to attend the event.

The audience - known as Tedsters - acts as a crucial selling point for the organisers in attracting big-name speakers.

You can watch the videos, download them, burn a CD and give it to your friend, whatever
Bruno Giussani

"Following my round the world balloon flight in 1999, I gave several hundred speeches, mainly to big corporation and business circles," Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard told BBC News.

Mr Piccard, one of this year's speakers, recently unveiled a prototype of a solar-powered plane he hopes eventually to fly around the world.

"The organisers of TED invited me saying I would never find elsewhere a better and more receptive audience. I don't know if it is true, but we'll see."

According to Erik Hersman, a previous Ted speaker, he won't be disappointed.

"The pull of the TED conference lies not just in sitting in on riveting talks, but on the ability to turn in any direction and have a conversation with a person doing something truly remarkable," he told BBC News.

Mr Hersman is one of the team behind Ushahidi, an open source project for collecting crisis information via mobile phones. The project began after the 2008 post election riots in Kenya.

Pattie Maes at TED2009
All of the talks are filmed and distributed for free online

To balance the exclusivity of the event, the organisers record the talks and distribute them online for free.

"They got the idea that giving it away would be more valuable," said Professor Zittrain.

More than 400 TED talks have been made available for free online and have been viewed by more than 150 million people.

"We want to spread [the talks] as broadly as possible," said Mr Giussani. "It is the only model we have found to keep these great speeches and push it out to the world.

"You can watch the videos, download them, burn a CD and give it to your friend, whatever," he added. "And not only that, you can do it in 40 languages."

Talks are translated by teams of volunteers. Currently, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic are the most common languages for translations.

Popular talks include a scientist using statistics to debunk myths about the developing world; a researcher showing how the Nintendo Wii games console controller can be hacked for educational uses and a brain researcher showing how her own stroke happened.

This year's conference runs from 21 to 24 July in Oxford, UK.

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