How to pamper professors

March 24, 1995

Igor Aleksander was invited to a Californian multidisciplinary conference, or was it a three-day dinner party?

My invitation to speak arrived last July and, somewhat flattered by the promise of "big names" being there, I agreed. But the very opening of the conference left me in no doubt that this was no ordinary event.

As the clock struck nine, the "Gladiators' March" from Aida was blasted at the 700 or so delegates gathered in the foyer of the Monterey Conference Centre, California. The doors to the auditorium opened and the audience began to scramble in. On every seat there was a cuddly teddy bear and enthroned on the stage in a leather and steel seat sat a beaming, rotund Richard (Ricky) Saul Wurman - the impresario behind this event.

After a brief welcome to the audience (each of whom paid about $2,000 for the privilege of being there) Wurman introduced the first presenter: Hazel Miller who, in gloriously rich honeyed tones, sang a Jazz classic - Cottage for Sale. The tone was set -anything could happen.

The conference goes under the acronym TED and this was the sixth time it was being held. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and the idea is to explore the convergence between the three. Presenters were meant to entertain and the topics had literally to do with life, the universe and everything. Wurman is a Rhode Island architect/book designer/entrep- reneur with a personality modelled carefully somewhere between Citizen Kane and Father Christmas. He has friends in high places from Hollywood to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and believes in giving his audience value for money. Every session, each seat would be covered in high-tech presents - books, CD-Roms and music CDs. At one of his many press interviews he described the TED events as "the dinner party I never had".

Each presenter is given half an hour, and from the first talk (a brilliant exposition of anatomical reconstruction from magnetic resonance imagery scans by self-taught Alexander Tsiaras) it was evident that getting the attention of a largely commercial/industrial audience with an average age of about 35 was the order of the day. "No messing with academic ideas- tell it the way it is, the bottom line" was Wurman's advice to speakers. To get a feel for things, consider some of the presentations. Jonas Salk (Nobel laureate and founder of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California) was there talking about socio-anthropological approaches to an advancing society - not new, but new to most of the audience. Stephen Jay Gould, populaist anthropologist was less theoretical in showing how deeply ingrained are Darwinian concepts of evolution in all three themes of the conference.

By contrast, Roger Law (co-founder of Spitting Image) spoke of the satirical tradition in 3-D cartooning in the United Kingdom, while Marvin Minsky (the granddad of artificial intelligence) was placed on a chair in a panel session and pronounced exactly 11 words that were of no consequence at all. Another guru, this time of the virtual reality ilk, was Jaron Lenier. Dread-locked and leonine in appearence, he gave a half-hour monologue in almost coherent sentences. He brought the audience to rapturous applause on the subject of children being brought up in virtual reality environments for the good of the future of mankind - but I may have misheard him. He had harsh things to say about artificial intelligence and things like that, but all's fair in love, war and TED conferences, which are both.

Indeed, John Warnock of Adobe software systems spent his half-hour telling his audience how the communication superhighway ("Please don't call it that," pleaded someone, "that's where crashes happen and people get killed") would extend authorship to millions. This, he believed, through a process of evolution, would produce authors of far greater eminence than those currently at large. The audience was quick to point out that the opposite might be true - the rubbish produced might choke any sparks of genius that venture on to the highway.

The serious discussion on this point came from publishers who do need to gear up for the fact that distribution of written material will change out of all recognition in the future. Reassuringly, even this with-it audience agreed that books will never disappear but will be enhanced by other media.

The likes of me (on "artificial consciousness") and "artificial life" pioneer Stewart Kauffmann were presented to the audience as a Wurman "risk", as he didn't really know what we were going to say. We survived - the audience did not seem to mind a few academic ideas. The rest of the speakers read like an arbitrary selection from Who's Who mixed with Variety: Nobel laureate Argo Penzias, party-giver Allee Willis, AI veteran Roger Schank, eminent yuppie Nathan Shedrow (who partly stripped on stage so that people would remember something about him) and eminent jazz musicians such as pianist Makoto Ozone and vibraphonist Gary Burton. Many people asked me whether we had conferences like this in Europe. I replied that we did not, but perhaps we should. On the way back, shoehorned into my British Airways economy-sized seat and in a state of complete exhaustion, I reflected on this: maybe Europe is not quite ready after all . . .

Igor Aleksander is professor of neural systems engineering, Imperial College, London.

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