TED Conference: What's Hot

Every year, the world’s greatest minds convene at the TED conference to show off their best ideas. From robot cars to an organ-printing machine, Brian Ries recaps the most awe-inspiring displays.

03.04.11 9:15 PM ET

Robot Cars!

Surely everyone imagines, from time to time, that some day we’ll have cars that easily drive themselves. Attendees of this weeks’ TED, however, have already peered into the future—and they saw Google. The search giant unveiled a car that needs no human to steer the wheel. Below, watch video of a Google-driven car "hauling ass," per the spectators in the video, as it near-recklessly zips around a roof in sunny California. Select attendees of the conference were given a rare demo of the robotic Prius, and the following video was published on industry blog Search Engine Land. Google’s Sebastian Thrun introduced the project in a talk that included a heart-wrenching introduction about what drives his research: a childhood friend who was killed in a car crash.

A Spellbinding ‘Virtual Choir’

The uber-popular, blond-coifed composer and conductor Eric Whitacre unveiled videos of his "virtual choir" for a spellbound audience, as they listened to compositions made up entirely of individual singers—all mashed together to create one orchestral project of auditory beauty. Some of his more popular previous videos, "Lux Aurumque" and "Sleep," have been viewed millions of times on YouTube. But “Sleep 2.0”—his latest unveiled at Ted2011—reportedly left many in the crowd in tears. It features a stunning 2,000 videos submitted from nearly 60 different countries. It’s not online yet, so in the meantime, watch "Lux Aurumque."

Al Jazeera Chief on the Mideast’s ‘New Era’

Wadah Khanfar, the 41-year-old director general of Al Jazeera, spoke about his networks' front row seat to the "historic moment in the Arab world," as protests continue to sweep across the Middle East. In his speech, he called on attendees to stand with those fighting for change and celebrate "a great future of hope and tolerance." For the Doha-based Al Jazeera, he called this moment the greatest story the network has ever covered. "You are witnessing change in history,” he said. “You are witnessing the birth of a new era." Watch the full presentation, compliments of TED:

Turning ‘Gaga’ to Water

The Human Speechome Project is an ambitious project based out of MIT’s Media Lab that seeks to get to the bottom of how children understand the meaning of words. In presenting some of the team’s research, and using his own recordings of the evolution of his son’s pronouncing of the word “water,” the cognitive scientist Deb Roy led the audience through the first 90,000 hours of his son’s life—illustrating how we learn the power of language. At the 37-second mark, listen to Roy’s son evolve all the way from “gaga” to “water.”



Education Revolution

In a session curated by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, hedge fund manager-turned-video educator Salman Khan spoke about how a series of math tutorial videos originally intended as a tutoring tool for cousins—and posted online—has flipped our current educational system on its head. "There's no reason why it can't happen in every classroom in America tomorrow," Khan said of students learning lessons at their own pace with online videos. To date, Khan Academy has delivered nearly 50 million "lessons”—covering a range of topics from averages and integer sums to the quadratic equation. Visit Khan Academy's website for more.

Yes, He Printed Out a Kidney

Anthony Atala used 3-D printing technologies to print an organ on stage. A kidney, in fact. It made news around the world. "It's like baking a cake," the surgeon said. "Scanners are used to take a 3-D image of a kidney that needs replacing, then a tissue sample about half the size of postage stamp is used to seed the computerized process," Atala explained. The implications are obvious—with an ever-growing list of individuals in need of a transplant, but only a limited amount of donor organs available at any given time, 3-D printing of a real kidney suggests that one day, anyone in need of an organ may simply find one by hitting "print." It's not that easy quite yet, but surgeons like Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine are bringing us closer to that reality every year.

Paul Nicklen. (Photo: James Duncan Davidson / TED),James Duncan Davidson

An Ominous Climate Warning

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen made a friend during a recent expedition to the Arctic; she delivered him dead penguins to express her love. It was a token of appreciation from a seal to a man who spoke this week on the havoc that melting sea ice has wreaked on the animals who call the northern lands home. Polar bears, he explained, may be extinct in no more than 40 years, and “there's no greater, more beautiful, more beautiful species.” The ice itself may be gone during summer months in as little as four year. Nicklen conveyed his passion by showing off photographs from a recent four-day trip under polar waters visiting leopard seals. See pictures here.

Is the Internet Dumbing Us Down?

Eli Pariser, formerly of, took the stage on Thursday to explore a big question: Are internet algorithms making us dumber? In a talk that covered such high-minded concepts as the "invisible algorithmic editing of the web" and living in a "filter bubble" (where we only find information that is delivered through our specific Google results), Pariser had the tech-friendly audience questioning their reliance on robots to feed them information about the living world.

Wael Ghonim. (Photo: James Duncan Davidson / TED),James Duncan Davidson

Egypt’s Google Hero Speaks

When Wael Ghonim emerged on the streets of Egypt after 12 days behind bars, he saw the materialization of a dream that began months earlier. It was then that the Google executive had created a Facebook page in honor of a murdered Egyptian businessman who had been allegedly framed as a drug peddler at the hands of Egyptian authorities. As the seeds of the revolution crystallized in the bustling streets of Cairo, his page—We Are Khaleed Sad—grew to become a galvanizing force for millions across the country. He delivered a surprise address to the California-based TED crowd over an internet connection from Cairo, telling the crowd, "Everything was done by the people for the people, and that’s the power of the Internet." He added: "The internet showed people in Egypt that they were not alone." Watch the presentation: 

How to ‘See’ Color

Daniel Tammet is what's known as a high-functioning autistic savant. At TED, he showed the rest of us how the world appears from such a unique perspective. He specifically used synesthesia, "the strange neurological crossing of the senses," according to one attendee, to show how he can see a musical score composed of colors, or "feel" words.

Eythor Bender. (Photo: James Duncan Davidson / TED),James Duncan Davidson

Awe-Inspiring First Steps

Amanda Boxtel is a wheelchair-bound woman who hadn't walked for 20 years—yet on Thursday at TED she took a series of awe-inspiring steps that left the crowd breathless. How'd she do it? Berkeley Bionics‘ Eythor Bender had her strapped in to the company's HULC exoskeleton—a device that helps carry 200 pounds of weight without showing any signs of fatigue. Watch video of a demonstration:

Felisa Wolfe-Simon. (Photo: James Duncan Davidson / TED),Robert Leslie

Tackling Life’s ‘Deep Mysteries’

During TED's "Deep Mystery" session, the geobiochemist Felisa Wolfe-Simon asked the crowd, "Can a microbe use arsenic in place of phosphorous to foster growth?" It's an answer she's been chasing during her exploration of the chemical and biological properties of the lifeforms that make up the world's oceans. Her talk left the audience mystified—many shared quotes on Twitter that mentioned the larger implications—what this means for our exploration of the larger universe.

Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.