TEDxCambridge reveals humanity amid tech evolution

TEDxCambridge reveals humanity amid tech evolution

By Alex Eng, news correspondent

Six professionals from various fields underscored the humanity underlying the technology explosion at Thursday’s TEDxCambridge at the Boston Opera House.

Speakers from groundbreaking fields including journalism and data research explored the event’s theme, “Humanity and Humanity’s Challenges”, through six unique lenses, sharing stories focused on human morals and behavior.

The night’s first speaker was Iyad Rahwan, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. His presentation, “The Social Dilemma of Driverless Cars,” investigated the ethical decisions that driverless cars must be programmed to make regarding driver and pedestrian safety.

Driverless cars would have to prioritize some lives over others, and this decision would be an ethical dilemma of trade-offs, Rahwan said.

“We need society to come together to decide which trade-offs we are comfortable with, and how we should enforce those trade-offs,” Rahwan said, noting that this would pose a social dilemma as well.

Tricia Wang, a technology ethnographer – studying human societies and cultures—spoke about the implications of relying on big data to make important predictions.

“Investing in big data is easy, but using it is hard,” Wang said, advocating for an integration between thick, or unquantifiable data. “Quantifying is addictive […] it’s very easy to throw out data because it doesn’t have a quantifiable value.”

Wang had collected unquantifiable research data that suggested that Nokia should pay attention to smartphones preceding into the smartphone boom of the early 2000s, but at the time, Nokia ignored it because it was anecdotal and not quantifiable. Nokia lost out on the smartphone market almost entirely after the advent of the iPhone, according to Wang.

“There is no greater risk than ignoring the unknown,” she said.

The four other speakers to share the stage hit similar themes on humanity’s unknown upcoming struggles in public health, civic engagement and labor economics.

“Automation creates wealth by allowing us to do more work in less time,” said David Autor, labor economist at MIT, during his presentation about the job market in relation to society. “But this economic law does not determine that we use that wealth well.”

Executive TEDx director Dmitri Gunn prefaced the evening by describing the traits the event hoped to inspire: Innovation, enterprise and enduring optimism. By the end, though, it became clear that the speeches’ common thread was a sense of human nature.

Hudson Saltiel, an attendee from Boston, spoke after the event of the humanizing feeling the event harbored.

“I liked the lack of organization,” he said. “It allowed you to formulate your own opinions and perceptions.”

The free-form inspiration culminated in a musical performance by environment advocacy musicians Masary Studios. What began as a solo xylophone performance of arpeggiated staccato ended in raucous, primal rhythm, with all four aisles of the Boston Opera House filled with Berklee student percussionists rattling the room and spectators dancing along.

“I feel that [the performance] related to the city more,” said Silky Jain, a Northeastern international management graduate student. “The city is so diversified and it is because of the students.”

In one of the most human experiences of the night, Janet Wu, who is best known for her years as a medical reporter and television news anchor at Boston’s WHDH station, recalled a moment in her life when she had to redefine her happiness.

After losing a child and divorcing from her husband, Wu pushed herself to try something new: making solo trips across the globe. Every year, she puts herself in an unfamiliar territory in order to place a higher value on the life she lives at home.

“I purposely disrupt my routine to reset my happiness,” she said. “Doing so actually allows me to fall back in love with my life again.”

Photo courtesy David Wells, TedXCambridge Media Liason

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error a prior version of this article inaccurately labeled Janet Wu as a political and investigative reporter for WCVB 5 news. 

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