Dispatch from TED: Larry Page on Google’s ‘moon shots’
FORTUNE — Conferences are like live theater. With the human element, nothing’s perfect, not even at TED, the eclectic conference taking place this week in Vancouver, British Columbia. But then magic happens, which reminds you why live events of any kind are special, worth the effort of attending, and impossible to commoditize.
Such a magical moment happened Wednesday at TED during a presentation about bionics by MIT professor Hugh Herr. A double amputee, Herr gave a mesmerizing talk about the science that went into his computer-assisted prosthetics, including a demonstration of how he can jump up and down in them. Watching him amble around the stage like any wandering speaker was a sight to behold, and he explained how bionics have come so far that in the not-so-distant future patients with healthy limbs may want bionics to augment their performance. “Machines attached to our bodies will make us stronger and faster,” Herr said. But the magical moment came as Herr explained how he met Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a dancer who lost a limb in the Boston Marathon terror-bombing. His team at MIT’s Media Lab studied the movements of ballroom dancers in order to program a new limb for Haslet-Davis. Then he introduced her and a dance partner to a stunned audience, as they performed a short number. It may be a little cliché to say, but there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Less emotional but perhaps more impactful was a presentation by Rob Knight, a “microbial ecologist,” who explained how “gut microbes” from a healthy patient could be mingled with the microbes of patients with severe diarrhea, resulting in the good bugs winning out over the bad ones and curing the patient. Knight also explained how research shows that babies born in natural childbirth have “vaginal microbes” at birth, while C-section babies have “skin microbes.” The latter cohort are more susceptible to chronic problems like asthma and obesity, while the former appear to be healthier. Microbial manipulation as a form of treatment remains experimental, but Knight believes actual medicines may be as little as five years away.
Newscaster and talk show host Charlie Rose interviewed Google CEO Larry Page Wednesday on the TED stage. Page didn’t break any new ground, and his faint voice due to a persistent medical condition was jarring to hear. But what emerged from Page was a portrait of an in-control, confident, strategic and industry-leading executive. He talked about Google’s plans to build a “worldwide mesh” of balloons to bring the Internet to tough-to-serve areas — and no one thought he sounded crazy. He reflected on his obsession with improving transportation, including Google’s quest for self-driving cars, saying it dates to his hatred for waiting in the cold for buses in the wintertime when he was a college student in Michigan. Most interestingly, Page referred to the mathematical concept of “additionality,” by way of explaining Google’s penchant for what it likes to call moon shots. “We look at things no one else is working on,” he said. It’s hard to argue with that — or that this mentality is what accounts for Google’s impressive successes.
There’s so much more to report from TED, but I’ll save these things for my next dispatch. At the very end of the day Wednesday, TED head Chris Anderson announced that Rick Ledgett, deputy director of the National Security Agency, had agreed to be interviewed by video in order to respond to Anderson’s interview on Tuesday with fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden. It will be fascinating to learn if Ledgett is willing to be as demonstrative in defending the NSA against Snowden’s accusations as Snowden was in attacking the NSA — and defending himself. The session is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. PDT.