Chris Anderson

World of TED

Air Date: February 20, 2016

TED curator Chris Anderson talks about how big ideas can change lives.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. TED, the world’s most curiosity-stirring convergence of technology, entertainment, and society. In more than 100 languages, TED Talks disseminate ideas worth sharing across all endeavor. Naturally, we would be keen to welcome its Curator, Chris Anderson, to our own weekly excursion into the world of ideas. Most inspired are Anderson’s annual TED conferences on realms of public concern. The rise of web video is driving a worldwide phenomenon, Anderson says, a self-fueling cycle of learning that could be as significant as the invention of print. TED has designs on this brave new world, a 3D printer to produce life-saving medicines, technologies to make disease-curing DNA modification, self-driving cars to improve intelligence on the roadways and the list goes on. But Anderson and his colleagues are also concerned with the dark side of this new age. “The Islamic state beheadings are not ancient or remote, they’re entirely dependent on the power of technology to connect us,” said a recent TED Talker. “We shouldn’t be confident in our ability to keep a super-intelligent genie locked up in its bottle forever,” another speaker added. The answer here is to create artificial intelligence such that when it escapes, it’s still safe because it’s fundamentally on our side, because it shares our values. And Chris, that’s where I wanted to begin.

ANDERSON: Well, that is a huge controversy right now among people who think about the future. Um, it looks like huge progress is being made in artificial intelligence generally, machines are learning to teach themselves. That process is, is iterative and so there’s an acceleration of progress and a lot of people think that at some point in the next thirty, forty years, uh, could be sooner, may be much later, you’ll have a machine that one, is as smart and as generally smart as any human. Um, so could have this conversation with you right now for example. Um, two, um, learns really quickly, can read the entire internet in an hour and can learn from it. So that machine can change its own software. The theory is that with—that a day after a machine like that exists, you’ll have a machine that is a thousand times more intelligent than any human and one that may not share our goals and desires. And who knows what happens then? You know, the single most significant factor about planet Earth today is that, is that we discovered knowledge and used it to reshape the planet for better or worse. Um, we may get reshaped by the next intelligent thing that bypasses us. So there’s obvious reasons to be concerned about that. There’s also reasons to be really excited about [LAUGHS] what growing intelligence can, can bring. And it’s, it’s always thrilling at TED to bring the minds who are debating these issues and hear from them and just hear how they are thinking of this issue and to, you know, take that discussion really seriously. You could argue that that discussion ultimately is far more significant than the day-to-day concerns we have about the news event du jour. You know, those events happen, the real drivers of history probably are ideas, inventions. Um, that’s, that’s what TED is focused on and that’s why it’s exciting to be in that space.

HEFFNER: So if you’re gonna program that A.I., artificial intelligence machine to not be in The Terminator movie but to actually share our values, how do you decide what those values are in the first place? And what is TED’s role in shaping those values?

ANDERSON: Um, TED’s role is simply to bring together the people who can have that conversation intelligently and who can actually listen to each other. Um, yes, it’s a tragedy that some politicians or some people when they’re in you know, partisan mode stop listening to each other and just shout at each other, which is hopeless. But that’s only a tiny part of the space of conversation and thought, thank goodness. Um, there’s another army of people out there who are listening to each other and who are thinking hard about these issues, and it’s just really important that we nurture those conversations as, as well because they may not affect what happens in November or December but they may dramatically affect what happens thirty years from now, completely.

HEFFNER: But you’re right to point out that the daily news cycles consume our every moment. I was saying to you that I was confident in the direction of our discourse on a Delta flight, able to tune into a TED talk as opposed to amusing myself to death, I was amusing myself and informing myself. And it, it seems that you have this moment of catharsis, when you’re watching a TED talk, it’s the, the eloquence of the speaker, it’s the moving composition, but where then? Where then do you, do you want these talks to go at the helm?

ANDERSON: So um, indeed, you know, the, what drives TED is the fact that we’re in this crazy attention war where every day there’s thousands of flickering beckonings coming our way from the internet, from TV or from advertising, whatever and it’s so hard to spend time learning and doing the things that you actually want to do. I think a lot of people have this sense of you know, their lives being taken over by technology, by the internet, by just the craziness but the crazy stresses of getting through life. So… You know, yes there is an art, there’s this extraordinary library of books out there, people find it hard now to spend you know, a day reading a book and that’s, that’s a tragedy. So TED Talks are trying to find um, um, a middle way where you can compete in the attention war, you can make real ideas, serious ideas accessible, um, not super daunting, you know, you can digest them in less than 18 minutes and in that time, the goal is to actually learn something serious. Where does it go? Well we hope that it takes you deeper into that idea. It’s enough to sort of pull you out from the blizzard of manic madness that’s out there. [LAUGHS] Um, into something that actually matters and to go oh wow, this is really cool. I want to learn more about this and so from that, I don’t know, you buy the book or you, you sign up for the university course or whatever. But I think, I think it’s, it’s, we see ourselves as, as sort of striking a blow for the force of, of, thinking that matters into the hard to access and hard to penetrate cultural blitz that’s out there.

HEFFNER: And what matters most to you right now?

ANDERSON: Oh goodness. [LAUGHS] So many things. I mean I’m, I’m definitely interested in, in this whole A.I., um, artificial intelligence question about where that goes. I think that the bigger picture for me right now is, is global thinking. Um, we have these extraordinary problems in the world, terrorism, climate change, poverty, injustice, inequality, pick your, pick your favorite problem. When you actually analyze them, every single one of them is a global problem, it won’t get solved by one country, can’t. It, it, there are forces across the world that are making that problem real, climate change is an obvious example, terrorism is an obvious example. But the people who we have put out there, you know, elected to go and solve those problems, have a particular mandate. They’re, they’re trying to look after the interests of one country, you know, it’s a tribal mandate essentially. That is not a great recipe for getting anything solved. And so I, I worry about that, I think it’s made a lot of problems very intractable and kind of needlessly so. I mean we’ve got the internet, you know, we’re in, we’re in an age where ideas flow across borders no problem. Um, a global, a more global conversation I think is coming, is powerful, is beautiful, is connecting people across countries and is the key to solving some of these bigger problems. I think that’s how we’ll change the game on them. So I get very excited when I see signs of that, that happening and in many ways, um, TED wants to contribute to that process by for example licensing meetings in countries all around the world. Every day there are eight or nine TEDx events we call them meeting in some part of the world, where they’re, you know, they’re inviting speakers, they’re having discussions and the, the themes that are happening in those talks, um, resonate across, across the globe, you know, it’s not like ideas have to change when you go from one country to another. There’s underpinning all the stress and whatever that we feel in the news, there, there is a groundswell of clear-headed exciting thinking that’s perfectly capable of connecting the world and I, I, I love that.

HEFFNER: I say amen, I also say you are trying to prepare us for those new global norms that we may not possess right now, universally.

ANDERSON: Yes, some people, people are afraid of, like when, when you talk about global norms or you talk about something like you know, global government, government, people get scared and, and in many ways they’re right to, none of us likes big brother, let alone super big brother, how awful would that be?

HEFFNER: But we like the universal declaration on human rights.

ANDERSON: We like the universal declaration and so, so I think thinking about this is really important. Like I, I, the, for me the beautiful future would be one where there was incredible richness happening on a local level. The last thing you want is blandness globally, corporations who have taken over every society on Earth or whatever, you don’t want that, you want rich variety and lots of key decisions made locally in the community, you want to actually revitalize communities. But at the same time, there’s a whole category of things where we are, whether we like it or not, connected. Problems that we face. You know, we can’t solve climate or terrorism by taking a myopic approach. And so it’s, it’s finding that combination, don’t, don’t um, don’t be terrified by the big picture, be excited by it. The fact that we can see people across the world for the first time, we can listen to them, uh, we can engage with them, that, that’s actually really exciting. And I, so I think there’s, there’s a, there’s actually a thrilling way to combine a thought of a more global connected world, a world with much wiser global governance, but at the same time more going on in a community, communities actually being, being present to each other, discussing with each other, being active together, solving their problems together. That, I, I kind of like that picture of the future.

HEFFNER: Do you envision governing summits that are the result of talks? Because you, you kind of side-swept uh, this minority of a governing dysfunction, it may be, you know, X number of senators and representatives in this country who were complicit in this problem, but the antidote is right here it seems in so many instances.

ANDERSON: Well fundamentally I just believe in the power of ideas. Um, that’s what TED is about. Um, if you can persuade people to take the time to listen to each other and to look at the facts, and to think, the amazing thing about our species is that we’re capable of making progress, we’re capable of discovering truth. We’re capable of being wiser tomorrow than we were today just as we’re wiser today than we were yesterday, not in everything on many things, on most things. Um, that, that is exciting and so I don’t, um, our, our focus is on actually finding the right ideas and letting them loose on the world. A great idea has the ability to get someone excited and to kind of um, uh, amplify itself, spread itself because it persuades that person to share it so they, they kind of do act like a virus in, in a way. And um, so seeding the right idea viruses out into the world, that’s, that’s what we see as our job. What people do that, um, we have probably opinions, hopes, dreams, but that’s not really what we, we do, we, we just, we want to just encourage the right type of thinking, to bring the right people together that will catalyze great new ideas to come out into the world.

HEFFNER: I would imagine on some level that’s done in a localized way with TEDx and now with TED-Ed, you’re focused on the classroom and actually preparing young people to make these compelling presentations in the future, that’s real output, I just wonder when I look at the most popular TED talks of all time and how many years have you been doing this?

ANDERSON: Well TED, TED first went online really in a serious way in 2006….so…

HEFFNER: And you’ve had a smashing, smashing success.


HEFFNER: Um, for which you, you ought to be credited again and, and really taking um, folks’ uh, minds out of the sand and, and uh, nurturing them, um… When you see millions of views for particular programs, I just wonder, it’s a thought you know, like this whole show dedicated to ideas, it’s a thought that you, you would track not only how many views a particular idea is getting but kind of how that idea in the protean way it would evolves into the hands of a policymaker, into the hands of a country, ultimately into the hands of this global society.

ANDERSON: Indeed. Um, and we have some plans to do that, I absolutely think we could do, uh, a better job of tracking that and celebrating it. Um, the way that ideas have an impact though is so varied, like a few ideas might lead to a whitepaper and a government deciding to do something different. In many cases, the impact of a TED talk is …is very personal. Like if you take um, Amy Cuddy’s talk there that’s currently, I think it’s the second-most-viewed TED talk of all time, you know, it’s um, it’s a talk about how your body language, what you do with your body affects your own confidence. You know, if you’re going into an interview, it turns out if you stretch ahead of time and pump yourself up, it literally changes your brain chemistry, your chances of getting the job go up. Um, and how you think of yourself can change, so she has this wonderful line in her talk, for people who spend most of the time feeling, beating themselves up and sort of sitting like this, which, which by the way I do a lot myself, she says no no, don’t do that. Stand big, sit big. Fake it until you become it. That simple message, it’s a very simple idea but it completely resonated in millions of minds. She’s had 15,000 letters from people around the world saying Amy, you changed my life, thank you. And um, so the change happens just on a personal level, that’s quite hard to track. But, but you kind of have to be proud of it, you know I really love the fact that people shift, the typical thing that happens after people have watched a few TED talks is that they, they shift from being just a spectator, you know, a kind of um, someone watching the future arriving with dread or with cynicism to being more of a participant, more of an agent. People start to believe that they actually can shape the future at least a little bit, you can nudge the future. That’s an incredibly healthy and an empowering thought. And I think a world where everyone feels kind of taken over by what we’re creating with our technology versus a world where people want to make a better tomorrow together, those are two very different worlds and I, I really like that second one a whole lot more, so that, that’s, that’s the main, I think that’s actually the main impact that TED has is on a personal level.

HEFFNER: A lot of the anecdotes that are revealed are intimate and connect the viewer to the speaker in a way that is profound, so I definitely hear you. In the same spirit, we were talking a bit off-camera about democratization.

ANDERSON: The, the biggest, um, step I guess we made towards democratizing TED was 2006 when we opened up and started putting talks up on the internet for free sharing by people. It started as an experiment, to our surprise some of the talks went viral. And now here we are a few years later and um, suddenly you’re looking at a world where, and this isn’t just TED, this is, this is lots of things online, one speaker in one room can say something and a few months later, millions of people around the world have heard those words. Now that’s, that’s kind of incredible. Um, that’s never happened before in history. There have been plenty of times in history ever since Gutenberg where people have written something and a few months later millions of people have read it. But not really um, with speech. And the thing is speech is powerful, it, it is a more ancient by far technology than writing. And it, it triggers things in people’s minds that writing alone can’t touch. Writing is a sequence of words, it can be very powerful. With, with speech, you become, you start to share explicitly the emotions of the speaker. You have a, way more tools at your disposal to judge whether the speaker is for real, and the possibility of getting, if you like, you know, you know, genuinely inspired or motivated by the speaker, um, is, is much greater. So the fact that you can now amplify that across the planet is, I think a really big deal. So take for example a child being born today. Throughout history, the vast majority of kids who are born, even if they had the brain of an Einstein, lived the life of a serf. You know, they, they suffered in poverty, they did some farming, they tried to make a go of it. They probably had a family and had a, you know, many happy hours but they, they, they would have struggled to serve humanity more broadly. They never had a teacher for example in their village who could show them their true potential. But now, [LAUGHS] you know, in five years’ time there’s going to be internet everywhere, broadband internet everywhere, pretty much every child on the planet will be able to summon to their own eyes, right here on their smart device the world’s best teachers. They can summon a lot of other things as well, less hopeful, but they can summon the world’s best teachers and I, I find that extraordinary and I find that incredibly hopeful because you could make the case that most people with the right inspiration really have the ability to make a contribution to the world instead of just being a consumer. So that, that feels like a big deal, like we’re all terrified of this future with what, eight, nine, ten, twelve billion people. Oh my goodness, they’re gonna munch the planet before our eyes. Well maybe, but maybe someone will inspire them to think differently about their own role and maybe they’ll end up net contributors rather than takers. Um, you can, you can kind of see a path to that being possible just by unlocking human potential. And we’ve never had the ability to do that before so I’m, I’m genuinely excited by that and I think beyond all the other headlines that we all worry about in the world, that story which is not properly told yet is a huge deal and may surprise us all in a beautiful way.

HEFFNER: And that’s the story of a new generation of citizen-scholars, citizen-activists.

ANDERSON: People one, being curious about the world and wanting to learn, discovering how amazing it is, discovering that actually they can play a part in it, this is not like a one-way thing of here are a few people in the west or whatever spreading their wisdom to the world. What we’re going to discover is that there is this brilliance among these billions of minds that are coming online that we can share. You’ve got languages increasingly being translatable easily, we can, we can learn from each other. And so my, my future dream is that, you know, one of the most exciting days in my future, and I know it’s here probably within the next five or ten years is when I listen to a girl from a village in Malawi, um, telling me something that she’s learned which I’d never thought of and which will, will change my own future. That, that’s coming and I think it’s really exciting. So we’re, we’re simply spending a lot of time thinking how do we empower people to share their ideas in a compelling way? Because everyone should be a part of this now.

HEFFNER: Listening to you reminds me of a two-part series we did with Sue Gardner, who effectively ran Wikimedia, Wikipedia. How does your role differ from, from theirs in terms of being a free public non-profit resource? In collaboration, TED effectively is the animated edition of an encyclopedia.

ANDERSON: Yes. We, we feel a kinship with them. I mean they are vastly bigger than us by most measures, um, and they are a phenomenal force for the progress of humanity I would say, I think Wikipedia is incredible. I think the fact that millions of people around the world are willing to contribute to a public resource like that is a very hopeful sign and it’s, it’s an amazing resource. Of course it’s based on the written word.


ANDERSON: And um, and I think so for learning something about a subject that’s incredibly powerful, ideas expressed in, in a human voice is what we are and that, that allows a different type of engagement with an idea, and I think there’s an important role for, for both but we, um, are so inspired by what Wikipedia have done.

HEFFNER: This year you are writing and publishing a book on public speaking and I’m wondering to what extent your own tips for how to perform in this climate of high-stakes engagement, how much that’s informed by the contemporary climate of technology.

ANDERSON: Well it’s certainly informed by the fact that um, technology allows words to be amplified and so people’s motivation to learn to speak, learn to present themselves well is, is higher now than it’s ever been. Suddenly, like if you’re a kid today and you want to get ahead in the world, it’s not gonna be by writing a letter to the editor or by a traditional resume maybe. It’s gonna be by doing something, making a video, you know, and showing yourself, here’s who I am, hello. And uh, that is gonna be much more powerful, so people need to learn to, to do this. And the fundamental argument of the book I’m doing is, is that there’s no formula. It’s definitely not a performance. What, what, the, you know, the core to a great talk is one thing and one thing only. It’s to gift the person you’re speaking to, the people you’re speaking to, an idea. To, to build an idea inside their minds and it’s, it’s kind of a miracle that that can happen because an idea, if you could see it physically it would be something that was a tangle of millions of neurons, literally. Somehow that pattern can be transformed, transferred from my mind to yours in 18 minutes or less. How? It’s thanks to the magic of language and careful explanation and so, so the way that you piece by piece build up an idea, um, it needs, it needs thinking about carefully. Mostly talks don’t land, explanations fail, people don’t connect. People may not even, a talk may fail at the point where someone doesn’t even want to listen to you. So there are so many pieces to it and making a personal connection, being able to explain, being able to tell a story, being able to persuade, um, but um, but right at the heart of it there’s only one thing that matters which is having an idea that’s worth sharing. And so that’s, that’s really what the book is about is trying to encourage people to find what is your idea, what do you care about? What have you, what do you think about that you wish the world knew? If people thought about that and could share it, that would be good for all of us.

HEFFNER: TED Talks is out this May. Uh, the creator of this show once told me that to have an associative mind is the key to the synthesis and recall and good use of knowledge.


HEFFNER: And I urge everyone to visit TED, um, because you can really cultivate all of those associations. No matter what you possess from the outset. Thank you Chris.

ANDERSON: As ever, thank you very much. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience, I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @ OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.