These are Bill Gates' 13 favorite TED talks—and they'll make you feel smarter, wiser and more hopeful
TED Talks are one of the best online resources for anyone who loves learning. I try to dedicate some time every week to watching a few of them. But there are so many good ones that it's impossible to choose.
Luckily, I recently came across a 2014 playlist of Bill Gates' favorite TED talks. Naturally, I had to watch them all.
The Microsoft co-founder whittled down his favorites to 13 essentials. There's a broad range of topics to digest in the videos. Some of them, like ones about polio eradication and fixing the education system, are specific to Gates' own interests.
But there's one common thread throughout the videos: They're all about how we can positively shape both ourselves and the world. Even if you aren't interested in algorithms and robotics, there's something for everyone here — and you'll definitely finish the videos feeling smarter, wiser and more hopeful.
Here's the complete list of Gates' favorite TED talks, and what you can learn from each one:
1. "The Best Stats You've Ever Seen," by Hans Rosling
Putting a bunch of data together in a coherent and captivating way is a challenge. But Rosling, a physician and epidemiologist who died in 2017, was brilliant in his creative use of visual aids.
In this talk, which has been viewed more than 14 million times, the stats guru dispels common myths about the so-called "developing world" by zeroing in on global trends in health and economics.
The most fascinating part of the talk is Rosling's stunning presentation technique — using interactive bubble charts, compelling data and an energetic speaking style, which has been likened to the "drama and urgency of a sportscaster."
Even if global health economics isn't your thing, "The Best Stats You've Ever Seen" will give you insight into how the use of stats, visualization and lively body language can shift perspectives.
2. "The Danger of Science Denial," by Michael Specter
Specter, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of "Denialism," explores why the world has increasingly begun to fear scientific advances, instead of embracing them.
"I don't need to say this, but vaccines are essential," he says in the talk. "You take them away, and disease comes back, horrible diseases. That's happening. We have measles in this country now. And it's getting worse."
Specter does a great job using several examples — vaccine claims related to autism, "Frankenfood" bans, the herbal cure craze — to illustrate the public's fear and denial of science and reason. His talk encouraged me, and hopefully many others, to reflect on the consequences of ignoring scientific consensus.
Another great takeaway: There's nothing more powerful than the scientific method, which involves trying stuff out, seeing if it works and changing it when it doesn't. As Specter says, "It's one of the great accomplishments of humanity."
3. "The History of Our World in 18 Minutes," by David Christian
Christian, a historian who is specifically a scholar of Russian history, starts the talk by winding back to the beginning of time: 13.7 billion years ago.
"Around us, there's nothing," he says. "There's not even time or space. Imagine the darkest, emptiest thing you can and cube it a gazillion times — and that's where we are. And then suddenly, bang! A universe appears, an entire universe."
If you've ever wanted to learn the complete history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the internet, in a less amount of time than a "Simpsons" episode, here's your chance. Or, maybe you don't care to learn about history at all. If that's the case, watch it anyway.
I was at first skeptical about how long my attention span could last watching this video, but after a full 18 minutes, Specter made me realize that in order to understand the challenges and opportunities in front of us, we must first learn about the journey that got us here.
4. "Let's Put Birth Control Back on the Agenda," by Melinda Gates
Since the moment it was introduced, contraception has been a controversial topic. But Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, believes many of the world's social change issues depend on ensuring that women are able to control their rate of having kids.
In the talk, Gates tells the story of a young business woman she met in Nairobi, who made and sold backpacks out of her home. When asked why she chose to have only three children, the woman said, "I wouldn't be able to run my business if I had another child."
Her income afforded her just enough to provide an education to all three of her children. "This is the same mental calculus that hundreds of millions of men and women have gone through," Gates explains. "They're able to give their children more opportunities by exercising control over when they have them."
The list of priorities for countries both rich and poor is a massive one, but this talk makes a compelling argument about how essential something like access to birth control is.
5. "How We'll Stop Polio for Good," by Bruce Aylward
It's not surprising to find this one on Gates' list of favorites. Like Gates, Aylward, a Canadian physician and epidemiologist, is fighting to make a polio-free world.
Polio is almost completely eradicated, but as Aylward says in his talk, "Almost isn't good enough with a disease this terrifying." The disease, which affects mainly children, can cause paralysis, sometimes within a matter of hours, and death.
Aylward's plan to continue the "scientific miracle" that ended polio in most parts of the world — and finally stop it for good — will inspire you to get the word out and encourage governments to keep their generosity up in helping to eradicate this horrible disease.
6. "How Do We Heal Medicine?" by Atul Gawande
Doctors are capable of extraordinary things, and we depend on them to keep us healthy. But Gawande, a doctor and writer, argues that in order to do their job effectively, they must take a step back and look at new ways to do medicine.
Doctors used to know everything (at least in their area of expertise) and do everything themselves; those days are over, says Gawande. Physicians need to work together, and a new system for that may be as simple as a checklist, or a new way of coaching one another.
And his point isn't exclusive to physicians; it applies to all of us, no matter what field we're in. As Gawande says, "We've come to a place where we have no choice but to recognize, as individualistic as we want to be, complexity requires group success. We all need to be pit crews now."
7. "The Surprising Decline in Violence," by Steven Pinker
Pinker, a professor of cognitive science, makes a bold claim in this talk: We are far less likely to die violently than members of any previous generation.
"Until 10,000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers, without permanent settlements or government," he says.
Pinker uses visuals to show the corresponding statistic from the U.S. and Europe in the 20th century, and includes all the deaths of both World Wars. "If the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century," he says, "there would have been 2 billion deaths rather than 100 million."
While I don't doubt his data, the statistics are hard to believe. Has violence really declined? If the answer is yes, then could this decline be reversed? And if the answer to that is yes, how can we prevent it? These are all important questions we must ask.
8. "Could This Laser Zap Malaria?" by Nathan Myhrvold
This was a fun and insightful one that I ended up watching twice. Myhrvold, who used to work at Microsoft, rolls out a live demonstration of a mosquito-zapping gizmo he and his team created.
It basically involves a "photonic fence" that uses lasers to track and obliterate disease-carrying mosquitoes. Of course, this talk was given nearly a decade ago, so it's unclear how far Myhrvold's invention got or where it is now.
His enthusiasm and obvious brilliance, however, are not only entertaining, but are also a simple reminder of how boldness and creativity can contribute to our efforts in tackling problems, big or small.
9. "Let's Use Video to Reinvent Education," by Salman Khan
If you're not familiar with the Khan Academy, it's a non-profit organization that provides a series of educational videos, in subjects like math, arts and humanity, and science.
Khan, a former hedge-fund analyst with degrees from MIT and Harvard, talks about how and why he created the Khan Academy. He also explains why interactive exercises through video are a key ingredient to humanizing the education system.
Not only can this help those in parts of the world with limited access to education, but it can also benefit the "adult learner, who's embarrassed to go back and learn stuff they should have known before going back to college," says Khan.
Gates, who moderates the talk, calls Khan's efforts "amazing," and an example of how technology can help create a more educated world.
10. "How PhotoSynth Can Connect the World's Images," by Blaise Agüera y Arcas
Engineer Agüera y Arcas gives a luminous demo of a PhotoSynth, a software originated from Microsoft Live Labs and the University of Washington.
PhotoSynth uses still photos culled from the Web to build breathtaking dreamscapes, and then lets users navigate them. (While Microsoft shut down the software in 2017, its features returned later that year within the Microsoft Pix app for iOS.)
We've come a long way in using technology to connect the world's images, but the real inspiration here is about all the things we can do with the social environment. "This is now taking data from everybody — from the entire collective memory, visually, of what the Earth looks like — and linking all of that together," says Agüera y Arcas.
11. "How I Held My Breath for 17 Minutes," by David Blaine
"As a magician, I try to create images that make people stop and think," Blaine says in the beginning of his talk. "I also try to challenge myself to do things that doctors say are not possible."
One of those challenges: holding his breath for 17 minutes. I won't give too much away (you'll have to watch the video), but it involves meeting with a neurosurgeon, researching pearl divers and some major oxygen deprivation.
"I push through the pain to be the best that I can be," Blaine says, as he gets a little emotional. "And that's what magic is to me."
Whether you're a magician or not, he reminds us that with practice, training and lots of experimenting, you can do things that seem impossible.
12. "The Power of Introverts," by Susan Cain
In a world that prizes extroverts, looking inward is a virtue, not a problem, argues Cain, author of the best-selling book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking."
Some of the most influential people in history were introverts, she says, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Gandhi.
"Introversion," Cain explains, "is different from being shy. Shyness is about fear of social judgment. Introversion is more about how you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation."
Extroverts crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their "most capable" when they're in quieter, more low-key environments. But the problem is that places like our schools and workplaces are designed mostly for extroverts.
Cain offers a number of suggestions for how we can create a better balance between the two types. It's essential, she says, especially if we want to maximize all of our talents.
13. "Robots That Fly … and Cooperate," by Vijay Kumar
Kumar, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science, gives an interesting lecture about something he and his team built: flying quadrotors, or small, agile robots that swarm, sense each other and form ad hoc teams. They can be used for construction, surveying disasters and far more.
He demonstrates the several features of the robot, which is built like a cross, with four rotors — each on an end of the cross pointed straight up. "You can send them inside buildings as first responders to look for intruders, maybe look for biochemical leaks [or they] can be used for construction and for transporting cargo," Kumar says.
They can even be sent to collapsed buildings to assess the damage of disasters, he continues, or to map nuclear radiation levels after a nuclear accident. Even today, with all the advancements in the robotics industry, it's amazing to watch and think about how far we've come.
Tom Popomaronis is a commerce expert, cross-industry innovation leader and Vice President of Innovation at Massive Alliance. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and The Washington Post. In 2014, he was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal.
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