TED Conversations

Tim O'Reilly

CEO, O'Reilly Media


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William Gibson said "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." What futures have you seen that are here, but unrecognized?

In the late 70s, when the Homebrew Computer Club was meeting, its members were beginning to experience the world that we all now take for granted. In 1992, when I published the Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog, there were only 200 websites, but we featured the WWW in the book because it was so clearly the shape of things to come. When Jeff Han demoed his multi-touch screen at TED in February 2006, he prefigured the iPhone launch a year later. When the kids at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition are modifying bacteria, they are showing us homebrew genetic engineering around the corner. Make Magazine's enthusiasts are becoming tomorrow's industrialists, with companies like Makerbot, DIY Drones, and Willow Garage Robotics turning what once seemed like an curiosity into real businesses.

In each case, these people were already living in a future that was soon to rush upon us all.

What have you seen lately that has made you stand up and say "Whoa! That person knows something I don't, is living in a world I haven't seen yet?" The answers can be from technology, but can also be new social forms, and can be positive or negative.

Point me to companies and individuals who tell you something about the shape of the future by the way they are living or the work they are doing.


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  • Feb 16 2011: I have learned that if I want a glimpse of the future now, a good strategy is to look at the cutting edge of where persons with disabilities are today. Because of my work in the disability field I was fortunate to be working with voice recognition, speech synthesis, human empowering robotic arms and home automation technologies as far back as the 80s. The first application of a transistor was a better hearing aid. Alexander Bell's work with the Deaf led to the development of the telephone. Dean Kamen's Segway drew directly from his work in developing his iBot, a wheelchair that could climb stairs (among other things).The list goes on and on and the march of history includes the little know history of innovation based on human empowerment.

    This initially surprising observation actually makes sense. We have always innovated tools and technologies that empowered us as individuals. As we age and/or become disabled we reach out to develop not just tools and technologies but also environments, both physical and social, that continue to empower us. From smart human-like prosthetics to brain/computer interfaces the cutting edge of the disability field, like that of the military and space exploration, continues to generate spin-off innovations of broader appeal than initially aimed for.

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