The TED Conference: 3 Days in the Future

[ Wed. Feb. 27. 2002 ]

What preternatural power can prompt Rupert Murdoch, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Richard Dawkins, Neil Simon, Art Buchwald, Frank Gehry and Quincy Jones to sit for hours in a hot room contemplating the nano-sized split ends on gecko toes?

It can only be the TED conference, the three-and-a-half day, $4,000-a-pop annual roundup of brains and glitter in which deep wisdom and technological derring-do are served up on an intellectual pu pu platter by 70 speakers and performers.

This year's conclave, the 17th and the swan song of TED's founder, the impresario Richard Saul Wurman, was billed as ''Simply the Greatest Design Conference There Ever Was'' (modesty not being one of Mr. Wurman's many attributes). TED stands for Technology Entertainment and Design, a synergy the 66-year-old Mr. Wurman, probably best known for his Access series of travel guides, detected quite early when he dreamed up the conference in 1984.

Lake Wobegon it isn't. In the self-referential utopian community that is TED, even the juggler has a MacArthur fellowship and the neighbors, if not good-looking, are brilliant, fascinating and sometimes astonishingly rich.

Where else but at TED would Mr. Katzenberg, standing Armani-deep in sawdust with Spirit, his stallion and the namesake of his new animated film, be upstaged by Rex, a biologically inspired robot with springy legs and gecko-like feet capable of navigating the outer reaches of the Amazon -- specifically, the leg of the Amazon.com founder, Jeff Bezos, a longtime Tedster?

It can get deep. Very deep. Steven Pinker, the eminent cognitive psychologist, found himself deep in conversation with the singer Naomi Judd about the role of the amygdala, the part of the brain that colors memory with emotion; something, he aptly noted, ''that would not happen at the meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.''

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