ProFellow at TED2017: The Future You

May 01, 2017
ProFellow at TED
Cofounder Vicki Johnson at TED2017, Vancouver

Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity to represent ProFellow at the flagship TED conference in Vancouver as a guest of the TED Fellows program directed by Tom Rielly. I anticipated this event, entitled “The Future You”, for more than a year, imagining all the incredible people I would meet and the ideas I would gain. All I can say is, the conference and its speakers did not disappoint (not to mention the famous gift bag – I’ll get to that in a moment). Here’s a run-down of some of the conference highlights:

1. There’s some crazy ideas out there on how to tackle climate change. Danny Hillis described the algorithm behind his idea to pump a bit of non-toxic chalk into the stratosphere, which would reflect enough sunlight to reduce global temperatures to pre-industrial levels. Daan Roosegaarde invented a smog vacuum for public parks and Tim Kruger introduced a process to break down limestone into lime and CO2 – whereas the CO2 can be stored underground while the lime can be used in seawater to counter ocean acidification. Problem with these new ideas? They don’t solve our penchant for polluting fuels, the desalination of the ocean, the decline of biodiversity, and so forth. Noticeably missing were new ideas and technologies to change human behaviors from destroying to bettering the environment. Ted Halstead spoke passionately on a carbon dividends policy developed by U.S. conservative leaders, alluding that corporate financial incentives are perhaps the only way to overcome the current political barriers to climate progress.

ProFellow at TED
I made a beeline for this sweet spot each day.

2. Talks on breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence both intrigued and frightened the bejesus out of me. From watching a cougar-like robot trot effortlessly across the stage to hearing how a robot performed better than 80% of students on a prestigious college entrance exam, I was amused and delighted. Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi even did a haunting dance performance with a robot (yeah, that was new). But then they got into the ethics of AI. Are technology leaders collaborating to determine the ethical boundaries of robots’ intelligence – you know, to prevent the rise of our “robotic overlords”? Apparently not, although there are plenty of individual opinions on the subject. Meanwhile, online companies are doing everything in their power to rob us of our attention and our boredom, which used to fuel humans’ most creative ideas. Message? Put your phone down, pay attention, and get involved with the world around you. Stat.

Vicki with TED Fellows Director Tom Rielly
Vicki with TED Fellows Director Tom Rielly

3. Pope Francis gave a TED talk. Virtually that is, but it was the first and only time I’ve seen Pope Francis up close and personal, speaking to the need for humanity to work together to solve the world’s most dire challenges. Even if you’re not religious, his simple, humble message was bound to light something in your heart. I almost hugged the VC sitting next to meet. Steven Colbert couldn’t help commenting.

4. TED Fellows took the cake. Call me biased, but the TED Fellows talks were some of the best of the conference. While Elon Musk dazzled the audience with talk of building tunnels for traffic under LA and sending people to Mars in the next 8-10 years, I was still thinking about TED Fellow Christopher Ategeka’s talk on the need to invest in Africa-trained doctors to prevent brain drain from the continent, and Lauren Sallan’s talk on prehistoric mass extinctions of fish and what these phenomena tell us about modern climate change. Reid Davenport’s talk and documentary film on disability were eye-opening and Rebecca Brachman discussed breakthrough drugs that could actually prevent depression and PTSD. These guys prepped hard for their first TED talk and it showed. It brought home for me how important it is for all fellows to communicate the significance and impact of their work.

ProFellow at TED
Vicki Johnson with comedian Julia Sweeney and TED Fellow Laura Sallan

These few highlights don’t adequately describe the wide range of talks we watched addressing everything from architecture and ageism, to new cancer technologies and creative art expressions. In fact, my brain is so packed with new information and ideas, it will take me a while to unpack them all.

In addition to the talks, I had the chance to briefly meet some famous people like comedian Julie Sweeney of Saturday Night Live and Grey’s Anatomy castmember and activist Jesse Williams, discuss technologies for lifelong learning during a small-group Jeffersonian dinner, trek up snow-covered Cypress Mountain at 5am in the morning to see a sunrise with a (crazy) group of early risers, and of course, pick up the famous TED gift bag. (What was inside the TED-emblazoned Lululemon travel bag? Oh, just a subscription to Google Home, a Logitech Spotlight Presentation Remote, a pair of Bombas socks, a free DNA test service, a Wifi-enabled plush toy, and a 6-month subscription to It was a tad ridiculous.)

ProFellow at TED
The TED Fellows Lounge, where you could meet and chat with TED Fellows throughout the conference

Attending the conference was more an opportunity for personal enlightenment than a business and networking opportunity. I had the chance to meet directors of foundations and companies who sponsor fellows or hope to sponsor fellows in the future, which was exciting. However, what I really gained were new friendships and ideas that will enhance my personal life as much as my work. This past weekend, instead of cramming through hundreds of missed emails, I opened a copy of a book of poetry I picked up in the TED bookstore. The conference made me realize that work, technology and other meaningless distractions are likely stifling my creativity. Space and energy for creativity are what sparked our idea for ProFellow six years ago when I was an adventurous PhD student in New Zealand. Back then, I lived happily without a smartphone and my eyes were wide open to the spectacular world around me.

So, thanks to the inspiration gained through TED2017, I’m going to put my phone down and start turning up the volume on my colleagues, friends, family and community. Here’s to the future ProFellow.

© Victoria Johnson 2017, all rights reserved.