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TED talks in Pittsburgh cover wide range of ideas |
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TED talks in Pittsburgh cover wide range of ideas

Michael Machosky
| Tuesday, May 17, 2016 9:00 p.m
The audience at the 2015 TEDx Pittsburgh conference
Christopher Sprowls
Raj Rajkumar from Carnegie Mellon University

TED talks have become such a popular part of culture, you’re as likely to come into contact with parodies as the real thing.

Most recently, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” had a bunch of comedians and actors give TED-like lectures packed with glib, buzzword-packed, smart-sounding nonsense.

That’s one of the pitfalls of popularity.

TEDxPittsburgh, to be held May 22 at Soldier’s & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, is a small fragment of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) phenomenon. But it’s big in its own way, covering a huge amount of ground, as befits a city that is much more than just tech.

“There have been 16,000 TEDx talks,” says TEDxPittsburgh organizer Chris Daley, an adjunct professor at Duquesne University. “There’s 10 every day.”

That’s not even counting the many more groups who have adopted some aspects of the format.

The first TED conference, under the banner “Ideas Worth Spreading,” began in Silicon Valley in 1990. The talks are basically a format for telling stories or short-form lectures on a subject. Forward-looking technology and innovative approaches to social problems seem to predominate, but they can really be about anything.

For the Pittsburgh event, Raj Rajkumar, George Westinghouse professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, will talk about the promise of self-driving cars.

“We at CMU have been working on vehicles that drive themselves since the early 1980s,” Rajkumar says. “I started working with GM in 2004. The DARPA Urban challenge in 2006 was this competition (to drive) for 60 miles in fewer than six hours, and obeying all the traffic laws people have to. We won the $2 million prize, beat the runner-up by 20 minutes.”

As far as the future goes, it’s closer than you think.

“There’s been tremendous progress over the past three years,” Rajkumar says. “Car makers, Uber, Tesla, Apple, even chip vendors getting into the game. Lots of investment. I expect over the next few years to see the deployment of ‘hybrid pilot’ (car with self-driving option).

“Full driverless operations you’ll see in limited restricted environments. Only in regions where it never snows. California comes to mind. Complete driverless operations is eight to 10 years away. Massive deployment is 20 to 30 years out.”

TEDxPittsburgh won’t be all technology-focused, though that’s obviously a strength of the region.

“I approach it as a playlist,” Daley says. “It’s an art form. I was pretty big on making mix-CDs back in the day. Start upbeat, and (then) some that are deep. We have to orchestrate it appropriately. We have to start off with energy, bringing into something science or data-heavy. I don’t think people look at it just for tech or science.”

Tracey McCants Lewis, a professor at the Civil Rights Law Clinic at Duquesne School of Law, will talk about finding forgiveness for people after incarceration.

Giselle Fetterman will discuss 412FoodRescue, which built a crowd-sourced network to prevent excess, unused food from being dumped into landfills, diverting it instead to those who need it.

Diwas Timsina of the nonprofit Children of Shangri-Lost talks about diversity in Pittsburgh and coming to Pittsburgh as a refugee.

“Mike Capsambelis from Google talks about who has the permission to come up with an idea,” Daley says. “Is there a certain background that makes us worthy of being an entrepreneur, starting a company? Or can we just do it? It’s a nice twist on the startup scene in Pittsburgh.”

Daley and his co-organizers seek out some of their TEDx talkers. Some find them.

“We invite the public to nominate themselves” or other people, Daley says. “Things we look for are: How is this representative of Pittsburgh? Is this something that makes sense around the world, wherever the audience is (online). Has there ever been a TED talk about this? Has it been done too many times?”

Talks are from 10 to 18 minutes, Daley says. “We do training sessions, give them a book on how to ‘talk like TED,’ ” Daley says. “Many do have experience. It’s interesting to see people doing good work but aren’t used to public speaking, go up there and nail a talk. It comes down to knowing the subject matter.”

Like most people, Daley first found the TED talks online. He listens regularly to the TED Radio Hour, locally on WESA-FM (90.5) at 3 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays.

“I was thinking it was so amazing that it was free,” he says.

Though the online component is obviously a big deal, Daley maintains it’s a different experience in person.

“You can really connect with the speaker, their body language,” he notes. “A single person on a giant stage — it’s the original form of communication. It’s not something we’re exposed to anymore. You really focus on that person on that stage in a way that doesn’t really happen online. Its really a powerful thing.”

The first local iteration, TEDxGrandviewAve, started in 2013. After two years, the TED headquarters gave the go-ahead to start calling it TEDxPittsburgh.

“Yeah, TED does check in,” Daley says. “We refer to TED as a person, with affection. We have to get licensed. There’s guidelines to follow for content, branding. It makes sense. We can be this local franchise but also true to the master brand.”

A goal is to get some of the TEDxPittsburgh talks featured on the main website. It’s pretty competitive.

“We want to add to the already great reputation for innovation in the city,” Daley says. “All we can do is keep making a good platform for audiences to come and learn and be inspired, and people will notice.”

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or 412-320-7901.

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