I have just returned from the TEDxUKZN conference, a local TED event hosted here in Durban by the University of Kwazulu-Natal.
This morning I threaded my way through moderate traffic levels, with a great view of early morning mist languishing over the hilly area of lower Westville, to the Westville campus, the scene of what (I was hoping) would be a day of quality ideas ready for export and the attraction of acclaim and wonder. You know, the kinds of ideas that TED talks are renowned for, at least the TED talks that I have downloaded and seen so far.
Well, I must admit to being a bit disappointed with some of the talks, and quite impressed (with qualifications) at some of the other speakers.
I was particularly interested in hearing Prof. Francesco Petruccione’s talk on Quantum computing, and I enjoyed his presentation on the implementation of quantum encryption methods to secure communications between municipal buildings in the Durban municipality, and the establishment of a quantum secured link for communications at the new Moses Mabhida stadium
I particularly liked that the quantum communication infrastructure solution had been set up as a marketable product – SA made, but useful globally. We need more of these sorts of locally produced exportable solutions.
Throughout the day mention was made in a couple of talks of the impression that the world has of Africa, that it is always asking for handouts and much lamenting of the fact that South Africans tend to sell themselves short in their own estimation of their competitiveness and the value of their offerings globally.
Firstly, I think that Africa does have a tendency to ask for handouts and fails to generate capacity locally for the betterment of life here, rather looking to foreign investment and imported technologies to fight things like poverty and a low level of skilled contributors. That is where the impression comes from, and I felt that there was a missed opportunity at the conference for more speakers to address practical, local (non import / externally financed dependant) solutions for upliftment and economic progress. Those developments seem few and far between to me. What are we offering that is of great value locally and internationally?
With regard to the fact that we lament the tendency of South Africans to underestimate their possible contribution, I think we can lament that as much as we want but the reality remains that the world functions according to the principle that you get out what you put in – if you develop something of high value and global appeal then it will be sold profitably locally and internationally, and we can enter a period of greater prosperity and progress for South Africans, but it has to be a realistic and appreciable value proposition – all too often the people with innovative ideas and valuable skill sets are not retained here and SA loses again. We sit with a vast percentage of the population unskilled and unable to contribute to the improvement of the world – basic skills are poorly represented. One speaker spoke about low PC penetration in townships in comparison to very high cellphone penetration into that market – I am hopeful that the convergence of the PC into the cellphone will afford that segment of the population a greater opportunity to learn technology skills which are becoming increasingly fundamental to the capability to make a functional contribution. But just the ubiquity of the technology is not going to be the determinant factor – it matters how much value contribution we can develop and offer on top of the platform of that technology. It seemed to escape a few of the speakers that a lot of the “African success stories” were based on implementing imported technologies – in itself, not a bad thing, but I felt we should move in the direction of developing value propositions for export before becoming over self-congratulatory.
I realise that my appreciation of the complexities involved in keeping Africa poor and in debt are very cursory, and the talks on dirty Eskom’s corrupt dealings with the World Bank and the profiteering of the ANC from new power stations reinforced this impression fro me. There is an intricate complexity to the world of governmental agreements and global finance corporations, and the subsequent local effects for poor people in developing countries that is quite depressing. I may not agree with all of the policies of Greenpeace as an organisation, but I am glad that they provide some counterbalance to the greed of corporations and governments.
One of my favourite speakers was Dr. Murray Legg who showed us his locally designed and locally produced polymer heart valve developed for emerging markets – a sort of generic heart valve – does the same job but at a way lower cost. This was just brilliant – an elegant solution, with global applicability. This boy is going to go far.
My good mate Dr. Adrian Ryan gave us a fascinating demonstration of his program for the visualisation and recording of vases. A very affordable local solution to digitize and provide real value to students of ancient art. I really was quite intrigued and felt that the program offered a simple yet effective interface for manipulating the 3D object to add mounds of value to it’s study. He has developed a sub feature for hot spotting important sections of the art – sections which can then be zoomed in on, offering a rich source of detail for analysis. I wouldn’t mind seeing such a facility added to online encyclopaedias – instead of just seeing one aspect of an ancient vase / painting, one can rotate and focus in on the fine detail of such treasures.
One of the most inspiring speakers was Dr Imtiaz Ismail Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers. He showed us some of the disturbing and really tragic photos of the human victims of natural disasters across Africa and Haiti. Now I actually like Gift of the Givers and had wanted to donate to them when the Haiti tragedy occurred, but they are a veiled religious organisation, and Dr. Sooliman made this clear when he discussed his initial impetus for founding the organisation as being an order from his spiritual leader, and his attribution of all the positive works, outcomes, and coincidental providence afforded him in his travels and endeavours, to his god. As a secular Humanist I prefer to donate to Doctors without Borders who offer a secular medical emergency service without the trappings of theistic confusion. As much good that is done by religious organisations, it is always in the service of spreading the meme, attracting new members and it is probably the most dishonest way to provide aid because it is not because you really want to provide aid, but rather pay some debt to an unseen deity (who, if you believe in such organised delusions, is all responsible and all powerful, and THEREFORE was the ultimate cause of the disaster to which you must now respond, and give thanks for – truly confused in my estimation).
That said, and regardless of their convoluted motivations, these people and their organisation do good. They work tirelessly in dangerous conditions to provide help where and when it is needed. I for one, would be very grateful for any help, religious or otherwise, if I were trapped under a fallen building. The images of dead children in the rubble of fallen buildings, and Dr. Sooliman’s explanation of the significant challenges facing the people of Haiti with much of their skilled populace dead and how this will imply a step back 35 years in terms of social and economic growth and development, made me weep silently inside. My heart goes out to the survivors, so does my money – make a quick donation.
And finally from one tragedy to a completely different kind of tragedy.
I was most looking forward to the talk by Prof. Kriben Pillay – here is what he said he was going to do:
Title of TEDxUKZN Talk
A Magic Trick of Perception
Using personal experience and the latest findings from cognitive science, the presenter demolishes the notion that Consciousness/Being is a material phenomenon of the brain, and yet, paradoxically, is in agreement with science that the personal self is an illusion. All of this is illustrated through story and entertaining thought experiments.
Well, I must say I was most disappointed. There was very very little in the way of cognitive science, even less science, and the demolition was possibly on the nano scale. I was intrigued that he had chosen this verb : demolish. I thought that my burgeoning exploration of consciousness studies, the neural substrate and correlates of mind and qualia, was going to receive an invigorating and finely crafted shake. Why, because it is always good to be open to alternative viewpoints and counter arguments – that keeps you on the right track towards the truth, and lets you compare what you think you know with what others know so that you can correct and improve your understanding. It is said that a teacher cannot fill a cup that is already full, you must empty your cup to learn. Well Prof Kriben seems to have rather emptied his mind because he is offensively deluded.
He professed a love of magic and illusion, and did some cheap magic tricks to entertain and illustrate the idea of illusion. To be fair these were the most pithy and entertaining parts of his presentation but did not, and I think even Jesus style magic could not, make up for the pure vacuous nature of his argument. To call it an argument would actually be an insult to argument.
He largely dithered and took his time to explain how a loss of consciousness event, and his experience that he saw the world as pixellated once recovering consciousness was some sort of proof that he had transcended consciousness and revealed a 3rd dimension of connectedness to all beings – a kind of magical la la land where we are all connected and the same (Yay, where do I sign).
This argument from experience was the demolishing proof that we had all been waiting for to dispel all this nonsense about the brain being the producer of mind – no, according to Kriben and his magical transcendental unconsciousness show, we have been ignoring what all the spiritualists and mystics have been saying all these years – they have been right all along – close the science books, all questions answered, sing a hallelujah!
Pity for Kriben that those states of loss of consciousness, depersonalisation and out of body experience can be generated in the lab, or in the loss of consciousness events experienced by pilots exceeding certain G force levels. Surely if we can manipulate the brain into producing the same experience, then it is likely to be the sole substrate for that experience. Brain makes mind, mind does not exist without brain. The only people who know different are the folk who have left the world of functioning brain (dead people) and none of those folk have come back from the dead to prove that there is a mind external to the organ called the brain. Near death experiences are just that – you went near death, not dead, and your mind experienced a lack of oxygen which produced the familiar white tunnel experience.
There was no demolishing, no science, no fucking substance whatsoever. Imagine my surprise! I wish I had had an actual unconsciousness event through the whole thing.
And magic – he used magic, only the crafty art/science of illusion as the framework for this poppy-cock. Magic is positively one of the best ways to show that there is a disparity between what occurs in the real world and what we perceive, it is a great way to show and be shown the vagaries of perception. We are easily fooled and we should always operate with the caveat that our mind does not always have a 100% accuracy in perceiving the world. And that is precisely what happened to Prof. Kriben – he lost consciousness, hallucinated what was experienced as a profound experience and has let his spiritual imagination run away with himself. I wonder if he would think I am god if I can reproduce his transcendental experience through neurochemical means.
He did not present any cognitive science content – merely stating that we can connect the dots for ourselves.
He said that his experience was in agreement with the latest science, but did not mention which papers he was referring to, and did not link any aspect of his ground breaking experience to any aspect of cognitive science.
If Kriben could show me how to get back the 20 minutes I spent on his bullshit, now that would be magic.
All in all I felt it was a worthwhile experience and besides some technical glitches, the whole thing went off rather well.