Tapping TED to get tech to help others

A gathering of the rich, famous and geeky hears ambitious wishes from Bill Clinton and biologist E.O. Wilson.Photos: Bill Clinton tops TED trio
Written by Stefanie Olsen, Contributor
MONTEREY, Calif.--Former President Bill Clinton was granted a wish Thursday night, and now a cadre of business and technology moguls will become the silent fairies to help fulfill it.

That's the ambitious hope of the TED Prize, the money-granting centerpiece of the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference, which each year honors three people by granting them one wish to change the world. TED backs up the award, which is now in its third year, with $100,000 for each project.

But more importantly, the award opens the lid to the seemingly boundless well of money in the TED community, which includes people like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Virgin CEO Richard Branson, and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Clinton, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, and renowned war photojournalist James Nachtwey were honorees at TED 2007, being held here this week. The three men revealed their wishes to an audience of more than 1,000, and a champagne toast and a private concert by singer Paul Simon followed.

Clinton's wish: help for his own Clinton Foundation to build a world-class health-care system for the undeveloped nation of Rwanda. That system will ultimately be used to scale to other third-world nations. "We need initial upfront investments to set up IT, water infrastructure, (and train community workers)," he said.

TED conference gallery: Clinton, Natchwey, Wilson

"We have a chance here to show that a country that almost slaughtered itself out of existence can practice reconciliation," Clinton said, adding, "My wish is for TED to assist us in our work."

Wilson, known for discovering a few ant species and creating sociobiology (a study of the biological basis of social behavior in all species), also called for help with a personal goal. Wilson wants to build an "Encyclopedia of Life," a map of all the varieties of life on Earth.

"Our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete and we're at the risk of losing it before it's been discovered," Wilson said, referring to global climate change that threatens to wipe out entire species in the coming decades.

"We're flying blind into our biological future. This should be a big science project like the Human Genome Project...My wish is to work together to create the Encyclopedia of Life and inspire the preservation of Earth's biodiversity."

After Wilson's speech, conference organizer Chris Anderson announced that the previous owner of the Web address "eol.org" had donated it to the project.

Photographer Nachtwey, who was introduced by TED Prize Committee Chair and actress Goldie Hawn, gave a moving speech and showed photos of his travels in war-torn countries like Bosnia and Romania. He also talked about the necessity of the free flow of information in journalism to tell a story about what's going on in the world. "Every story does not have to sell something. There's also a time to give," he said.

Nachtwey's wish was more ominous than the others by its very nature. He asked TED to help get access "to a difficult place" to tell the story behind it. The location he's seeking access to was not disclosed.

"There's a vital story that needs to be told and I wish for TED to help me get to it," he said.

Past TED Prize winners have had their wishes come true, so it's not all pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Last year's prize winner Cameron Sinclair, an architect, this week launched a Web site called the Open Architecture Network, in fulfillment of his wish. The network's aim is to connect designers around the world to help improve the dwelling places of the impoverished in undeveloped nations.

Another of last year's winners, Dr. Lawrence Brilliant, a medical doctor and technologist who runs Google's philanthropic foundation Google.org, wished for a dedicated search engine that could act as an early detection-and-response system for disease outbreaks. Through Google, Brilliant set up a nonprofit called INSTEDD, which stands for the International Networked System for Total Early Disease Detection. And according to Brilliant, the nonprofit launched a pilot program this month to simulate via computer the ramifications if a pandemic were to hit a country like Vietnam.

"It's an amazing ride that started (here)," he said.

Much of the five-day conference emphasized social responsibility and need for change. Many repeat attendees to the invitation-only event said that this year there's a much greater call for social action and philanthropy. That optimism and call for change culminated Thursday night.

As actress Hawn put it: "No dream is too big to be able to change the world."

Earlier in the day, esteemed venture capitalist John Doerr, who was an early investor in Google, unnerved the audience when he got choked up about the dire outlook of global climate change.

Doerr said that the best way to predict the future was to invent it.

"Everyone here cares about changing the world, and my call to you, is for you to make going green the next big thing--your gig," he said. Doerr later added, "Let's work together to solve this problem. Because if we do, I can look forward to the conversations I'm going to have with my daughter in 20 years."

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