15 Must See TED talks on Engineering

TED is a nonprofit that started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together the leading figures in Technology, Entertainment, and Design to give short talks for their peers with a strict 18 minute time limit. A single ticket to these exclusive conferences costs thousands of dollars, but in recent years, the internet has allowed TED to post videos of every talk on Youtube and TED.com for free. Presenters have included past Presidents, authors, CEOs, famous researchers, inventors, and several Nobel Prize winners.

For your consideration, here are 15 awesome talks related to engineering.

1. Aubrey de Grey: A roadmap to end aging

With his thin frame, British accent, and a beard that reaches below his chest, Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey looks more like a wizard than a scientist. In one of the most discussed TED Talks, de Grey forcefully argues that what we consider aging is merely a disease whose effects can be mitigated or even cured altogether. We wouldn’t stand for any other disease that kills 100% of people who live long enough to get it, so why are we so dismissive of the scientific possibility that, someday soon, we may not have to age at all?

2. Adam Sadowsky engineers a viral music video

Musical group OK Go created one of the earliest viral videos of the broadband era when they filmed themselves doing a synchronized dance on moving treadmills, gaining over 50 million views. For one of their follow up videos, they asked Adam Sadowsky to create a humorously overcomplicated machine like those imagined by Rube Goldberg. The catch was that the room-sized contraption would have to actually perform its ridiculous functions in a 4 minute video with no cuts. Sadowsky explains how they got a working take… 85 attempts later.

3. Amy Smith shares simple, lifesaving design

Engineering is often thought of as being high-tech, complex designs which lead to lucrative or at least impressive inventions. Mechanical engineer Amy Smith takes the opposite approach, using simple, almost common-sense devices that a regular person in poor countries can make for low cost with local supplies. More than two million children are killed every year in the developing world by toxic fumes from indoor cooking. In this talk, Smith explains a simple tool that turns farm waste into clean-burning charcoal.

4. Arthur Ganson: Moving sculpture

Replete with working examples of his art, this involving and intensely personal talk is done little justice by its simple title. Sculptor and engineer Arthur Ganson is perhaps an even more impressive raconteur, infusing his talk about the intersection between machines and art with more humor and emotion than some stand up comedy sets.

5. Bertrand Piccard’s solar-powered adventure

Having already circled the Earth in a hot air balloon, aeronautical adventurer Bertrand Piccard proposes an even more audacious idea–making the same trip in a solar powered airplane that keeps flying even in the black of night. The inspiring talk finds many metaphors for regular life outside of flying and tries to challenge the limits of our thinking at every point. His more optimistic claims are backed up with real examples of how rapidly innovation makes its way into the mainstream, such as 200 passenger flights across the Atlantic a mere 20 years after Charles Lindberg barely did it in a single person aircraft.

6. Burt Rutan sees the future of space

“It’s not good enough for us to have generations of kids that … look forward to a better version of a cell phone with a video in it. They need to look forward to exploration.” Legendary spacecraft designer Burt Rutan gives a passionate talk that roasts the stagnation of NASA and asks private entrepreneurs to take up the torch of extending humanity to the stars. Rutan won the $10 million X-Prize in 2004 for SpaceShipOne and is working with Virgin Galactic at the forefront of space tourism.

7. Christien Meindertsma: How pig parts make the world turn

Christien Meindertsma wrote a book called “Pig 05049″ which explores how parts of an ordinary pig made it into over 185 non-pork goods ranging from ammunition to artificial human organs. Using art and craft, the captivatingly beautiful Meindertsma exposes the disconnect between modern man and the lifesaving animal-derived products he uses every day. Considering all the surprising ways they benefit us, Meindertsma thinks it’s “odd that we don’t treat these pigs as absolute kings and queens,” and after watching her talk you might just agree with her.

8. David Damberger: What happens when an NGO admits failure

In a startling talk, David Damberger discusses his work with Engineers Without Borders and how he went from using his engineering skills to make minor improvements to photocopiers to working on saving lives in Africa. Far from the usual self-congratulatory nature of these sort of talks, Damberger brings serious issues to light and asks whether or not billions of dollars of foreign aid to the developing world even works. He concludes that NGOs need to adopt the accountability, creativity, and agility of entrepreneurs.

9. David Hanson: Robots that “show emotion”

David Hanson went from being a Walt Disney Imagineer (the people who design robotic George Washingtons for the Hall of Presidents)to starting his own robotics company with the goal of creating robots with the same social graces as humans. In this short, five minute talk, Hanson explains why, as robots become more commonplace, it’s more important that they don’t just behave like humans, but actually understand us as humans.

10. David Keith’s unusual climate change idea

Environmental scientist David Keith begins by reminding us climate change is not a recent concern. It’s been making headlines since the 1950s and in that time, we’ve accomplished “nothing.” With climate change proceeding faster than the most “Chicken Little” environmental models have predicted, Keith proposes a radical and counterintuitive solution that would also be cheap and effective. All we have to do is mimic a massive volcano by injecting a huge cloud of ash into the atmosphere to deflect light and heat from the sun.

11. Eric Giler demos wireless electricity

From the earliest radio to broadband internet over WiFi, we’ve had wireless data transmission for so long that most of us can barely life without it. The bane of these powerful devices is that they still need to be plugged into a wall and remain tethered by a cord when their batteries run down. Eric Giler begins his talk by noting wireless power has been in the works since the days of Tesla. His own work at MIT indicates we won’t just be wirelessly charging our iPads and cellphones, but implants like pacemakers as well.

12. Dennis Hong: My seven species of robot

Whether they serve us like the friendly C-3PO or hunt us down like The Terminator, robots are the future. In this talk, Dennis Hong demos seven species of highly effective and mobile robots with roots in nature as well as science fiction literature. How could a three-legged “Strider” on stilts straight out of Half-Life 2 be inspired by nature? Watch and learn.

13. Leah Buechley: How to “sketch” with electronics

In this short, playful talk from TEDYouth 2011, MIT electronics designer Leah Buechley demonstrates how her team developed tools that merge the cumbersome, expensive, and slow world of circuit boards with something intuitive, cheap, and fast–simple pen and paper. For one of the more charming demos, an artist draws several squiggly lines on a sheet of paper, then plays the lines like piano keys with her finger tips. While the “sketch you can play” may seem like a mere toy, Buechley’s ideas open the door to rapid prototyping.

14. Neil Gershenfeld on Fab Labs

Although this video is over 6 years old, remains relevant in a world where some people still think of 3D printing as a gee-whiz fad, rather than the future. Gershenfeld gives a wide ranging TED Talk that compares the march of miniaturization and mainstreaming of computer mainframes to the same process of 3D printing facilities, while treating conventional wisdom about both with absolute irreverence. To wit: “Computer science is one of the worst things that ever happened to either computers or to science.” An example of what one of his students at MIT gets a laugh: a web browser for parrots that lets parrots talk to other parrots. Just as blogging takes communication that was once done by monolithic newspapers, he argues the future is personal fabrication for a market of one (you). In the 80s and 90s, the computer democratized printing, but now “Fab Labs” and 3D printers will do the same thing for physical creations, blurring the line between the digital and physical spaces. Gershenfeld is entertaining and inspiring, but has an annoying habit of showing several videos at once and even talking over them sometimes. When he slows down long enough to talk about one thing at a time, he’ll blow your mind.

15. Anthony Atala: Printing a human kidney

In this talk, surgeon Anthony Atala takes the 3D printing technology shown by Neil Gershenfeld a step further, asking, “Can we grow organs instead of transplanting them?” That’s exactly what his lab at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is doing. Thanks to a technology similar to the one he demos onstage, one of Dr. Atala’s young patients received a newly engineered bladder 10 years ago. How is the patient doing? Find out when he joins Dr. Atala on the TED stage.