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Our version of the SETI project

2010.02.03

If you’re an avid TED/TEDx follower (who isn’t?!), you probably know that the acronym SETI usually stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. For those not familiar, it’s a project started in 1960 to listen for and interpret faint signals from other potential forms of intelligent life in the universe around us.

Allen Telescopic ArraySince then, there have been more than 100 projects related to that search across the globe, drawing on a range of scientific and other disciplines. Today, the SETI initiative continues the search through the SETI Institute, whose mission is “…to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”

What does SETI have to do with TEDxCalgary?

Our own version of the SETI project is a bit more down to earth. Instead of pointing our listening gear into the cosmos, we’re turning our attention earth-ward to do our own Search for Extraordinary Transformative Ideas. Like our counterparts at the other SETI project, we’re also looking for faint signals in the form of ideas that might bring hope of a breakthrough in many of the challenges that humanity faces today.

Our own view is that most of these signals already exist among us, but we’re not listening closely enough, and we don’t often have good ways to make sense of them when we hear them. How do we change that?

The Search for Extraordinary Transformative Ideas

The TED motto of “Ideas worth spreading” acknowledges that not all ideas are created equal.

Among the many, many good ideas out there are an equal (or greater) number of bad ideas, or ones that need much more work before they become most useful to humanity. One of the key mechanisms that we lack is a good way to differentiate those important breakthrough ideas from the background noise of our daily lives.

Even the best of ideas has to compete for our attention, balanced against the demands of life, family, work, and all the many other things we have opportunity to explore in our daily existence. As an event, and as a growing global platform for sharing important elements of human knowledge, TED and the related TEDx initiatives are part of that world-wide search for the sometimes faint ideas that we need to focus on.

Also taking a page from the book of the other SETI project, the TEDxCalgary organizing group is focused on making sense of the ideas that have already surfaced among us. Unfortunately, many of these amazing ideas have stalled in the prototype phase: it’s not the idea that is problematic, it’s getting the team together to move it forward to fruition. Without the disciplined collaborative effort to turn ideas into reality, many of the great insights and ideas that we’ve already developed face the very real danger of being forgotten or put aside in the never-ending thirst we humans often have for the “next great thing”.

One of the transformative features of the real-world SETI Quest initiative is its work to build an open community of scientists, technologists, and interested citizens collaborating across space and time to advance the work in progress. Some years ago, many people will remember that the SETI folks were working to connect together thousands of personal computers to help process the massive amounts of signals data collected by the various radio telescopes used by the project (yes, that’s one of them in the picture). Back then, you could volunteer a portion of your computer’s processing time to the work of the SETI researchers. Today, elements of that continue in ever more sophisticated forms.

What lessons can we draw from the SETI example?

First and foremost is the fact that detecting faint signals — those extraordinary transformative ideas lying hidden among us — takes people making a conscious effort to listen (and look) closely at what’s going on around them. We’re convinced that those interested in TEDxCalgary are part of that community of interested and attentive people.

Second, once we detect any faint signals, we have to do better at making sense of them, and putting them into action. That takes getting a wider group of people looking at the same issue(s) from multiple viewpoints, and agreeing to take on some part of the task, however small.

“‘Are we alone?’ Humans have been asking [this question] forever. The probability of success is difficult to estimate but if we never search the chance of success is zero.”
– Jill Tarter, SETI Institute

Imagine that a person only is able to spend 10 minutes a day (roughly one one-hundredth of our waking hours) looking at the issues we’re focusing on in our event. Spreading that effort across hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people adds up to a lot of brainpower that otherwise might go unused in making sense of the issues at hand. Like the SETI folks, we’re trying to harness some of that intellect and connect it to the issues we care about: the overall trajectory of humanity, and how we better address complex opportunities and challenges like youth, elders, conflict and poverty.

What are we asking you to do?

Join us in building the TEDxCalgary community of ideas, and help us to connect people like you who have insight and ideas to offer to our event and its theme issues.

Whether you contribute ideas as a participant, your time as a volunteer, or important event resources as a sponsor, we value the contributions you can make to our work as a team.

Follow us on our various social media channels, participate in our online community discussions, and join us for our event (in person or online) on April 29th. Be part of our search for extraordinary transformative ideas!

And a final word on TED and SETI… if you weren’t already aware, the 2009 TED Prize went to the SETI Institute’s Jill Tarter, whose wish was to advance the SETI project. Watch her TED Talk and contemplate her challenge…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 2010.02.07 11:33

    I agree a sort of “intellectual explorer” outlook needs to permeate our thinking, constantly on the hunt for issues that need to our time and attention to be pondered over.
    I heard in a recent interview by Bill Moyers with Columnist Thomas Frank that we live in an age of forgetting http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/01152010/watch.html
    People are indeed in need of long memories and need to be reminded that to be human is to be always an explorer and inventor. We need to be constantly learning not only from what is happening now but also from the past so that we know ourselves within our time and place in history.
    The long now project long a source of reference for me is an example of this, the Leadership Calgary Project is another one that seems to have special relevance to this sort of thinking as well.

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