The J Curve

Sunday, March 06, 2005

TED Reflections

TED is a wonderfully refreshing brain spa, an eclectic ensemble of mental exercise that helps rekindle the childlike mind of creativity.

This year’s theme was “Inspired by Nature”, which I believe has broad and interdisciplinary relevance, especially to the future of intelligence and information technology. By the end of the conference, there was a common thread running throughout the myriad talks, a leitmotif along the frontiers of the unknown. I felt as if I had been immersed in a fugue of biomimicry.

I am still trying to synthesize the discussions I had with Kurzweil, Venter and Hillis about subsystem complexity in evolved systems, but until then, I thought I’d share some of my favorite quotes and photos.

• Rodney Brooks, MIT robotocist:
“Within 2-3 weeks, freshmen are adding BioBricks to the E.Coli bacteria chassis. They make oscillators that flash slowly and digital computation agents. But the digital abstraction may not be right metaphor for programming biology.”

“Polyclad flatworms have about 2000 neurons. You can take their brain out and put it back in backwards. The worm moves backwards at first, but adapts over time back to normal. You can rotate its brain 180 degrees and put it in upside down, and it still works. Biology is changing our understanding of complexity and computation.”

• Craig Venter, when asked about the risks of ‘playing God’ in the creation of a new form of microbial life: “My colleague Hammie Smith likes to answer: ‘We don’t play.’”

“With Synthetic Genomics, genes are the design components for the future of biology. We hope to replace the petrochemical industry, most food, clean energy and bioremediation.”

“The sea is very heterogeneous. We sampled seawater microbes every 200 miles and 85% of the gene sequences in each sample were unique... 80% of all known gene data is new in the last year.”

“There are about 5*10^30 microbes on Earth. The Archaea alone outweigh all plants and animals... One milliliter of sea water has 1 million bacteria and 10 million viruses.”

• Graham Hawkes, radical submarine inventor, would agree:
“94% of life on Earth is aquatic. I am embarrassed to call our planet ‘Earth’. It’s an ocean planet.”

• Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry (discussion):
“Our heat, beat and treat approach to manufacturing is 96% waste... Life adds information to matter. Life creates conditions conducive to life.”

• Kevin Kelly, a brilliant author and synthesizer:
“Organisms hack the rules of life. Every rule has an exception in nature.”

“Life and technology tend toward ubiquity, diversity, specialization, complexity and sociability…. What does technology want? Technology wants a zillion species of one. Technology is the evolution of evolution itself, exploring the ways to explore, a game to play all the games.”

• James Watson, on finding DNA's helix: “It all happened in about two hours. We went from nothing to thing.” (Photo and discussion)

• The Bill Joy nightmare ensemble: GNR epitomized in Venter (Genetics), Kurzweil (Nanotech) and Brooks (Robotics).

• The Feynman Fan club: particle diagrams take on human form =)
• GM’s VP of R&D on the importance of hydrogen to the auto industry.
• Amory Lovins on the inefficiency of current autos

And, for entertainment, a Grateful Dead drum circle, Pilobolus, and polypedal studies.

• Bono, Streaming video of his TED Prize acceptance speech:
“A head of state admitted this to me: There’s no chance this kind of hemorrhaging of human life would be accepted anywhere else other than Africa. Africa is a continent in flames.”


  • I read your blogs on the “childlike mind of creativity” (and past blogs). How does that creativity translate to your own industry/profession – venture capital? (Or at least more about the commercialization process of such cutting edge science.) Perhaps it’s "Beginner’s (Zen) Mind"?


    On a lighter note: Do you worry that the “J Curve” title implies an "initial loss of value" for the time expended in reading? ;)

    Your musings don’t seem like a waste of time – very interesting perspectives. (And I'm a long-term investor!)

    By Anonymous Norm Gustafson, at 3:54 PM  

  • I think you are referring to the Childish Scientists and Celebrate the Child-Like Mind discussions.

    In the early-stage VC business, “nurturing a child-like mind” can apply to self-development, recruiting, firm culture, and ecosystem dynamics. I can’t cover all of this, but I do think it is embedded in our strategy. We seek to take more risk, to fail early and often within emerging industries. We get worried if there is unanimous support for a deal. We try to surface minority opinions. We do not chastise each other for lost deals, as that would foster a fear of failure. Instead, we ask “what might go right” -- to help grow a known winner 100x again. We try to maintain a playful culture at the office, with toy boxes full of Nerf guns and other creative toys. We try to diversify our team when recruiting. We seek new industry sectors for investment, and watch for ruts.

    “Portfolio diversification” and “early tech trend identification” emerge naturally from the search for eclectic learning and from our “simple rule” -- to back passionate entrepreneurs with unique ideas that will change the world.

    I guess the most important personal application of these child-like ruminations is that I am at peace with my immaturity. I’m not trying to be a different person, but I am trying to feed my head. To learn something new, I read books, attend interesting conferences, and brainstorm with polymaths and diverse domain experts.

    Recently, blogging has been a mental gymnasium, stretching me with a diversity of ideas and connections. There’s nothing like public writing to force coherency of thought. The blog discussions have been wonderful and have helped push my thinking.

    Regarding your lighter note about the initial waste of time in reading this…. It’s actually quite insightful. Interdisciplinary learning contains an initial energy barrier. To leave the local minimum of a mental rut, you have to push against the local gradient.

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 5:59 PM  

  • "I guess the most important personal application of these child-like ruminations is that I am at peace with my immaturity. I’m not trying to be a different person, but I am trying to feed my head. To learn something new, I read books, attend interesting conferences, and brainstorm with polymaths and diverse domain experts."I am diving in an ocean of delight while reading this...

    And as an usual "commenter" of this blog I second you about the value of this exchange. Nurturing, inspiring and encouraging by all means.

    Eclectic, child-like, brilliant... and wonderfully human. Thank you for sharing your nature and openning the gates of your world to us all, Steve.

    Long live to The J Curve! |-)

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 7:06 PM  

  • Steve,

    Thanks for the insight into creativity in your company.

    (You should be grateful to attend TED with all that world-class stimulation -- quite an exclusive invitation list, I hear.)

    Another example would be events like Garage's Bootcamps (saw you there in '00) or the Golden Capital Net. in Sac. (saw Draper there last year). Listening to pithces (good, bad, and ugly!) is a good exercise in "new think" vs. "same old" thinking. The difference is sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic.

    Of course, writing can be a great "mental gymnasium" -- which I have used extensively. Anyone can "maintain a playful culture" where they work. I try to do that in my high school "business plan" class.

    I noticed your photo stream and think you could add travel as a way of generative fresh perspectives (I'm taking off for my desert hide-away, where I've done a lot of writing).

    Thanks for the interaction!


    By Anonymous Norm Gustafson, at 2:59 PM  

  • Hey, I know that this fits better in the Child-like mind post, but as it already has a lot of comments, I´ll make myslef comfortable here. (It has to do with this all, anyway)

    My bestest friend Epp =) at her journal, has posted this that I think worth share here:

    "Creative moments

    ...what creative artists and scientists have said concerning creative moments in their own work.

    "In their introspections one finds an emphasis upon the production of a free flow of ideas - the bubbling forth of varieties of associations concerning the matter at hand. Einstein, for example, refers to the need for 'combinatory play' and 'associative play' in putting ideas together. Dryden describes the process of writing as involving 'a confus'd mass of thoughts, tumbling over one another in the dark." Pointcare talks about ideas as having 'rose in crowds' immediately prior to his obtaining a significant mathematical insight. These associations, moreover, range with high frequency into the consideration of unique, unusual possibilities, but ones which are nevertheless relevant to the issue rather than just bizarre. When we look into the conditions under which an abundant flow of unique ideational possibilities has been available, the artists and scientists indicate that the most conducive attitude is one of playful contemplation - if you will, of permissiveness. Creative awareness tends to occur when the individual - in a playful manner - entertains a range of possibilities without worry concerning his own personal success or failure and how his self-image will far in the eyes of others."

    From: Human Intelligence, Ed. J. McVicker Hunt"

    *blink blink* 0-)

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 4:51 PM  

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