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TED2014

Bran Ferren: To create for the ages, let's combine art and engineering

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When Bran Ferren was just 9, his parents took him to see the Pantheon in Rome — and it changed everything. In that moment, he began to understand how the tools of science and engineering become more powerful when combined with art, with design and beauty. Ever since, he's been searching for a convincing modern-day equivalent to Rome's masterpiece. Stay tuned to the end of the talk for his unexpected suggestion.

- Technology designer
Once known for entertaining millions by creating special effects for Hollywood, theme parks and Broadway, Applied Minds cofounder Bran Ferren now solves impossible tech challenges with previously unimaginable inventions. Full bio

Good morning.
00:13
When I was a little boy,
00:15
I had an experience that changed my life,
00:17
and is in fact why I'm here today.
00:20
That one moment
00:23
profoundly affected how I think about
00:25
art, design and engineering.
00:27
As background, I was fortunate enough to grow up
00:30
in a family of loving and talented artists
00:33
in one of the world's great cities.
00:36
My dad, John Ferren, who died when I was 15,
00:39
was an artist by both passion and profession,
00:43
as is my mom, Rae.
00:46
He was one of the New York School
00:49
abstract expressionists who,
00:51
together with his contemporaries,
00:52
invented American modern art,
00:55
and contributed to moving the American zeitgeist
00:58
towards modernism in the 20th century.
01:01
Isn't it remarkable that, after thousands of years
01:05
of people doing mostly representational art,
01:08
that modern art, comparatively speaking,
01:12
is about 15 minutes old,
01:14
yet now pervasive.
01:16
As with many other important innovations,
01:18
those radical ideas required no new technology,
01:20
just fresh thinking and a willingness to experiment,
01:24
plus resiliency in the face of near-universal criticism
01:27
and rejection.
01:31
In our home, art was everywhere.
01:32
It was like oxygen,
01:35
around us and necessary for life.
01:36
As I watched him paint,
01:40
Dad taught me that art
01:41
was not about being decorative,
01:44
but was a different way of communicating ideas,
01:46
and in fact one that could bridge the worlds
01:49
of knowledge and insight.
01:51
Given this rich artistic environment,
01:54
you'd assume that I would have been compelled
01:56
to go into the family business,
01:58
but no.
02:00
I followed the path of most kids
02:03
who are genetically programmed
02:04
to make their parents crazy.
02:06
I had no interest in becoming an artist,
02:08
certainly not a painter.
02:10
What I did love was electronics and machines --
02:12
taking them apart, building new ones,
02:15
and making them work.
02:17
Fortunately, my family also had engineers in it,
02:19
and with my parents,
02:23
these were my first role models.
02:24
What they all had in common
02:27
was they worked very, very hard.
02:28
My grandpa owned and operated a sheet metal
02:31
kitchen cabinet factory in Brooklyn.
02:33
On weekends, we would go
together to Cortlandt Street,
02:36
which was New York City's radio row.
02:39
There we would explore massive piles
02:42
of surplus electronics,
02:45
and for a few bucks bring home treasures
02:46
like Norden bombsights
02:48
and parts from the first IBM tube-based computers.
02:50
I found these objects both useful and fascinating.
02:54
I learned about engineering and how things worked,
02:57
not at school
03:00
but by taking apart and studying
03:01
these fabulously complex devices.
03:03
I did this for hours every day,
03:06
apparently avoiding electrocution.
03:08
Life was good.
03:11
However, every summer, sadly,
03:13
the machines got left behind
03:15
while my parents and I traveled overseas
03:17
to experience history, art and design.
03:20
We visited the great museums and historic buildings
03:23
of both Europe and the Middle East,
03:26
but to encourage my growing interest
03:27
in science and technology,
03:30
they would simply drop me off in places
03:31
like the London Science Museum,
03:34
where I would wander endlessly for hours by myself
03:36
studying the history of science and technology.
03:40
Then, when I was about nine years old,
03:44
we went to Rome.
03:47
On one particularly hot summer day,
03:49
we visited a drum-shaped
building that from the outside
03:51
was not particularly interesting.
03:54
My dad said it was called the Pantheon,
03:57
a temple for all of the gods.
03:59
It didn't look all that special from the outside,
04:01
as I said, but when we walked inside,
04:04
I was immediately struck by three things:
04:06
First of all, it was pleasantly cool
04:09
despite the oppressive heat outside.
04:13
It was very dark, the only source of light
04:15
being an big open hole in the roof.
04:17
Dad explained that this wasn't a big open hole,
04:20
but it was called the oculus,
04:22
an eye to the heavens.
04:24
And there was something about this place,
04:26
I didn't know why, that just felt special.
04:28
As we walked to the center of the room,
04:31
I looked up at the heavens through the oculus.
04:33
This was the first church that I'd been to
04:36
that provided an unrestricted view
04:39
between God and man.
04:41
But I wondered, what about when it rained?
04:44
Dad may have called this an oculus,
04:47
but it was, in fact, a big hole in the roof.
04:49
I looked down and saw floor drains
04:52
had been cut into the stone floor.
04:54
As I became more accustomed to the dark,
04:57
I was able to make out details of the floor
04:59
and the surrounding walls.
05:01
No big deal here, just the same statuary stuff
05:03
that we'd seen all over Rome.
05:06
In fact, it looked like the Appian Way
05:08
marble salesman showed up
05:09
with his sample book, showed it to Hadrian,
05:11
and Hadrian said, "We'll take all of it."
05:14
(Laughter)
05:17
But the ceiling was amazing.
05:18
It looked like a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome.
05:22
I'd seen these before,
05:24
and Bucky was friends with my dad.
05:26
It was modern, high-tech, impressive,
05:28
a huge 142-foot clear span
05:31
which, not coincidentally, was exactly its height.
05:34
I loved this place.
05:37
It was really beautiful and unlike
anything I'd ever seen before,
05:38
so I asked my dad, "When was this built?"
05:42
He said, "About 2,000 years ago."
05:45
And I said, "No, I mean, the roof."
05:48
You see, I assumed that this was a modern roof
05:51
that had been put on because the original
05:53
was destroyed in some long-past war.
05:55
He said, "It's the original roof."
05:58
That moment changed my life,
06:02
and I can remember it as if it were yesterday.
06:04
For the first time, I realized people were smart
06:07
2,000 years ago. (Laughter)
06:10
This had never crossed my mind.
06:12
I mean, to me, the pyramids at Giza,
06:14
we visited those the year before,
06:18
and sure they're impressive, nice enough design,
06:20
but look, give me an unlimited budget,
06:23
20,000 to 40,000 laborers, and about 10 to 20 years
06:25
to cut and drag stone blocks
across the countryside,
06:29
and I'll build you pyramids too.
06:33
But no amount of brute force
06:35
gets you the dome of the Pantheon,
06:38
not 2,000 years ago, nor today.
06:41
And incidentally, it is still the largest
06:44
unreinforced concrete dome that's ever been built.
06:47
To build the Pantheon took some miracles.
06:51
By miracles, I mean things that are
06:54
technically barely possible,
06:56
very high-risk, and might not be
06:59
actually accomplishable at this moment in time,
07:02
certainly not by you.
07:04
For example, here are some
of the Pantheon's miracles.
07:09
To make it even structurally possible,
07:12
they had to invent super-strong concrete,
07:15
and to control weight,
07:17
varied the density of the aggregate
07:19
as they worked their way up the dome.
07:21
For strength and lightness, the dome structure
07:24
used five rings of coffers,
07:26
each of diminishing size,
07:28
which imparts a dramatic forced perspective
07:30
to the design.
07:33
It was wonderfully cool inside
07:35
because of its huge thermal mass,
07:36
natural convection of air rising up
07:39
through the oculus,
07:41
and a Venturi effect when wind blows across
07:42
the top of the building.
07:45
I discovered for the first time that light itself
07:47
has substance.
07:51
The shaft of light beaming through the oculus
07:53
was both beautiful and palpable,
07:56
and I realized for the first time
07:58
that light could be designed.
08:00
Further, that of all of the forms of design,
08:02
visual design,
08:07
they were all kind of irrelevant without it,
08:08
because without light, you can't see any of them.
08:10
I also realized that I wasn't the first person
08:14
to think that this place was really special.
08:17
It survived gravity, barbarians, looters, developers
08:20
and the ravages of time to become
08:24
what I believe is the longest
08:26
continuously occupied building in history.
08:27
Largely because of that visit,
08:30
I came to understand that,
08:33
contrary to what I was being told in school,
08:34
the worlds of art and design
08:37
were not, in fact, incompatible
08:39
with science and engineering.
08:41
I realized, when combined,
08:43
you could create things that were amazing
08:45
that couldn't be done in either domain alone.
08:47
But in school, with few exceptions,
08:50
they were treated as separate worlds,
08:53
and they still are.
08:55
My teachers told me that I had to get serious
08:57
and focus on one or the other.
08:59
However, urging me to specialize
09:02
only caused me to really
appreciate those polymaths
09:05
like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci,
09:08
Benjamin Franklin,
09:12
people who did exactly the opposite.
09:14
And this led me to embrace
09:16
and want to be in both worlds.
09:19
So then how do these projects of unprecedented creative vision and technical complexity
09:21
like the Pantheon actually happen?
09:27
Someone themselves, perhaps Hadrian,
09:30
needed a brilliant creative vision.
09:34
They also needed the storytelling
and leadership skills
09:37
necessary to fund and execute it,
09:40
and a mastery of science and technology
09:42
with the ability and knowhow
09:45
to push existing innovations even farther.
09:47
It is my belief that to create
these rare game changers
09:51
requires you to pull off at least five miracles.
09:55
The problem is, no matter how talented,
10:00
rich or smart you are,
10:02
you only get one to one and a half miracles.
10:04
That's it. That's the quota.
10:07
Then you run out of time, money, enthusiasm,
10:09
whatever.
10:11
Remember, most people can't even imagine
10:13
one of these technical miracles,
10:15
and you need at least five to make a Pantheon.
10:17
In my experience, these rare visionaries
10:20
who can think across the worlds of art,
10:23
design and engineering
10:24
have the ability to notice
10:26
when others have provided enough of the miracles
10:28
to bring the goal within reach.
10:31
Driven by the clarity of their vision,
10:34
they summon the courage and determination
10:36
to deliver the remaining miracles
10:39
and they often take what other people think to be
10:41
insurmountable obstacles
10:44
and turn them into features.
10:46
Take the oculus of the Pantheon.
10:48
By insisting that it be in the design,
10:51
it meant you couldn't use much
of the structural technology
10:53
that had been developed for Roman arches.
10:56
However, by instead embracing it
10:59
and rethinking weight and stress distribution,
11:02
they came up with a design that only works
11:04
if there's a big hole in the roof.
11:07
That done, you now get the aesthetic
11:09
and design benefits of light, cooling
11:12
and that critical direct connection with the heavens.
11:16
Not bad.
11:19
These people not only believed
11:21
that the impossible can be done,
11:23
but that it must be done.
11:26
Enough ancient history.
11:28
What are some recent examples of innovations
11:30
that combine creative design
11:34
and technological advances in a way so profound
11:35
that they will be remembered
11:39
a thousand years from now?
11:40
Well, putting a man on the moon was a good one,
11:42
and returning him safely to Earth wasn't bad either.
11:45
Talk about one giant leap:
11:48
It's hard to imagine a more profound moment
11:50
in human history
11:53
than when we first left our world
11:54
to set foot on another.
11:56
So what came after the moon?
11:58
One is tempted to say that today's pantheon
12:01
is the Internet,
12:03
but I actually think that's quite wrong,
12:05
or at least it's only part of the story.
12:07
The Internet isn't a Pantheon.
12:10
It's more like the invention of concrete:
12:13
important, absolutely necessary
12:15
to build the Pantheon,
12:18
and enduring,
12:19
but entirely insufficient by itself.
12:21
However, just as the technology of concrete
12:24
was critical in realization of the Pantheon,
12:27
new designers will use the
technologies of the Internet
12:30
to create novel concepts that will endure.
12:34
The smartphone is a perfect example.
12:37
Soon the majority of people on the planet
12:39
will have one,
12:41
and the idea of connecting everyone
12:42
to both knowledge and each other will endure.
12:44
So what's next?
12:48
What imminent advance will be
the equivalent of the Pantheon?
12:49
Thinking about this,
12:52
I rejected many very plausible
12:54
and dramatic breakthroughs to come,
12:56
such as curing cancer.
12:58
Why? Because Pantheons are anchored
13:00
in designed physical objects,
13:04
ones that inspire by simply seeing
13:07
and experiencing them,
13:09
and will continue to do so indefinitely.
13:10
It is a different kind of language, like art.
13:13
These other vital contributions that extend life
13:18
and relieve suffering are, of course, critical,
13:21
and fantastic,
13:23
but they're part of the continuum of
13:25
our overall knowledge and technology,
13:27
like the Internet.
13:29
So what is next?
13:32
Perhaps counterintuitively,
13:34
I'm guessing it's a visionary idea
13:36
from the late 1930s
13:38
that's been revived every decade since:
13:40
autonomous vehicles.
13:43
Now you're thinking, give me a break.
13:45
How can a fancy version of cruise control
13:47
be profound?
13:50
Look, much of our world
13:52
has been designed around
roads and transportation.
13:54
These were as essential to the success
13:58
of the Roman Empire
14:00
as the interstate highway system
14:01
to the prosperity and development
14:03
of the United States.
14:05
Today, these roads that interconnect our world
14:07
are dominated by cars and trucks
14:10
that have remained largely unchanged
14:12
for 100 years.
14:14
Although perhaps not obvious today,
14:17
autonomous vehicles will be the key technology
14:20
that enables us to redesign our cities
14:24
and, by extension, civilization.
14:28
Here's why:
14:30
Once they become ubiquitous,
14:31
each year, these vehicles will save
14:33
tens of thousands of lives in the United States alone
14:36
and a million globally.
14:39
Automotive energy consumption and air pollution
14:42
will be cut dramatically.
14:45
Much of the road congestion
14:47
in and out of our cities will disappear.
14:49
They will enable compelling new concepts
14:52
in how we design cities, work,
14:55
and the way we live.
14:58
We will get where we're going faster
15:00
and society will recapture vast amounts
15:02
of lost productivity
15:05
now spent sitting in traffic basically polluting.
15:06
But why now? Why do we think this is ready?
15:10
Because over the last 30 years,
15:13
people from outside the automotive industry
15:15
have spent countless billions
15:18
creating the needed miracles,
15:20
but for entirely different purposes.
15:21
It took folks like DARPA, universities,
15:24
and companies completely
outside of the automotive industry
15:27
to notice that if you were clever about it,
15:30
autonomy could be done now.
15:32
So what are the five miracles
needed for autonomous vehicles?
15:35
One, you need to know
15:38
where you are and exactly what time it is.
15:40
This was solved neatly by the GPS system,
15:43
Global Positioning System,
15:45
that the U.S. Government put in place.
15:46
You need to know where all the roads are,
15:49
what the rules are, and where you're going.
15:52
The various needs of personal navigation systems,
15:54
in-car navigation systems,
15:57
and web-based maps address this.
15:59
You must have near-continuous communication
16:02
with high-performance computing networks
16:04
and with others nearby
16:06
to understand their intent.
16:08
The wireless technologies
developed for mobile devices,
16:11
with some minor modifications,
16:14
are completely suitable to solve this.
16:16
You'll probably want some restricted roadways
16:19
to get started
16:22
that both society and its lawyers
16:23
agree are safe to use for this.
16:25
This will start with the HOV lanes
16:27
and move from there.
16:29
But finally, you need to recognize
16:31
people, signs and objects.
16:34
Machine vision, special sensors,
and high-performance computing
16:36
can do a lot of this,
16:39
but it turns out a lot is not good enough
16:40
when your family is on board.
16:43
Occasionally, humans will
need to do sense-making.
16:45
For this, you might actually have to wake up
16:48
your passenger and ask them what the hell
16:52
that big lump is in the middle of the road.
16:54
Not so bad, and it will give us a sense of purpose
16:57
in this new world.
16:59
Besides, once the first drivers explain
17:01
to their confused car
17:04
that the giant chicken at the fork in the road
17:05
is actually a restaurant,
17:08
and it's okay to keep driving,
17:09
every other car on the surface of the Earth
17:12
will know that from that point on.
17:15
Five miracles, mostly delivered,
17:18
and now you just need a clear vision
17:20
of a better world filled with autonomous vehicles
17:22
with seductively beautiful
and new functional designs
17:25
plus a lot of money and hard work
17:29
to bring it home.
17:31
The beginning is now only a handful of years away,
17:33
and I predict that autonomous vehicles
17:36
will permanently change our world
17:38
over the next several decades.
17:40
In conclusion, I've come to believe
17:44
that the ingredients for the next Pantheons
17:47
are all around us,
17:49
just waiting for visionary people
17:50
with the broad knowledge,
17:52
multidisciplinary skills,
17:54
and intense passion
17:56
to harness them to make their dreams a reality.
17:58
But these people don't spontaneously
18:03
pop into existence.
18:05
They need to be nurtured and encouraged
18:06
from when they're little kids.
18:08
We need to love them and help them
18:10
discover their passions.
18:12
We need to encourage them to work hard
18:14
and help them understand that failure
18:16
is a necessary ingredient for success,
18:18
as is perseverance.
18:21
We need to help them to find their own role models,
18:23
and give them the confidence
to believe in themselves
18:26
and to believe that anything is possible,
18:29
and just as my grandpa did when
he took me shopping for surplus,
18:32
and just as my parents did
18:35
when they took me to science museums,
18:37
we need to encourage them to find their own path,
18:39
even if it's very different from our own.
18:43
But a cautionary note:
18:45
We also need to periodically pry them away
18:47
from their modern miracles,
18:49
the computers, phones, tablets,
18:50
game machines and TVs,
18:52
take them out into the sunlight
18:54
so they can experience both the natural
18:56
and design wonders of our world,
18:58
our planet and our civilization.
19:01
If we don't, they won't understand
19:04
what these precious things are
19:07
that someday they will be resopnsible
19:08
for protecting and improving.
19:11
We also need them to understand
19:13
something that doesn't seem adequately appreciated
19:15
in our increasingly tech-dependent world,
19:18
that art and design
19:20
are not luxuries,
19:22
nor somehow incompatible
19:24
with science and engineering.
19:26
They are in fact essential to what makes us special.
19:28
Someday, if you get the chance,
19:33
perhaps you can take your kids
19:36
to the actual Pantheon,
19:37
as we will our daughter Kira,
19:39
to experience firsthand
19:42
the power of that astonishing design,
19:44
which on one otherwise unremarkable day in Rome,
19:48
reached 2,000 years into the future
19:52
to set the course for my life.
19:55
Thank you.
19:58
(Applause)
20:00

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About the speaker:

Bran Ferren - Technology designer
Once known for entertaining millions by creating special effects for Hollywood, theme parks and Broadway, Applied Minds cofounder Bran Ferren now solves impossible tech challenges with previously unimaginable inventions.

Why you should listen

After dropping out of MIT in 1970, Bran Ferren became a designer and engineer for theater, touring rock bands, and dozens of movies, including Altered States and Little Shop of Horrors, before joining Disney as a lead Imagineer, then becoming president of R&D for the Walt Disney Company.

In 2000, Ferren and partner Danny Hillis left Disney to found Applied Minds, a playful design and invention firm dedicated to distilling game-changing inventions from an eclectic stew of the brightest creative minds culled from every imaginable discipline.

More profile about the speaker
Bran Ferren | Speaker | TED.com