TED: Ideas Worth Spreading

The Wunderkinder of TED

This year's TED conference showcased kids with extremely mature ideas

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James Duncan Davidson

15-year old Jack Andraka, inventor of a new screening test for cancer, speaks at TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered

The theme of this year’s TED is “Young, Wise, and Undiscovered,” and they weren’t exaggerating about the young part. Some of the biggest showstoppers at the annual event in Long Beach, Calif. — which included presentations by Sergey Brin and Bono — weren’t even old enough to have a driver’s license.

There was 13-year-old Richard Turere, a young Maasai who lives in the wilderness area of Kenya, who has been responsible for tending his family’s cattle since he was nine. He loved to take apart the few appliances in his house and teach himself how to fix them. Soon he began building electrical gadgets from components harvested from junkyards. His family had long been plagued by lions attacking their cattle, so Richard invented and installed an electrified fence that harmlessly scared them away. “I used to hate lions,” he said on stage in front of 1,500 attendees. “Now I don’t hate them anymore.”

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At 14, American Taylor Wilson became the youngest person to achieve fusion — with a reactor born in his garage. Now 18 years old, Taylor presented what he sees as one solution to our energy problem — small underground reactors that are self-contained and use decomissioned nuclear weapons to fuel power. “Some of you might be surprised because I had been working with fusion my whole life,” he said, to much laughter. “But today what I’m showing you is about the power of fission, not fusion.”

From Canada, two teenagers named Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao discovered a strain of bacteria from a nearby local river that naturally degrades phthalates, those compounds found in plastics that can harm human reproductive development. Wang and Yao envision a world where biologically engineered organisms can be used to erode our landfills and clean our environment.

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And then there was Jack Andraka, the Maryland kid whose emotional reaction after winning the Intel Science Fair prize last year as a high school freshman went viral. After a family friend died of pancreatic cancer, Jack created a paper sensor to detect the disease earlier and more accurately than existing methods and improve on the horribly low survival rate of 5.5%. The simple paper strips he invented can also be used to detect lung cancer and ovarian cancer. He ended his presentation with this humbling, yet inspiring message: “For a 15-year-old who didn’t know what a pancreas was to detect pancreatic cancer, just think what you could do.”

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