Conversations on climate action and contact tracing: Week 2 at TED2020

For week 2 of TED2020, global leaders in climate, health and technology joined the TED community for insightful discussions around the theme “build back better.” Below, a recap of the week’s fascinating and enlightening conversations about how we can move forward, together.

“We need to change our relationship to the environment,” says Chile’s former environment minister Marcelo Mena. He speaks TED current affairs curator Whitney Pennington Rodgers at TED2020: Uncharted on May 26, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Marcelo Mena, environmentalist and former environment minister of Chile

Big idea: People power is the antidote to climate catastrophe.

How? With a commitment to transition to zero emissions by 2050, Chile is at the forefront of resilient and inclusive climate action. Mena shares the economic benefits instilling green solutions can have on a country: things like job creation and reduced cost of mobility — all the result of actions like sustainability-minded actions like phasing out coal-fired power plants and creating fleets of energy-efficient busses. Speaking to the air of social unrest across South America, Mena traces how climate change fuels citizen action, sharing how protests have led to green policies being enacted. There will always be those who do not see climate change as an imminent threat, he says, and economic goals need to align with climate goals for unified and effective action. “We need to change our relationship to the environment,” Mena says. “We need to protect and conserve our ecosystems so they provide the services that they do today.”


“We need to insist on the future being the one that we want, so that we unlock the creative juices of experts and engineers around the world,” says Nigel Topping, UK High Level Climate Action Champion, COP26. He speaks with TED Global curator Bruno Giussani at TED2020: Uncharted on May 26, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Nigel Topping, UK High Level Climate Action Champion, COP26

Big idea: The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to break from business as usual and institute foundational changes that will speed the world’s transition to a greener economy. 

How? Although postponed, the importance of COP26 — the UN’s international climate change conference — has not diminished. Instead it’s become nothing less than a forum on whether a post-COVID world should return to old, unsustainable business models, or instead “clean the economy” before restarting it. In Topping’s view, economies that rely on old ways of doing business jeopardize the future of our planet and risk becoming non-competitive as old, dirty jobs are replaced by new, cleaner ones. By examining the benefits of green economics, Topping illuminates the positive transformations happening now and leverages them to inspire businesses, local governments and other economic players to make radical changes to business as usual. “From the bad news alone, no solutions come. You have to turn that into a motivation to act. You have to go from despair to hope, you have to choose to act on the belief that we can avoid the worst of climate change… when you start looking, there is evidence that we’re waking up.”


“Good health is something that gives us all so much return on our investment,” says Joia Mukherjee. Shes speaks with head of TED Chris Anderson at TED2020: Uncharted on May 27, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Joia Mukherjee, Chief Medical Officer, Partners in Health (PIH)

Big idea: We need to massively scale up contact tracing in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and safely reopen communities and countries.

How? Contact tracing is the process of identifying people who come into contact with someone who has an infection, so that they can be quarantined, tested and supported until transmission stops. The earlier you start, the better, says Mukherjee — but, since flattening the curve and easing lockdown measures depend on understanding the spread of the disease, it’s never too late to begin. Mukherjee and her team at PIH are currently supporting the state of Massachusetts to scale up contact tracing for the most vulnerable communities. They’re employing 1,700 full-time contact tracers to investigate outbreaks in real-time and, in partnership with resource care coordinators, ensuring infected people receive critical resources like health care, food and unemployment benefits. With support from The Audacious Project, a collaborative funding initiative housed at TED, PIH plans to disseminate its contact tracing expertise across the US and support public health departments in slowing the spread of COVID-19. “Good health is something that gives us all so much return on our investment,” Mukherjee says. See what you can do for this idea »


Google’s Chief Health Office Karen DeSalvo shares the latest on the tech giant’s critical work on contact tracing. She speaks with head of TED Chris Anderson at TED2020: Uncharted on May 27, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Karen DeSalvo, Chief Health Officer, Google

Big idea: We can harness the power of tech to combat the pandemic — and reshape the future of public health.

How? Google and Apple recently announced an unprecedented partnership on the COVID-19 Exposure Notifications API, a Bluetooth-powered technology that would tell people they may have been exposed to the virus. The technology is designed with privacy at its core, DeSalvo says: it doesn’t use GPS or location tracking and isn’t an app but rather an API that public health agencies can incorporate into their own apps, which users could opt in to — or not. Since smartphones are so ubiquitous, the API promises to augment contact tracing and help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Overall, the partnership between tech and public health is a natural one, DeSalvo says; communication and data are pillars of public health, and a tech giant like Google has the resources to distribute those at a global scale. By helping with the critical work of contact tracing, DeSalvo hopes to ease the burden on health workers and give scientists time to create a vaccine. “Having the right information at the right time can make all the difference,” DeSalvo says. “It can literally save lives.”

After the conversation, Karen DeSalvo was joined by Joia Mukherjee to further discuss how public health entities can partner with tech companies. Both DeSalvo and Mukherjee emphasize the importance of knitting together the various aspects of public health systems — from social services to housing — to create a healthier and more just society. They also both emphasize the importance of celebrating community health workers, who provide on-the-ground information and critical connection with people and across the world.

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Learning AI at school — a peek into the black box

“In the near future, perhaps sooner than we think, virtually everyone will need a basic understanding of the technologies that underpin machine learning and artificial intelligence.” — from the 2018 Informatics Europe & EUACM report about machine learning

As the quote above highlights, AI and machine learning (ML) are increasingly affecting society and will continue to change the landscape of work and leisure — with a huge impact on young people in the early stages of their education.

But how are we preparing our young people for this future? What skills do they need, and how do we teach them these skills? This was the topic of last week’s online research seminar at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, with our guest speaker Juan David Rodríguez Garcia. Juan’s doctoral studies around AI in school complement his work at the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training in Spain.

Juan David Rodríguez Garcia

Juan’s LearningML tool for young people

Juan started his presentation by sharing numerous current examples of AI and machine learning, which young people can easily relate to and be excited to engage with, and which will bring up ethical questions that we need to be discussing with them.

Of course, it’s not enough for learners to be aware of AI applications. While machine learning is a complex field of study, we need to consider what aspects of it we can make accessible to young people to enable them to learn about the concepts, practices, and skills underlying it. During his talk Juan demonstrated a tool called LearningML, which he has developed as a practical introduction to AI for young people.

Screenshot of a demo of Juan David Rodríguez Garcia's LearningML tool

Juan demonstrates image recognition with his LearningML tool

LearningML takes inspiration from some of the other in-development tools around machine learning for children, such as Machine Learning for Kids, and it is available in one integrated platform. Juan gave an enticing demo of the tool, showing how to use visual image data (lots of pictures of Juan with hats, glasses on, etc.) to train and test a model. He then demonstrated how to use Scratch programming to also test the model and apply it to new data. The seminar audience was very positive about the LearningML, and of course we’d like it translated into English!

Juan’s talk generated many questions from the audience, from technical questions to the key question of the way we use the tool to introduce children to bias in AI. Seminar participants also highlighted opportunities to bring machine learning to other school subjects such as science.

AI in schools — what and how to teach

Machine learning demonstrates that computers can learn from data. This is just one of the five big ideas in AI that the AI4K12 group has identified for teaching AI in school in order to frame this broad domain:

  1. Perception: Computers perceive the world using sensors
  2. Representation & reasoning: Agents maintain models/representations of the world and use them for reasoning
  3. Learning: Computers can learn from data
  4. Natural interaction: Making agents interact comfortably with humans is a substantial challenge for AI developers
  5. Societal impact: AI applications can impact society in both positive and negative ways

One general concern I have is that in our teaching of computing in school (if we touch on AI at all), we may only focus on the fifth of the ‘big AI ideas’: the implications of AI for society. Being able to understand the ethical, economic, and societal implications of AI as this technology advances is indeed crucial. However, the principles and skills underpinning AI are also important, and how we introduce these at an age-appropriate level remains a significant question.

Illustration of AI, Image by Seanbatty from Pixabay

There are some great resources for developing a general understanding of AI principles, including unplugged activities from Computer Science For Fun. Yet there’s a large gap between understanding what AI is and has the potential to do, and actually developing the highly mathematical skills to program models. It’s not an easy issue to solve, but Juan’s tool goes a little way towards this. At the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we’re also developing resources to bridge this educational gap, including new online projects building on our existing machine learning projects, and an online course. Watch this space!

AI in the school curriculum and workforce

All in all, we seem to be a long way off introducing AI into the school curriculum. Looking around the world, in the USA, Hong Kong, and Australia there have been moves to introduce AI into K-12 education through pilot initiatives, and hopefully more will follow. In England, with a computing curriculum that was written in 2013, there is no requirement to teach any AI or machine learning, or even to focus much on data.

Let’s hope England doesn’t get left too far behind, as there is a massive AI skills shortage, with millions of workers needing to be retrained in the next few years. Moreover, a recent House of Lords report outlines that introducing all young people to this area of computing also has the potential to improve diversity in the workforce — something we should all be striving towards.

We look forward to hearing more from Juan and his colleagues as this important work continues.

Next up in our seminar series

If you missed the seminar, you can find Juan’s presentation slides and a recording of his talk on our seminars page.

In our next seminar on Tuesday 2 June at 17:00–18:00 BST / 12:00–13:00 EDT / 9:00–10:00 PDT / 18:00–19:00 CEST, we’ll welcome Dame Celia Hoyles, Professor of Mathematics Education at University College London. Celia will be sharing insights from her research into programming and mathematics. To join the seminar, simply sign up with your name and email address and we’ll email the link and instructions. If you attended Juan’s seminar, the link remains the same.

The post Learning AI at school — a peek into the black box appeared first on Raspberry Pi.

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#FreePCB via Twitter to 2 random RTs

Every Tuesday we give away two coupons for the free PCB drawer via Twitter. This post was announced on Twitter, and in 24 hours we’ll send coupon codes to two random retweeters. Don’t forget there’s free PCBs three times a every week:

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