TEDxUofM speakers discuss chaos in a perfection-oriented world during 11th annual conference

Sunday, February 16, 2020 - 9:22pm

Eight speakers from the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor area spoke to a sold-out crowd in the Power Center for the Performing Arts at the 11th annual TEDxUofM conference Friday night. 

LSA junior Dar Sleeper, co-director of TEDxUofM, said in an interview with The Daily that the conference theme, “Entropy: Attraction to Disorder,” is about celebrating imperfection in an image-obsessed society. 

“To us, entropy kind of means the ability to lean into madness and make something beautiful,” Sleeper said. “So many times today, people are portrayed as perfect, people are portrayed as flawless and we’re trying to break that down.” 

One of the speakers, Raymond Kethledge, U.S. Circuit Judge and University alum, shared how moments of solitude are ever-fleeting. He said walks he would take as a student gave him time to be alone with his thoughts.

“If I did those walks today, I might instead be … looking at my phone, or I might be listening to a podcast, and if we’re doing either of those things, we’re not alone with our thoughts — we’re bringing someone else’s thoughts or someone else’s emotions, oftentimes not positive ones, inside our heads,” Kethledge said. “Because of these handheld devices and social media apps, that are quite deliberately designed to be addictive, solitude today is like a beautiful animal whose habitat is being destroyed.”

Speaker Sean Ahlquist, Taubman professor, talked about his journey in understanding how to best communicate with his daughter Ara, who is non-verbal and on the autism spectrum. He invited Ara onstage at the end of the talk to demonstrate how she could converse with her environment through interaction with sensory architecture Ahlquist created for her.

“Agency equals communication, that ability to lead the construction of a new shared experience. And the more of those we do, the more volumes of common grounds we create,” Ahlquist said. “For me, I found this as the one way that works to build that trust with someone who I want to celebrate is unique and celebrate the fact that they will always be very, very different than me.”

Speaker Jason Mars, former CEO of artificial intelligence-startup Clinc and associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, discussed his work with conversational AI.

Mars stepped down as CEO of Clinc last Monday amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment published in The Verge. Some called on TEDxUofM to remove Mars from the speaker lineup on social media. 

TEDxUofM organizers declined to comment on Mars speaking. The Daily was unable to interview Mars as it did with the other seven speakers. 

In his talk, Mars said advancements in AI are being made at a record pace, and his voice assistant built using conversational AI can learn from and reply to messy data, unlike modern voice assistants. Listing some of the most influential recent achievements in computing, Mars explained how they have made significant gains in the AI field possible. 

“You put these three things together; you’ve got data, compute, and the models, the substrates, that we can store intelligence — innovations in all those, and without any of the other pillars, we would not be able to do interesting AI,” Mars said. “We often romanticize the future, and then realize it.”

Speaker Devin Lytle, Buzzfeed video producer and University alum, talked about how many people are quick to discount teen girls for being passionate and involved in fangirl culture. She attributes this to people not realizing that teen girls’ online contributions on YouTube and TikTok frequently touch on deeper societal issues and are an important means of expression. 

At one point, Lytle pulled up an image of a crowd of women pushing up against a police cordon, yelling in excitement to see the Beatles. Lytle said when most see the photo, many easily dismiss the important role that fangirls play in the entertainment industry. 

“How come, when we think of the Beatles, we think of changing culture, but when we think of their fangirls, you know, the people who actually brought them across the pond, we only hear the screams?” Lytle said.

Speaker David Zinn, street artist and University alum, spoke about his experience as a street artist and how perspective plays a major role inspiring his art. Zinn also discussed the events that were especially formative in his experimentation with different mediums and styles of art.

In the talk, Zinn expressed the accessibility of street art compared to the more formal “capital A” art.

“I’ve only met one group of people that can just pick up a brush and make art without fear or self-doubt, and they’re all under the age of five,” Zinn said. “It’s actually easier to find inspiration on a canvas that isn’t blank.”

Speaker Phillis Engelbert, owner of Ann Arbor restaurants The Lunch Room Diner and Canteen, The Lunch Room Bakery and Cafe and Detroit Street Filling Station, said her restaurants have supported more than 125 employees in recovery from substance abuse. 

“Community-building is our mission, it is our business plan,” Engelbert said. “Our employees respond to the trust and care that we put into them by putting their best into the business. The intention is to support people in recovery, the result is a healthy business.”

In an interview with The Daily, Engelbert said with a news cycle rife with negative images of addicts, she hopes she can spread hope about recovery.

“There’s a lot of people out there in the shadows who are using, who don’t feel like they can talk about it, and don’t feel like they fit in and don’t feel like there’s a way out,” Engelbert said. “And to see the examples of these bright, young, shining faces doing so well, overcoming huge hurdles, that’s quite the example and quite a ray of hope for those who may be suffering.” 

Speaker and Information Senior Somya Bhagwagar, founder of @studentsofumich, stressed the need to keep up with the changing mediums of storytelling. Bhagwagar said @humansofny, an Instagram and Facebook page that posts portraits and stories about New York community members, inspired her to share diverse stories in her own community.

“I wanted my stories to take people out of their echo chambers,” Bhagwagar said. “I wanted to give them a perspective that they’ve never heard before, that they’ve never even experienced. And though I still act as a filtering mechanism to some extent, I aim to bring stories that have context, have discomfort and aren’t personalized or persuasive toward your comfort zone or taste.”

Speaker and University alum Desmond Howard, an ESPN college football analyst and Heisman Trophy winner, spoke about the importance of being coachable and seeking mentorship no matter how much talent a person might have. 

“There are too many people seeking attention, and can’t pay attention,” Howard said. “Chasing followers, chasing likes — it’s like inhaling and trying to exhale at the same time. … You need to slow down, be quiet, so then you can listen and you can observe, and you can learn from the people around you.”

In an interview with The Daily, Howard cited respect, punctuality and integrity as his keys to success. He then connected his football background to the conference theme. 

“Football is just like organized chaos … especially if you look at it from afar,” Howard said. “But there’s always, to me, some semblance of organization in there.” 

LSA sophomore Noelle Fleury attended the event and told The Daily she appreciated how a single theme could apply to a diversity of perspectives. She also said she liked how the speakers were sourced from the local community.

“I loved that everyone is associated with U of M in some way, it really shows the power that the University of Michigan has and the legacy that it carries on,” Fleury said. “My favorite part, obviously it’s about entropy, was to get different perspectives, from AI and from Buzzfeed and from a Heisman trophy winner and from all around … on one singular topic.”

Reporters Dominick Sokotoff and Julia Rubin can be reached at sokotoff@umich.edu and julrubin@umich.edu