TED Talks are always a great way to explore new topics in various fields, so we pulled together 15 TED Talks about engineering topics that are fun, engaging, and help illuminate what’s going on in the field.
To Create for the Ages, Let’s Combine Art and Engineering
Bran Ferren, the co-founder of Applied Minds and a veteran special effects artist for movies, theme parks, and theaters, talks about his experience as a child discovering Rome’s Pantheon and how it inspired him to see how engineering marvels, when paired with an artistic eye, can build engineering projects that can stand the test of time.
The Greatest Machine That Never Was
John Graham-Cumming, a computer programmer and a technology and science history advocate, relates the history of Charles Babbage’s steam-powered “analytical engine” from the 1830s, the forerunner of the modern computer. He also talks about computer science hero, Ada Lovelace, a mathematician of the era who is widely credited with creating the first computer program ever written.
Building Blocks That Blink, Beep, and Teach
TED Fellow Ayah Bdeir presents a talk on littleBits, a set of interchangeable, electronic blocks that she developed to make electronics more accessible for people of all ages. The system comes with different connectors and allows anyone to build complex electronic circuits the way LEGO blocks made anyone capable of building whatever their imaginations could come up with.
How Germs Travel On Planes—And How We Can Stop Them
Presented by then 17-year-old Raymond Wang, this TED talk discusses his use of fluid dynamics to show how a pathogen from a sneeze can circulate through an airplane cabin and how a simple addition of a small, fin-shaped device can improve the quality of the air flowing through the cabin and actually take pathogens out of circulation entirely.
The Cheap All-Terrain Wheelchair
Amos Winter presents a TED talk on his work at MIT with a team of other researchers to develop a wheelchair meant to give those with physical disabilities more freedom of movement. Their all-terrain wheelchair allows the user greater mobility in off-road environments, opening up new possibilities for improved lifestyle choices for those who have disabilities, and demonstrates the kind of innovative use that engineering can be put to so as to improve the quality of people’s lives on a personal scale.
Sanitation is a Basic Human Right
Presented by Francis de los Reyes, this TED talk gets into the nitty-gritty of public infrastructure; namely, toilets and sanitation. For many people in the world, there is no sanitary place to defecate and this causes major public health challenges as human waste can contaminate a person's surroundings and drinking water. Reyes explores the necessity of developing cost-effective systems for public sanitation in developing countries.
Metal That Breathes
Doris Kim Sung was once a biology student but has since turned to architecture, so she brings to the field a perspective on materials that is fresh and innovative. Her interest in thermo-bimetals, or materials that behave dynamically as the temperature changes, has led her to present a talk on using these materials in modern construction. As the popularity of floor to ceiling windows grows, energy costs rise as additional cooling is required to keep things comfortable and Sung believes these materials are the future.
Shape-Shifting Tech Will Change Work As We Know It
Sean Follmer, a human-computer interface researcher and designer, presents a talk on the future of shape-shifting interfaces that we will use to interact with a variety of computer systems. He demonstrates several prototypes of this technology and gives a fresh perspective of how we can go beyond the standard touch screen displays of today.
The Unexpected Benefit of Celebrating Failure
The appropriately named Astro Teller presents a talk on his work as the “Captain of Moonshots” at X, formerly Google X, a self-described “moonshot factory” where big, audacious ideas are proposed and attempted. From balloon-powered Internet connections to mobile wind-powered turbines that move through the air, Teller explains that failure isn’t the end, but a step to bigger things beyond and that fear of failure is holding us back from greatness.
Why We Will Rely On Robots
Rodney Brooks addresses the automaton in the room when he challenges the idea that robots will replace human workers and so should be rightfully feared. He believes that robots can instead be collaborators in human society and can especially assist an aging population when there are too few human caregivers available.
My Solar-Powered Adventure
Bertrand Piccard presents a challenge to engineers in this TED Talk by describing his audacious plan to fly around the world, day and night, in a totally solar-powered plane. Rather than be scared off by claims that something is impossible, engineers should see such statements as a challenge to prove such sentiments wrong and achieve great things in the process.
A Solution For Building A Generation Of Inventors
As a mechanical engineer and the co-founder of the Imperial College Design Collective, Joachim Horn lays out in this TED talk his development of a toolset that he calls the “LEGO of the Internet generation.” With it, anyone could use the interface to begin developing their ideas, to draw and design new inventions, experiment with new concepts, and use a system that harnesses engineering principles to provide anyone with the potential to create the Next Big Thing of the future.
When Bad Engineering Makes A Natural Disaster Even Worse
TED Fellow Peter Haas presents a talk that every engineer should see. Describing the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, Haas says that it wasn’t a natural disaster at all. The problem, Haas says, is that “it was a disaster of engineering.” Badly designed structures collapsed all over the country, killing people who would not have died had proper engineering practices been used. The goal, Haas says, needs to be helping those who are building or rebuilding in the developing world to create structures that will withstand the forces of nature and make their countries stronger.