Keeping Up With The Curious Mind

There were lots of talks and seminars during Cannes this year—some of them good, some not so much. A few of the most outstanding speakers inspired the Cannes delegates. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Mick Ebeling, Jun Reikimoto, and Neil Harbisson all captivated me. 

The wonderful thing about these speakers was that even though they had different topics, a common thread ran through their talks: how the power of human imagination, when unleashed, can overcome physical limitations.


Tyson, the famed US astrophysicist, gave a talk titled “Cosmic Quandaries and Creativity.” It was about what truly creative people do, which is constantly exploring new ideas. Scientific curiosity is just as important for us in the ad industry. Tyson said, “It’s all related.” We work in a creative culture, and we solve problems. We try to make the complex simple. Just like scientists, we push boundaries and we sometimes discover and solve problems that we didn’t even know existed previously. Tyson cited the example of Sir Isaac Newton who, when confronted with the 1,500-year-old question of how planets move across the sky, went off and created a mathematical formula to explain it. Truly creative people, when faced with a new problem, apply the tools and knowledge they have to figure it out. It’s okay to make mistakes, because when pushing boundaries of creative thinking we are stepping out onto a frontier where no one has yet been. If we make mistakes, they are mistakes no one has made before, and we learn from them and improve. At the end of his talk, Tyson received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Ebeling, the CEO of Not Impossible Labs, a non-profit organization that uses crowdsourcing to solve previously difficult healthcare issues, also impressed the audience. His company operates on the philosophy that technology should benefit humanity. Working with Intel and a number of volunteers, he came up with Project Daniel, which involved building prosthetic limbs for a Sudanese boy who lost his arms in a bomb attack. What’s amazing is that Ebeling had never done anything like that before, but he flew into a Sudanese refugee camp and trained villagers to build artificial arms using cheap plastic materials and a 3D printer. He said he has a “healthy obsession with the concept of impossible.” There’s nothing in this world that has ever existed that wasn’t possible at one point. He even offered  $1,000 to anyone in the audience who could prove him wrong. We think something cannot be done until someone goes out and does it. His advice? “Commit. Then figure it out.”

Rekimoto, from Sony’s Computer Science Lab, is one of the pioneers in the field of augmented reality. Things have evolved quickly in this realm, and Rekimoto spoke on the topic of the augmented human—about fusing technology with people to increase our capabilities. The first interface of human-computer connection was the mouse, and now we are in the age of wearable interfaces. The next stage is a direct plug-in. Rekimoto demonstrated that human-embedded technology in sports enables us to learn and improve on the physical aspects of athletic performances. He highlighted a case study done for fencing using the 2012 Olympic Silver medalist as a test subject. By plugging in sensors that anticipate muscle response, track eye movement, monitor heart rate and measure foot pressure, he could predict an action before it even happens. This is an exciting new innovation.

Last but not least was Harbisson, the “Human Cyborg.” Harbisson was born with achromatopsia—total color blindness. He can only see in black and white. But he refused to accept his condition and kept pushing the boundaries of science and the impossible until he made it possible to experience different hues. It was a brilliant solution: He integrated the light spectrum frequencies of colors and matched them to the frequencies of sound. Harbisson then convinced a doctor to implant a computer chip into his skull and connected it to an antenna that protruded from his head so he could then “see” colors by hearing them—red had one unique sound, blue another, and so on. Hence the nickname the Human Cyborg. Harbisson mapped out all of these color/sound frequencies and soon was able to even paint pictures. He was an inspiration to everyone who heard him speak.

These four speakers stood out for their imagination and their “it-can-be-done” philosophy. If you can think it, you can build it. In the ad industry, there is an opportunity for us to connect art and creativity with science and engineering. But technology should never be the end goal without the purpose of touching people and improving lives. We’re in the business of selling stuff every day for clients. Maybe we should stop for a moment and ask ourselves: How can I do something good today? This is where we can make a difference.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a world-renowned author and professor of psychology, once said: “Creativity is a primary measure of our humanity.TWEET THAT!

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