TEDxAUCollege | The intriguing concept of genetic algorithms

The intriguing concept of genetic algorithms

If you’ve ever delved into the realm of science fiction, then you might be pretty familiar with the concept of autonomous machines–killer robots that have broken free from the will of their creators. While it may seem far-fetched, autonomous machines are a near reality with genetic algorithms to pave the way.  But what are genetic algorithms?

All AI are based on algorithms that dictate their actions. However, genetic algorithms allow their actions to evolve – they are essentially self-modifying algorithms. Genetic algorithms bring machines to a closer level to humans, as they require experience for self-improvement and to better adapt to their environment. Take a self-driving car for example: in order to drive better, the cars must drive more instead of relying on humans for reprogramming. With the right programming, driverless cars can be optimized to protect their passengers.

Now here’s a curious question: could genetic algorithms allow a machine to evolve to the point of self-awareness? There is no definite answer, but the implications of this possible scenario are numerous. What if we were to program a survival element into a machine through genetic programming? Already, driverless cars will require programming to survive accidents, but what about autonomous weapons? What if machines were self-aware enough to sense our dissatisfaction with them? Would they feel threatened, thus triggering their survival instincts to work against the human race? This scenario sounds dangerously close to Skynet­, the AI hive mind you might know from the Terminator franchise.

While this sounds terrifying, yet intriguing, it is doubtful that the destruction of humanity will be at the hands of killer robots. Instead, other consequences will arise from the development of autonomous machines. Highly skilled and capable AI will create a new workforce in the form of machinery–manufacturing jobs, and other menial tasks will no longer be human work. But AI won’t solely be restricted to menial labor. Sophisticated AI could be used to diagnose patients as well, possibly rendering human doctors obsolete. Already, AI is being developed for medical diagnosis (think back to our last salon event!).  Some experts argue that the use of AI in the medical field will not take humans out of the picture, but rather just transform their role.

It is interesting, as well as daunting, to make predictions about what genetic algorithms in AI will bring. However, for now all is yet to be decided. Learning machines and decision-making machines are concerning to many, yet these machines have the potential to improve lives. And while they will have a significant impact on human employment, AI also has the ability to elevate the efficiency of certain tasks. In the meantime, we just have driverless cars to look forward to.

The Gut-Brain Axis

-Ellie Swan

Imagine yourself standing alone in a room. Even when there are no other people or animals around, we are constantly surrounded by tiny beings. These beings are microorganisms such as bacteria. Now, most of us are used to the notion of ‘Germs are bad’. We are taught from a young age to protect ourselves using barriers such as our skin or latex gloves, and practicing daily habits such as washing hands, taking showers or disinfecting surfaces. Ultimately, however, any attempt to keep bacteria away from us is futile. Despite our best efforts to keep them out, many microbes are actually inside of us.

The average human is comprised of approximately 37.2 trillion cells. In addition to this, there are around 39 trillion bacterial cells residing within each of us. A majority of these microbes live in our gut, or intestines. Contrary to our preconceptions, we actually rely on the microbes to perform many bodily functions. Surprisingly, the symbiotic relationship between gut bacteria and the human body has been around for as long as our species has existed and is essential for our survival.

Over millenia, the gut microbiome and the human brain have evolved to not only coexist, but to communicate with one another. The hypothesis that our gut and brain are linked was first notably discovered in the 1820s when the army physician William Beaumont was presented with a patient who had been hit by a bullet to the abdomen. The hole created by the bullet never healed properly, leaving the now infamous patient in a unique state. Dr. Beaumont used this unusual wound to broaden his knowledge on human digestion, whereby he discovered a link between digestion of food and the patient’s emotional state. In recent years, there has been increasing study on the connection between our intestines and our brain, a concept which we now call the gut-brain axis. As of current knowledge of human physiology, the bacteria which colonize our gut communicate with our brain and vice versa. In this way, microbiota have been shown to influence and be influenced by our mental health and emotions.

So how do the brain and gut communicate?

In terms of communication pathways, one key component is the enteric nervous system (ENS). This part of the peripheral nervous system is comprised of the nerve cells lining your GI tract and mainly relays information involved in controlling digestion. A particularly new and interesting field of research around the ENS are the so-called neuropods. Neuropods are processes belonging to enteroendocrine cells, a cell type which lines the inner wall of the small intestine, facing the intestinal lumen. In response to information sensed from bacteria or food passing them in the gut, the enteroendocrine cells relay signals along the neuropods which synapse (connect with) afferent nerve fibers, thus carrying the information directly to the brain. The connection between these cells and the brain is formed by the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve, 10th of the cranial nerves, sends signals bi-directionally (two and from the brain) as it contains both afferent and efferent fibers.

If the Vagus nerve is the highway, then neurotransmitters are the cars travelling along it. Commonly, we assume that neurotransmitters are primarily concerned with the brain and thus produced and active there. While this is largely correct, some neurotransmitters are actually produced in the gut. For example, serotonin, which contributes to feelings of happiness and GABA, which reigns in feelings of fear or anxiety are among those chemicals which are produced in the intestines in addition to the brain. Apart from neurotransmitters, the gut also produces short-chain fatty acids which affect the brain in a number of ways, for example by influencing appetite, as well as some substances with immune functions, involved in inflammatory response. Collectively, substances produced or present in both the brain and gut can travel via nerve pathways or the blood stream to exert a specific effect on their target organs.

Since imbalances in gut microbiota are linked to disease, you could ask what the ideal ratio of bacteria for optimal health is. Unfortunately for us, there is no answer to this question. Regardless of health status, the structure of the microbiome varies between individuals.

Shaped early in life by birth delivery mode, breast feeding, use of antibiotics and throughout our life by our lifestyles, our microbiomes are unique in many ways. Before birth, our intestines are largely sterile, void of any bacterial content. At delivery, our bodies are populated mainly by our mothers’ vaginal bacteria. Babies born by c-section lack this dousing in essential bacteria, thus the effects of this are a hot topic in current gastrointestinal research labs. Throughout life, the structure of the microbiome changes in response to environmental factors, while a ratio of certain phyla should (and usually does) stay constant to maintain bodily health. The dominant phyla in the gut throughout human life are firmicutes and bacteroidetes. The ratio between these two phyla is used as a biomarker for gut health. A more diverse microbiome is associated with good health in general, while exercise has been shown to increase microbial diversity along with other factors.

One field in which many scientists have explored the connection between brain and gut is stress research. Since it is actually your microbiome that regulates processes in the brain, scientists have been led to believe that neurological malfunctions may be ameliorated by targeting the bacteria in our intestines.  Confirming this hypothesis, mouse studies have shown that the structure of gut microbiota changes in response to stress, entering a state termed ‘stress-induced dysbiosis’. While stress alters the microbiome, altering the population of bacteria in our bodies has been shown to alter the expression of proteins in the brain, which ultimately influences stress response. When comparing germ-free mice (those that were bred to contain no bacteria and kept in sterile environments) to regular mice, an increased stress response was found in the germ-free variety. Despite only being exposed to light stressors, the sterile mice produced excess amounts of stress hormones, proinflammatory cytokines and exhibited an increased permeability of the blood brain barrier as well as decreased levels of serotonin (the happiness hormone). As part of experiments with therapeutic approaches to stress, chronic administration of a type of lactobacillus bacteria revealed marked reductions in anxiety-like and depressive behaviors. As a result, we are able to confirm that stress and gut bacteria function as part of a two-way path: Stress exposure influences an organism’s microbiota composition and at the same time, microbial populations can shape the way an organism responds to stress.

Germ-free mice were used not only for stress research, but have also successfully led medical research in the direction of potential therapeutic application of our knowledge about the gut-brain axis. In these studies, the lack of gut colonization caused social behavior deficits in the mice. Germ-free mice are not able to interact with there cage-mates in the same way regular mice do. This is attributed to a decrease in the synthesis and metabolism of neurotransmitter precursors and short chain fatty acids which apparently usually exert important effects on the brain. Lacking the microbiota that produce these neurotransmitters, the mice cannot function properly in a social setting. As part of the experiment, researchers extracted microbiota from healthy (regular) mice and transplanted them into the germ-free mice. The behavioral deficits from before were vastly improved, thus opening the door for bacterial transplant therapies in the future of medical practice.

Apparently, the common notion bacteria having solely detrimental effects on human health and well-being is unfounded. Most bacteria in our bodies actually perform vital function especially in terms of brain development and neurological processes throughout life. Future research into the depths of our GI tracts may allow scientists to come up with new ideas about how to treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s, depression and chronic stress, giving us hope in an ever growing field of medical conundrums.

A Review of Physicalism

-Luuk Kuiper

Back, in the grim times of the middle ages religion and the church provided all the knowledge for the people. Their words where truth and their words only. In the modern-day religion’s task of providing truth has been mostly passed on to science. It is more than fair to say that we live in a world where science has become our primary source of information. Because of this knowledge is very often seen, in the west at least, as a purely physical thing and people often presuppose that physical knowledge could explain everything. The belief that reality can be fully explained by physical properties, and with that, the belief that non-physical properties do not exist, is called (reducible) physicalism. And in this essay, I would like to discuss if this belief is justified? 

And there so happens to be a famous thought experiment and corresponding argument that tries to problematize physicalism: The Knowledge Argument. The Knowledge Argument tries to establish that conscious experience relies not only on physical properties but also non-physical properties. It is one of the most prominent arguments against physicalism and was introduced in 1982 by philosopher Frank Jackson. He introduced The Knowledge Argument to show that there are non-physical aspects to experience. He did this through a thought experiment called ‘Mary’s Room’, also known as ‘Mary in the black and white room’ and it goes as follows:

Imagine a woman called Mary, she has lived in a black and white room all her life. She reads black and white books and all her electronics only display black and white. She has also studied neuroscience all her life. She is especially an expert on the subject of perception of colour in the brain. She knows all the physical facts about it, how light works in order to create the different colour wavelengths, the biological impact, et cetera. You could say that Mary is aware of all physical facts about colour and colour perception. Then after living all her life in black and white, her study is complete and she is handed an apple. And with that she sees the colour red for the very first time, and learns something new; what red looks like.

He concludes his thought experiment by stating:

But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.
     –    Frank Jackson (1982)

He states that not all knowledge is physical, in other words, knowledge, in fact, relies on non-physical properties and thus everything can’t be explained by physical facts alone and thus physicalism is false. The non-physical knowledge referenced are called qualia. Qualia are things like the smell of ammonia or the feeling of being tickled. These things can be described but if described to a person who doesn’t experience any qualia, this theoretical being has been named a philosophical zombie, the person will never understand it; an example is trying to explain the smell of something to someone who can’t smell, or colour to a blind person.

So is modern (western) culture just blatantly wrong? Has the proof that society is wrong been available since 1982 and we’re just now finding out. Should we start rioting in our universities and throw the physicalist regime to the ground? Well, no. It would be a little hasty and dramatic to conclude this as we should always remain skeptical and that is what philosophers have done since 1982.

Others have argued that Mary would recognize the colors when seeing them based again on her complete physical knowledge. Her reaction to seeing the apple would be something along the lines of “oh, so this is red” and she wouldn’t learn anything new. However, philosopher Dennett argued an example called the blue banana trick. Arguing that the only reason why she would say “oh, so this is red” is because she would recognize the apple and know they are supposed to be red. And so if shown a blue banana she would say that it’s yellow. However the most common reaction to this argument is simply that she wouldn’t be fooled since she, you guessed it, has all the physical knowledge there is to acquire about colour.

Some philosophers have doubted the thought experiment itself. Pointing out that Mary could, in fact, imagine the colour experience because of her complete physical knowledge. In turn, the most common reaction to this argument by knowledge argument supporters is simply doubting the claim.

The knowledge argument makes a strong case against physicalism but it’s definitely not a closed and shut case. Jackson even changed sides on his own thought experiment. Stating that science could offer other explanations for the seeming difference in knowledge. Jacksons switch of side didn’t stop the pro-side from supporting the knowledge argument however. So it seems like the debate will probably rage on for years to come. This may not be a very satisfactory conclusion but I’d like to point out that the main takeaway from this discussion is that it’s important to remain skeptical about our presuppositions because they aren’t always as cut and dry as they seem. So stay skeptical.

Sources used:

The uncertain future of masculinity — What’s your type?

-Ellie Swan

Birth control is a complicated topic. Whether or not it should be legal, available over the counter, at schools, or free are questions repeatedly being asked in the political sphere. On a smaller scale, in terms of personal decision-making, however, individual women are confronted with making choices about contraceptives. Many are flabbergasted by the choice of whether or not to use contraception and further by the choice between the many available options, from implants, to IUDs, to oral options. One of the most widely used forms of hormonal contraception is the infamous pill. Now most people are aware that the drugs contained in the pill have certain side effects on the body. The typical worries about weight gain or mood swings are known to many and are experienced by a majority of users. One aspect of the pill that often remains in the dark, however, is the effects it has on our brain.

When ingested, the pill releases hormones into the blood stream which inhibit the release of a hormone from the pituitary gland in the brain which ultimately prevents ovulation of eggs within the ovaries. Interestingly, however, the pill exerts further effects on the brain involving changes in behavior. This should actually not come as a surprise, since we have known for years that hormones are able to influence behavior. In this way, birth control pills have been shown to alter women’s perception of a man’s attractiveness. Odds are, when asking a woman ‘What’s your type?’ before and several years after taking oral contraceptives, you are likely to receive a different answer.

This concept was excellently illuminated in a TEDxVienna event, whereby Sarah E. Hill discussed ‘Women’s Brains and the Birth Control Pill’. As a research psychologist, Hill is particularly interested in women’s sexual decision making and relationship psychology. During her research, she found that women taking the pill lack the usual preference for testosterone markers in men. Instead of a deep voice, a masculine, chiseled, bearded face and muscular appearance, pill-takers prefer softer, more feminine looking men. This is attributed to the absence of a cyclical estrogen urge which causes women to naturally prefer romantic partners with qualities linked to masculinity and higher testosterone. The change in preference does not only apply to short-term sexual partners but also long-term relationships. In studies, a majority of women taking oral contraception showed marked preference for more feminine-looking men; compared to women on a natural cycle who preferred more masculine-looking men. Now, this has a plethora of consequences. For starters, a pill-taking woman, having chosen a partner based on sexual preference rooted in her artificially-altered hormone balance, may feel relationship dissatisfaction when coming off the pill, because her natural hormones would cause her to be sexually attracted to man with a different appearance. Beyond this, the altered partner preference may change attraction and relationship data on demographic scale. Since increasing numbers in women are taking birth control, the population may skew to favor the reproduction of women with less-masculine looking men, thus changing the appearance of the population at large.

So is masculinity going extinct? For now, there are sufficient heterosexual females who prefer a male face chock-full of testosterone markers to counteract the effect the pill is having on partner preference. While we now know that oral contraceptives impact female bodies in ways far beyond the mere reproductive organs, the effects on the brain are numerous and still largely unstudied, thus giving incentive for further research by psychologists and neurobiologists like Sarah Hill.

Genetic Superpowers of Sherpa’s

-Patrick Fairweather

Mount Everest. It is the tallest mountain in the world, standing at 8848 meters tall on the border between China, Tibet, and Nepal. Over the last couple of years it has become popular to try and climb it. Starting from base camp, all climbers are instantly faced with the blistering cold. During the summer the average temperature is around -20C and in the winter it can get as cold as -40C. When combined with winds of over 160 km/h, there’s a real chance that parts of your body will freeze and die off: frostbite. If climbers aren’t careful, the weather can literally cause them to freeze to death. The mountain is littered with dead bodies, some of which are used as landmarks.

A bit higher up the mountain and the altitude really starts to kick in. Climbers become unable to eat and sleep properly, and their mental acuity begins to decline. Many of them get a pounding headache, nausea, and dizziness; acute mountain sickness. In some cases, the body misinterprets the hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and counter-productively expels fluid into the lungs or brain. If the climber does not retreat to a lower altitude and get treatment, death is often inevitable.

Assuming the initial altitude sickness has been overcome, the danger increases exponentially as ascending continues. Above 8000 meters, climbers enter the Death Zone. Oxygen levels are so low that the body begins to shut down as there is simply not enough oxygen to fuel it. Judgement becomes impaired, and the risks for severe high-altitude sickness, heart-attacks, and strokes reach unmatched levels.

Yet there is one community that thrives in these extreme circumstances: the Sherpa’s. They are an indigenous ethnic group to the Himalaya area and have lived there for at least 6000 years. They are much less likely to get altitude sickness, produce up to 30% more power at altitude, have more blood-vessels in their muscles, and have larger chests and lungs. Their bodies use oxygen much more efficiently, despite surprisingly having less haemoglobin and mitochondria in their blood. The amount of creatine phosphates in their body, molecules which can be used as an additional energy source, increases with altitude. In non-Sherpa’s these levels decrease at altitude. And these superpowers are not just due to acclimatisation: if a Sherpa was raised in the Netherlands, he or she would still have these characteristics. Interestingly, other high altitude populations in the world do not share the same superhero genetics.

To understand these Sherpa superpowers, we need to delve deep into history. When our ancestors migrated from Africa some 60,000 years ago, they were not the only ones. The Neanderthals made this journey too, and so did the lesser known Denisovans. The Denisovans are one of our most mysterious hominid cousins, discovered only in 2008. We have only found a very small amount of their fossils: one finger bone, two teeth, a toe bone, and part of a jaw bone. In-depth analysis suggests that Denisovans had sloped foreheads, wide hips, and a much longer jaw (the distance from their front teeth to their molars). They migrated to a large area spreading from Siberia to Southeast Asia. It is thought that they lived predominantly at high altitudes, and through ancient interbreeding with our modern ancestors the high-altitude genes have been passed on to the Sherpa community and some communities in Tibet. Our DNA still contains some genetics traces of unknown species of human, ones we have never found archaeological evidence of. It is incredible how we know there were multiple human species just by looking at our own DNA, and it is fair to say that there could be many findings like the Sherpa genetics to come in the future.

Due to their aptitude for climbing, many people of the Sherpa community have become mountain climbing guides. Commercial expedition groups hire them in order to increase the chance of reaching the summit. They end up having to do all of the dangerous work, like laying out the safest routes before the climbing season starts and hauling all of the clients’ luggage up the mountain. The Sherpa’s have to make up for what the clients lack, which from a genetic point of view alone is significant. Most people are simply not made for living – let alone climbing – at such extreme altitudes. Many Sherpa’s lose their life as climbing guides trying to make a living for their poor families. People should only climb mountains such as Everest if they have the skills and experience to do so, instead of relying on the superheroes that are Sherpa’s.

Movie Magic: Resurrecting the dead

-Luuk Kuiper

The use of computer-generated imagery, or CGI for short, has been ingrained in modern film making. It has uplifted our imaginations and made it possible for the incredible things to be shown on film. Revolutionizing genres like Sci-Fi and action to be grander and more spectacular than ever. It even gave us some of the most memorable characters in modern film history. With films like Avatar (2009), the second highest grossing film ever, having CGI main characters. The power of CGI doesn’t stop at explosions, spaceships and alien races, however. We are starting to see more and more uses of CGI to bring deceased actors back to life. For example, Paul Walker’s appearance in Fast and Furious 7 three years after his death and CGI even made it possible for Peter Cushing to appear in Rogue One nearly two decades after his passing. But what exactly does this technology mean for the future of film?

The use of CGI to bring deceased actors back to the big screen is not a new practice. The first use of this technology was 25 years ago. After Brandon Lee’s tragic passing on the set of The Crow (1994) the film was finished tracking his face onto his stunt double. Making this happen was at that time a huge amount of work and thus scenes were shot in a manner where his face was obstructed most of the time. Making the final workload for the visual effects department lighter. Over time the technology behind this has been greatly improved. Making it possible for anyone with a decently powerful computer to render someone’s likeness onto others. Aspects of the technology even got adapted into the mainstream with companies like SnapChat becoming leaders in face tracking technology. Making it possible for even our phones to track our face and apps like FaceApp even being able to digitally age our faces. 

Using actor’s likenesses to finish filming or even keep someone inside a films universe after their passing is clearly not something new. People were however shocked when it was announced that James Dean would star in a film about Vietnam. Using his likeness has been greenlighted by his family, so legally everything checks out. But that didn’t stop many famous actors to speak out against the casting. James Dean won’t star as the lead, but he’ll still be a major character in the film. This performance will set a major precedent for future use of the likeness of actors. In the past, the process of replacing facing was a hard task, due to it mainly being hand tracked by animators. A very time consuming and thus expensive process. These limitations are why the technology was worked around,  for example by giving recreated actors limited screen time to reduce both the workload and the associated cost. However, with the state of modern computers, it has become possible to let computers do more and more of these very meticulous jobs, like tracking someone’s face. Moreover, this new James Dean film shows that the technology has reached a point of eficiency where studios are confident enough to cast deceased actors in major roles. And with the technology behind it still being developed further this won’t be the last time it happens too.

This has the potential to change the film industry forever. The technology undoubtedly has amazing potential. Giving filmmakers the opportunity to finish films where the actors pass away during production. Now even making films starring long passed actors. There is, however an inherent risk with this new use of the adaptation. Famed actors bring in a lot of viewers to the film theaters. Most people love seeing their favorite actor ‘surprise’ them with another outstanding performance, rather than take a risk on an obscure film with unknown actors. And this use of CGI gives filmmakers the power to make essentially an endless amount of films starring the same actors, regardless of if they are alive. Every film could be a 100% star filled cast, with even the smallest roles filled with the perfect A-list celebrity actor for the part. Making a career as an aspiring film actor is hard enough as it is. Image how hard it would be in a world where you’re competing against famous and even legendary actors like James Dean or Keanu Reeves for every role. A fight that for mainstream films is most certainly impossible. Moreover, after a hundred years what would the film industry evolve to? Would the industry just use a homogeneous actor pool filled only with those amazing actors we already know and love?

Thank you for following this live blog by Red Pers & AWE!

After eight interesting TED-talks, amazing performances, and around 40 blogposts on this page, we would like to thank you for following this year’s TEDxAUCollege event. We hope you either enjoyed the show at the KIT Royal Tropical Institute, or you were able to have the TED-experience via this page!

This live blog was brought to you by the reporters of Red Pers and Are We Europe.


michiel van elk | neuroenchantment – superplacebo?

“In the next 15 minutes, I will show you how you can achieve to experience the fifth dimension”, such a promising opening statement of tonight’s last speaker Michel van Elk!

Despite his academic and personal achievements, Michel van Elk has suffered from a depression. When he decided to visit a psychologist, he got introduced to the concept of neuroenchantement.


Van Elk stresses that neuroenchantment might well be a superplacebo: “Many people are fascinated by the idea of what medicine can do for us. They use brain stimulation or neurofeedback to feel or perform better. People are mesmerized by the promises of science these days. Especially because of the high expectations people have of neuroscience, it might even serve as a superplacebo. In one study, we told people that they could experience enhanced or impaired brain performance during the experiment. We found out that people blamed their brain for impaired performance, instead of taking responsibility themselves.”


“I also found that especially people with a very vivid imagination seem to profit from the promises of neuroenchantement. Many people report having supernatural experiences: they heard voices, saw themselves from an out-of-body perspective.” Van Elk continuous his talk by discussing one of his later studies. Participants who were told that a so-called ‘God helmet’, that stimulated their neurofunctioning, was turned on reported having experienced more supernatural experiences than those participants who thought the God helmet was turned off. But there was a catch: the helmet was turned off in both situations. Neuroenchantment as a placebo.


 “What are we left to do? Is there any hope? I believe that spiritual experiences improve our well-being. Having meaningful spiritual experiences has a positive expects of how we feel. We should all look for our meaningful spiritual experiences. Through self-transcendent experiences, we will find meaning and hope and ultimately become better human beings.”

ella maclaughlin | understanding radicalism through empathy

“During my exchange program preparation, we were told to keep our political views to ourselves,” Ella MacLaughlin recounts her experience studying abroad in Turkey “But after having been confronted with statements that violated the rights of the people I loved so much, I decided to give my honest opinion for the first time. I couldn’t help that my response was fueled by a strong disrespect for my Turkish friend’s opinion, and she responded offended instantly. I felt like I was failing to fight back to radical opinions. I began to wander when feeling upset is inevitable, what will we do when confronted with radical opinions?”



“When I first visited my host family, I noticed that in every room, there was a picture of a wolf howling with three full moons. This turned out to be the sign of a very national political party. On top of his support for this nationalist party, my host father was a police man. To say the least, I was a bit freaked out by the idea of protests in such a situation. But after a few weeks, I also noticed how my host father cared for his family, and how he brought me tea every day when I was sick. I became curious how someone who supports such cruel politics could be such a nice person. So, I changed my approach: I traded my hostility into curiosity; I developed more empathy for my host father. This taught me a vital lesson: radicalism can productively be approached with empathy. This empathy allows the holder to engage with different beliefs.”


Ella has an important lesson for the audience to take away: “I ask that the next time you encounter an opinion you don’t like, to not bite your tongue or yell, but to see them as what they are: a person. Someone that is vulnerable, and complicated. Making this choice allowed me to engage with my host father’s beliefs. And it has taught me that in individuals, social and political views are often paradoxical with their personalities. And that it would contribute greatly to humanity if we’d realize that more frequently.”

The speaker room is empty…

The last speaker of tonight, Michiel van Elk, is ready to go on stage! He will talk about Neuroenchantment and the Power of Placebo.

Saskia van den Muijsenberg | Business Lessons from Nature

“Have you ever had an epiphany so strong that it turned your life around completely?” Saskia van den Muijsenberg starts off. “About 8 years ago, I had such a profound experience that it made me leave my job for another one in a field in which I was unexperienced.”


Van den Muijsenberg discusses how we can use biomimicry to create sustainable solutions to current environmental problems. We consider CO2 the evil of our era, but in nature, CO2 is a building block. A company called BluePlanet took inspiration from nature and invented a way to make cement and using CO2 as a building block rather than it being a waste. This made me realize that in fact, I am nature too; that we are all nature. For every need I have, whether it is staying warm in winter or living well in a community, there is a solution in nature. It made me question why we as humans use fossil fuels for energy distribution, while plants are actually using CO2 as a building block during photosynthesis.”


Since 2010, Van den Muijsenberg has been training and inspiring thousands of people and numerous companies with their sustainability challenges. Out of this experience, she feels the need to indicate the problem of our linear economy: we create waste, while in nature waste doesn’t exist.


“I’m researching how companies use nature as a model to develop their business models. Take Interface, a carpet company. In 1994, they set the goal to have no negative impact on the environment in 2020. And they used nature to achieve that goal. They used biomimicry to redesigned their production process. They used the idea of leaves to come up with carpets that consist of different parts, that represent leaves. Fishing nets are a great building block for making carpets. They now use abandoned fishing nets from the ocean to make new carpets. Thereby they are making a profit while cleaning the ocean.”


Van den Muijsenberg concludes by highlighting an important point: “Biomimicry is turning business from exploitative to regenerative. I’m happy for everyone that has a job in this economy, but at the same time, I’m worried about the economy we’re in. it is not circular, but linear. Instead of recycling, we are creating more waste than ever. Therefore I invite all of you to ask yourselves this question: ‘Would nature hire you again?'”

Mick ter reehorst | Are we europe?

Mick ter Reehorst: Europe is a boring subject, one that is not sexy to talk about. I will talk about it anyway. When we talk about Europe we talk about who joins, who leaves. We talk about the economic or political dimension, but never about the cultural dimension. Between the pro- and anti-Europe camps of politicians, nobody ever asks themselves: ‘What is Europe?’”


Mick ter Reehorst, founder of collective storytelling project Are We Europe, wants to remind everyone that identity is a story, and that story can only be told collectively. “Europe is missing a face. But, just as with countries, Europe consists of a common history. We should go back to the essence, the age-old tradition countries are based on: storytelling. In order to do this, we created a platform where personal European stories could be told collectively.”


“It’s not something you hear that often: ‘We feel European’. We often talk about the European identity in a black and white way. You’re either this or that. Theresa May even said: ‘You’re a citizen of your country or you’re a citizen of nowhere.'” Although he doesn’t necessarily consider himself pro EU, Mick ter Reehorst emphasizes the need to focus on the EU as a cultural entity as well. Mick: “Europe is so much more than a political and economical union. Our Schengen generation is the one that should tell the story of a cultural Europe.”


Closing remark: “In my eyes, we will have truly succeeded in making Europe sexy if we succeed in collectively turning the question ‘are we Europe’ into the answer ‘we are Europe!'”

How Nature Has Already Solved Many of Today’s Issues

“Have you ever had an epiphany?” Saskia van den Muijsenberg asks, and then tells about hers: the moment she truly felt part of nature, after she learnt about the impressive way nature handles climate change. Van Muijsenberg’s TED-talk ‘Business Lessons from Nature’ is on biomimicry, about which our reporter Steinar Laenen wrote a blogpost earlier. Read it below and watch the video: copying nature helps! 


Biomimicry: How Nature Has Already Solved Many of Today’s Issues [VIDEO]

Humans of TEDxAUCollege: Mia Szymanski

“A year ago, I went to India with a friend to become a yoga teacher. Yoga made me realize how everything is connected: mind, body, and people. My thoughts affect my doings, and my doings affect other people. I don’t teach yoga at the moment, but I try to practice it as often as possible. It brings me peace of mind.” – Mia Szymanski


After the event, more Humans of TEDxAUCollege will be brought to you.

How do you feel? “GOOD!”

Performer Benji van Beurden tells the story of his brother recovering from brain cancer in a way that make the audience feel both sad and empowered at the same time. He kicks off his performance with some stimulating questions to reactivate the audience after they had dinner. Benji: “How do you feel?” Audience: “Good.” Benji: “Let me try again: How do you feel?” Audience: “GOOD!”


We’re back!


After the break: Mick ter Reehorst (AWE) & Ella MacLaughlin!

In a short moment, the program continues with Mick ter Reehorst: founder of Are We Europe (AWE), the organisation with which Red Pers is organising this live blog you are currently reading! He will speak about the importance of storytelling as a means of shaping the future of European community and its identity, during times the concept of ‘Europe’ is challenged in many ways. Ter Reehorst is this year’s winner of the jury’s vote at TEDxAUCollege’s 2018 Pitch Night. The winner of the audience’s vote that night was Ella MacLaughlin, who will speak later tonight about ‘Understanding Radicalism with the Power of Empathy’. Read Red Pers’ interview with them (in Dutch) below, written by our reporters Laurien Knorringa and Sarah Borgerdijn, who are currently also reporting at TEDxAUCollege 2018!

TEDxAUCollege: waar vorm en inhoud samenkomen

patricia kaersenhout | creating new narratives

“How can we wipe away the tears of the ocean?”



Patricia Kaersenhout emphasises the invisibility of minorities in Western society. Her artistic journey has been an investigation about growing up in Dutch culture while having a Suriname background. She captivates the audience by exploring the relation between domination and representation: “My parents taught me to attract not too much attention, as we were already different. But the ones who saw me different, were ‘others’ to me.”


“During one of my trips, I encountered a group of undocumented refugee women. We both recognized the complex meaning of being invisible in society. Officially, these women don’t exist because they don’t have documents of identification.”


“Enslaved people refrained from eating salt. They believed that they would become lighter and fly back to Africa. It shows the power of imagination: one can imprison the body, but one can never imprison the mind. For me, there is a complexity with living in a black body. My skin is socially regulated; my body is a prison of my soul. I’m in a constant state of becoming.”


“I decided to be in the middle, between the core and the periphery of society. That way, I can stimulate the center of privileged people towards helping the periphery and towards creating more understanding by listening to the stories of people from the periphery. Maybe the dominant culture can find their humanity back if they realize that other cultures are alive as well. An act of injustice can never expire. We all have the responsibility towards our ancestors, the present generation and our children to set the records straight. Even if it takes a thousand years.”


And with that intense but beautiful performance it is time for the break.


martha montero-sieburth | day of the dead

Let’s think one moment about Martha Montero-Sieburth’s opening questions: “Why are there cultures in the world where the very idea of death pushes us away? Why is it so repulsive to touch a skull, to see a person dying in front of your, or to see another person’s pain about a starving loved one?”


“Death can be accepted, because we know that we will die. We accept it as something that we are all destined to experience. But the way that we die – the memories that we leave – are what makes our death unique. What better than to be able to die, knowing that you’ve given something of yourself to others.”



Montero-Sieburth, who is from Mexican descendance, familiarizes the audience with Mexican rituals related to death. In Mexican culture, death is celebrated rather than feared. “We accept death as a fact of life. In the process of dying, we engage others and we want them to be part of our last part of life. Death is a chance to be socially equalized. You might be rich or you might be poor, but in the end, we will all die.”

Sara de greef

Sick performance by Sara.

Here is her interpretation of the TEDx T: