TEDx UniversityofEdinburgh 2023

The Great Unknown | 14:00-17:00, Saturday, 21 October 2023


TEDx events feature diverse talks from speakers of varying backgrounds, occupations and fields, all united by one thing: an idea worth spreading.  

Our speakers explored this year’s theme: The Great Unknown. Keep scrolling to find out more about the event and our speakers.


Innovation propels us – seemingly at ever-greater speeds – into the future. It’s difficult to fathom how radically technology has changed everyday life in the last few decades, and the rapid advancements in and increasing power and popularity of ‘intelligent’ systems appear to be speeding us toward another major global shift.  

Very few of us fully understand how our systems work, and whether anyone has real control over them is debatable. Determining and applying digital ethics has been challenging enough, and now that systems could in some ways gain the capacity to ‘think’, conversations around everything from property to security, learning, and even the human essence have become substantially more fraught.  

We need to address the great unknown surrounding innovation to ensure we build trustworthy and reliable systems which make the world a better place to live for everyone. At TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh in 2023, we’re going to demystify the future impact of some of the great unknowns on society. So often we scramble to keep up with how changing systems impact our lives. How can we use innovation to explore the great unknown whilst deliberately considering its place in our futures? 


AI and Healthcare: The Next Frontier

Leonardo Castorina, Biomedical AI Researcher

Leonardo Castorina is a PhD student in Biomedical AI at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in AI-driven protein design and immune system research. With a biochemistry background and experience at IBM, NEC, and Microsoft, he’s deeply passionate about how technology can enhance our understanding of life.

In an era where technology feels like science fiction, Artificial Intelligence stands at the forefront, enhancing our daily experiences. Could it also revolutionise biomedicine and healthcare? From refining MRI scans for quicker diagnoses to automating tedious tasks, reducing doctors’ “Pajama Time,” and helping decode the mysteries of DNA, AI emerges as a valuable ally. However… Can we trust AI? Is it necessary? Who is responsible when it makes mistakes? This talk will explore the advancements in AI in healthcare and the technical and ethical challenges we will face to ensure safety for the new world.

Sherlock Holmes and The Case of the Untrustworthy Software

Elizabeth Polgreen, University of Edinburgh Lecturer in Informatics + Royal Academy of Engineering research fellow

Dr. Elizabeth Polgreen is a lecturer in Informatics at the University of Edinburgh and a Royal Academy of Engineering research fellow. Her research focuses on automatically proving code is correct (verification) and synthesizing correct code (program synthesis). Despite, or perhaps because of, this expertise she still does not trust computers.

Software is becoming more complicated every year, and scandals like the Post Office Horizon fiasco demonstrate that humans who build them are certainly not infallible. Not only that, but we are increasingly embedding machine learning into the heart of these systems and even delegating programming to tools like ChatGPT. How can we possibly know that any software is safe? Elizabeth argues that Victorian fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, might have the answers. Holmes is famous for his incredible logical reasoning, so how does he do it, and can the maths behind his methods help us police the behaviour of computer systems?

Cybraphon: what an emotional, social-media obsessed, musical automaton can tell us about being human

Simon Kirby, Professor of Language Evolution + artist

Simon Kirby is a Professor of Language Evolution at the University of Edinburgh and elected Fellow of the British Academy, Royal Society of Edinburgh, Cognitive Science Society, and a member of the Academy of Europe. He works in parallel on scientific and artistic investigations of cultural evolution and the origins of human uniqueness, particularly the evolution of language. He founded the Centre for Language Evolution, which has pioneered techniques for growing languages in the experiment lab and exploring language evolution using computer simulations.

In 2009, along with artists Tommy Perman and Ziggy Campbell, Simon was commissioned to create an artwork that addressed the rapidly growing interest in the general public of social media platforms such as MySpace, Facebook, and a relative newcomer at the time: Twitter. They wanted to capture some of the unease that people felt at the time of outsourcing emotional well-being to large corporations. Simon, Tommy and Ziggy had for a long time been interested in musical automata from the turn of the previous century such as orchestrions, nickelodeons, and player pianos. What might the 21st century equivalent be? Would it also be obsessed with its own online popularity? The result was Cybraphon: an emotional robotic band built from junk shop instruments, housed in an antique wardrobe, that googled itself every 15 seconds. Cybraphon’s mood was shaped by whether its popularity online was increasing or decreasing, and this determined the mood of the music it played. As one of Twitter’s first ever “bots” it also regularly tweeted about its emotional state for its followers. In this talk, Simon will set out what happened next: an unlikely tale of touring, BAFTA glory, being collected by the National Museum of Scotland, and what it was like to have a machine become more famous than its creators.

Who will you be in Healthcare 4.0?

Tiffany Ma, Oncologist + Start-up founder

Tiffany is an American-born Hong Konger who finished her PhD and postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Oxford in Molecular Cancer Biology. She co-founded GambitBio, an early stage start-up where she and her co-founders are creating a novel at-home self-test kit for early cancer detection.

The pandemic proved that we all have impressive prowess in self-testing. Coincidentally, the growth of home self-test kits for monitoring fertility, food-sensitivity, genetics/ancestry, hormones and a multitude of diseases has skyrocketed in recent years. This is in no doubt part of the shift into the era of HealthCare 4.0, where products combining advances in biology, technology and AI are able to empower individuals to have more confidence and agency in understanding and taking care of their own bodies. Whether or not these innovations in HealthCare 4.0 will actually benefit consumers ultimately boils down to the person’s personality and strategic choices in using these new tools.

The Surprising Stigma About Sobriety

Gill McKay, Sobriety Coach

Gill McKay runs Inquisitive Coaching helping professional, mid-life women to break free from the hold of alcohol and start living a life on their own terms – a life they don’t want to escape from. With a background in neuroscience, Gill is also a mental health first aider and best-selling author of ‘STUCK: Brain Smart Insights for Coaches’.

Stigmas are silencing, and lead us to disconnection from ourselves and others. Gill was shocked that when she became alcohol-free, in moving away from the stigma of over-drinking, she immediately entered a world of stigma about sobriety. Unintentionally, we perpetuate stigmas with our behaviours, yet all around us, loved ones, friends, family and colleagues may be struggling and suffering in silence. It’s time to stop the silence. It matters to talk about stigma to give everyone a voice, to feel witnessed and realise that we have choices to change their lives for the better. Human connection matters even more in the ever-changing world of tomorrow.

Short-circuiting the reward cycle of sustainable actions

Jonathan Feldstein, Waste solutions start-up founder + robotics researcher

Jonathan Feldstein is the founder of Bennu.ai an Edinburgh based start-up developing smart waste solutions using AI & robotics. In parallel, Jonathan is finishing a PhD in AI at the University of Edinburgh. He has studied and done research at ETH Zürich and Caltech, where his focus was on quantum transistors before pivoting to robotics.

People learn and change behaviors because their actions have positive or negative consequences, which is why there is a hope that the “market” and “society” will regulate itself and fix climate change. However, for this system to work, the cost of a positive action needs to be lower than the pain experienced from not taking this action, and the delay between action and consequence needs to be short, as humans are notoriously bad at delaying gratification. In this talk, Jonathan discusses how businesses can short-circuit the reward cycle through technology and business models so that positive actions can play into the human preference for instant reward.