All Tech Considered
8:27 am
Sun December 8, 2013

TEDWomen 2013: In Innovation, Age Is Nothing But A Number

Originally published on Tue December 10, 2013 9:38 am

Some women are notoriously sensitive about their age. Not Diana Nyad.

At 64, the inspirational long-distance swimmer says she's in her prime. At the TEDWomen conference in San Francisco on Thursday, she recounted her successful fifth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. Through her harrowing trip, there was a lot of singing Beatles tunes to herself, hallucinating and determination. Since first reaching for Florida in her 20s, Nyad said her motivations had changed.

"When I turned 60, it wasn't about the athletic accomplishment or the ego of 'I want to be the first,' it was deeper," she said in her talk. "It was how much life is left."

As Nyad — an epitome of resilience in her 60s — talked of seizing her remaining days, precocious 13-year-old entrepreneur Maya Penn seemed unaware of all the time she had ahead. At both ends of the speaker-age spectrum, the ladies emphasized how age-appropriateness didn't matter for risk-taking and invention.

Empowerment At Any Age

An animator, fashion designer and businesswoman (-girl?), Penn says she doesn't really think about her own age — except when others point it out to her. She tells NPR that people often say, "'Wow, you do all of this and you're so young!' And you just kind of remember that you're young." During her presentation, her references to "younger" years were met with amazed laughter — how could a 13-year-old have so much to reflect on? — but her intentions are no joke.

Penn says, going forward, she hopes to be "reaching out to other women and girls, empowering them, letting them know, you know, whatever they want to do, they can accomplish — doesn't matter how young or old you are, what your background is. Whatever you want to do, you can do it if you just set your mind to it and don't let anyone stop you."

Look To Young Self

Social entrepreneur Jessica Matthews says we should be looking toward our younger, joyous selves for cues on how to live more fulfilling lives. Her company, Uncharted Play, creates toys that generate electricity — like the Soccket, a soccer ball that could light your lamp with a little play time.

"While our products are very much kind of aimed at children in the developing world, it's almost really a gimmick," she says. "Because the reality is, we know when we put the Soccket in a room — and it happens each time — the teachers kick it first."

When Age Matters

Northeastern University computer science professor Rupal Patel has discovered a niche in which age really does make a difference, though. If you have to rely on a computerized voice to speak, there aren't many options. The automated voice of Stephen Hawking doesn't quite match a teenage girl's.

Patel has found a way to create customized electronic voices. Here's how it works: A donor of a similar age and size of the person who cannot speak records a number of phrases that cover the range of sounds a person could make. The person who cannot form full words is recorded saying basic vowels. She mixes the two sets of sounds to make a new voice.

"What I'm trying to find is a voice that would have sounded like them, if they were able to talk," she says.

Voice, she says, is wrapped up in our identities. And in that case, age is an important factor in finding a certain kind of self-expression.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.