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With these TED Talks on programming, you won’t learn how to program but rather how to be a programmer. Knowing how to write code is only one aspect of programming, and quite frankly one of the lesser aspects. Knowing how to think is key.
Attitude and Inspiration
1. Thomas Suarez: A 12-Year-Old App Developer
If you ever thought you were too young, too old, or too inexperienced to start programming, then let this 4-minute TEDx Talk change your mind. With a bit of drive and cleverness, Thomas Suarez learned how to make several apps by 12 years of age. He didn’t let excuses stop him, so why should you?
2. Tim Urban: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator
As a programmer, you’re going to want to procrastinate. A LOT. This 14-minute TED Talk is given by someone who struggled with this to the worst degree, and still managed to overcome it. He lays out the patterns that led to his procrastination as well as the solution that continues to work for him.
3. Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” While this 20-minute TED Talk not once mentions programming, everything discussed is of critical importance for programmers. It’s easy to forget that programming is highly creative, and you can’t succeed without creativity.
4. Kathryn Schulz: On Being Wrong
This 17-minute TED Talk dives a bit deeper into what Ken Robinson says above, but tackles it from a different angle. We’re raised to seek success and eschew failure, but true success can only come from being unafraid to try and fail. Programmers are wrong all the time. We need to embrace that.
For more like this, check out our favorite TED Talks on the brain.
5. Elon Musk: The Future We’re Building
This 40-minute TED Talk doesn’t follow the usual format. Instead of a presentation, it’s conducted as an interview — and all the better for it. This peek into the mind and motivations that drive the greatest innovator of our time will show you that programming isn’t just about code. It’s about dreams.
6. Linus Torvalds: The Mind Behind Linux
Here’s another TED Talk on programming that isn’t really a TED Talk and instead presents a dialogue with Linus Torvalds, the notorious man behind the Linux operating system. This 21-minute interview explores his mindset and the motivations that pushed him to be an engineer and an open source advocate.
Learn more in our dive into who made Linux and why it’s free.
7. Danielle Feinberg: The Magic Ingredient That Brings Pixar Movies to Life
This 12-minute TED Talk is a wonderful and insightful example of how science and art can come together to produce something that’s greater than the sum of its parts — and how things can fall apart if you neglect either one.
8. Richard St. John: The 8 Secrets of Success
I’ll lay out the secrets for you: Passion, Work, Good, Focus, Push, Service, Ideas, and Persist. But to really understand what St. John means, you should watch the video — it’s barely 4 minutes long, so what do you have to lose? This is golden advice if you want to succeed as a career programmer.
History and Future
9. George Dyson: The Birth of the Computer
To know where you’re going, and to have to understand where you came from. In this 17-minute TED Talk, historian Dyson explains the history of the computer — starting from way back in the 1600s — and how we got to where we are now. Not only is it interesting, but it’s easy to digest.
10. Kevin Slavin: How Algorithms Shape Our World
In this 15-minute TED Talk on programming, Slavin essentially makes a case for why programming is so critical to the modern age, warning that modern algorithms are written too recklessly and without enough thought to the implications. As a programmer, these are the kinds of things you also need to consider.
11. Jeff Hawkins: How Brain Science Will Change Computing
We often think of computers and brains as basically the same, but it goes deeper than that. While computers do teach us a lot about the brain, we still have much more to learn about the brain — and with those advancements in knowledge, our understanding of computing will also evolve.
12. James Patten: The Best Computer Interface? Maybe… Your Hands
This TED Talk is a short one at just 6 minutes, but it’s enough to get you thinking. For the entire history of computing devices, we’ve interacted mainly with keyboards and mice. More recently, touchscreens and voice controls. But in the future? Patten suggests that control will be handheld.
13. Mitch Resnick: Let’s Teach Kids to Code
TEDx Talks are often looked down on because they don’t have the same level of quality control as TED Talks, but this one passes the test. In 16 minutes, Resnick explains why we should be teaching kids to code.
14. Linda Liukas: A Delightful Way to Teach Kids About Computers
Here’s another TEDx Talk, only 11 minutes long, but inspiring in just how optimistic and forward-thinking it is. “It isn’t magic and it isn’t complicated,” Liukas says about computers and programming. Her aim is to find ways to teach this to kids in an inviting way. Here’s what she’s learned.
15. Ralph Langner: Cracking Stuxnet, A 21st Century Cyber Weapon
Arguably the most fascinating TED Talk ever, Langner spends 10 minutes explaining the Stuxnet worm, why it was so dangerous, and how his team deconstructed it and figured out what it does. It shows the level of problem solving that’s necessary as a programmer when confronted with an issue.
16. Mikko Hypponen: Fighting Viruses, Defending the Net
In just 17 minutes, Hypponen explores the history of viruses, starting with the first internet virus in 1986 and through to the birth and evolution of the organized criminal malware industry and their motivations. What can we do about it and how does this affect us going forward?
17. Misha Glenny: Hire the Hackers!
This 18-minute TED Talk offers an interesting solution to one of the worst problems of the 21st century: how can we defeat hackers and cybercriminals? As you may have gleamed from the title, Glenny suggests that only one true answer exists: bring them over to our side.
18. Nick Bostrom: What Happens When Our Computers Get Smarter Than We Are?
In this 16-minute TED Talk, Nick Bostrom explores the idea of superhuman AI and urges us to think very hard about what we ought to be doing in preparation for it. “Machine intelligence is the last invention that humanity will ever need to make,” he says. Will that be a boon or a mistake?
Of course, we still have other things to worry about before then, such as what happens when robots take over our jobs.
19. Stuart Russell: 3 Principles for Creating Safer AI
If left unchecked, the growth of superintelligent AI could spell catastrophe for the human race. In this 17-minute TED Talk, Russell presents a vision and a set of guidelines for guiding development in a way that still equips AI to solve problems, but in a way that aligns with human values.
20. David Hanson: Robots That “Show Emotion”
While superintelligent AI is scary to think about, sentient AI that can understand and mimic human emotions is where it gets really unsettling. This 7-minute TED Talk is a demonstration of what’s already possible, and a foretaste of what we can expect in the next decade or two.
Which of these did you enjoy the most? Are there any other TED Talks you’d recommend to programmers? Let us know in the comments!
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