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TED2010: Ten fascinating people you've never heard of

By John D. Sutter and Richard Galant, CNN
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Fixing the world with online games
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN features 10 fascinating thinkers, authors and provocateurs
  • Lawyer Philip Howard says the U.S. needs fewer lawyers
  • Jane McGonigal says more video games are good for us
  • Mark Roth aims to find out if suspended animation can help humans in medical crises
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In coming weeks, CNN.com will roll out a number of video interviews with interesting thinkers, scientists and artists. Check CNN.com/OPINION and CNN.com/TECH for the latest.

Long Beach, California (CNN) -- Jane McGonigal is one of the most interesting inventors you've never heard of.

The bubbly game designer -- whose optimism seems to flow out of her wild blond hair -- is trying to get the world to play a lot more online video games, and not just for the sake of fun.

The cooperative skills and hopefulness that people learn while pecking away at online games like World of Warcraft will help our society address real-world problems like climate change and nuclear arms proliferation, she says. To get people to use less oil and mentor entrepreneurs in Africa, she also is developing games that merge the digital and real worlds.

"My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games," she said.

McGonigal was only one of dozens of provocateurs, thinkers, scientists, math nerds and musicians to wow audiences with offbeat ideas and plans for the future at the brainy TED Conference last week in Long Beach, California.

TED, which stands for "technology, entertainment and design," and is pronounced like the common name, is a nonprofit dedicated to "ideas worth spreading."

Some of the conference's speakers -- like Bill Gates, Sarah Silverman and Jamie Oliver -- have names that precede them.

Far more, however, are of McGonigal's stature: They're stirring things up in one corner of the world, but, as of yet, they've escaped the mainstream spotlight.

That can stop now. Here's our list of nine other fascinating and generally under-the-radar people, all gleaned from a week at this year's TED Conference:

Temple Grandin, autistic professor

Temple Grandin sees her autism as a gift, not a disability. The professor at Colorado State University, who has become a prominent animal rights activist, spoke at TED about how people's brains work in different ways -- and how that's something that should be appreciated, not stigmatized. Grandin, for instance, thinks in pictures, "like Google for images," she said.

She also grabs hold of details, a brain function she feels could help politicians.

"I get satisfaction out of seeing stuff that makes real change in the real world," she said. "We need a lot more of that and a lot less abstract stuff." One of her biggest real-world accomplishments, she said, was that a mother recently told her that her autistic child had gone to college because of Grandin's inspiration.

Grandin's life also is the subject of an HBO film.

Raghava KK, artist and cartoonist

Raghava KK started drawing caricatures of his teachers in elementary school. To avoid getting in trouble, he said, he drew a flattering cartoon of his school's principal and gave it to him as a gift. From then on, he was allowed to mock his teachers in cartoons as he pleased.

He's rarely stopped creating since those days growing up in India. He's made paintings people dance to, mocked world leaders with political cartoons, delved into the fashion world and splattered bold patterns on cars. His motto: Start making something today; and relish in the joy of creation, not the success of the end product.

"Don't even believe in perfect," he said.

Philip Howard, the anti-lawyer lawyer

A partner in the New York-based law firm Covington & Burling, Philip Howard is a crusader against the excesses of his own profession. Howard, author of "Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans from Too Much Law," gave a blistering talk at TED about how "the land of the free has become a legal minefield."

He cited the Florida school district that banned running at recess as an example of how "people no longer feel free to act on their best judgment" for fear of getting sued. "People are acting like idiots," he said. "For law to be a platform for freedom, people have to trust it."

Howard pushes for policy changes in health care, education and other fields through an organization he founded, Common Good, which describes itself as "a non-profit, non-partisan legal reform coalition dedicated to restoring common sense to America."

John Kasaona, Namibian conservationist

Some conservationists try to protect rhinos and elephants by keeping local people away from these animals. John Kasaona, from rural Namibia, says the best way to save endangered beasts is to let villagers own them. They should be able to protect them or eat them as they choose, he said.

Kasaona should know. He watched his father morph from a poacher of endangered animals to their protector. It's in the best interest of his villagers to make that switch, he said, because it helps them bring in tourism money and to take pride in the wildlife all around them.

"You can milk tourism even in the dry season," he said.

Esther Duflo, poverty economist

A 37-year-old MacArthur "genius" award winner, and professor at MIT, Esther Duflo sidesteps the grand armchair debate about whether charitable aid to poor countries does more harm than good. The French economist has been a champion of using random trials, like those used for prescription drugs, to test whether some aid policies work in the real world.

Such tests have shown, for example, that giving a kilo of lentils to a family in India to get them to immunize a child against disease sharply increases the rate of immunizations. The same approach can be used to study the merits of giving out free bed nets to fight malaria and to examine ways to get children in developing countries to go to school.

Christopher Poole, founder of 4chan

4chan is one of the seedier message boards on the Internet. All posts are anonymous. Many are pornographic. The 4chan community is known for organizing protests, hacking into big-name sites, spreading smut and creating Internet "memes," like LOLcats, those silly photos of cats making funny faces.

Christopher Poole, who goes by "moot" online, started the viral site when he was 15 years old. Now 22, Poole is one of the most intriguing personalities on the Internet. He's on a sort of crusade to protect anonymous speech, which he says is becoming the Internet's "dinosaur" as sites like Facebook and Google convince people to put all kinds of details about their real lives online.

"If someone called you up on the phone and asked you all of these things [people post online,] you'd say 'hell no' and hang up," he said. "But now we're flooding the Internet with information about ourselves, and I think that's scary. So I would like to see people push back."

Nathan Myhrvold, inventor

In Nathan Myhrvold's world, mosquito repellent is so old-fashioned.

The inventor, former Microsoft Corp. executive and CEO of Intellectual Ventures is developing a prototype device that would create walls of lasers that are impenetrable by malaria-causing mosquitoes.

Myhrvold demonstrated the technology at the TED Conference and said laser fortresses could surround health clinics in the developing world.

Sir Ken Robinson, writer and educator

Sir Ken Robinson has a beef with wristwatches. People today don't need them, he says, because they all carry mobile phones that tell the time.

"For people over 25, we were born in a predigital world," he said. "So if you wanted to tell the time, you had to have a watch. And it sounds like a very trivial example, but even with a very progressive group of people ... most people are still going on old habits. Even if they're groovy watches, they're still unnecessary."

The educator and author of "The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything" uses that example to argue that our education system is "absolutely dominated by habits of mind" and needs some rethinking, too. He said teachers need to encourage people with various aptitudes, not just those who are good at tests. That will help people find their passions, he said.

"It's interested me for a very long time that most people have no real sense of what they're capable of -- of what their talents are," he said. "And a lot of people -- in my experience, perhaps the majority -- live their lives doing things they're not very much concerned with, or interested in."

Our education system causes such woe, he said.

Mark Roth, reanimation specialist

We tend to think of life as an either/or proposition: We are either dead or alive.

But, in fact, there are dormant stages in life -- bacterial spores that can last for millions of years; eggs in human ovaries that can survive for up to 50 years; and the familiar sea monkey, a kind of shrimp sold as a toy that goes into suspended animation and comes to life when put into water.

Mark Roth, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is delving into the mysteries of life by putting animals into suspended animation through lowering the oxygen level of their environment. He's used hydrogen sulfide gas to put mice into a hibernating state and has put frogs and zebra fish into suspended animation for up to 24 hours without harm.

Roth's team is learning whether these tools could apply one day to human beings in medical crises.

CNN's Jarrett Bellini contributed to this report.