Session 3: AI, Microbial Drug Factories, Encryption, and Trash, Trash Everywhere

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Following a wheat-, rice-, soy-, and corn-free lunch (an impressive feat, according to session 2 speaker Sayed Azam-Ali), the early afternoon started with “Fake, Facts, and the Future,” a discussion representative of yesterday’s Falling Walls Circle event. “For me,” says Helga Nowotny, former president of the European Research Council, “the most important thing for our present technological civilization is to be able to find the scientific worldview as the common ground on which we will stand or fall together.”

Jurgen Schmidhuber kicked off the presentations with a discussion on artificial intelligence. As a child, Schmidhuber was frustrated by gaps in his knowledge, dreaming of building a machine that could learn and “solve all of the problems I could not solve myself.” For the last 30 years, he’s been building such machines, with ever increasing degrees of sophistication. Human biology has been a persistent muse – our neurons include sensory input, processing, and output functions, building the phenomenon we call behavior. Through “long short-term memory”, products like Google Translate, Amazon’s Alexa, and Facebook can learn how constituent parts are built into meaningful phrases. Converting individual words from one language to another, for example, doesn’t always work; the order matters, and idioms rarely translate literally. And with Moore’s Law continuing to accelerate processing power, Schmidhuber predicts that “soon, we will have devices with the computing power of the human brain,” bringing untold learning and analytical potential.

Christina Smolke is inventing the future with smaller machines: microscopic yeast organisms. Using these well-understood entities as inspiration – which shuttle molecules along a metabolic pipeline – Smolke’s lab of synthetic biologists can integrate new reactants onto the conveyor belt and end up with a desired molecule. To find these high-value targets, she looks in plants, whose ecological context confers a number of advantages. “Plants can’t move,” Smolke explains. “They can’t run away from threats,” and they’ve adapted by constructing remarkable “molecules to interact with their environment and influence their environment.” These molecules are often designed to interact with animals, making them potentially useful for humans. Indeed, more than half of our medicines come from natural products, and many of those are plant-derived. And so, to hypercharge medicine supply chains, Smolke set out to turn yeast into a miniature pharmaceutical platform, combining genetic sequencing and molecular engineering to co-opt native machinery. “This allows us to create a more efficient synthesis platform,” she says, “and go beyond what we find in nature.”

Jian-Wei Pan believes that “human civilization cannot exist and develop without privacy protection,” but notes that social interactions are essential for inventions and technological advances. To accommodate these apparent contradictions, information security becomes paramount, and traditional encryption methods aren’t up to the task. “Fortunately, quantum mechanics provides a solution,” Pan explains, through superposition and entanglement. Truly secure information transfer seems to be possible, and Pan’s team has shown this with small scale atomic tests. Could a Star Trek-like future, in which objects are teleported by exploiting quantum physics, be on the horizon?

Jennifer Lavers filled the Falling Walls stage with overflowing piles of trash, most of which is made of plastic. This insidious material took hold of global consumerism in the 1940s, as disposable objects and convenience reigned supreme. Not much has changed – from coffee pods to teeth whitening strips, disposability is still viewed as a selling point, and we’re all encouraged to use something and simply throw it away. But, Lavers sagely inquires, “where is this magical place that we all call ‘away’?” Well, it’s often the ocean: 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are currently floating in the ocean’s surface waters, a number that dwarfs the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Between visits 23 years apart, Lavers has seen one of the most remote islands in the South Pacific go from idyllic paradise to a trash-strewn beach. Animals up and down the food chain are suffering as they unwittingly eat plastics, allowing toxins to leach into their bloodstream. For birds, this translates to shorter wings and lower fitness. By exposing the crushing scale of the problem and the remarkable reach of its impacts, Lavers is determined to “break down the wall of convenience” and restore habitats around the world.

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