FALLING WALLS CONFERENCE 2015 SESSION 3 AT A GLANCE

In becoming an emergency room physician, Joanne Liu pledged to “never get used to death” and work every day to save lives. Now as the International President of Doctors Without Borders, Liu is pushing the global community not to remove walls, but rather to “build a firewall” around the hospital. “We know there are rules in the war time,” she says. “We don’t attack hospitals, we don’t attack patients, and we don’t attack medical caregivers.” With satellite imagery, Liu provided evidence that airstrikes in Kunduz, Afghanistan specifically targeted a Doctors Without Borders hospital. The tragedy, which killed 30 people, was the most recent case of a disturbing trend. In Yemen, Sudan, and Gaza, hospitals have been targeted by warring factions. “I believe that the hospital should be a safe place,” Liu says. “The war stops at the door of our hospital.”

 

Demis Hassabis started playing chess at age four, bewitched by the ways in which the mind could conceive of strategic moves. After a decade of designing computer games and a PhD in neuroscience, he founded DeepMind, “an Apollo program effort for neuroscience and artificial intelligence.” Hassabis is working to build the world’s first general learning machine – something that learns automatically from raw data, and can apply learning techniques across a range of topics. These objectives stand in contrast to most AI platforms in the consumer space today, which are niche products that aim to solve very specific problems. Developing general intelligence will require a “reinforcement learning framework”, analogous to the human mind, which uses chemicals to provide feedback for idea assimilation. With this function built into the program’s DNA, many realms of research and application are potentially accessible, including healthcare, driverless vehicles, and big data analysis.

 

falling walls 2015

Sharon Macdonald is re-thinking the role of museums in society, a challenging job in a culture obsessed with the new. For rapidly changing tools, such as mobile telephones, it’s not always obvious which iterations are worthy of collection and display. “It’s quite a difficult responsibility,” she notes. “These are places we put things that we think especially matter.” Digitizing collections is an appealing work-around – a way to be comprehensive without occupying a city’s worth of building space. “But is the digital enough?” Macdonald asks. A quick audience poll suggested it was not; “there seems to be a deep need in people to keep hold of the stuff,” she reflects, particularly in societies entrenched in ephemerality. “Where things are thrown away so readily, we want to know there are things that will still be there.”

 

Human lifespans have increased substantially over the last century and a half, a world-changing development due primarily to the observation that microorganisms cause infectious disease. Antibiotics followed, “but these things can be carried only so far,” says Bruce Beutler, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, citing antibiotic resistant pathogens that are stalling the progress of pharmaceuticals. Taking an evolutionary perspective, Beutler notes that the divergence and inventiveness of immune systems, which occurred primarily during the Cambrian explosion, when animal diversity spiked about 500 million years ago. The system we possess today is a sophisticated collection of receptors and response pathways, and Beutler is working to link genetic mutations to particular results. His team’s high-throughput approach is able to separate the signal from the noise, revealing the class of “tol-like receptor” molecules that mediate cellular responses to environmental cues.

 

The Mostar Bridge is a critical linkage between mosques and markets in the Bosnian city of Mostar, passing in a high arc over a swiftly moving river. Four years to the day after the Berlin Wall fell, the bridge was destroyed in the throes of the war between Muslims and Croats. To Nilufer Gole, from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, the debates that shape many such conflicts and controversies stem from a tension between the Muslim association with European culture and protection of cultural heritage. Gole used the example of the headscarf, which in many European eyes, was a clear sign of “the other.” “But what we have forgotten,” cautions Gole, “is that these women are already crossing boundaries,” by entering the workforce or adopting more nuanced gender roles. In this way, the meaning of the headscarf is itself changing, and Muslim communities are molding to the contours of a new Europe, shaping and being shaped at the same time.

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