Falling Walls Conference highlights part 1


Can cybersecurity experts build a wall around the information we want to protect?

Unfortunately, no. “Today’s world is wireless,” said Sadie Creese, Professor of Cybersecurity at Oxford University. Nowadays, hackers can listen in on information that’s sent wirelessly—and that can give them the information they need to break into a computer system. At one time, “air gaps” kept different computer systems separate from each other. But it’s difficult to maintain those gaps when our devices are sending so much data through the air.

So how are we supposed to keep digital systems safe?

One way to start is by breaking down the distinction between the digital world and the analog world, Creese said. Everyone can benefit from knowledge of digital systems. “You have to get to the point where you do not leave cyber risk to the technical corner.” This knowledge won’t make cyberattacks impossible. But it will give us the tools to adapt. “It’s in understanding how to be resilient,” Creese continued, “that the future will come.”

What’s the difference between a brain and a computer?

The brain can be considered a computer—to a point, says Jack Gallant, who runs the Cognitive, Computational & Systems Neuroscience Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s a biological computer,” he said in a talk about “brain decoding.” But the differences are crucial. “In the brain, unlike in your desktop computer, the hardware and the software are intimately linked.”

If it’s possible to hack into computers, can scientists use brain imaging to read my mind?

Not exactly. Because the brain is made up of billions of neurons, it’s not possible to listen directly to the traffic of bits of data going back and forth. Gallant showed an image of a color-coded brain. “There are thousands of different shades of meaning represented in this map here,” he said. Still, cognitive scientists can make impressive inferences based on scans of brain activity. Gallant argued that it’s becoming increasingly possible to “decode” brain activity.

How can scientists make progress in the continuing fight against HIV?

Sometimes it’s possible to learn big lessons from small examples. In South Africa, young women bear the brunt of new HIV infections—even though anti-retroviral medication is widely available. This calls for new strategies for preventing the spread of HIV, said Quarraisha Abdool Karim, Associate Scientific Director at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa. For example, for some women, it could be easier to adhere to twice-monthly injections than to daily pills. One day, HIV may fall to targeted interventions like this.

How can farmers provide food for a growing population in a high-tech world?

Farmers are growing older—and that’s a problem, said Salah Sukarrieh, a robotics expert at the University of Sydney. “The children that they sent off to the city to get educated don’t want to come back and work on the farm,” he said. One solution is to rely more on automation. But that doesn’t mean robots will take over our food supply. Sukarrieh argued that information can empower farmers. “It first started with sensors,” he said. Today, farmers can watch in real-time as conditions change on their land. “If you can sense in real time, then you can make decisions in real time. You can act in real time.”


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