Falling Walls Conference highlights part 2

Falling Walls session 2 in 13 quotes.


Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms

On machines that make more machinesand how they can benefit humans

I want to break the boundary between digital and physical.

According to Gershenfeld, humans are more digital than we usually think—and computers are more physical than you might expect.

You’re made from 20 parts…And what’s remarkable about those 20 parts, the amino acids, is that they’re not remarkable.

Once you compute in a way that recognizes physics…you can make computers where the bits transport atoms.

New computers have made it possible to build increasingly complex machines, Gershenfeld added. It’s becoming possible to build almost anything, anywhere—a fact with profound consequences.

The new jobs aren’t coming back to the old factories. If anybody can make anything anywhere…it fundamentally changes the nature of work, the nature of money.

Birgitta Whaley, Director of UC Berkeley’s Quantum Information and Computation Center

On the potential for ‘quantum life’ to bridge physics and biology

We don’t feel quite so comfortable with quantum phenomena…[but] these quantum phenomena are actually not so far away from us.

Quantum physics has helped scientists understand the way birds fly and the way plants convert sunlight into energy, Whaley said.

The phenomena we’re looking at are dynamic phenomena, and this is really quite new…it’s really new that we can look at dynamical biological processes today.

And these new discoveries show the potential for collaboration between two separate fields.

We really need to have a cultural interchange between quantum physicists and biologists. And that’s something that’s definitely a work in progress.

Peter Neumann, Professor of Security Studies at King’s College London

On radicalization and what motivates people to become terrorists

Radicalization is a process. No one becomes a terrorist overnight.

What’s more, Neumann said, terrorists can’t simply be described as crazy. There’s no easy explanation for what drives their decisions.

Terrorists aren’t all poor, they aren’t all uneducated. They aren’t all educated, and they aren’t all rich.

Neumann’s research, which ranged from the Internet to the border of Syria, showed him that familiar narratives can lead people to make drastic decisions.

This narrative of defense exists in every culture and every religion, and it is being used to appeal to people to participate.

One link between different extremist groups is their reliance on simplified definitions of identity. That’s true, for example, in the case of the Islamic State.

They are saying to people, you cannot be Muslim and European at the same time. You have to decide…They want you to see the world in black and white terms.


Rob Knight, Co-Founder of the American Gut Project and the Earth Microbiome Project

On the role the microbiome plays in a wide range of human health problems

To understand human health, it’s not enough to just study human cells, Knight argued. For every human cell, there are many more microbes that colonize our bodies.

It’s kind of going to a zoo, and trying to understand huge animals by their cages.

Different parts of the body are home to vastly different microbes. Knight even mapped those differences, and discovered that the microbial landscapes in the mouth and gut are as different as the landscapes of a coral reef and a prairie.

Now the challenge is to harness the aspects of the microbiome that keep us healthy.

We’re trying to find the good and the bad places on the map.


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