Helpless Robots, Smart Contracts and Braaaiiinnnz: Session 1


The Forum Stage, where presenters and audience meet

The 10th Falling Walls Conference has started in Berlin this morning. Over the course of the day, 15 renowned scientists and researchers from around the world will present their breakthrough ideas on stage, alongside the winners of yesterday’s Falling Walls Venture, Engage and Lab competitions. After each session, the presenters gather at the forum stage to get involved with the audience.

It’s going to be an inspiring day for sure, and if you can’t attend or watch the livestream, we will give you a short summary of each session right here in this blog, so check back regularly.

Leila Takayama: Breaking the Wall of Human-Robot-Interaction

A “realistic” robot

“Whenever I tell people I work in human-robot-interaction, they tell me about the Terminator”, Leila Takayama, Associate Professor at the University of California,  says at the start of today’s first presentation. But we should not be afraid, she continues: Robots may be already doing amazing things, from doing funny tricks to help people in disasters, but they are far from being perfect. Quite the opposite, really: Robots need our help. We need to set realistic expectations for our upcoming robots. This also means that robots are not supposed to be our best friends, and neither should they be capable of doing everything we tell them. “These robots need social skills”, Takayama says. Because robot life is hard enough as it is. Have you ever seen them opening a door? It took scientists months to get them to turn the handle. For Takayama, handling expectations of the human-robot-interaction is going to be an important challenge to make them an even more integral part of our everyday life. That’s why she has a call to action to all scientists working in robotics, but also policy makers and art and media: Focus your research on a human-centred design – and don’t be afraid of these systems. There are no Terminators, let’s keep it that way.

Steve Evans: Breaking the Wall of Inefficiency

Steve Evans of the University of Cambridge is British, so of course he starts his presentation with an apology: “Sorry for bringing the most boring topic to Falling Walls”, he says. And indeed, inefficiency may sound boring at first. But then again, inefficiency is a major problem for climate change, especially in the field of industrial production. We are talking about food not being eaten, about materials not being used. Evan asks the audience: “What makes you angry?” Because, after all, some of these things can be improved with a just a little bit of efficiency. And so can a lot of things in production. Yet a lot of industries don’t do it: “Five Percent reduction of greenhouse gases while making more money sounds like a good thing”, Evans says. But for some reason, not all manufacturers are interested in it. That’s why Evans wants us to get angry, see waste in our life, get creative and refuse to buy products with too much packaging. The world – and our children – will thank us.

Paola Arlotta: Breaking the Wall of Neuroscience

Braaaainzzzz! Zombies love brains, and so does Harvard scientist Paola Arlotta. She loves to find out how our brains work, the very essence of who we are. Because in fact, even leading scientists still have very little understanding of the brain. There is a reason for that: “Our brain is the product of our own genome and unique evolutional history”, says Arlotta. But understanding the human brain is important, because it’s the only way to understand und ultimately treat patients with neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric diseases. So what’s the solution? “We need to build the human brain”. Simple, right? Well, not really. In fact, it may be the most challenging task humanity has ever encountered: After billions of years of evolution, our brain still needs 20 years, from the embryo to adulthood, to be fully developed. How can scientists replicate this process? Arlotta and her team works on miniature live brain compounds cultivated from human stem cells. In other words: She can trick the stem cells to produce tiny human brain organoids. And this will get us one step closer to understanding one of humanity’s best hidden secrets.

Brian Behlendorf: Breaking the Wall of Blockchain

Has there be another buzzword as big as blockchain in technology recently? Probably not, especially since the big Bitcoin bubble of 2017 (remember that?). However, blockchain technology is so much more than just cryptocurrency. And that’s where Brian Behlendorf and his company Hyperledger come into play.  He is aiming to create reliable, decentralized ways of storing, sharing and controlling information. Blockchain technology, like smart contracts and distributed ledgers, allows to revolutionize financial services, health care records and supply chain tracking. Behlendrof provides a few examples already in place, ranging from shipment tracking to registry services. For him, blockchain technology offers a new system of trust, reduces fraud and strengthens the integrity of services. “We want to reinvent of a lot of decisions are made in democracy”, Behlendorf says.

The Winners of Falling Walls Engage: Breaking the Wall of Science and Society

Engagement was also at the core of Falling Walls Engage on Thursday. Young people were pitching their ideas on how to tear down the walls between science and the public. The winners had the chance to present their ideas again on the grand stage: Shane McCracken and his product I’m a Scientist, Get me Out of Here wants to connect students with scientists, no matter where in the world they are, thus breaking the wall of geographic disadvantage. Francesca Fragkoudi founded the Columba-Hypatia-Project: A science outreach project which takes place on the post-conflict island of Cyprus, with the aim of using astronomy as a tool for promoting meaningful communication and a culture of peace and non-violence.

That sums up the first session of this year’s Falling Walls Conference. Stay tuned for more!

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