Microrecycling, Mastering Memories and the (Possible) End of Humanity: Session 2

Anja Karliczek, Germanys Federal Minister of Education and Research, welcomed the guests ahead of today’s second session (check out the round-up of the first session here). In her official welcome, Karliczek especially questioned the use of data and future development in regards to artificial intelligence. “It’s crucial for science and society to talk to each other. Changes are not a threat, as perceived by many, but a way towards a better life.” That’s why we don’t need more walls, but more bridges between technology and society, between the wealthy and the poor, between science and politics. “Falling Walls is a good place to start”.

The Winner of Falling Walls Lab

Next up were the winners of yesterday’s Falling Walls Lab, a boot camp for young scientists from around the world. One winner, Ankita Pudyal from New Zealand is working on more efficient air filters through the use of nanofibres, thus improving the air flow and reducing the amount of harmful nanoparticles getting into our lungs. Since the particles are biocompatible, there is no need for chemicals.

Adam Fulop is trying to improve braille literacy. “For blind people, there is no substitute to the ability to read”, says Fulop. And yet many blind people are not able to read braille. That’s why he developed a mobile app that uses the smartphone camera to read any printed text as braille, thus making it easier to learn.

At last, Ahmed Ghazi showcased his idea on how to reduce surgical errors. Taking the airspace industry and their simulators as an example, he’s developing a way to replicate body parts, including blood vessels. That allows surgeons to practice and reduce possible errors.

Veena Sahajwalla: Breaking the Wall of Waste

Back to already established scientists, it was time for Veena Sahajwalla from UNSW Australia, to take the lecture stage. A materials scientists and engineer, she works towards a revolution in recycling science to unlock the valuable resources in complex and toxic waste found in landfills. We all know the pictures of massive landfills filled with thrown-away electronic devices or graveyards for shared bikes. With more than 50 billion tons of E-Waste generated by the world each year, there is a huge market for the metal alloys left behind. Sahajwalla has developed a new way of “microrecycling” that can be employed by micro factories in communities all over the world, thus tapping into an unprecedented market. “Recycling should not be seen merely as an environmental solution, but as a way to create new industries”, Sahajwalla concludes.

Kevin Esvelt: Breaking the Wall to Ethical Research

“Six years it seemed impossible to create a completely new species. Now it has become reality”, says Kevin Esvelt of MIT Media Lab, referring to the breakthrough discovery of gene-editing tool CRISPR. The implications are massive – and scary: After all, there is the possibility that we may change our ecosystem and a species genetic code in a way that will wipe out humanity. This fate ultimately lies in the hand of scientists, each one working in their own lab, often hiding their discoveries and research from others. What happens if an experiment of a gene drive system escapes in the wild? That’s why Esvelt is asking for more transparency in the field of research. “We encourage early transparency and call for regulatory reform”, Esvelt says. Scientists have to be aware of their responsibility when they get a hold of unprecedented powers. That doesn’t mean to stop exploring the possibilities, but to explore them wisely: By encouraging peer-review from the start, to fund research alternatives and to respect the caution of others, which also is a good thing to keep in mind in our everyday life: “Other people might know more than you. Trust them”.

Daniela Schiller: Breaking the Wall to Memory

We already learned about our complicated brains in the first session, and it continues with the presentation of Daniela Schiller of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Her research involves a precious part of our brains, namely memory. Through a series of ground-breaking experiments, Schiller proved that negative emotions, such as fear, grief and trauma, can be disconnected from the memory that triggers them. What does that mean? Well, for once, her research has the potential to help people all over the world who have experienced traumatising events in making peace with their past. “Memory is not a recording device for history as we usually believe”, Schiller says. In fact, we are not slaves to our memories, but the master.

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