Biodiversity, Data Activism and Dinosaurs in Living Rooms: Session 3

Back from the lunch break with yummy experiences from Europa, Venezuela and Egypt, Falling Walls Conference entered its third session (check out the highlights of the previous sessions here and here), kicking off with the Falling Walls Circle discussion about the role of humans in a future driven by artificial intelligence.

Gerardo Ceballos: Breaking the Wall of Biological Annihilation

Of course, Falling Walls is not all about humans and machines. It’s also about animals, whose fate is so closely tied to ours. According to Mexican researcher Gerardo Ceballos, this fate is at stake. He is researching the loss of biodiversity in the world, and his discoveries are bleak: We are currently amidst an age of mass extinction, with countless species of birds, mammals and reptiles dying out each day. Of course there has always been a natural extinction rate, but it has been increasing in the last one hundred years. “We are losing species at an unprecedented rate”, says Ceballos, “the species lost in the last 100 years should have been lost in 10.000 years!” And guess what happens if we lose too many species? Yeah, it’s not going to be pretty. “It’s an assault on nature”, Ceballos concludes, and if we don’t change the course of history, the world will lose a huge amount of its biomass, leading to even more extreme changes. So what can we do? The solution is both simple and yet extremely hard to do: We have to stop human-made habitat destruction, overhunting, toxic pollution and climate change. After all, we don’t want the machines to be all that’s left, right?

Stefania Milan: Breaking the Wall to Data Empowerment

Stefania Milan from the University of Amsterdam brought a suitcase on stage in Berlin. “It contains power”, she says, because it contains a tiny computer the size of a credit card, serving as a standalone wifi network. Once you join it, you will be redirected to a website about the leaked documents by Edward Snowden. At the same time, it collects information about every device connected to its network (so-called metadata), thus making it a powerful spy device. There are other examples of big data collections, for instance the archive of former GDR spy agency Stasi. Or the contents of our smartphone, that sends data to Google and Facebook for example. What all these examples have in common is that we, the people, don’t usually have access to these massive data hives. In other words: Access to data is highly privileged, and researchers like Milan want to change that. That’s why she works on DATACTIVE, a project exploring the politics of big data. She wants to strengthen civic engagement, the development of open-source software and new policies, so that people can reclaim their privacy and the amount of data collected by third parties. “Privacy is cozy, take good care of it”.

Jan Zielonka: Breaking the Wall of Illiberal Politics

If you’re able to read German, you can head over to ZEIT ONLINE to read a new essay by Oxford University’s Jan Zielonka about populism and actually building new walls instead of breaking them down. On stage at Falling Walls, Zielonka, whose voice is so calm, we want him to read the complete annotated works of John Locke to our kids, explores the same topic. In recent years, the lack of borders has become an explanation for many of societal problems, especially if we ask the political spectrum on the right. But according to Zielonka, open borders are not the problem and never have been. It’s rather the fault of misguided liberal politics that put lobbyists and dictators in charge and lost touch with a democratic society. “Building walls to solve our problems is like using aspirin to treat depression”, Zielonka says. Politicians have to regain the trust of their voters and find balance between the public and private sphere, so that future generations do not want to live in a world of walls.

Onur Güntürkün: Breaking the Wall of Cognitive Evolution

How to capture the attention of an audience? Start like Onur Güntürkün of Bochum’s Ruhr University: “I will talk about the dinosaur in the living room”. Güntürkün’s research involves the brain, the cognitive abilities of mammals and birds, reaching from the level of the brain cell to behaviour patterns. He found out that pigeons, not known as the smartest of birds, have amazing memory capabilities and even the ability to read English words. You read that right: Pigeons employ similar strategies when they learn a language as human children. “Although they have small brains, their neuron density is much higher”, Güntürkün says. Discoveries like this can help to discover how our thinking evolved over millions of years. But what about the dinosaur? Well, their brains probably have not been so different from todays bird brains. So the parakeet in your living room might just as well be a dinosaur.

And that concludes the third session. Check back later for the fourth and final round of speakers!

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