Space Exploration, Sensible Machines and the Future of Coral Reefs: Session 4

The fourth and final session began with the winners of yesterday’s Falling Walls Venture start-up competition. T3 Pharmaceuticals from Switzerland aims to fight cancer cells with live bacteria, which is a unique therapy that convinced the jury in the end. The winner had the opportunity to present their business once again on the grand stage.

Avi Loeb: Breaking the Wall of Space Exploration

Then it was time for Avi Loeb from the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University to enter the same stage and take the audience to space. “We have about a billion years left before earth’s oceans are starting to boil”, Loeb begins his presentation, “so we should think about the possibility of moving to another planet.” After all, there are plenty of planets in the so-called habitable zones around stars. But how do find out if they are truly habitable, and even if so, how do we get there? It certainly does not work with traditional rockets, which are way too slow. Loeb and his colleagues instead trust in the future of electronics and laser technology to propel a light sail with the weight of merely a gram to the fifth of the speed of light. It will still take 20 years to reach a target like Proxima Centauri to take photographs, which will take another four years to get back to earth. Admittedly, there are a lot of technological walls to break before this theory become reality. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start working on it right now.

Nicola Spaldin: Breaking the Wall to the Next Material Age

Civilization is also at the core of Nicola Spaldin‘s research. She argues that the state of civilization is defined by its use of the available materials. Right now, we are living in the silicon age. Silicon is at the core of most technological advanced in the past hundred years. However, given the speed of its development and its energy consumption, the silicon age may soon become to an end. In other words: Our future civilization will need other materials to thrive, and that’s where so-called multiferroics come into play. These newly combined materials are both ferroelectric and ferromagnetic, allowing for both storing and processing of information in the same component, while requiring a lot less energy. “Developing materials is important to meet the goals for a sustainable future”, Spaldin says, “I challenge you to not give up and break down the walls that stand in your way.”

Bernhard Schölkopf: Breaking the Wall to Sensible Machines

Remember the Perceptron? It was machine intended to learn from patterns such as images. The promise was exaggerated back in the 1950s, but it did not stop scientists like Bernhard Schölkopf, director of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen to explore the possibilities of machine learning many years later. In fact, algorithms in machine learning and object recognition are currently some of the most important models in computer science. Schölkopf is working on new models that looks for causality instead of correlation. This will have a profound effect on the ongoing revolution of machine learning, as it concerns the intelligent systems that we will increasingly interact with on a daily basis.

Terry Hughes: Breaking the Wall of Coral Reef Decline

You probably know the heart-breaking pictures of coral reefs who have lost all their colours and biodiversity due to a climate change event called coral bleaching. Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef studies, certainly knows them. He has been studying global bleaching events for years and he knows that these evens become much more frequent. “Flying over these dying reefs with a helicopter is like watching a horror movies”, Hughes explains. In 2016 and 2017, two bleaching events have already destroyed many reefs around the world, including huge parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Stopping this worrying development means to reduce global emissions. But other things might help, too: In order to re-grow this underwater forest, we can use carbon capture, reduce fishing pressure and find new ways to save corals and the massive ecosystem of which they are the basis of. And we better start soon, because, as Hughes said towards the end: “We are running out of time.”

Goodbye, Falling Walls!

The same saying goes for this year’s Falling Walls Conference. We have seen 15 intriguing speakers from the world of science, providing the audience in Berlin and people watching on the livestream with plenty of calls to action, interesting research and ideas to think about. With Sebastian Turner, founder of the Falling Walls Foundation, officially concluding this year’s conference, we also want to thanks all speakers, participants, sponsors and supporters.

We will have a summary of the Conference up in this blog within the next couple of days. Until then, you can check out the highlights of all sessions here, here and here and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. See you next year!

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