Round-up: Falling Walls Conference 2018

Falling Walls speaker Jan Zielonka

Which are the next walls to fall in science and society? Is it the wall of space exploration, the wall of waste, the wall to memory or the wall of illiberal politics? At Falling Walls Conference 2018, all of these walls were, if not taken down yet, at least poked at. 15 leading scientist and researchers from all over the world, as well as the winners of the preceding Falling Walls Venture, Lab and Circle events and 700 international guests, gathered in Berlin for another day of brain-picking, discussions and networking.

Looking back at this year’s conference, it is safe to say that engagement seems to be more important than ever. Connecting experts from different disciplines is just as indispensable as building bridges between science and politics, between the public and the laboratory, in order to face some of the tremendous challenges of our society. That is why Falling Walls is not just a conference with high-level talks. It is also a place to get in touch with the experts in personal Q&A sessions on the Forum Stage – a concept that has proven successful once again this year.

One of the central questions and thus underlying themes of Falling Walls 2018 was: How can we make it better? Not only for us, but for future generations as well. For Steve Evans from the University of Cambridge, who gave one of the first 15-minute-talks, industrial inefficiency is at the core of many environmental problems these days. From wasteful packaging to inefficient workflows, there’s a plethora of things that can be improved with just a little bit of effort. It is a sentiment Veena Sahajwalla from UNSW Australia knows all too well: A materials scientist and engineer, she is working towards a revolution in recycling science to unlock the valuable resources in complex and toxic waste found in landfills. Both scientists ended their talk with a call for action, as every single one of us must not continue to waste our earth’s precious resources.

Watch all talks of Falling Walls 2018 in full lenght here.

After all, we can already see the consequences of our actions: Mexican researcher Gerardo Ceballos showed the audience how many species we are losing each day on earth. They will never return, never been seen again after millions of years of evolution. Terry Hughes, an expert on coral reefs, presented haunting pictures of dead coral reefs on stage, who have fallen victim to climate change and the rising temperature of the ocean. But even if we manage to reduce carbon emissions, the fate of our planet is already decided, according to Avi Loeb from the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University: “We have about a billion years left before earth’s oceans are starting to boil”, Loeb began his presentation. That’s why he is already looking at a world beyond Planet Earth, in a quest to find – and ultimately settle on – another habitable planet.

Q&A with Daniela Schiller (right) at the Forum Stage

Space exploration was just one of the many breathtaking ideas presented at Falling Walls 2018. Nicola Spaldin from ETH Zurich presented her pioneering research in material science. She is working on so-called multiferroics – materials allowing for both storing and processing of information in the same component, while requiring a lot less energy. They could be the materials for the next civilization. Harvard scientist Paola Arlotta has a similar goal: She wants to create a live, miniature human brain cultivated from stem cells in order to better understand neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric diseases. Arlottas research may also help both Daniela Schiller and Onur Güntürkün, another two speakers at this year’s conference: While Schiller is researching human memories and ways to control them, Güntürkün has found out fascinating facts about the brains of birds that upends a lot of former conceptions about cognitive evolution.

Leila Takayama on stage

Cultivated brains and revolutionary materials: Falling Walls 2018 provided its guests once again with insights on technological developments. Engineer Leila Takayama wants to find new and better ways to communicate with robots: They should neither be seen as best friends nor as enemies, but rather as an integral part of our everyday life. In a similar vein, Bernhard Schölkopf, director of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, want to teach machines how to look for causality instead of correlation – an important task if machines and robots are supposed to become more sensible. And according to researcher Brian Behlendorf, blockchain technology might as well power the machines of the future.

But of course, Falling Walls is not just about science, but also about society. This year’s edition thus welcomed Jan Zielonka from Oxford University to talk about the failure of liberalism and the emergence of right-wing-politics. Stefania Milan from the University of Amsterdam made a compelling point for regaining the power about personal data. At last, Kevin Esvelt of MIT Media Lab made the case for more transparency in science, new policy and more responsibility.

“Other people might know more than you. Trust them”, Esvelt said at the end of his talk. His words ring true, not only at Falling Walls 2018, but also in our everyday life. In order for walls to fall, we need to trust others and work together. At this year’s conference, the need for interdisciplinary work became more obvious than ever. And we hope, that the event once again inspired people to break down walls in science and society.

You can check out the highlights of all sessions here, here, here and here. Pictures of the event can be found in the gallery. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more updates on Falling Walls and science.

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