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What if you could see the future today?

October 12, 2016

“What if you could see the future today?” was the thumbnail pitch of the New Scientist Live Show at Excel London, 22nd– 25th September, 2016. What you could actually see was an array of current research and development in science, technology and engineering, and what you could actually hear were some expert speakers explaining their disciplines in layman’s language and sometimes taking you to the frontier. You might not have been able to see the future, but it certainly made you start refining your vision of it. Here are some of things that attracted this particular visitor.

I shall begin with mathematician Marcus du Sautoy whose talk “Are there things we will never know?” was drawn from his new book on this theme. In Chapter 4 (or “Third Edge” as he presents it), he reviews experiments with electrons. If you fire an electron at a plate through a screen with two slits through which the electron may pass, you cannot anticipate the particular point on the plate at which the electron will end up (something you cannot know) until you observe it. If you try and “cheat” by introducing a detector to see which slit the electron passes through, the act of trying to find out changes the behaviour of the electron. Du Sautoy states, “There have been some experiments in the last decade that have demonstrated the real possibility of using observation to inhibit the progress of a quantum system.”1

And lo, on the exhibition floor, there was BT demonstrating the latest developments in cyber security using quantum physics. The standard security system today employs keys at either end of the security chain: if you can break one, you can get through the other. The cyber security system they were developing had just one key provided through quantum physics. If you attempted to “measure” (i.e. hack into) the link, it changed and locked you out. Given that I read recently that something like one in ten credit cards has to be replaced during its lifetime, this would seem to be a welcome response to a worrying threat.

Back to Mr du Sautoy. His talk was followed by a conversation with physicist and broadcaster , Jim Al-Khalili (The Life Scientific, Radio 4). His initial question about unknowns was set into context by the opposing view of some scientists that ultimately everything can be known. But then again Karl Popper said that it is important that what is known can be falsified, thus leading to further developments. What was interesting about the discussion was the feeling of how close you were to the existing boundaries of knowledge, and the potential that remained to be unleashed.

And this was replicated throughout the event. Here was Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology, explaining how our different social networks (family, friends, social, community, national) form a hierarchy, and that there are limits to the numbers we can practically relate to in each category. As social network size increases, the intensity of the relationships decreases. Social science is as important as hard science. Here was Robin Lovell-Badge (Francis Crick Institute) pointing out that manipulation of genes was recorded as early as 17,000BC, but that gene editing offered a more powerful way forward. The problem was not knowing what a gene could do, but knowing everything it could do because of possible side effects. Here was Molly Crockett (Oxford University) showing how manipulating a person’s brain chemistry could change their morality. In experiments, the application of both serotonin and dopamine changed moral decisions made by subjects. But there is no brain circuitry dedicated to morality, and the use of either drug to this end in the real world would be the equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to the problem.

Back on the exhibition floor, here were BAE Systems demonstrating a tough but lightweight army jacket that could carry a battery strong enough to power a vast range of equipment and increase sensory perception. Here was the Tesla electric car, now supported by charging points all over the UK, but here also was the first mass produced dedicated hydrogen fuel cell vehicle – “the only emission is water” – from Toyota. And, of course, there was a lot more.

Perhaps the most interesting session was a panel discussion, “Science opens diplomatic doors” on the role of science and innovation on the global stage curated by Wilton Park, an Executive Agency of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

A key theme was that international co-operation was necessary for scientific development. Reference was made to SIN (the UK’s Science and Innovation Network) which was operating in thirty-one countries. The issue was not that politicians weren’t interested or couldn’t understand, although different cultures had different approaches. But biology was developing so rapidly that policy makers couldn’t keep up with it. Even intellectual property was not always of primary importance because things were changing so fast. The refrain was repeated: if you don’t have international scientists working together, it won’t be as good. As the discussion drew to a close, there was at least one bright ray of sunshine: a lot of able young people were coming in to science.

In parenthesis, there was no shortage of youth at the event which had clearly attracted more people than could be conveniently accommodated. Despite several capacious open lecture theatres, people were standing four and five deep in the exhibition aisles in order to hear the speakers, giving staff keeping the event compliant with fire regulations a lot to deal with. There were plenty of hands-on “pedagogical” challenges (not just keyboards) for children, and plenty of children too.

As a panellist following up the point about young people said, resilience was coming from the bottom. That was surely the most encouraging thing.

The event website is still up at https://live.newscientist.com giving full details of all speakers and exhibitors. Details of forthcoming New Scientist events may be found at www.newscientist.com/events.

Reference

1 Du SAUTOY, Marcus, “What we cannot know”, Fourth Estate, 2016, p. 151.

Written by Tony Diggle, SAMI Associate. He is also a playwright. His most recent play, “A Kingdom for a Stage”, a celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, was performed at the Chelsea Theatre in April / May, 2016. A radio version is in preparation.   

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