New Scientist Live 2019 - a Review

New Scientist Live 2019 - a Review

After spending two full days at this year’s event, I was reminded of a quote from Mark Stevenson’s 2011 book (Stevenson, Mark, “An Optimist’s Guide to the Future”, Profile Books, 2011, p. 284) on the future:

“… society is built on top of our infrastructure, not the other way round.”

In other words we must work out from where we are, not try to create some brave new world out of thin air. This year’s talks once again covered a huge multiplicity of topics including stem cell technology, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, agricultural science, nanotechnology and space science (to give examples from the ones I attended) as well as much else. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I felt that those that addressed more directly the issues of our time were long on context and questions and short on the much-needed answers. Yet the green shoots of solutions were to be glimpsed.

For example, Pearce Keen of Moorfields Eye Hospital in discussing how artificial intelligence was aiding the battle against eye disease (nearly 10% of NHS appointments are eye related) used chess as an illustration. There had been a great sensation when Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion, had been “beaten” by IBM’s Deep Blue computer, but as Kasparov himself had subsequently pointed out, the use of this A.I. had led to augmented chess players, younger players were becoming grandmasters, and the pool of expertise in the game was becoming wider geographically. So with health care. The use of automated deep learning systems in scanning for eye disease meant that non-qualified people could play a role, and this increased pool of people would help generate new ideas for new applications.

(Mr Keen, of course, stressed that all new developments would require robust clinical validation.)

Geoff Sim of the University of Edinburgh Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security addressed the question of sustainable food production for the 11 billion people projected to inhabit the planet by the end of the century. One key aspect was livestock. Meat production had grown by a factor of six in recent times, and this wasn’t sustainable. Yet livestock products were important for the growth of children, and there was a role for cattle on land that could not be used in other ways to generate food for direct human consumption. Efficiencies could be gained by the combination of farming and forestry activities. But a particularly interesting point made by Professor Sim related to the worrying fact that livestock are responsible for 12% of GHG emissions. I have never before come across any attempts to neutralise these, but lo! – pun intended – it’s being done in the development of methane inhibitors. A paper published in the Journal of Dairy Science in August, 2018 states that a novel methane inhibitor feed supplement, 3-nitooxypropanol (3NOP) reduces emissions is some cases by up to 85%, although the efficacy varies widely. (A later paper claims that further research broadens the possibilities for using 3NOP in the dairy sector worldwide.) A development like this that could be operated at scale would be a breakthrough indeed.

(In parenthesis, associated with the Edinburgh Global Academy and other talks was a substantial exhibition section devoted to the Future of Farming, and one of the exhibitors in vertical farming was demonstrating that the use of specific lighting could increase some yields by a multiple.)

This was set into further context by the talk on soil from John Crawford of Rothamsted Research, home to the oldest continuing agricultural field experiments in the world (started in 1843). Soil was the earth’s regulating plant: it broke down the dead stuff, used the carbon for energy and regulated the climate. It was also the most complex biomaterial on the planet, and could do more things simultaneously than the brain. But about one-third of the earth’s soil was degraded or severely degraded. We needed to improve the health of the soil in the next ten years, and ultimately needed to produce 30% more food. Considering the possible ways of doing this, he pointed out that it was global companies that had the governance structures to act quickly and at scale.

If the presentations in the halls offered some encouragement, a further issue was how to reach a wider audience. Step forward AlphaGalileo News, one of the exhibitors. In operation for over 20 years, it was created to provide the research community and the media with an effective and independent source of research news worldwide. Their coverage included science, medicine, technology, social science, humanities, arts and high-tech business. They have just opened up the service to members of the public interested in research news because “there are a lot of interesting articles on our site which should be made available for public consumption.” It is available for a very modest subscription.

I shall conclude with one of the other exhibitors, Plastic Oceanic. At first glance, it looked nothing more than a small stand selling trinkets made from reclaimed plastic. Far from it. They clear Cornish beaches of plastic, and recycle what can be recycled. The rest is ground down and used for their gift products. The surplus goes back into further cleaning up the beaches. The founder turned out to be a town councillor from Falmouth, who was also a marine biologist and deep sea diver. He had rather greater ambitions, and pointed out that plastic that couldn’t be recycled conventionally could be ground down and used with a binder to make solid products. He was talking to a railway company about compacting the plastic for use in railway sleepers. While I was talking to him, groups of schoolgirls were inspecting the stall and making “environmentally sound” purchases.

Which brings me to my final point. A substantial minority of the attenders were parties of schoolchildren, and once again a good many activities, including some of the talks, were aimed at them. Such stimulating experiences were not on offer when I was at school: seeding the brains of the generation to come in this way is by itself a major step forward.

Thirty-five years ago, I attended a major conference of information professionals at which Sir Monty Finniston, the former Chairman of the British Steel Corporation, made the statement, “We know the answers: what are the questions?” In other words, how do we get to the solutions that must be out there? To return to my opening point, how do we tweak our existing infrastructure to allow those solutions to emerge. Perhaps that could be a topic for next year’s event.

All the talks are available to subscribers to New Scientist.

Written by Tony Diggle, SAMI Associate.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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