This is the second part of my overview of QED 2016. The first part is here.
The Future, Jim, but not as we know it.
Mark Stevenson is a futurologist, a term he himself is not particularly happy with.
The only qualification for futurologist is to write something with future in the title.
Mark runs a network of thinkers and gives talks and insights to different people and corporations around the world. While none of us can predict the future, it’s likely to be an interesting place. Mark’s presentation was furious, frenetic and content heavy, presenting about one new idea every 3 minutes. Every idea could have been a whole topic in itself. It was almost impossible to keep up with what was a massive stream of possibilities and directions, many of which may not come to pass, others of which might happen in an unexpected way, and others that might literally change the world.
He quoted Douglas Adams, who himself was massively future-orientated.
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
We were shown a car, rushing around an obstacle course, with a screaming passenger inside. The passenger was screaming because the car had no driver. The technology maturing rapidly.
Here’s the video, by the way
He talked about the 3 million truck drivers who’s livelihoods might be at stake and the insurance companies who might need to rethink their business models.
He talked about bionic limbs and Olympic games. He talked about genome sequencing advances outstripping Moore’s law. He talked about cells that never die, and how ageing might be reversed.
If people say to me “ban all GMOs”, then what do we say to diabetics?
He talked about genetically modified products that eat crude oil. He talked about extracting carbon directly from the air. He talked about the end of the oil age, the solar power revolution and a “complete solar” economy in twenty five years time. Even today, Saudi Arabia is turning its attention to solar power as the wealth generator of the future.
The Stone Age did not end for the lack of stones.
Sheikh Zaki Yamani
He talked about blockchain: an “unhackable currency”and questioned the purpose of banks.
He talked about 3-D printing at a macro and nano level and forecasted the first 3-D printed 3-D printers.
He talked about the changing definition of wealth and the extreme wastefulness of current methods of farming and food management.
The environment is starting to send back invoices.
He talked about an “Enernet”, like an internet for Energy. He talked about open-sourced drug discovery. He talked about trucks being driven on liquid air.
Then he ran out of time.
Where do you even start? The only thing he left out was the Singularity. The future might well be a scary place because of the inadequacy of our institutions and governments to keep pace with technology. He is optimistic, but there are real dangers, particularly where new technologies drive more and more wealth into fewer hands, while potentially rendering millions of unskilled workers redundant. This has been a refrain for two hundred years, but I wonder if we are moving into new realms here.
Here’s a video in the same vein featuring Mark Stevenson.
Paleo-diet eating climate deniers with chickenpox!
Next up was Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or just Dr. Karl, one of Australia’s best known science personalities. Dr Karl gave a talk on some of science’s greatest achievements starting off with some videos and pictures of his trips to the Antarctic and the Australian Outback. (Ireland and the UK look teeny tiny compared to the Australian continent – don’t rub it in, please).
The talk was wide-ranging to say the least, covering everything from vaccines to global warming to science illiteracy to the paleo-diet.
On vaccines, he had a lot to say. Australia seems to have a comprehensive program against chickenpox, whereas we are still in the dark ages on this side of the globe. While adverse effects of chickenpox are rare, they can be very serious. Stroke is a side effect, as are congenital defects when it hits pregnant women. I also didn’t realise how many people contract shingles in their lifetime – a result of chickenpox in childhood. Our governments should be doing more.
Everything, no matter how boring, always looks better under an electron microscope.
He did a great job dismissing the claims of the paleo-diet people. Some people believe that all the ills of our world, the cancer, the diabetes, the heart problems, all stem from a change in our diets around 10,000 years ago, when our species started to move away from hunter-gatherer type diets to more wheat-based diets. He discussed how this is such a simplification – different hunter gatherer groups have wildly different diets even today, and when most hunter gatherers were dead before 40 anyway, diseases of ageing would have been something of a minor problem to them. Dietitians, he says, have voted the Paleo-diet the joint worst diet of them all.
He also spoke about global warming deniers – a crafty lot indeed. They’ll take a warming curve, then select a piece of data from a larger data set that seems to suggest that warming is going down, then clap themselves on their backs for their cleverness.
Dr Karl also spoke about how IQ is getting higher each year (and no-one knows why). He also briefly discussed Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, where civilised behaviour seems to be on an upward curve. Long may it continue.
For many in the audience, we would have come these topics before, but nevertheless these are really interesting areas of discussion and activism, very well recounted by Dr. Karl.
Here’s Dr. Karl’s YouTube video “Great Moments in Science”.
Now on to Part 3…