How to Change the World Conference

 
Today I attended How to Change the World Conference organized by the How To Academy in London and sponsored by the New York Times. The conference had a lineup of speakers from a diversity of fields such as Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Biotechnology, Cryptocurrencies, the Neuroscience of consciousness, Medicine, Vertical farming or Creativity, among many others. Below I have put together my notes from some of the talks, along with ideas and questions that particularly stood out for me.
Each of the topics covered leads to hundreds of books and hours of discussion, this is just a sneak-peek into some of my take-aways from the day (from my limited knowledge standpoint in many of these topics!). The bullet points from each section are ideas and statements brought up by the speakers in their talks.

Keynote on the Future of Humanity; Martin Rees

  • The consequences of climate change don’t understand borders. Politics need a shift so we can tackle world issues as a planet, not as countries. How can we develop global policies to approach these problems?
  • With the possibility of Biotechnology in gene editing, we are potentially able to end diseases, but also destroy a whole species, what frameworks and regulations are needed to regulate it?
  • Robots and AI: they can do things that are extremely complicated to humans, yet they are useless with tasks such as gardening or plumbing. Nevertheless, the change is here, and they are going to automate many jobs. What do we want this transition to look like?
  • We are at a crucial point where human beings have become capable of risking the future of the planet. There is an urgent need for awareness about and action upon our responsibility to take care of the planet.
  • We need to think and act globally, rationally and long-term.

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How Creativity Can Change The World; Daan Roosegaarde

  • Light installation project in the heart of Amsterdam that created the perception of ‘a flooded city’, making pedestrians imagine the city below sea level, in order to raise awareness of climate change through art.
  • Device that creates jewelry out of air pollution, cleaning the air as it functions. “Through this project we are cleaning the planet and doing something beautiful with it, […] turning a tedious task into an artistic one.”

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Hacking the Brain; Moran Cerf

  • It is in our nature to make up stories to understand the world we see, despite the inaccuracies, biases or judgements that come along with this. Our brain creates content with meaning based on the unfiltered reality around us.
  • There is a small time frame between the moment ‘our brain’ knows something and ‘we’ know something.
  • What is the potential of our dreams? Apparently, there is a state in our dream cycle (referred to as lucid dreaming) where certain experiences (e.g. smoke of a cigarette) within a controlled context can stimulate brain patterns and change the brain’s connectivity, leading to behavioral changes (based on neuroplasticity). This leaves a vast potential to explore treatment for addictions, post-traumatic syndromes or depression based on intervening in this phase of dreaming.
  • What is our identity? Imagine our consciousness could be transferred to a machine that works with or even independently to our bodies. Does our identity lie on our physical bodies, or on consciousness of our existence?

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The Brain and Consciousness; Hannah Critchlow

  • What is it that makes us truly human?
  • Research interest in exploring the use of drug micro-dosing to treat patients from post-traumatic syndromes.

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New Materials to Shape the World; Mark Miodownik

  • We need an interdisciplinary approach to research – bringing together historians, chemical engineers, artists etc – in order to create new materials  that are sustainable. If a product is not made of fully recyclable materials, it is not a good product. This is something everyone should take into consideration when purchasing products.
  • Nature offers great wisdom on how synthetic materials and product design should be. Every ‘waste’ that nature produces has a use within/outside its ecosystem.

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Blockchain Revolution; Dr Garrick Hileman

  • Blockchain technologies enable us to create infrastructures that minimize the need for trust. We can transition from a world of “don’t be”, to the world of “can’t be”.

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Cancer: Crossing the Incurable Sea; Dr Jack Kreindler

  • Using Machine Learning and Data Science in Medicine could help improve medical treatments in variety of diseases. It would enable to thoroughly learn about what works/doesn’t work for every patient, identify patterns based on physiology of the patient, and consequently design more personalized treatments for new patients.

 

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Medical Futures; Dr Ameet Bakhai

  • Combining the knowledge of machine learning and biomedical engineering, we can design wearable sensors that track our bio-signals (e.g. heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate etc). These sensors can gather continuous data on how our body functions, and therefore learn what are healthy and unhealthy patterns based on the signal activity. You can imagine how this could help predict possible health hazards, such as a heart attack, an asthma crisis or a stress response, among many others, and make recommendations to prevent them from happening.

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How to Make the World a Better Place for People, Animals and the World; Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE

  • Jane Goodall talked about the cross-generation relationship & co-existence of a generation that has damaged the world, “stealing  the future from their kids”, and emphasized on the important the role of the current youth.
  • She talked about how we live in a world where the human intellect has taken us to fascinating alleys, such as building rockets or editing genes, yet we have become the only species capable of causing serious damage to our planet. “We are at the verge of destroying it. We seem to be both the most intelligent and stupid of the species.”
  • She runs an education programme that engages with the youth around the world and inspires use their passion to take action and have a positive impact in the world. Through my eyes, it was inspiring to see how clearly her actions arise from both the mind and the heart. “It is only when the heart and the mind are in harmony with each other that true positive change comes.”  I have to admit her talk deeply moved me and stirred something inside.

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These were just some take-aways from a day filled with insights about where the world is at, some of the risks we are facing and the current direction we are pursuing to tackle them. Hopefully it stirred your curiosity to investigate more about some of the topics covered, the work of the speakers that presented or encouraged you to attend next year!

More about the conference here.

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