In Prague for the first European Future Technologies Conference. I’m chairing the opening session and a panel discussion about “multidisciplinary transformative research”.
The conference and associated exhibition are the first to showcase the achievements of Europe’s 20-year-old Future and Emerging Technologies programme. They include mind-reading computers and friendly companion robots.
I must admit I hadn’t heard of FET (oh dear, another Euro-acronym to learn) but it looks as though it has achieved a reasonable return from its €100m a year budget, which is set to double over the next six years. I’ll write more about some of these achievements later in the week after I’ve been round the exhibition.
Henry Markram, who heads Switzerland’s Blue Brain project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, gave a powerful opening keynote address. If all researchers communicated as well as Henry, we’d have no trouble enthusing young people about science and technology.
Blue Brain is the world’s most advanced attempt to “reverse-engineer” the brain by simulating all its functions on supercomputers. Henry demonstrated an amazing simulation of neurons at work in a rat’s brain and told us a full simulation of the human brain would be possible within 10 years. Among many other things, this could help scientists to understand psychiatric conditions that remain medical mysteries.
Then came the dignitaries’ official opening ceremony. The pair advertised in the conference programme – the Czech prime minister and European information commissioner – were otherwise engaged, though Commissioner Viviane Reding did make a video presentation. So their stand-ins, Czech education minister Ondřej Liška and EC chef de cabinet Rudolf Strohmeier, cut the ribbons (literally, with scissors). Why a future-oriented conference needed such a traditional opening is rather a mystery; sadly my suggestion of a ribbon-cutting robot came too late.
Then my panellists made several interesting points about multidisciplinary research. One was that scientists become more interesting in working outside their original discipline as they grow older – age and status provide a security blanket for adventures that younger researchers feel they can’t risk.
Security fears can promote interdisciplinary thinking in a quite different way, observed Ivan Havel, director of the Centre for Theoretical Study at the Charles University’s Institute for Advanced Studies – and brother of former Czech president Václav Havel. During the Communist era, when dissident scientists from different disciplines were forced to meet in secret, their discussions were so fruitful that they have been maintained ever since.