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The future of science

By João Medeiros

I’m in Prague attending the European Future Technologies Conference — “Science Beyond Fiction”. It has so far been prolific in ideas and science-fictionish future promises, despite a bumpy start.

Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Information Society and Media, and Mirek Topolanek, the Czech PM, were the high profile names planned to open the proceedings. They were, however, conspicuous by their absence.

Topolanek, understandably, is perhaps more concerned with his political future than with the future of science right now, after losing a no-confidence motion in Parliament last month. The Czechs also presently hold the EU presidency, so the overbooking of Topolanek’s diary is understandable. One can only hope that he can multitask.

Reding, on the other hand, used cutting-edge European technology to address the delegates via a prosaic video-stream. Given that she is the Commissioner for Information Society and Media, the symbolism is laudable.

Speaking on a blue background of distorted stars and clouds dangerously resembling a psychedelic motif, Reding proposed to boost Europe´s high-risk research into future technologies by doubling the current level of funding by 2015.

“Europe must be inventive and bold – especially in times of crisis. Research seeds innovation which is key for Europe’s long-term global competitiveness. Scientific and revolutionary breakthroughs constitute enormous opportunities and we must bring the best brains together to make the most of them,” said Reding. “Combining efforts of the 27 EU countries and stepping up cooperation with global partners is essential for Europe to take the lead in future information technologies that can yield radically new solutions for European citizens in domains such as health, climate change, the ageing population, sustainable development or security.”

In other words, Europe needs catch up with the US, China and Japan.

Unlimited computing power, computers mimicking the brain, mind controlled wheelchairs and friendly robotic companions are all part of this European sized mega super project. This initiative comes in the context of the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme to promote long-term and high risk research in quantum computing and communications, nanoelectronics, neuro- and bio- information science, advanced robotics and complex systems.

Some of the research that resulted from FET sponsorship is in show here at an Exhibition.

On the “friendly robotic companions” category, I saw NAO, an extremely self-conscious robot that talked non-stop whilst pushing boxes around (or in the words of the researchers involved, “learning physics”). It did not really convince me, but kudos for looking so helpless and cute.

I was also the only volunteer to test drive a simulator type head-set – immersive journalism at its best — and had to control a joystick to run over black squares on a virtual road. I’m still trying to figure out why.

The issues of high-risk research and funding of basic science, of course, were already timely featured in PW’s May issue, on the excellent article by Mark Buchanan, “In search of black swans”
Glad to see that PW is driving the European science agenda.

Highlight of the day: Anton Zeilinger’s talk on Quantum Information (more on that later)

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One comment to The future of science

  1. Science is definately a complex subject, possibly at times, a field with many ego at stake. Which is understandable. There have even been bouts of “outsiderness” within the scientific community (molecular biology vs. ecology, or mathematics vs. physics), and examples of dogma rising above scientific acumen are too numerous (even once is too much as in the “Clovis first” mandate). Skepticism has long served science well, nonetheless it may be time for a new paradigm — a subtle, yet powerful shift in attitude and thinking. Could “selfless restraint” fill that duty? It has all the right elements minus the excess baggage that all too often goes with skepticism. One glance at the “skeptics” forums and internet sites, and it is possible to see the level of illogics that from time to time find their way into scientific thinking.


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