Manchester, robot cars and the apocalypse: ESOF16, Day 1

There’s a bright-eyed eagerness to the first day of a conference. People bustle from session to session, take notes while speakers talk, and are prepared to wait their turn in the line for coffee.

It won’t last.

In two short days, the polite veneer rubs off. The coffee queue will become a mosh pit, all elbows and crazy-eyed feral grins. Session attendance begins to drop in favour of ‘business meetings’ (which could be naps, catching up on the work you’ve been missing, or tending to a coffee-related injury), and rather than meticulous note-taking, we’re try to make a mental note of the speaker’s name.

But on day one of the EuroScience Open Forum, everyone was still putting their best foot forward, including the bustling city of Manchester around them. The sun even shone for about 10 minutes.

Now, let’s be honest, having a European science conference in a British city a month after the United Kingdom with some colourful language and rhetoric decided to quit the European Union was a bit /cough/ awkward. But, in suitably British fashion, everyone adorned the proverbial stiff upper lip and got on with it.

“At its core, ESOF is a European event, and Manchester and the university will remain irrevocably part of Europe,” Prof Dame Nancy Rothwell, Manchester University vice-chancellor, told the opening ceremony on Sunday night. It must be said, though, the unspoken sentiment hanging over the room like a cloud was that 52% of UK voters did not agree with her.

That cloud could, of course, been the result of the smoke machine that kept the event atmospheric, complemented by a riff from FatBoy Slim (something I don’t think I’ve ever heard at a event in my years as a science journalist).

And then there was the science.

Let’s start with the bad news: pandemics are getting more frequent and they are getting more severe. That is not fear mongering, that’s the consensus of the panel “The next plague: preparing for global pandemics”, bringing together experts from industry, the media and government.

As multi-awarding winning writer Laurie Grant said: “We’re just going to have a very calm, laid back discussion about the apocalypse.”

Zika, Ebola, SARS – we are seeing an uptick in mass disease outbreaks, for – in retrospect – obvious reasons: people are moving to live in cities which are beginning to burst at the seams, they travel to other cities more often and as the world’s population grows we’re encroaching into more natural wilderness and disrupting natural ecosystems – urbanisation, globalisation and, er, destroying habitats-isation. So, we know this is coming: what do we do?

Well, it’s complicated. No one – government, industry, NGOS – can to it alone, that’s for sure. There are huge logistical challenges. Who has the money, in advance, to prepare vaccines for a crisis that hasn’t happened? Sir Andrew Witty (from pharmaceutical giant GSK) made an important point: Let’s say there is a vaccine sample, and it’s kept on ice until it’s needed: “Do we even have a billion glass vials” on Earth for when we need to mass produce it?

Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer for another big industry player Johnson&Johnson, said: “In peace time, we have to prepare for war.” He mentioned a collaboration between government, industry and research institutions to have vaccines/research at the proof of concept stage, so that it is easier to ramp up its development.

But perhaps the most interesting point of this 90-minute panel – the one that will linger in my brain long after I’ve fled the shores of Old Blighty – arose from presenter James Gallagher’s question: “Are we fixating on vaccines, where there should be other solutions?”

The first ebola dead was a boy just after Christmas 2013, Garret answered. It took “nine months of death and horror before there was even a state of emergency”. International resources were deployed from about October 2014, she says. But Liberia’s outbreak had peaked before then, and was on the decline. “Liberia took care of Liberia,” Garret said. “It was social mobilisation on a scale unprecedented for them.” They did that without the latest technology, which only arrived later.

I started with the bad news, but I’ll end with the good: by piecing together the information I’ve gleaned at ESOF16, the robot over lords will allow me to keep doing my job.

Times are tight for people in creative industries aka “creatives” – incidentally, that’s a term I deplore. It sounds as though I shloomph through the world in hemp drawstring pants, while I sip spinach juice from a paper mache champagne flue. Or I’m in a spangly outfit, drinking actual champagne on a yacht. It gives people mixed signals. Neither are true. Someone would have to pay me substantially more if it was.

As I was saying, those creative industries are unlikely to become redundant when the machines take over our jobs.

In the session “Flying cars, quantum computers – where disruptive technology meets regulation”, Manchester University’s Prof Nikolay Mehandjiev said that creative professions were more likely to survive disruptive technologies that many others.

“Data scientists are in demand today, but in time they will be replaced by machines. If I were a taxi driver, I’d be reprofiling today, not waiting for autonomous cars,” he said.

Disruptive technologies “change our society, the way we live, work, entertain ourselves”. Some jobs become redundant. For example, when did you last meet a blacksmith?

Most innovators are told to think about what their audience wants, to model their offering, innovation, hoverboard, whatever, around what people want. That is usually sound advice.

But disruptive technologies actually do the complete opposite: it’s a technology push, not a customer demand. If you had asked people before cars what kind of vehicle they wanted, “they would have asked for faster electric horses”, Mehandjiev said.

When asked who in the audience wanted autonomous cars on the roads, it was a complete shock – a complete shock, I tell you – when everyone raised a hand.

It’s easier to regulate when there’s consensus, said Mairead McGuinness, vice-president of the European Union. But when the technology is controversial, well, that’s a whole other sword fight.

“In this world, there’s little space for the centre,” she said. “People take polarised views. We try to find a middle ground and get consensus on the new technology… if it’s controversial that’s where the real problems lie, it’s difficult to regulate technology development with a controversial spin.”

Unfortunately, the latest technologies – the ones most likely to disrupt societies and change lives – are the controversial: Crisper-Cas9, synthetic biology and gene editing; big data and privacy; and artificial intelligence and the upcoming robot invasion.

Science and Technology Prof Sheila Jasanoff made a very important point – although, for the sake of journalistic ethics, it is my solemn duty to inform you that she said it at the opening ceremony and was not actually in the room during this regulation discussion. But what she said has bearing:

These days we say “everything is changing”. “But perhaps we don’t want everything to change. Inequality, yes. But collaboration? Compassion? No.”


The fine print: I am at ESOF16 thanks to a Nature Travel Grant, and my accommodation is covered by the SKA Organisation.

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