Falling Walls Conference - ABSW member Wendy Grossman reports
The opportunity of a spare place on the EUSJA trip to Berlin for Science Week and the Falling Walls conference came up with less than 24 hours' notice, which is why I was sent to take advantage.
The trip included around 20 journalists from across Europe: I spotted people from Spain, Finland, Russia, and Estonia on the first day, when we were given a tour of three of Berlin's scientific establishments.
Tatiana Koenig, the managing director of the Falling Walls Foundation, explained at the outset that Berlin's mayor made the decision a few years ago to embrace digitization as an area of research funded in partnership between government and industry. These are some of the early results. This is the first year of Science Week, which is being built around Falling Walls, now in its eighth year. It's held on November 9, the anniversary of the day the Wall came down and also, as several speakers noted, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the huge Nazi pogrom against the Jews.
The first day, we visited the European School of Management and Technology, Beuth University's Neuroroboticcs lab, and the Berlin Technical University. The first, an industry-funded program marrying technology and business, has taken over what "in the Eastern times" was the state capitol building. One programme, GTech@@, allows start-ups to locate on-site for a year when they're established and ready to scale up, and provides access to business expertise and MBA students to help them make the transition.
The Neurorobotics lab was, for me, the most interesting: a robotics project that is taking a novel approach. Instead of focusing on a computer to run the robot and process the data the robot receives from built-in sensors, the project is removing as many sensors as it can and building to use the lowest amount of energy. The Myon robot we saw can autonomously rise from a squat on the ground to stand up, swaying slightly (as humans do, too, thought we're usually not aware of it). When one of the researchers took it by the wrists and moved backward, it took a few hesitant steps forward, like a small child.
Finally, the Technical University showed off its work on 3D printing; it has partnered with the Egyptian Museum to produce copies of the pre-restoration version of Akhnaton's statue; with the local zoo to copy a beloved bear's head; and is working on scaffolding for human tissue to grow individualised heart valves. Finally, the evening reception at the Natural History Museum, focused on bio@@ for
sustainability, pointing to the diaosaur skeletons dominating the room as examples of why this work is essential for our own survival.
We were offered a choice of activities for the second day. These included Falling Walls lab, where young scientists and researchers present three-minute summaries of their ideas; Falling Walls Venture, a similar event for start-ups; a day-long discussion of RNA medicine; and another on DIY/citizen science. I opted for the least sciencey-sounding of the group because it sounded like the subject I knew least about: the day-long discussion, "The liberal order under siege?" at the Aspen Institute. Everyone was conscious this discussion was taking place on November 8, election day in the US. I couldn't help feeling that most people present were part of the group that populists are rising to oppose: the general tone was that the liberal order that has prevailed since 1945 and that the EU was created to preserve was indubitably right. A broader view came from a couple of sources. First, Jozsef Czukor, a former advisor to the Hungarian prime minister, who described his political experience as bipolar as he tried to communicate both with the more liberal urban population and the rural population that feels it's losing its life and livelihood. The rhetoric surrounding Wallonia's resistance to the Canada-EU Trade agreement, painted them as backward and a minority that deserved to be ignored, when the reality is that the livelihood of millions was under threat. The second was Ian Kearns, who has campaigned for political office in Britain and argued that the liberal order cannot survive without addressing the legitimate grievances of populations for whom it has not worked and who see banks being bailed out and countries bankrupted.
The third day was the Falling Walls conference itself. This slickly organized event was made up of four sessions of four speakers, each of whom was limited to 15 minutes. Topics included merging the fight against climate change with the fight against slavery; understanding the human microbiome; farming robots; and understanding radicalization. The talks should be online, and are worth hearing, although I found that on subjects I knew something about (cyber security, especially) the talks were too shallow to teach me anything new. Discussion happens separately, on staged forums in a space so loud and crowded that participants use a microphone and a receiving audio device with headphones, and there were arrangements for press interviews to pursue topics in greater depth. Falling Walls goes to some effort to invite journalists every year, and I'd say it's worth the trip, particularly if you're looking for ideas for new topics to write about.
Wendy Grossman, is a member of the ABSW Executive Board and a freelance science writer