And everything is possible again - SciFoo13
19 July 2013
This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to Science Foo Camp, or SciFoo, in California. It's exactly two weeks since it all came to an end, and it's time to write up what stands as one of the more transformational experiences I've had in some time. By Honor Harger.
SciFoo is the brainchild of O’Reilly, Nature publishing group and Google. It takes place every year at Google’s Mountain View headquarters in Silicon Valley, California, where around 200 of the world’s preeminent scientists gather together. Nobel Laureates rub shoulders with rocket engineers, roboticists, angel investors, science writers and the odd science celebrity.
This year’s SciFoo took place from 21 -23 June. O’Reilly’s famed FOO (“Friends Of O’Reilly”) camps are unconferences. The boundary between audience and participant is dismantled. All attendees are encouraged to organise sessions, speak and actively contribute to others’ sessions. On the evening of Friday 21 June, we all gathered at the glittering Googleplex to meet each other, sample Google’s famed hospitality and devise the schedule for the next few days.
Summer solstice moon over the Googleplex; Mountain View, June 2013. Image courtesy of Christopher Reiger
Over the next two days an extraordinary 108 hour-long sessions unfolded on topics as diverse as citizen science, the future of human space exploration, personal genomics, cognitive enhancement, synthetic biology, precision cosmology, drones, the ethics of lab animal research, sentient robots, wearable computing and DNA as data storage. At any one moment, ten sessions were operating in parallel, meaning the most challenging aspect of being there, was choosing which of the unmissable sessions to go along to.
On the first evening, I got together with Lucianne Walkowicz, one of the astrophysicists who works on NASA’s Kepler mission. We both have a keen interest in sonification, and how sound can help us understand scientific data in new and interesting ways. So we proposed a session on Sound in Science. Artist and design researcher, Sara Hendron proposed a session on Art and Science, and invited me to take part. So there’s was a bit of preparation to do before the sessions got underway on Saturday.
Neuroscience: Where will we be in 2063?
My SciFoo started with a session on the future of neuroscience, led by cognitive scientist, Gary Marcus, Google’s director of research, Peter Norvig, and one of the giants of genomic science, George Church.
George Church, photographed at SciFoo, Google, June 2013. Photograph courtesy of Edge.
It was titled, “Where will we be in 2063?”, and was extremely well attended, which was hardly a surprise given Church’s presence. It was populated by a diverse group of brain researchers, chemists, investors, philosophers and physicists, ensuring extremely lively conversations about how neuroscience could and should evolve over the next fifty years. The catalyst for the session was the dawn of the era of Big Neuroscience. Two major initiatives are happening on both sides of the Atlantic: Henry Markram’s one billion euro Blue Brain project, based at EPFL in Switzerland, and the BRAIN Initiative, a US$100 million brain-mapping project. Both initiatives promise to revolutionise our understanding of the brain. Blue Brain’s plan is to create a synthetic brain by reverse-engineering the mammalian brain down to the molecular level. The BRAIN Initiative plans to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain.
The session revealed strongly contrasting approaches to how we might best undertake brain research, with pointed criticisms of Markram’s plans. I was sitting next to the influential chemist, Lee Cronin, who insisted the best way to understand the brain was to build one from scratch using basic biochemical materials. There were heated debates about what we could possibly learn from models of the brain, which are decoupled from the brain’s essential interactions with the rest of the body, and its environment. Some speculated that top-down computer modelling approaches would be useless in explaining some of the hard problems within neuroscience, such as the long-standing ‘what is consciousness?’ question. This was less of an issue for the chemists, who’s line on that was simply: “that’s not a hard problem. Consciousness doesn’t exist.” (Cronin).
The session ended with the obligatory conversation about artificial intelligence, with many pondering the ethics of striving towards hard AI. There could have been a whole session devoted just to that, and the extent of the divisions within the room were starkly revealed, just before the end. One of the conveners of the session, stated, “No one doubts strong AI is possible”, to which theoretical physicist Lee Smolin retorted, “I doubt! I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
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